Greed is Good: Is it Really, Gordon Gekko?

Greed is Good says Gordon Gekko“Greed is good.”

You've heard that line before. But do you know where it's from? It was taken (incorrectly) from a quote from the 1987 movie Wall Street.

Gordon Gekko and Wall Street the Movie

In the movie Wall Street, corporate raider Gordon Gekko, the fictional character played by Michael Douglass, gives a great speech to the shareholders of Teldar Paper, a company he is taking over. In it he actually says,

“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 U.S.A.”

The Guy Behind the Guy

The real life Gekko is partly Ivan “The Terrible” Frederick Boesky. He is noted as initially using the “greed is good” type language that inspired the speech in the movie. Boesky, also a corporate raider, was also involved in an insider trading investigation which led to jail time.

There's an interesting story from Time magazine on Boesky if you want more details.

By the way, corporate raiding is a term used to describe the act of buying up a large interest in a publicly traded corporation, and then using the power from voting rights to make a decision that will increase the value of shares.

It's not an inherently bad practice, but the corporate and investing world has since decided they no longer want it around and have taken steps to prevent it.

Insider trading, a more common term, is when someone trades the stock of a company after having gained insider (i.e. non-public) knowledge about the company. See Martha Stewart's case of insider trading as a recent example.

More About the Movie

I highly encourage you to check out the movie. It's a great look at the excesses of the 80's (brick cell phones included), provides some insight into the world of the real wall street, and it has some solid performances by Douglass, and by the father and son Charlie and Martin Sheen.

Director Oliver Stone does a good job, I think, of laying out both side of the story. But ultimately, a kind of good greed (i.e. hard work) wins out over the type of greed Gekko is really about, illegal trading practices.

If you need another reason to check out this film, here's one. The sequel to the 1987 film, now titled Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, will be released into theaters on September 24th, 2010.

What Are Your Thoughts on Greed?

Did you notice that Gekko didn't actually say that greed was good in his speech? What he said was that he didn't have a better word to use, so he used greed. A genius move by the writers to make you like Gekko just enough to carry the movie.

Being the free-market capitalist that I am, there's part of me that definitely agrees with Gekko's theories here. My own daily efforts to increase my business' bottom line are a positive force (it results in free and hopefully interesting financial information, a vacant corporate job, support of contract services, and more money to support other businesses and charity).

I'm driven by several things, but primarily to provide financial security for my family. Is that a selfish, greedy act? Is there a good kind of greed? And what's the word Gekko should have used?


  1. ProIndividual says:

    Why is insider trading illegal? What an arbitrary and silly, unenforcable rule…lol. I’ll tell you, if it were illegal to know the number 5 bus was running early some morning (because I knew the bus driver), I’d find it hard to believe that the authorities could enforce that with any success. I also wouldn’t feel morally or ethically improper, as I do need to get to work, and if I missed the bus, I would be late. True enough, the bus is early, and it would be nice for all bus riders to know it…but I may only have the phone number of a few of my fellow commuters, and may not like them all. I can choose to pass along this valuable info, or for the sake of bettering my position (or seating) I can keep it to myself or a few select fellow commuters.

    Either way, this secrecy leads to less transactions of capital, less taxes paid, and less responsibility of firms to police their own people. It isn’t enforcable…unless someone gets too greedy, and does it more than once in a blue moon. Greed is bad, profit motive is great. And the less we restrict profit motives with dumb laws (like insider trading), the better for everyone.

  2. Perhaps Incentive is better. We all have an incentive to do something. What the incentive is drives up in our actions. Correctly align incentives and you have a smooth-running economy. Incorrectly-aligned incentives muck everything up (housing crisis anyone?).

  3. Roshawn @ Watson Inc says:

    Great point Matt, I do not like capitalism mischaracterized as greed, as they are not synonymous. I am now going to check out OPM. I didn’t know that was the perspective it came from. 🙂

  4. The end at which we use greed defines whether it is good or bad. As long as it has no ill intention I believe it is noble. Without greed there will never be any form of progress for mankind. 🙂

  5. Initiative is good.
    Ambition is good.
    Drive is good.
    Sweat is good.

    Stone, bless if overly liberal and conspiracy theorist heart, would never make a movie espousing the virtues of capitalism. So he needed a Gordon Gekko as the bad guy. However, the movie “Other People’s Money” portrayed the owner/founder of a business (the real entrepreneur – not a corporate raider) as a good guy, vs. the corporate raider.

  6. Sorry I got cut off about. Working towards creating a better place for yourself, friends, family and community is good.

  7. I don’t think greed is ever good, but working towards creating a better place for yourself, your family, friends and community.

  8. Greg McFarlane says:

    If the line had been “self-interest is good”, it wouldn’t have become one of the great cinematic quotes. “Greed” might not be the most apt word to have put there, but it was mellifluous and sounded right.

    In a purely capitalist society like the one Ms. Rand envisioned (and largely in our own society), you only earn money by creating something of even greater value. Tom Brady makes $19 million a year, but creates at least $19 million worth of value for his employer: otherwise the employer wouldn’t pay him that much. Is Brady “greedy” for earning his market value? Not at all.