The Virtue of Selfishness

Apr 302007
Authors: Daniel GibsonReinemer

Want to change the world? Consider the words of Gordon Gekko, who famously stated, “Greed, for lack of a better word, is good.”

The corrupt stockbroker in the Oliver Stone movie “Wall Street” has a point relevant to anyone interested in tackling huge problems like poverty and global warming.

Stone’s film was a morality tale about the dangers of selling your soul to get rich quick. Though Gekko and his young prot/g/ make a small fortune, they ultimately suffer the consequences of their unscrupulous means.

So I don’t suggest you follow in their footsteps, but I do suggest you be greedy.

Sort of.

As Gekko himself stated, he needed a better word than greed. My suggestion for a better word is the phrase “somewhat selfish.”

Pure greed revolves around reaping the greatest benefits and sweeping all other considerations aside. Being somewhat selfish involves concern for a healthy profit, but letting those other considerations serve as a guide.

Consider college students who have spent the last four years expanding their knowledge of the world, eager to emerge from academia to confront the big problems facing humanity. For most of us, an altruistic spirit only goes so far. Facing student loan payments, health insurance, and other such worries, the desire for a stable income and security can override earlier dreams of saving the world.

Those who remain undaunted by such obstacles can become tremendous forces for change. But there’s hope for the rest of us as well.

If we allow ourselves to be somewhat selfish, we can look after concerns like a decent income and health insurance without forsaking our values.

When it comes to reducing our environmental impact, we need not become Amish to reduce our carbon footprint. Compact fluorescent light bulbs require less energy to light our homes, which means less coal is burned. These bulbs cost more than traditional ones, but are cheaper for consumers in the long run because they reduce household electric bills.

Similarly, increasing the fuel efficiency of our vehicles can be more economical and an investment in American competitiveness. Hybrids and other fuel-efficient cars can save consumers money at the pump while reducing the flow of oil money to hostile regimes. Further, it creates a market for the technology.

The Henry Ford of the twenty-first century will be the person (or corporation) able to offer a car cheap enough to be affordable to more than a billion consumers and efficient enough to make today’s Honda Civic seem like a gas-guzzler. Creating a market for that kind of product in America increases the likelihood of an American company rising to the occasion – which, in turn, would make money for many American workers and stockholders.

The benefits of being somewhat selfish go beyond our borders. In the emerging field of microfinance, people can make an investment in helping others climb out of poverty.

Nearly all recent graduates can afford to support businesses in poor areas through Web sites like

Kiva allows people to make loans to entrepreneurs abroad, providing information about the person and their business. Using a credit card, students or recent graduates can lend as little as $25. The money then goes to individuals who repay the loan at reasonable interest rates.

As a result, clients have been able to start businesses without the burden of usurious interest rates charged by the only lenders traditionally available. Quite obviously, businesses and the families behind them can succeed much more easily when they can grow while paying a fair price on their loans.

To be fair, lending money through will produce no return on the investment – just the original amount of the loan. Kiva’s Web site states a repayment rate of 100 percent, so while there is no profit, there is also a very small risk of losing the money.

Big problems require solutions involving many people, but do not necessarily require those people to be intensively involved. Small changes in our purchases and a willingness to sequester a few dollars can yield enormous changes at a global scale.

So if you want to save the world, start small. You might save a buck at the same time.

Daniel Gibson-Reinemer is a fishery and wildlife biology masters student. He wishes to acknowledge Nicholas D. Kristof and Thomas L. Friedman of the New York Times for their reporting that inspired this column. His column appears every Tuesday in the Collegian. Replies and feedback can be sent to

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