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Mathew Effect

“The poor are poor not because the rich are rich,” says Robert J. Samuelson in his Washington Post column reproduced in The Hindu

In 1968, the sociologist Robert K. Merton coined the phrase ‘the Mathew Effect’ for the phenomenon of the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer.  The name Mathew came from the Bible.  Jesus said, according to Mathew’s gospel, “For to him who has more will be given, and he will have abundance; but from him who has not, even what he has will be taken away” [Mathew 13:12]. 

Jesus did not live in a time which promoted capitalism and its wealth-creating ideology.  Jesus was far, far from being a capitalist.  In fact, he would have been the ideal communist, had he been allowed to have his way by the various leaders of his time (political as well as religious).  What he meant was that those who have the spirit of life in them will be given more of that, and those who are just bullshit will get lost.

But religious scriptures can be interpreted in myriad ways.  Even as I did above.  And Robert K. Merton interpreted it the way Robert J. Samuelson does it now, half a century later.  All interpretations are correct so long as the frameworks are prepared by a carpenter who knows his job.

So, the poor are poor not because the rich are rich.  Samuelson’s argument is that the rich got richer and the poor got poorer because of the situation prevailing in the world.  The rich flourished because of the access they have/had to wealth-creating avenues such as car dealership, real estate business, and computer software business.  More people wanted cars, houses and the digital technology.  So those who had access to such business ventures got richer. 

Who remain poor today?  Those who don’t know how to exploit the prevailing situation?  Or those who don’t have the resources?

The answer may be ‘both’.

Samuelson doesn’t say why such people have no right to live their life.  Isn’t this coming down to Darwin’s theory of the survival of the fittest? 

If only the fit can survive, what does human civilisation mean?
Who are the fit?  Those who have the resources to manipulate the given system? 
Was the savage the fit person in the olden days?
Was the witch-hunter and the heretic-burner the fit person in the medieval days?
Is the property-dealer the fit person today?

I’m attaching the link to a video which I had put up in my blog earlier too.  I’m putting it up again because it is more, far more articulate than I can ever be ...

It asks the same question: Who is fit?
Will I be more fit a writer if I can get some businessperson to sponsor my writing so that I can quit teaching?  [I intend to do it!]
Is the forest dweller less fit a person because he doesn’t know how to use the digital technology?

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  1. I agree to what you are saying - it might well be true that poor are getting poorer because they don't have the resource rich people can avail with resources.

    The failure of our society has been the ineptness in creating a social balance, utilize the potential.

    I have heard the song myself before - love it.

    1. All that talk about corporate responsibility, Abhra, I wonder what happened to it. The new CEO of Microsoft is to be paid Rs112 crore, according to the latest news. See the kind of inequality that the system creates. Its fallout is terrible: we create a group of people who will start stealing, cheating, plundering...

  2. And God forbid if you're poor in India, you're not even treated as a human being.

    1. Exactly, Purba. And they start asserting their humanity, start demanding dignity, in socially undesirable ways...

  3. Well Said.
    Who remain poor today? Those who don’t know how to exploit the prevailing situation? Or those who don’t have the resources? I agree with you on this. Poor are poor always and nobody cares to uplift them.

    Politicians say that minimum amount to survive in a city is Rs.32 or whatever. But we the common man knows how much we need to survive here and we are all fighting to survive. (Survival of the fittest)

    Ultimately those who knows how to exploit the system will win !!

    1. And quite a lot of the ordinary people don't know how to exploit the system...

      Perhaps, exploitation existed in one form or another throughout human history. In the present situation, with its rapid changes, people become quickly rich and quickly poor. There must be a way of protecting the interests of the vulnerable sections.

  4. I don't thnk society is entirely to be blamed here. Yes there is no balance but a poor man doesn't have to remain poor. Hard work, intelligence and opportunity does play a role.
    I am speaking of experience. My father has a huge constructions company today. And he had started from "zero".
    No I am not boasting. Just saying,the rich do get richer but poor not necessarily have to be poorer.

    1. thanks for the example from personal experience. But I'm sure it wasn't all that easy for your father. First of all, he must have had the necessary backing from a few sectors - finance, connections, and some expertise.

  5. I totally agree to your post!!

    1. Thanks, Aditya. You're most welcome to disagree too :)

  6. I was thinking just that yesterday. Are we a poor nation? No! Wealth is concentrated in few hands. Thanks for sharing 'Mathew Effect', I was not aware of it. About being fit, I think no one has an accurate answer for it. But inequality is a big misfit in our society and destroying the fabric of it.

    1. We are a rich nation of poor people, Saru. A little modification of the system will solve a lot of problems. A paradigm shift will revolutionise India. But... let me not be accuse of living in utopian dreams.

  7. I checked the video and felt really sorry when they said 'we' are drinking colas and bottled water and they are left with dirty water. :(

    1. If you actually walk into the villages, as I sometimes do, you'll see that the video is no exaggeration.


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