2013-04-24

Gekko, Boesky, and the Mahabharata

Greed, more than any others (gluttony, sloth, envy, lust, vanity, wrath) of the seven sins, has numerous and powerful champions. Oliver Stone’s 1987 film, “Wall Street,” was initially titled “Greed.” The ruthless corporate raider, Gordon Gekko, proclaims that greed is good. Specifically, in a speech to the stockholders of Teldar Paper, Gekko says:
“I am not a destroyer of companies. I am a liberator of them! 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.”



The speech by the fictional Gekko was inspired by a similar speech given by the actual Ivan Boesky, the Wall Street arbitrageur who was charged by the SEC with insider trading and who paid a $100 million penalty to settle those charges. Speaking at the University of California's commencement ceremony in 1986, Boesky said:
"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."
The gospel of Greed has many followers. Indeed, even though the fictional story of Gordon Gekko was,
"Intended as a cautionary tale on the pitfalls of unchecked ambition and greed, Stone's 1987 original instead had the effect of turning [Michael] Douglas' hugely charismatic (and Oscar-winning) villain into a household name and boardroom icon -- an inspiration to the very power players and Wall Street wannabes for whom he set such a terrible example.” (Justin Chang, Variety, 2010)
The film's stars and director have commented that over the years “people still approach them and say that they became stockbrokers because” they admired the characters in that film. People widely and freely participate in gluttony, sloth, lust, envy, anger, vanity, but you don’t hear them publically declare how proud of the fact they are. Greed stands alone as the vice most enthusiastically promoted as a virtue.

Yet greed is also universally seen as a problem by the world’s faith traditions. Take Hinduism. In the Mahabharata, we read:
“Yudhisthira said: I desire, O bull of Bharata’s race, to hear in deatail the source from which sin proceeds and the foundation on which it rests. Bhisma said: Hear, O King, what the foundation is of sin. Covetousness alone is a great destroyer of merit and good ness. From covetousness proceeds sin. It is from this source that sin and irreligiousness flow, together with great misery. This covetousness is the spring also of all the cunning and hypocrisy in the world.... It is from covetousness that loss of judgment, deception, pride, arrogance, and malice, as also vindictiveness, loss of prosperity, loss of virtue, anxiety, and infamy spring.... Pitilessness for all creatures, malevolence towards all, mistrust in respect of all, insincerity towards all, appropriation of other people’s wealth... all these proceed from covetousness.”
Take Buddhism. This is a tradition that puts at the center the observation that desire is the cause of suffering. The Visuddhimagga says:
“Greed is the real dirt, not dust... The wise have shaken off this dirt and live.”
Take Daoism. The Dao de Jing says:
“There is no greater calamity than indulging in greed.”
In Sikh scripture we read:
“Where there is greed, what love can there be?”
It goes by many names: covetousness, acquisitiveness, avidity, cupidity, avarice, miserliness, simony. Many find greed the root of all the other sins.

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This is part 11 of "The Seven Deadlies" (Part 2 on Greed)
Next: Part 12: "Counterweight to the Market"
Previous: Part 10: "Faith and Fellowship, Greed and Grace"
Beginning: Part 1: "Seven and Sins"