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“The worst form of inequality is to try to make unequal things equal.” -Aristotle
Does it matter if Jewish organizational life is “fair”?
I’ve wondered this question for most of my life. For those in the United States, we live in a time of incredible wealth inequality, minimal antitrust enforcement, and frequent corporate consolidation. And if these trends affect the United States, it’s reasonable to assume that the Jewish world will be similarly affected.
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But let’s say that the answer is “yes,” that Jewish life is unfair and is akin to an Ayn Rand fever dream of radical individualism and an unrelating free market that chooses winners and losers. Is that a bad thing?
In all likelihood, your answer to this question will closely align with your political beliefs. But I am more interested in what all of us can learn about the kinds of forces that cause certain ideas to catch fire, and others to fizzle. Sometimes, these are driven by mental biases, and other times by replicable case studies. In either case, we need to get to work and learn.
The Matthew Effect
This newsletter liberally uses the terms “science” and “scientific.” While I want people to understand that there are concepts that can make our organizations better driven by rigorous, peer-reviewed science, I never want to pretend that this newsletter represents anything other than my own explanation. In fact, I remain impressed at how the scientific world strives to address the inherent biases of scientists in the supposedly objective world of science.
Sociologist Robert K. Merton recognized this conflict when he observed how the scientific community gave credit to research based on a scientist's pre-existing reputation, observing that, “eminent scientists get disproportionately great credit for their contributions to science while relatively unknown scientists tend to get disproportionately little credit for comparable contributions.”1 Famous scientists become more famous because they are already famous, and those scientists who are not already famous struggle to get notoriety because they are not already famous.
Merton identifies this phenomenon as “the Matthew Effect,” where the apostle Matthew states in the Parable of the Talents2 that “For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance, but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away.”3 Today, the frequently used expression that “the rich get richer, and the poor get poorer” is a modern formulation of the Matthew Effect.
On the one hand, reputation is essential in any profession, and seeing the name of a famous scientist on a paper should be worth a certain amount of reputational credit. However, Merton argues that the Matthew Effect can be an “idol of authority,” where science is more a “matter of anecdote and heavily motivated gossip” than who does the best research.4 In a later paper, Merton also calls the Matthew Effect “cumulative advantage,” where certain “initial competitive advantages…[become] successive increments of advantage…[that] widen until dampened by countervailing processes.”5
Anonymous peer review is an essential method employed in academic research to dampen the forces of accumulative advantage. But most professions are not so lucky…just ask hockey players.6
Consider how cumulative advantage might be one of the powerful, yet least discussed, ills facing the Jewish nonprofit sector. Do you feel that certain Jewish organizations are consistently favored in terms of funding, branding, and attention? I know I do. In some cases, the organizations are actually far more innovative than the competition, and it would be wrong to ignore the possibility that these organizations consistently succeed because they are consistently excellent. But is that always the case?
The Matthew Effect suggests that we would be foolish to assume that the organizational “winners” in Jewish life are always winning because they are always innovating. If anything, we need to be asking tougher questions about moments where we simply assume that an organization is the best because it has amassed so much power that the power becomes self-reinforcing.
Lest anyone assume that I think that all success in the Jewish world is an accident driven by prejudice, allow me to introduce you to John List’s Voltage. List is a Nobel Prize-winning economist at the University of Chicago, and has been the chief economist for both Uber and Lyft. And Voltage offers a careful analysis of what distinguishes ideas that scale from those that don’t.
On the one hand, great ideas are usually the product of many bad ideas. At the same time, List wants us to recognize that there are many ideas that are good or even great but are not scaleable (i.e. they lack “voltage”). To separate the scaleable from the unscaleable List identifies “five vital signs”:7
False Positives: The idea never had voltage, in the first place
Slice of the Pie: The idea might be great, but the market size is small
Unscalable Ingredients: The idea is successful, but what made the idea successful can’t be replicated
Spillover Effects: The idea creates spillover effects when scaled that actually work against the original purpose of the idea
Cost: The idea is great, but trying to scale it will cost too much
I will let the reader decide which great ideas have successfully scaled in the Jewish community, and which have not. But I find List’s analysis particularly helpful when thinking about how to teach leaders about strong case studies to help their organization.
If I am the head of a day school, synagogue, camp, etc. in a small Jewish community, the last thing I want to hear when searching for a great idea is something employed by a massive institution in a large metropolitan area. Population growth cannot be replicated…
If a Jewish organization’s success appears largely driven by the presence of a single charismatic figure, how useful is it to learn about his/her/their “secret sauce”? Telling someone “find a generational talent” is not a strategy…
And most importantly, before worshipping at the altar of the latest popular trend in Jewish life, be sure to ask whether or not there are negative externalities to one system’s growth. If one organization flourished at the expense of every other organization in the same sector, the spillover effect may not be worth it…
Leaders in struggling organizations suffer a mental toll that is hard to quantify, and many professionals work every day to try and help struggling organizations turn around their fortunes. But it is demoralizing when the only stories of success people hear are ones that cannot be replicated at scale. We all owe each other greater sensitivity.
Keith Law Interviews John List
Bonjour, Stupid!: Consider this my ode to Judy Blume. I’m more into Superfudge than Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret, but to each his own. Here is one article in Tablet and one in the Religion News Service on the religious themes in Blume’s work, and a great profile of Blume in The Atlantic.
The Two-Minute Burnout Checkup: One of the saddest things about burnout is that most people who are burned out are too tired to ask if they are burned out. Please, do a quick checkup.
Social Media Drains Your Brain, and Then Makes You Buy Stuff: I suppose that this is not a surprise, but it’s amazing to read this research on how social media usage impacts impulse purchases.
What Makes Someone Forgettable?: Adding to our discussion of cumulative advantage, we can train our minds to think about who we are leaving out of important conversations. Here’s a take on how.
Not All Philanthropies Deserve Our Respect: In the end, a nonprofit is a legal structure, not a statement of an organization’s value. As a result, organizations whose missions we love have the same legal status as organizations whose missions we hate. Read more here…
Robert K. Merton, “The Matthew Effect in Science: The Reward and Communication Systems of Science Are Considered,” in Science, Volume 159, Issue (1968), 2.
Matthew 25:14-30, New Revised Standard Edition (NSRV) Translation
14 “For it is as if a man, going on a journey, summoned his slaves and entrusted his property to them; 15 to one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability. Then he went away. At once 16 the one who had received the five talents went off and traded with them and made five more talents. 17 In the same way, the one who had the two talents made two more talents. 18 But the one who had received the one talent went off and dug a hole in the ground and hid his master’s money. 19 After a long time the master of those slaves came and settled accounts with them. 20 Then the one who had received the five talents came forward, bringing five more talents, saying, ‘Master, you handed over to me five talents; see, I have made five more talents.’ 21 His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things; I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.’ 22 And the one with the two talents also came forward, saying, ‘Master, you handed over to me two talents; see, I have made two more talents.’ 23 His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things; I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.’ 24 Then the one who had received the one talent also came forward, saying, ‘Master, I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow and gathering where you did not scatter, 25 so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.’ 26 But his master replied, ‘You wicked and lazy slave! You knew, did you, that I reap where I did not sow and gather where I did not scatter? 27 Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and on my return I would have received what was my own with interest. 28 So take the talent from him, and give it to the one with the ten talents. 29 For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance, but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away. 30 As for this worthless slave, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’
Ibid., Verse 29.
Robert K. Merton, “The Matthew Effect in Science: The Reward and Communication Systems of Science Are Considered,” in Science, Volume 159, Issue 3,810 (1968), 7.
Robert K. Merton, “The Matthew Effect in Science II: Cumulative Advantage and the Symbolism of Intellectual Property,” in Isis, Volume 79, Issue 4 (December 1988), 606.
In Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell describes an amazing finding about how most hockey players are born in the first months of the calendar year. In brief, when children are young, being born in January provides physical advantages over a child born in August (the same reason why some people hold back their children from kindergarten when they have late birthdays). However, because becoming a great hockey player generally requires that one start skating at a very young age, children born earlier in the year get a head start over children born later in the year when they play pee wee hockey, which only increases over time.
John A. List, The Voltage Effect: How to Make Good Ideas Great and Great Ideas Scale (New York: Currency, 2022), 15.