Is Greed Ever Good?

Josh Larsen

If the seven deadly sins each had a mascot, Gordon Gekko would be the likely face of greed.

The shady stock trader – who uttered the infamous line “Greed is good” in 1987’s “Wall Street” – is back in Oliver Stone’s “Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps.” Played once again by Michael Douglas, Gekko emerges from jail, watches from the sidelines during the 2008 financial collapse and then proceeds to nibble at the carcasses of failed investment firms like a buzzard picking at bones. Greed may have led to the recession, but for Gekko it’s still good.

“Money Never Sleeps” is a thin, disappointing effort – Stone mainly uses the financial meltdown as timely production design – but it does offer the occasion to consider the persistence of greed. Things haven’t changed much in terms of the human appetite between 1987 and now – in fact, they haven’t changed much over the course of human history. Never mind Gekko. Why does greed continue to have such a hold on all of us?

“Money Never Sleeps” tries to come to terms with this by giving greed – or at least aggressive investment practices – an altruistic twist. The main character in the movie is Jake Moore (Shia LaBeouf), a trader who happens to be engaged to Gekko’s daughter (Carey Mulligan). Jake lives the good life – high-rise penthouse, expensive motorcycle – but he’s also in the game for a noble purpose. The obscene amount of money he’s trying to raise is intended to provide start-up cash for a trail-blazing alternative energy firm. See, the movie seems to be saying, Jake may be a big-spending millionaire, but he’s also trying to save the earth.

That’s a fairly obvious case of Hollywood hypocrisy. Spotting greed in our daily lives, however, can be a bit more difficult. Sometimes it’s clear when we’re being greedy, as when a stomach ache reprimands you for taking that umpteenth slice of pizza. But when it comes to less visceral issues – where we live, what we wear - how do we know when enough is enough and we’re being greedy by taking another helping?

A recent Princeton University study provides something of a benchmark, at least for Americans. Surveying 1,000 randomly selected U.S. residents, economist Angus Deaton and psychologist Daniel Kahneman found that those earning $75,000 a year reported being sufficiently happy, while those who earned above that level didn’t report a significant increase in happiness. Below $75,000, however, the level of happiness began to drop.

So is $75,000 the magic number? If we desire to earn more than that, are we being greedy? Where should spirituality factor into this? Is there a similar way to measure spiritual happiness, one that might render Princeton’s price tag irrelevant?

I’m not sure, but I do know one thing: Gordon Gekko couldn’t live on $75,000 a month.

Topics: Movies, Culture At Large, Business & Economics, Economics, Arts & Leisure, Entertainment, News & Politics, Justice