When Is Greed Good?

Can Greed Improve Failing Public Schools?

Economist Walter Williams says we usually benefit more from for-profit companies. "Normally in our country," he said, "those areas where people are motivated the most by greed are the areas that we're the most satisfied with -- supermarkets, computers, FedEx. Those areas where people say we're motivated by caring are the areas of disaster in our country, such as education, the post office, city garbage collection, police services."

I'd add my own selection: the Department of Motor Vehicles. Again and again, these agencies that are supposed to help us, don't serve us as well as people driven by what Williams called greed.

I'd call it enlightened self-interest, and self-interest does a lot of good things. In 1776, Adam Smith explained how pursuing profit helps others: "He intends only his own gain, and he is in this, as in many other cases, led by an invisible hand to promote an end which was no part of his intention."

New York City teacher Steve Mariotti has seen it firsthand. He taught kids at one of the city's worst schools. Its reading scores ranked the lowest in the state. Kids assaulted teachers more than once a week. One teacher's hair was set on fire.

It was around that time that Mariotti left his import/export business to teach there.

At first he says he was a horrible teacher. "I lost control of my classes. A kid got me in a headlock," he said. In desperation, he asked the kids why they were treating him so badly.

"One kid said, 'Well, we did it because we can't stand you. You are boring.' And I said, 'Well was there ever at time when I was a good teacher, when I touched you or taught you something that had any value?' And the same young man said, 'The only time you really had value to us, to me, was when you told us about your import/export business. And you'd bring ladies shoes in from Agra, India, add $1 on for insurance and freight, take it down to the Lower East Side and sell them for $7, and your income statement would be $126,000,'" Mariotti recalled.

The student had remembered that story from the beginning of the term. "Here was a guy that had been defined as -- as brain-damaged, emotionally upset. … People were afraid of him. And he'd re-created in total a Harvard Business School income statement," Mariotti said.

That prompted Mariotti to change his teaching methods. He started talking about making money, and suddenly the kids were different. "They're suddenly interested in learning. And they come to life in the classroom," he said.

In high school, Frank Alemeda was floundering, until he took Mariotti's course. He graduated and went on to open a sporting goods manufacturing company. Now he employs people from his old neighborhood. "I'm probably the biggest thing to happen to my family," Alemeda said. "Because I got people looking up to me, people that I grew up with, just were patting me on my back, would say, 'Frank, keep it up. You're the only guy that got something going for you out here.'"

Jimmy McNeil started a music business that was worth a million dollars. Now he runs Bulldog Bicycles, a high-performance bike company. He's even made it onto the cover of Black Enterprise magazine. He says he achieved this because of what Steve Mariotti taught him in high school.

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