September 25, 2018

The Matthew Effect

“For to everyone who has will more be given, and he will have abundance;
but from him who has not, even what he has will be taken away.”

The Gospel of Matthew 25:29, Revised Standard Version

Economists call it the Matthew Effect or the Matthew Principle. Columbia sociologist Robert K. Merton used the former when he coined the term[1] by reference to its Biblical origins.[2] The more pedestrian version asserts that the rich get richer while the poor get poorer.

According to the Matthew Effect, social capital is better caught than taught, better inherited than achieved. That notion is borne out by current economic and demographic data[3] showing that the only children with a statistically relevant shot at experiencing a better standard of living than their parents are the ones born with a silver spoon in their mouths — or, as David Graeber says in Bullshit Jobs, the ones “from professional backgrounds” where they are taught essential social capital mindsets and skills “from an early age.”[4]

Statistics are susceptible to ideological manipulation, but bell curves conceptualize trends into observable laws of societal thermodynamics. The Matthew Effect bell curve says it’s harder to get to the top by following the Horatio Alger path: you’re starting too many standard deviations out; your odds are too low. On the other hand, if you start in the center (you’re born into the top), odds are you’ll stay there.

That might depend, however, on how long your forebears have been members of the club. Globetrotting wealth guru Jay Hughes has spoken and written widely of the concept of “shirt sleeves to shirt sleeves in three generations.” According to the aphorism, if the first generation of a family follows the Horatio Alger path to wealth, there’s a 70% chance the money will be gone by the end of the third generation, which means the social capital will be gone as well. That first generation might defy the odds through hard work and luck, but odds are they won’t create an enduring legacy for their heirs.

My own law career was an exercise in another folk expression of the Matthew Effect: “you can take the boy out of the country but you can’t take the country out of the boy.” (No, that’s not me in the photo — I just thought it made the point nicely.) My career finally hit its stride when I created a small firm serving “millionaire next door” clients — farmers, ranchers, and Main Street America business owners who became financially successful while remaining in the social milieu where they (and I) began. Nearly all of those families created their wealth during the post-WWII neoliberal economic surge, and are now entering the third generation. I wonder how many are experiencing the shirt sleeves aphorism.

Curiously, my transition out of law practice was also dominated by social capital considerations — in particular, a social capital misfiring. I had a big idea and some relevant skills (i.e., some relevant human capital — at least other people thought so), but lacked the social capital and failed to make the personal transformation essential to my new creative business venture.[5]

In fact, it seems the Matthew Effect might be a larger theme in my life, not just my legal career. In that regard, I was surprised to find yet another one of my job stories in Bullshit Jobs. This one was about a townie who took a job as a farm laborer. His job included “picking rocks,” which involves tackling a rocky field with a heavy pry bar, sledge hammer, pick axe, spade, and brute strength, in an effort to remove the large rocks and make it tillable. I’d had that job, too. I was a teenager at the time, and it never occurred to me that it might be “completely pointless, unnecessary, or pernicious” (Graeber’s definition), which is how the guy in the book felt about it. In fact, when I told my parents about my first day of picking rocks over dinner, my dad was obviously so proud I thought he was going to run out and grill me a steak. Obviously I’d made some kind of rite of passage.

Picking rocks is just part of what you do if you work the land, and there’s nothing meaningless about it. I enjoyed it, actually — it was great training for the upcoming football season. I can scarcely imagine what my law career and life might have been like if I’d felt the same way about my first years of legal work as I did about picking rocks.

The Matthew Effect has far-reaching social, economic, legal, and ethical implications for the legal profession, where social capital is an important client- and career-development asset. Next time we’ll look at another lawyer who, like David Boies, rose from humble origins to superstar status, and whose story brings a whole new set of upward mobility issues to the table.


[1] Merton was originally trying to describe how it is that more well-known people get credit for things their subordinates do — for example, professors taking credit for the work of their research assistants — the professors enriching their credentials at the expense of their minions’ hard and anonymous work. Merton might just as well have been talking about law partners taking credit for the work of paralegals, law clerks. and associates.

[2] As for why “Matthew” when the other Synoptic Gospels (Mark and Luke) have the same verse, I suspect that’s in part because Matthew is the first book in the New Testament canon, but it may also substantiate a derivative application of Merton’s law made by U of Chicago super-statistician Stephen Stigler, known as the Law of Eponymy, which holds that “No scientific discovery is named after its original discoverer.” I.e., later arrivals collect the accolades the” original discoverer” never did. In that regard, Mark’s gospel is believed to have been written first, with Matthew and Luke’s coming later and deriving from it. That would make Mark the true original discoverer. That this economic phenomenon is not called the “Mark Effect” is therefore another example of Stigler’s law.

[3] See, e.g., the “Fading American Dream” graph and the “Geography of Upward Mobility in America” map in this NPR article.

[4] The phenomenon has been widely reported. See this study from Stanford and our trio to new Meristocrats from a few weeks back: Richard V. Reeves and his book Dream Hoarders and his Brookings Institute monograph Saving Horatio Alger (we looked at those last time). The second was philosopher Matthew Stewart, author of numerous books and a recent article for The Atlantic called The 9.9 Percent is the New American Meritocracy. The third was Steven Brill, founder of The American Lawyer and Court TV, author of the book Tailspin: The People and Forces Behind America’s Fifty-Year Fall—and Those Fighting to Reverse It and also the writer of a Time Magazine feature called How Baby Boomers Broke America.

[5] I’ve told that story elsewhere, and won’t repeat it here, but if you’re interested in more on this issue, a look at that particular social capital disaster might be illustrative. See my book Life Beyond Reason: A Memoir of Mania.

 

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