American Greed . . . Is Not Good

by Derrick G. Jeter

“Greed is all right. . . . I want you to know that. I think greed is healthy. You can be greedy and feel good about yourself.” [1]

These words were delivered by Wall Street businessman Ivan Boesky at the 1986 commencement of business school graduates at the University of California, Berkeley. They became the inspiration for the famous Gordon Gekko speech in the 1987 movie Wall Street.

The point is, ladies and gentleman, that greed, for lack of a better word, is good. Greed is right, greed works. Greed clarifies, cuts through, and captures the essence of the evolutionary spirit. Greed, in all of its forms; greed for life, for money, for love, knowledge has marked the upward surge of mankind. And greed, you mark my words, will not only save Teldar Paper, but that other malfunctioning corporation called the USA. [2]

When Boesky and Geeko were delivering their speeches the American economy was booming but today the economy has just suffered through a bust, and everyone agrees that greed was the sole cause of the economy’s precipitous fall—greed on the part of Wall Street, Washington politicians, and average Americans who bought houses beyond their means. All felt good about their greed, until everything came crashing down. So, perhaps Boesky was right, you can be greedy and feel good about yourself, but you can’t be greedy and be good in yourself. In fact, a few months after his speech to the graduates, Boesky was convicted of insider trading and sent to prison. I don’t know if he felt good, but I do know he wasn’t good.

Greed is particularly dangerous because it is subtle in its excess and soft in its hardness. Greed appeals to our sense of fairness—that fair work deserves a fair wage. And it does. But greed corrupts this idea of fairness by sneaking into our thinking that somehow we should get just a little bit more than our fair wage—that we are somehow worth more than others. This has always been true—in all places and at all times. But greed seems to have an unusual allure for Americans, and I think there are at least four reasons why.

First, we live in a competitive culture and money, and the things money can buy, is how we keep score. Don’t misunderstand me here: having a large bank account, driving an expensive car, living in a luxurious home, and owning fine possessions doesn’t mean you are greedy. Greed is an attitude where the heart is set upon money and possessions as the highest goal in life. This is why the poor can be just as greedy as the rich.

Having said this, however, we cannot escape the general attitude of our culture—one that says “greed is good.” We are in a race to reach the top of the heap, and few of us stop long enough to notice that it is a garbage heap. In his own day, Paul was in a mad dash to reach the top of what his culture valued—religious purity as a Pharisaical Jew. Once Paul was on top he had an encounter with the risen Jesus and Paul’s life changed dramatically—his attitude toward what once was considered valuable changed because his heart changed. This is how he put in Philippians 3:7–8: “Whatever was to my profit I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ.”

It’s an interesting word Paul used for “rubbish”—skubala. It is often translated as “dung” or “excrement.” It’s a word you’d find scribbled on a first century bathroom: “Skubala happens!”

Second, we are saturated with advertising that appeals to our baser appetites and are inundated with a media that celebrates affluence and excess. I don’t know if anyone has put it better than Peter Kreeft: “The world’s oldest profession is advertising. It was invented by the Devil in Eden: ‘See this apple? Eat it and you’ll be like God.’” [3]

Third, we have transformed our whole economic system to run on the notion that a private evil (greed) can lead to public good (wealth and happiness). This works its self out in the idea of funding schools—something good for the community—with gambling, like the lottery—evil which typically strikes the poor. States across our nation are resorting to lottery monies for educational funding, and do so without batting an ethical eye.

Fourth, we have an economic system based on artificial wealth (paper money) and not on natural wealth (land or precious metals). Why is this important? Well, there are no checks on greed built into the current system. The desire and availability of money is unlimited, therefore the greedy crave more. It’s probably untrue, but there is an old rumor that John D. Rockefeller was once asked by a reporter: “How much money is enough money?” Rockefeller replied: “A little bit more.” And a little bit more, in theory, can be had by all because the government can keep printing a little bit more and calling it valuable. The desire for land or precious metals, on the other hand, may be unlimited, but their availability is limited. There is only so much land one person can use, unless he turns the land into an investment and thereby converts his land holdings into a form of artificial wealth.

Others reasons could be found for why Americans are susceptible to greed, but these four are sufficient. The irony in America, however, is the fact that we are also a generous people. So we live with this dual and contradictory attitude, but would that we were more generous and less greedy. If we were, then the millionaire and pauper would know the joy of Andrew Carnegie’s concluding words in his famous call for philanthropy, “The Gospel of Wealth”:

The gospel of wealth but echoes Christ’s words. It calls upon the millionaire to see all that he hath and give it in the highest and best form to the poor by administering his estate himself for the good of his fellows, before he is called upon to lie down and rest upon the bosom of Mother Earth. So doing, he will approach his end no longer the ignoble hoarder of useless millions; poor, very poor indeed, in money, but rich, very rich, twenty times a millionaire still, in the affection, gratitude, and admiration of his fellow-men, and—sweeter far—soothed and sustained by the still, small voice within, whispering, tells him that, because he has lived, perhaps one small part of the great world has been bettered just a little. This much is sure: against such riches as these no bar will be found at the gates of Paradise. [4]

[1] Ivan Boesky, Commencement Address at University of California, Berkeley, May 18, 1986, quoted in James B. Stewart, Den of Thieves (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1991), 261.

[2] Wall Street, directed by Oliver Stone, DVD (1987; Las Angeles: 20th Century Fox, 2007).

[3] Peter Kreeft, Christianity for Modern Pagans: Pascal’s Pensées (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1993), 181.

[4] Andrew Carnegie, “The Gospel of Wealth,” reprint (McLean, Va.: The Trinity Forum, 2005), 46.