With the Bain Capital layoffs in the news — the Wall Street Journal offers a great, comprehensive review of Romney’s deals at Bain here – you’ll probably hear someone citing the famous speech from Gordon Gekko in Oliver Stone’s 1987 movie, Wall Street, with the punctuated line, “Greed is good.”
I went back and checked the scene, and was struck that Gekko, villain extraordinaire, gives this speech while denouncing corporate fat-cats who are held unaccountable. Seriously, you don’t have to change a word to fit it into a typical rant at an Occupy Wall Street protest:
Gordon Gekko: [at the Teldar Paper stockholder’s meeting] Well, I appreciate the opportunity you’re giving me Mr. Cromwell as the single largest shareholder in Teldar Paper, to speak. Well, ladies and gentlemen, we’re not here to indulge in fantasy but in political and economic reality. America, America has become a second-rate power. Its trade deficit and its fiscal deficit are at nightmare proportions. Now, in the days of the free market when our country was a top industrial power, there was accountability to the stockholder. The Carnegies, the Mellons, the men that built this great industrial empire, made sure of it because it was their money at stake. Today, management has no stake in the company! All together, these men sitting up here own less than three percent of the company. And where does Mr. Cromwell put his million-dollar salary? Not in Teldar stock; he owns less than one percent. You own the company. That’s right, you, the stockholder. And you are all being royally screwed over by these, these bureaucrats, with their luncheons, their hunting and fishing trips, their corporate jets and golden parachutes.
Cromwell: This is an outrage! You’re out of line Gekko!
Gordon Gekko: Teldar Paper, Mr. Cromwell, Teldar Paper has 33 different vice presidents each earning over 200 thousand dollars a year. Now, I have spent the last two months analyzing what all these guys do, and I still can’t figure it out. One thing I do know is that our paper company lost 110 million dollars last year, and I’ll bet that half of that was spent in all the paperwork going back and forth between all these vice presidents. The new law of evolution in corporate America seems to be survival of the unfittest. Well, in my book you either do it right or you get eliminated. In the last seven deals that I’ve been involved with, there were 2.5 million stockholders who have made a pretax profit of 12 billion dollars. Thank you. 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. Thank you very much.
The speech is remembered as a celebration of one of the Seven Deadly Sins, but it’s really about accountability; Gekko cites greed to motivate the other shareholders to hold the company’s management responsible for terrible performance and a culture of waste and complacency. Of course, Gekko goes on to commit crimes and lay waste to Bluestar Airlines, so it’s not like Gekko is a heroic figure. But while the audience is expected to be awestruck by Gekko’s slick self-justification and inversion of morality in his “greed is good” speech, much of what he says is true and the particular circumstances represent a particularly justified cause: He’s railing against the greed of the executives and their unwillingness to focus on the people they serve, the shareholders (and, if they’re really losing $110 million in a year, probably the customers as well).
Romney could, and probably will, argue that as a manager of an investment firm, his duty was to his investors to make the companies profitable, a condition that was in the long-term interest of the company’s employees as well. Unprofitable companies, with a few exceptions, tend to go out of business.
UPDATE: Three links quite relevant to this discussion:
And finally, Jay Nordlinger argues, with vigor and a bit of fury, that to attack Romney for his success at Bain is to join the lefties in attacking free-market capitalism itself.