Is It Better to Give to a Strong Link or a Weak Link?

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I enjoy listening to Revisionist History a podcast by Malcolm Gladwell. He describes it as a podcast “about things overlooked and misunderstood.” He has covered topics like how accurate should we assume our memory is (“Free Brian Williams“), how we lost a delicious french fry because a health-shocked man spent his private fortune to get rid of it (“McDonald’s Broke My Heart“), and why we should all hate golf courses (“A Good Walk Spoiled“). I highly recommend the podcast and have written about it a few times before.

I listened to an episode titled “My Little Hundred Million” (transcription here ) back when it first came out in 2016. Since then, I’ve thought of it randomly like a mental itch my mind wanted to work out. I normally agree with Gladwell by the end of his podcasts, even if later I have minor critiques. His conversational style and building case sweep my empathy into agreement. However, by the end of this particular episode, I wasn’t convinced and I couldn’t decide why.

“My Little Hundred Million” was the third part of a three part series. I had greatly enjoyed the first two episodes, “Carlos Doesn’t Remember” and “Food Fight.” I felt they were informative about the struggles of children in poverty and what it means to have or lack privilege.

In the final episode, Malcolm Gladwell establishes two opposing types of problems: a strong-link problem and a weak-link problem.

The idea comes from the the saying, “A chain is only as strong as its weakest link.” In the saying, making that proverbial chain stronger requires repairing and reinforcing that weakest link. Problems where the best solution is pulling up or fixing the bottom would be weak-link problems. Advancing the strongest link to solve a weak-link problem is ineffective.

A strong-link problem is the reverse. You improve the situation by improving the best. Basketball is used as the example of a strong-link problem. As Gladwell explains, “What matters in basketball is not how good your fifth player is, it’s how good your superstar is.” Making your superstar better makes the team better; you don’t need to improve your mediocre players at all. Helping the weakest links when it is a strong-link problem is ineffective.

During his discussion of these concepts, Gladwell looks at charitable donations to college endowments. Gladwell reports in the episode:

Those of you who follow me on Twitter will know that I’m obsessed with this issue. After John Paulson gave his $400 million to Harvard in 2015, I had a kind of Twitter meltdown sending tweet after tweet including, “It came down to helping the poor or giving the world’s richest university $400 million it doesn’t need. Wise choice, John.” And then, “If billionaires don’t step up, Harvard will soon be down to its last $30 billion.” Then, when Phil Knight gave $400 million to Stanford, I got called up for comment by the New York Times. I said that Stanford was part of a crazy arms race and ought to cut its endowment in half and give the balance to schools that actually need the money. The next day, I got an email from the president of Stanford, John Hennessy. He wanted to get together and convince me I was wrong.

That interview starts in the podcast at around thirty-one minutes. Gladwell interviews John Hennessy, the President of Stanford at the time. Hennessy was about to retire and had recently established “a scholarship program that would bring the most talented students and prepare them to be leaders in the world” using the mentioned $400 million.

Near the beginning of the excerpted interview, Malcolm Gladwell asked Hennessy, “How much is enough for an institution like Stanford?”

Hennessy answers, “If our ambitions don’t grow, then I think you do reach a point where you have enough money, and I would hope that our ambitions for what we want to do as an institution, both our teaching and our research, grow.”

In the podcast, Malcolm Gladwell narrates in response:

In other words, there really isn’t such a thing at Stanford as enough money. The school’s ambitions are always growing, so its endowment should too. Just because you already have more resources than almost anyone else doesn’t mean you should stop collecting even more resources. Hennessy is a hard core strong linker.

Later in the interview, Malcolm asks, “Do you ever imagine that a president of Stanford might go to a fundraiser and say, ‘At this point in our history, the best use of your money is to give to the UC system not to Stanford’?” Malcolm gives context, explaining, “The UC system is the University of California system, 10 schools, Berkeley, UCLA, San Diego, Davis, Santa Barbara, etc., maybe the finest group of public universities in the world. …Stanford has 16,000 students; the UC system has 238,000 students. So I’m asking John Hennessy, might there ever, ever be an instance where he might tell a would-be super philanthropist, ‘Look, we’ve already got $22 billion in the bank, higher than the output of two Caribbean countries, and it’s earning us a couple of tax free billions every year. Your dollar would go further at the public institutions down the street since they educate 222,000 more students than we do with a fraction of the endowment’?”

Hennessy answers, “I think the question we’d be asked is, ‘How can I have confidence that they’ll use my money well?’ Which… the President of Stanford is not in a position to vouch for.”

Malcolm Gladwell is having none of it. He sports an exceptionally biting sarcasm throughout his narration and pulls in facts in unflattering ways to smear his opposition. You can tell he is passionate about the topic at the expense of his manners.

Hennessy’s point is so understated that I wonder if Malcolm misses it. “How can I have confidence that they’ll use my money well?” It is a very valid point.

Giving money to a weak link does not necessarily mean the link will be strengthened.

Money is a placeholder of labor not yet rewarded. When I work my 9 to 5 job and earn a paycheck, I receive a paper certificate I can trade in for the real reward of my labor. Instead of trying to guess what a farmer really wants for his chicken, I can give him a monetary certificate for him to use as he wishes. So long as his payment remains in the form of currency, his labor in raising the chicken has still gone unrewarded. But when he uses that money to buy chicken feed or dinner for his family, he is finally reaping the reward of his labor.

Giving money to someone else, be it an institution or an individual, is laboring for them to receive the reward. You may have intentions when you give the gift. For example, you may want to help give them food to eat, you may want to make sure that they keep the lights on in their small business, or you may want to ensure they have a fun birthday celebration. However, what reward the recipient picks will be dependent on what kind of values they have. The individual you wanted to feed might buy a car. The business owner might use the money to retire. The birthday girl might save the money and have a quiet evening.

Once the donation is done, your values are not relevant. Your contribution is merely enabling the recipient to do more of what they were already inclined to do.

This is why there is the stereotypical example: giving money to a drunk likely means that the individual will spend it at the bar. The average person will continue doing more of what they’ve already done even when faced with more money.

This brings us back to Hennessy’s question: How can we have confidence that a weak link will use our money well?

Food Fight” (transcript ), the episode before this one, was about the colleges Bowdoin and Vassar. I don’t know more about these universities than the podcast describes. However, Vassar is described as a charitable college which focuses on financial aid at the expense of food and housing. In contrast, Bowdoin is pretty much only described in terms of its food and housing, and in those areas it is described as a paradise. The academics of neither institution was mentioned.

However, Malcolm makes the case that to give good financial aid you need to be able to attract full pay students. However, to attract full pay students, you need to have nice housing and good food.

For this reason, Malcolm says, “The food at Bowdoin is actually a problem, a moral problem. … Because every time you support a school that spends its money on amazing food, …, you’re making it harder and harder for someone like Catharine Hill [who works for Vassar] to create opportunities for poor kids.”

Or as Catharine Hill says in an interview, “Every time another school with which we compete makes a different decision and doesn’t spend it on financial aid, then it puts us in the position of being in a tougher position to compete for the full pay students.”

Most of the episode is filled with examples of students talking about the low qualify food at Vassar and Vassar professionals talking about how they have such low quality housing and food that they are in danger of not attracting paying students.

Vassar’s website says, “Students living on campus are required to participate in a college board plan (also known as the meal plan).”

I wonder though: If (1) their food is so bad and (2) many of their students are poor and (3) they are kindhearted, why are they requiring that the poor students buy a meal plan? Anyone who has spent any amount of time on a tight budget knows that cooking for yourself is a lot cheaper than dining out which is often cheaper than a college meal plan. Why not give students the option so they can reap the benefits of the free market’s favorable options?

Vassar’s Room and Board for 2020 was quoted as $14,220 for the year. Bowdoin’s Room and Board was quoted as $12,770. This means Bowdoin’s paradise housing and dining experience costs students $1,450 less.

Would giving Vassar more money really solve this problem?

In the generic case, we don’t have any confidence, just like Hennessy said. I have nothing against or for either group. However, if they are truly a weak link that needs elevating, it begs the questions why are they weak and how do you think giving them discretion over more resources will help them? If given more money, the leadership of Vassar already said in the podcast that they wouldn’t improve the food. However, improving the food was suggested by Malcolm Gladwell to be the weak link in their college offer.

Money is a tool to solve problems, not a fix itself. Giving a hammer and nails to a child won’t fix your fence. Similarly, giving money to an organization won’t fix the organization. Unfortunately, I would wager that fixing any weak link in society requires more systemic fixes than Malcolm Gladwell cares to admit. If a problem that we care about fixing could be fixed with money alone, I imagine that the free markets would find that solution and fix it.

Photo by Jizhidexiaohailang on Unsplash

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Chief Operating Officer, CFP®, APMA®

Megan Russell has worked with Marotta Wealth Management most of her life. She loves to find ways to make the complexities of financial planning accessible to everyone. She is the author of over 700 financial articles. Her most popular post is "The Complete Guide to Your Washing Machine" while one of her favorites is "Funding a 3-Year-Old’s Roth IRA."