Greed – for lack of a better word – is good.
Oliver Stone created that phrase for the 1987 film “Wall Street.” That was long before captains of industry commissioned vodka-urinating ice sculptures for $2 million birthday parties (Dennis Kozlowski, now in state prison), owned more than 40 boats and cars (Richard Scrushy, now in federal prison) or posed as mendicants in corporate jets (the Big 3 auto execs, fate yet to be determined). In the two decades since the film was released, those words have morphed from a camp catchphrase to the most significant ones a character concocted by Stone has ever uttered.
When “Wall Street’s” Gordon Gekko lectured the board of Teldar Paper about the virtue of greed, he bragged that his last seven transactions had bagged a pretax profit of $12 billion for shareholders. At a time when trillions of dollars are being shoveled at corporate America in the hopes it won’t falter, $12 billion seems a quaint sum, a reminder of a simpler past when a candy bar cost a dime. It almost makes me feel like I can earn $12 billion if I stopped surfing the Internet so much.
Of course, unless I become extraordinarily fortunate playing the Power Ball (and actually buy tickets), I will never realize such sums. But there are millions of men and women throughout the land itching to become the next Bill Gates or Warren Buffett, and probably even a few who want to be the next Bernie Madoff.
How do I know this? I engage in the rarefied Los Angeles practice of taking long walks in my neighborhood. Like much of the rest of the San Fernando Valley, it had once been farmland, then tracts of modest homes.
Since my family moved in a decade ago, dozens of homes in this solid middle-class redoubt have been tom down and replaced with ponderous McMansions. Such infill campaigns have transformed hundreds of such neighborhoods across the nation since the 1980s.
Although these homes have styles ranging from Bavarian sanitarium to late-period “Sopranos,” they are all essentially the same: 5,000-square-foot-plus homes on lots barely able to contain them. Their walls bulge with mattress-size televisions. Their kitchens gleam with suites of Viking appliances. The McManse I glimpse when I fetch my newspaper every morning has vintage cars cluttering its driveway, as there’s no more room in the neighborhood’s only four-car garage.
These homes were built for two reasons: a contractor wanted to make a lot of money, and its buyer wanted to show off. In other words, greed.
The people inhabiting these nearly $2 million monoliths arise every morning and have to figure out how to hold on to them. The dingbat apartments just to the south, and the liquor stores and bail bondsmen just to the north are a reminder of how far they could fall. Foreclosures have been few and far between here (there have been some short sales among the more modest homes), which suggests their owners are filing more lawsuits or pushing more patients to Botox out their worry lines. Or they’re developing plans to get into solar power, hydrogen filling stations or the next high-risk mortgage that can be repackaged into so many stacks of kindling wood.
Inevitably, many of them will succeed, because we live in the most entrepreneurial nation on Earth, in the most entrepreneurial era in the history of man. If you’re not striving to be rich, who are you exactly?
If the banks won’t give them loans, they’ll mortgage their rambling estates a little more, or resort to credit cards. They’ll scrape by in nouveaux opulence until they no longer need to scrape by again, in which case they’ll sell those McMansions and buy real ones in places like Brentwood and Beverly Hills. Their ambitions will propel them beyond having to live cheek-and-jowl with the common folk who own the ranch homes, although they may throw them some jobs and consulting gigs. That’s when everyone will know the good times will have returned.
As we try to reach the road to prosperity again as surely as we traverse the freeways, one would hope the strivers would yank the Bluetooths from their ears long enough to insert a five-year- or decadelong vision into their grand plans. And that the people they hire to do their bidding in the state and federal corridors of power–the same ones who obtained the easements and variances to not-so-subtly transform my neighborhood–were willing to ponder moral imperatives and hazards before they are actually created.
Greed is good. But it could do better.