Friday, May 20, 2011

Cumulative Advantage

(As published on

The attraction of the United States for immigrants has been the hope of social mobility. That with some hard work and good ideas you have a shot at a better economic life. In India social mobility is far more elusive. For a long time there was little expectation of it. People knew and accepted their place. Today something is changing. Hopes are emerging. Aspirations are rising. But what does it take to create conditions that allow social mobility? Why is it so hard the world over to achieve and hold on to?

Our biology and natural social structure works against social mobility. For starters, we generally pass on our wealth to our children rather than to society at large. In India a little over 80% of the rupee billionaires inherited their billionaire status (compared to 20% in the United States). But that’s only a small part. What we do for our children runs far beyond simply passing on wealth. More than any other species, we humans spend inordinate time and effort raising our young, struggling for 20+ years over where to live, school choices and how to get our kids to behave properly. And what we are doing is essentially working hard to integrate them into society – linking them into social networks as well as knowledge and information networks. Our children inherit not just wealth but relationships and access.