by Kim Pederson…….
“Greed, for lack of a better word, is good.” So Gordon Gekko tells his listeners in the 1987 film Wall Street. It’s not clear, to me anyway, whether the “lack” refers to “greed” or “good.” I was probably not alone in thinking about this pronouncement after seeing The Big Short, which Wikipedia describes as a “biographical comedy-drama.” I don’t recall anyone laughing during the screening as we watched even the, for lack of a better word, “good guys” who figure out the massive fraud frenetically pursue making as much money as they can before everything blows up rather than acting to stop it. I guess they needed Lauren Bacall to teach them how to blow the whistle. They do feel bad, however, as Wikipedia notes about the characters named Jamie Shipley and Charlie Geller: “The two profit immensely, but are left with their faith in the system broken.” Poor babies.
So what is greed anyway? It is, by one definition, “an inordinate or insatiable longing, especially for wealth, status, and power.” Put more bluntly, it is, according to Erich Fromm, “a bottomless pit which exhausts the person in an endless effort to satisfy the need without ever reaching satisfaction.” It seems many people, but those on Wall Street and its doppelgangers around the world in particular, get exhilarated rather than exhausted. The Gordon Gekko quote above comes from a real-life statement from stock trader and eventual imprisoned felon Ivan Boesky: “Greed is all right, by the way. I want you to know that. I think greed is healthy. You can be greedy and still feel good about yourself.”
It’s hard to feel good about yourself after seeing The Big Short, though. Have we learned our lesson since 2008? Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. No lack of a better word there. Former JP Morgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon was just on CNN the other day saying how much good big banks have done and do for the world. We need them, in other words. In 2012, JP Morgan or should I say JP Morgan’s investors lost $6 billion due to the actions of one person. The next year, the bank paid $1 billion in fines for not “properly overseeing its traders.” In 2014, Dimon received a 74% pay hike in the form of an $18.5 million bonus for 2013. Hmmm. A couple of days ago, The New York Times reported on how the 1% are reducing their taxes substantially by shipping their money to Bermuda and then bringing it back home. Hmmm.
I’ve been straining my brain (not a difficult thing to do) to see where the comedy is in all of this. Then I happened to look in the mirror. Oh. There it is. What’s that gem of wisdom George W. once offered us? “Fool me once, shame on – shame on you. Fool me – you can’t get fooled again.” I guess he lied about that, too.
*”The Worship of Mammon” by Evelyn De Morgan, 1909. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons.