When stock speculator Ivan Boesky declared "greed is healthy" in 1985, his audience cheered. And when the comment was echoed a couple of years later by the infamous "Greed … is good" line in "Wall Street," moviegoers flocked to the film.
But in the intervening years — following a high-tech stock bubble gone bust and amid a wave of corporate accounting scandals — "greed" has become a bug nobody wants to catch.
In fact, "infectious greed" was the diagnosis from Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan, who last month told Congress it was the reason for the current business crises.
The prominent central banker blamed greed for causing business executives to embellish balance sheets and artificially inflate stock values, adding, "The rapid enlargement of stock market capitalizations in the latter part of the 1990s … arguably engendered an outsized increase in opportunities for avarice."
So how did greed go from "good" to "infectious?"
It's happened before in American business, and likely will happen again.
Robert Brent Toplin, who has written on the history of business greed (and on the films of "Wall Street" director Oliver Stone), says for more than a century, from the robber barons to the junk-bond arbitrageurs, American capitalism has run in cycles.
Often in American business history, amusement over greed precedes revulsion with it, business leaders go from glamorized to demonized, and deregulatory atmospheres yield to cries for reform.
"Greed can get out of control, and you need rules," says Toplin, a professor of history at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington. "You need a level playing field. That's the challenge, to make sure this system of competitiveness works for everybody and provides no unfair advantages to those who are in privileged positions."
David Batstone, author of the forthcoming "Saving the Corporate Soul — and (Who Knows?) Maybe Your Own," believes that large public companies may, in effect, breed greed into the executives they hire: "They're brought in and they know from day one that their job rides on their ability to raise that stock price."
Even in boom times, open advocates for "greed" are rare, ethicists say. After all, it is one of the traditional seven deadly sins.
However, once corrective reforms take effect and the business pendulum swings back from the current doldrums, a handful of people again may see greed — or at least some similar wealth-building euphemism — in a different light.
Perhaps that could partly explain the bad-boy appeal of the "Greed is good" speech in "Wall Street," where Oscar-winner Michael Douglas as character Gordon Gekko suggested ruthlessness and greed drive inefficiencies out of corporations and the marketplace, jack up profits and drive overall market success.
And maybe it could explain why Boesky reportedly drew applause and laughter during his 1985 commencement speech at the University of California-Berkeley's School of Business Administration when he 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."
Of course, it's also true that Boesky paid a huge fine and went to jail, and the fictional Gekko appeared set for a similar comeuppance.