Is Greed Good?

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I always find it interesting when I visit Europe and find Europeans fulminating over the American penchant for "excessive greed" by sellers and consumerism by buyers. This past week, I had the ironic experience of overhearing precisely such a conversation... in the business lounge in Zurich Airport, where Internet access is terribly slow, and only available for one hour, even for business travelers and paying lounge visitors. After that, whoever you are, you must pay, 6.90 Swiss Francs, if I recall correctly, for each 30 or 60 minutes of Internet.

At heart, true, beneficial self-interest - the more civilized form of "greed" - is one that understands that the best way for me to benefit myself is by serving my customer. As long as I keep my customer happy, they will keep buying from me. But that requires continuous investment in benefits that I would otherwise have my customer pay for. In other words, being "greedy" requires acting "less greedy."

Therein lies the great secret of Adam Smith's capitalism. By creating a system wherein the best way to benefit myself is to best serve you, we create constant growth through... self-interest. I had the pleasure of having this explained to me by the late Sanford C. Bernstein over lunch at mutual friends a little over 20 years ago. As an arrogant and dumb college kid who thought he knew something, I had the temerity to argue with him over it, but he was quite right.

I have never much liked American airport lounges, although they seem to be making a bit of an effort lately. For example, the new United lounge in Boston is quite nice, as is the whole renovated United terminal. But wherever I go in an airport lounge in the US, I know I will get solid Internet access. Without it, no airline can possibly stay competitive. The number one user of lounges, business travelers, use that precious lounge time to catch up on emails between flights, Skype with loved ones who are hundreds or thousands  of miles away, or download music, books and videos for the upcoming flight.

At the same time, the various continental European airports I have visited over the past several months have been rather paltry in food selection and comfort and downright miserly in Internet access. I will still use the lounges when I have free access, but I would not ever recommend anyone pay for access.

A little "greed" can go a long positive way.