Bits of Books - Books by Title
The Triple Package:
How Three Unlikely Traits Explain the Rise and Fall of Cultural Groups in America
Amy Chua and Jed Rubenfeld
Asian-Americans make up about 5% of the US college-age population, and 19% of Harvard's undergraduate body. At Yale, that figure is 16%. At Princeton, 19%. And at the California Institute of Technology, where, argue the authors of The Triple Package, admissions are based solely on test scores rather than a combination of scores and more opaque criteria, a whopping 40% of undergraduates are Asian-American.
Figuring out why this might be is an enterprise fraught with danger, likely to trigger instant and loud accusations of racism. This is exactly what happened in the run-up to this book's US publication, when it was variously described as "a despicable new theory" of "racial superiority" (Salon), espousing a "racist argument" (New York Post), and harbouring "uncomfortable racist overtones" (Forbes magazine).
The authors, Amy Chua and Jed Rubenfeld, both law professors at Yale, are a married couple. Chua is the author of Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, the bestselling exposition and defence of strict Asian-American-style parenting. This book is a widening of that thesis to cover other cultural groups in the US - Mormons, Cubans, Nigerians, Jews, Indians, Lebanese and Iranians - groups that, by conventional measures of success, are disproportionately represented at the top of the league tables.
The squeamishness of the response to this new book implies that, given the abuses to which this kind of information has historically been put, it is never admissible to aggregate data and link ethnicity with performance, which is absurd. How groups behave is an area of legitimate academic concern, one which it is surely possible to explore without resorting to racist stereotypes.
Whether the authors' explanation as to why some groups thrive is valid is another question, and it's a problem with this kind of book that the marketing hook – in this case the triple package, a clunky formulation the authors have chosen "for lack of a less terrible name" - is often too flimsy or too broad to be meaningful.
The three factors that make up the triple package and determine success, Chua and Rubenfeld argue, are insecurity (outsiderdom), a sense of superiority and good impulse control, which together make up a puritan mindset long ago abandoned by white Protestant America - a section of the population that now has below-average wealth. Immigrants from certain parts of the world these days tend to possess such a mindset, and it represents an advantage. (Whether or not it brings happiness is a question the book also fleetingly addresses.)
The upward mobility of some immigrant groups compared to others is startling. So Indian Americans have the highest income of any census-tracked ethnic group, almost twice the national average. Nigerian Americans, while representing 0.7% of the US black population, account for 10 times that percentage of black students at university. Mormons make up 1.7% of the population, and own 10 times more Florida real estate than the Walt Disney company. In 2008, according to the authors, the Church of England had assets of about $6.9bn (£4.2bn). Even 10 years earlier, the Mormon church was worth four times that.
The Mormons are not immigrants, but, Chua and Rubenfeld argue, they have the same combination of internalised superiority that comes from believing themselves 'chosen', rigorous self-denial, and a social ambition motivated by being outside the mainstream that many immigrants share. The result is mainly visible on Wall Street: the chief executives or CFOs of Marriott, American Express, Citigroup, Deloitte, Sears and Roebuck and a handful of other corporations are all Mormons, who, the authors speculate, are sensitive to scepticism regarding their religion and motivated by a need to prove themselves.
All of which sounds reasonable, as does the fact that, within three generations, this upward mobility more or less burns out. Assimilation and success weaken the insecurities and other cultural forces that drove the first and second generation to rise. America, the authors write, is the great wrecker of impulse control. One example: from 1950 to 1990, Jewish high schoolers made up roughly 20% of the finalists in the prestigious, nationwide Intel Science Talent Search; since 2010, only 7%. And there are many more.
The fact that Chua and Rubenfeld belong to two of the eight groups focused on gives them licence to make the sort of statements other authors would shy away from, such as: 'Asians are now so overrepresented at Ivy League schools that they are being called the 'new Jews'. They do this with an amused eye on the fainting fit they know it will cause, and they are appropriately dismissive of lazy notions of causation. The Chinese, they write, are not successful because, as is often stated, they come from an "education culture" – the corollary of which is that less successful groups come from 'indolent cultures' - but due to more wide-ranging contextual factors, among them the fact that 'Chinese kids are typically raised on a diet of stories about how Chinese civilisation is the oldest and most magnificent in world history.'
The main problem is that in trying to give the book enough window-dressing to encourage sales, the authors veer from academic rigour to lightweight anecdotal evidence in a way that squanders much of their authority. News events, from the financial collapse to David Blaine standing on a plinth, are shoved through the sausage machine of the Triple Package argument, resulting in lame-sounding suggestions such as disgraced financier Bernie Madoff exemplifying the 'triple package disease' of insatiable need'. Or perhaps he is merely a narcissist. Who knows?
I would hesitate to rest assumptions, as they do, about Jewish identity on Greg Bellow's cross memoir of his father, Saul Bellow's Heart, which seems complicated by a million other factors. And quoting the remarks of "one 23-year old Indian American professional" talking about ethnic anxiety in a chatroom looks like the fruit of a Google search. As with so many books about ideas, this is indicative of the fact that The Triple Package could have covered the same ground in half the number of pages.
But there is still a lot to find interesting. The Amish have extraordinary 'impulse control', but no interest in conventional success. 'The titled nobility of Victorian England had plenty of superiority but were not famously hard-working.' It would have been entertaining to see the authors tackle the Scientologists, given their wealth, prominence and superiority complex – rooted in a belief in their magical powers.
They draw on eye-opening studies of the influence of stereotypes and expectations on various ethnic and cultural groups. (White people who were told playing mini-golf was a test of sports intelligence did better than when they were told it measured natural athletic ability.) Above all, the authors' willingness to pursue an intellectual inquiry that others wouldn't is bracing. The conclusion is countercultural in the best sense, arguing, rather sensibly, for a correction to the modern culture of instant gratification and making a broad point about America mollycoddling its children.
It also reaffirms something we intuitively know – that origin stories matter, and that, despite the vast influence of external factors, the story you are permitted to tell about yourself has a lot to do with how that story unfolds.
In 2011, Yale law professor Amy Chua became a household name after publishing her book Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, a memoir documenting her draconian parenting style. Chua generated lots of publicity for her shock value anecdotes, like the time she threatened to burn all her daughter’s stuffed animals as consequence for playing poorly on the piano. Chua claims that her parenting techniques were not only typical of Chinese immigrants, but explained why Chinese Americans, on average, have educationally outperformed other ethnic groups.
Three years later, Chua collaborated with her husband and fellow Yale law professor, Jed Rubenfeld, to write a book that makes even bolder claims about how cultural differences explain group disparities in success. In The Triple Package: How Three Unlikely Traits Explain the Rise and Fall of Cultural Groups in America, Chua and Rubenfeld argue that a unique combination of three personality traits are the magic formula behind achievement. The three traits are: a belief in the superiority of one’s own group, a tendency towards feelings of insecurity, and the ability to control one’s impulses. According to the book, individuals who belong to cultures that emphasize these three traits tend to do better. As examples of their theory at work, Chua and Rubenfeld point out the greater success of Mormons, Nigerians, Persians, Cubans, Indians, East Asians, Lebanese, and Jews.
Chua and Rubenfeld's book was met with harsh opposition, particularly from Asian Americans who objected to what they saw as the perpetuation of the “model minority” stereotype — the idea that Asian Americans tend to do well because of a cultural emphasis on work ethic, family values, and conformity. (Chua is Chinese.) Like all stereotypes, the model minority stereotype ignores the vast diversity within the Asian American population as well as the challenges faced by many people within that group.
The book also received praise from critics who lauded its frank discussion of an important question: why do some groups in America, on average, tend to do better than others? If one examines Chua and Rubenfeld's theory closely, it becomes apparent that it is ultimately psychological rather than cultural: they propose that a specific combination of psychological traits can explain success, and they believe that people from certain groups are more likely to possess them. Joshua Hart and Christopher Chabris, both psychology professors at Union College, decided to empirically test the triple package hypothesis, using two studies with a combined online sample of over 1200 adults of various ethnic backgrounds.
The researchers deliberately chose to study a sample of representative Americans, rather than members of the successful groups mentioned by Chua and Rubenfeld, since this would offer a stronger test of the theory. If the presence of these three traits predict success, regardless of one’s ethnic or cultural group, then one might more confidently conclude that it is the combination of traits – rather than some other reason – that leads to greater success.
The triple package's first trait, a belief in the superiority of one’s own group, was measured with a scale that asked respondents how much they agree with statements such as, “Most other cultures are backward compared to my culture.” Measuring insecurity, the second trait, proved a bit more complex because Chua and Rubenfeld argue in their book that insecurity can take many forms including low self-esteem, feelings of danger, or fear of losing what one already has. Therefore, the researchers measured insecurity using multiple scales. They combined their participants' scores on these scales and identified the following three factors of insecurity: personal insecurity, contingent self-worth, and family insecurity. For 'control' the third trait, they used scales of impulsiveness, conscientiousness, and grit.
The researchers also measured their participants' cognitive abilities through vocabulary and mathematical reasoning tests. Although Chua and Rubenfeld’s theory does not emphasize intelligence, past research has shown that general cognitive abilities are one of the strongest predictors of achievement and success. Finally, to measure life success, Hart and Chabris had their participants report on their annual income, level of education, and honors and awards they have received. All of these measures of success were combined to create a single, combined 'success' variable.
The researchers used regression analysis to determine the strength of the relationship between the personality traits and self-reported success. The findings did not support Chua and Rubenfeld’s triple package theory of traits. The participants reporting the most success were not the ones who scored highly on all three traits. Instead, the biggest predictors of success were cognitive ability and parental education. Also, in direct contradiction to Chua and Rubenfeld's theory, greater personal insecurity was related to less success in life.
There were, however, a couple of isolated findings that did support elements of the triple package hypothesis. Participants who scored higher on contingent self-worth reported greater success. People with high contingent self-worth tend to rely more on outer circumstances, such as the praise of other people, in order to feel good about themselves. It makes sense that people who have a high need for external approval would work harder to achieve outward success. In addition, there was a small but significant correlation between feelings of group superiority and attaining a higher income. In other words, the more hubris that participants expressed about their own ethnic group, the more money they reported making. Despite these individual findings in support of the theory, Hart and Chabris found no consistent evidence that it is the unique combination of the three traits – group superiority, personal insecurity, and impulse control – that leads to greater success.
If Chua and Rubenfeld's theory can't explain the success of certain groups, then what might? Hart and Chabris point out that, although it seems appealing to think that we can identify a group of learnable traits that determine success, there is scant evidence for such a formula. The idea of a 'triple package' may seem compelling because it seems to fit with our own personal observations and common stereotypes about immigrants. In addition, the theory meshes well with the belief that success depends on one's hard work and personal qualities, rather than one's circumstances. But, as best we know, success is best explained by such unsurprising factors as being smart, being conscientious, and having the good fortune of growing up in a financially stable environment.
A few weeks ago in a coffee shop we overheard some people talking about a new book by two professors arguing that some races are superior to others. We jumped in, aghast, demanding to know who the despicable professors were. It was not our happiest moment when we realised they were talking about us.
For one of us there was something weirdly deja vu about the next several days. Once again a global firestorm broke out criticising a book that hadn't even been published yet, that its accusers had not read, on the basis of a newspaper headline that totally misrepresented it. We spent one evening trying to decide which was worse: being called racists or being named by the internet, as we were in 2011, 'the most notorious household in the western world'.
For the record our book, The Triple Package, is not about some groups being better than others. It's about the fact that some groups are doing better than others in America today in terms of income, education and other conventional metrics.
Moreover, there is nothing racial about it. America's successful groups - and those in Britain too - include people of all different skin colours. There are black and Hispanic groups outperforming the national average; there are white and Asian groups mired in poverty.
We do not blame poverty on culture. As we say repeatedly, the true causes of poverty in America's low-income groups were denial of opportunity, discrimination and macro-economic factors having nothing to do with culture.
We do not equate material success with a good or well-lived life. On the contrary, we show that the qualities driving such success often make people excessively concerned with wealth, prestige and personal gain.
Of course we knew that discussing the facts of group success would tread on matters of tremendous sensitivity, provoking misunderstandings (and misrepresentations) of all kinds. So why did we write The Triple Package?
Because wilful blindness to facts is rarely good policy. If just stating figures reported in the national census provokes fear and accusations of stereotyping, we aren't going to be able to understand or address some of society's most pressing problems, such as growing inequality and what it takes to make it in an ever tougher economy.
We wrote The Triple Package with the hope that readers might come away with a better understanding of the world we live in and maybe learn how to cultivate a stronger capacity to live the lives they want to. The qualities propelling the success of America's overachieving groups are open to anyone, anywhere, of any background and they can drive success of any kind.
A SEEMINGLY un-American fact about America today is that certain groups - ethnic, religious and originating from certain nationalities - are starkly outperforming others. Some of the most successful groups won't surprise you; others might.
Thirty years ago it was hard to find a Mormon working on Wall Street. Today, Mormons have become corporate powerhouses, holding top positions at many of America's most recognisable companies.
Indian Americans earn almost twice the household income of Americans overall. Chinese kids dramatically outperform white kids at America's schools. Jewish success is both the most fraught and the most broad-based. Jews make up only about 2% of the adult US population but account for a third of the current Supreme Court and more than a third of American Nobel laureates.
Such facts don't make some groups 'better' than others and success of this kind is no measure of a decent or meaningful life. But if we can't acknowledge this reality we can't learn from it. The most comforting explanation is that these facts are mere results of class - rich parents passing on advantages to their children - or of immigrants arriving with high skill and education levels. Important as these factors are, they explain only a small part of the picture.
Mitt Romney notwithstanding, today's wealthy Mormon businessmen often started from humble origins. So did a great number of American Jews - children of pedlars, uneducated butchers and tailors - who achieved extraordinary professional, scientific and financial success in the 20th century in the face of widespread discrimination.
While many Indian and Chinese immigrants obtain visas to work or study, giving them a clear head start, almost half of all Indian immigrants and more than half of Chinese immigrants do not. Many are poor and poorly educated. Yet, regardless of background, studies repeatedly show that their children experience exceptional mobility.
Data from Britain shows strikingly similar patterns. Indians in the UK appear to be more upwardly mobile than Britons overall. A study tracking Indians who had grown up in England and Wales found that almost three quarters were born to working-class families. Yet, according to the study's authors, only about 16% of those from working-class origins stayed in routine or manual jobs.The rest were upwardly mobile, with more than half ending up in professional or managerial occupations. By contrast, a third of Britain's native white population born to working- class families ended up in manual or routine jobs.
British Jews are also disproportionately successful. In 2012, although just 0.5% of the population, they accounted for a quarter of the 20 wealthiest people in the UK. They also appear to be strikingly overrepresented at Oxford University and as heads of colleges.
In British schools Indian and Chinese kids achieve the highest scores in their GSCE exams - irrespective of their parents' background. Chinese children from families poor enough to qualify for a free lunch outperform not only other poor British pupils but rich ones as well.
In America such disparities are producing visibly lopsided results in some elite schools. Take New York's super-selective public high schools (in America 'public' means state-run) which are major feeders to the Ivy League.
In 2013 the incoming class at Stuyvesant High School in Manhattan, where admission is based solely on a standardised entrance exam, consisted of nine blacks, 24 Hispanics, 177 whites and 620 Asians. Among those of Chinese origin, many are the children of working-class immigrants.
Merely stating the fact that certain groups do better than others - as measured by income, test scores and so on - is enough to provoke a firestorm in America today and (as we have experienced) even charges of racism. The irony is that the facts actually debunk racial stereotypes.
There are black and Hispanic groups far outperforming some white and Asian groups. Immigrants from many Caribbean and African countries, such as Jamaica, Haiti and Ghana, are climbing America's higher education ladder. But perhaps the most prominent are Nigerians.
Nigerians make up less than 1% of the black population in America yet nearly 25% of the black students at Harvard Business School in 2013 were of Nigerian origin. More than 25% of Nigerian-Americans have a graduate or professional degree, compared with only about 11% of whites.
British Nigerians are doing well in school too. According to The Economist, 75% of British Nigerian children get good grades in five GSCEs, compared with about 60% of British pupils overall.
IT IS important to realise that groups rise and fall over time. The fortunes of Wasp elites in America have been declining for decades. And group success often tends to dissipate after two generations.
While Asian-American kids overall get better grades and higher scores than their white counterparts, a 2005 study of more than 20,000 adolescents found third-generation Asian-American students performed no better than white students.
The rise and fall punctures the whole idea of 'model minorities' or that groups succeed because of innate biological differences. Rather, there are cultural forces at work.
It turns out that for all their diversity, the strikingly successful groups in America today share three traits that together propel success.
The first is a superiority complex - a deep-seated belief in their exceptionality. The second appears to be the opposite: insecurity, a feeling that you or what you've done is not good enough. The third is impulse control.
Any individual from any background can have what we call this Triple Package of traits. But research shows that some groups are instilling them more frequently than others and that these groups are the ones enjoying greater success.
It's odd to think of people feeling simultaneously superior and insecure. Yet it's precisely this unstable combination that generates drive: a chip on the shoulder, a goading need to prove oneself. Add impulse control - the ability to resist temptation — and the result is people who systematically sacrifice present gratification in pursuit of future attainment.
Each element of the Triple Package violates a core tenet of contemporary thinking. For example, we know that group superiority claims are specious and dangerous, yet every successful group tells itself it's exceptional in a deep sense.
Mormons believe they are 'gods in embryo' placed on Earth to lead the world to salvation. Middle East experts and many Iranians themselves refer to the Persian 'superiority complex'. At their first Passover Seders, most Jewish children hear that Jews are the 'chosen' people.
That insecurity should be a lever of success is another anathema. Feelings of inadequacy are cause for concern or even therapy; it is almost unthinkable that parents deliberately should instil insecurity in their children. Yet insecurity runs deep in every one of America's rising groups and consciously or unconsciously they tend to instil it in their children.
Numerous studies reveal Chinese and Korean immigrant parents frequently imposing exorbitant academic expectations on their children ('Why only a 99?'), making them feel that 'family honour' depends on their success.
By contrast, white parents have been found to be more focused on building children's social skills and self-esteem. There's an ocean of difference between "You're amazing. We never want you to worry about a thing" and "If you don't do well at school, you'll let down the family and end up a bum on the streets". In a study of thousands of high school students, Asian-Americans reported the lowest self-esteem of any racial group, even as they racked up the highest grades.
Being an outsider in a society - and America's most successful groups are all outsiders in one way or another - is a source of insecurity in itself. Immigrants worry about whether they can survive in a strange land, often communicating a sense of life's precariousness to their children: they can take away your home or business, but never your education, so study harder.
Newcomers may face derision or hostility. After Fidel Castro's takeover, Cubans fleeing to Miami (who rose in one generation from penury to relative affluence) found signs reading 'No dogs, no Cubans' on apartment buildings. In combination with a superiority complex, the feeling of being underestimated or scorned can be a powerful motivator.
Finally, impulse control runs against the grain of contemporary culture as well. Countless books and feelgood movies extol living in the here and now. The dominant culture is fearful of spoiling children's happiness with excessive restraints or demands. By contrast, every one of America's most successful groups takes a very different view, inculcating habits of discipline from a very early age - or at least they did so when they were on the rise.
In isolation, each of these three qualities would be insufficient. Alone, a superiority complex is a recipe for complacency; mere insecurity could be crippling; impulse control can produce asceticism. Only in combination do these qualities generate drive and what the political thinker Alexis de Tocqueville called the 'longing to rise'.
Success comes at a price. Each of the three traits has its own pathologies. Impulse control can undercut the ability to experience beauty, tranquillity and spontaneous joy. Insecure people feel as if they're never good enough. "I grew up thinking that I would never, ever please my parents," the novelist Amy Tan recalls. "It's a horrible feeling."
A superiority complex can be even more invidious. Group supremacy claims have been a source of oppression, war and genocide throughout history.
The combination of the three traits, even when it functions relatively benignly as an engine of success, can still be imprisoning - precisely because of the kind of success it tends to promote. Individuals striving for material success can easily become too focused on money, too concerned with prestige and external measures of their own worth.
IT IS not easy for racial minorities to maintain a superiority complex in western countries. For most of its history America did pretty much everything a country could to impose a narrative of inferiority on its non-white minorities and especially its black population. Over and over African-Americans have fought back against this narrative but its legacy persists.
Black America is of course no one thing - "not one or ten or ten thousand things", as the poet and Yale professor Elizabeth Alexander has written. There are black families in the United States occupying every possible socioeconomic position.
But Sean 'Diddy' Combs - the rapper, record producer and entrepreneur - undoubtedly spoke for many when he said: "If you study black history it's just so negative, you know. It's just like, OK, we were slaves, and then we were whipped and sprayed with water hoses, and the civil rights movement, and we're American gangsters. I get motivated for us to be seen in our brilliance."
Culture is never all-determining. Individuals can defy the most dominant culture and write their own scripts, as Combs himself did. They can create narratives of pride that reject the master narratives of their society, or turn those narratives around. In any given family an unusually strong parent, grandparent or even teacher can instil in children every one of the three crucial traits.
It's just much harder when you have to do it on your own, when you can't draw on the cultural resources of a broader community, when you don't have role models or peer pressure on your side and instead are bombarded daily with negative images of your group in the media.
But it would be ridiculous to suggest that the lack of a group superiority complex was the cause of disproportionate African-American poverty. The true causes barely require repeating: they include slavery, systematic discrimination, schools that fail to teach, employers who won't promote, single motherhood and the fact that roughly a third of young black men in America are in jail, awaiting trial or on probation or parole.
Nor does the lack of an effective group superiority narrative prevent any individual African-American from succeeding. It simply creates an additional psychological and cultural hurdle that America's most successful groups do not have to overcome.
At the same time, if members of a group learn not to trust the system, if they don't think people like them can really make it, they will have little incentive to engage in impulse control.
Researchers at the University of Rochester, in New York state, recently reran the 'marshmallow test' with a new spin. Children who had been initially subjected to a broken promise - adults promised them a new art set to play with but never delivered - almost invariably 'failed' the test (snatching the first marshmallow instead of waiting 15 minutes for a promised second). By contrast, when the adults followed through on their promise of an art set, most kids passed the test.
Thus the same factors that cause poverty - discrimination, prejudice, shrinking opportunity - can sap from a group the cultural forces that propel success. Once that happens, poverty becomes more entrenched. In these circumstances it takes much more grit, more drive and perhaps a more exceptional individual to break out.
Of course a person born with the proverbial silver spoon can grow up to be wealthy without hard work, insecurity or discipline (although to the extent that a group passes on its wealth that way, it's likely to be headed for decline). In a society with increasing class rigidity, parental wealth obviously contributes to the success of the next generation.
One reason groups with the Triple Package have such an advantage in America today lies in the same factors that are shrinking opportunity for so many of America's poor. Disappearing blue-collar jobs and greater returns to increasingly competitive higher education give a tremendous edge to groups that disproportionately produce individuals driven to excel and to sacrifice present satisfactions at a young age for long-term gains.
THE good news is that it's not some magic gene generating these groups' disproportionate success. Nor is it some 5,000-year-old 'education culture' that only they have access to. Instead their success is significantly propelled by three simple qualities open to anyone.
The way to develop this package of qualities - not that it's easy or that everyone would want to - is through grit. It requires turning the ability to work hard, to persevere and to overcome adversity into a source of personal superiority. This kind of superiority complex isn't ethnically or religiously exclusive. It's the pride a person takes in his own strength of will.
Consider the story of the US Supreme Court justice Sonia Sotomayor, who was born to struggling Puerto Rican parents. Her father was an alcoholic, she writes in her moving autobiography, and her mother's "way of coping was to avoid being at home" with him. But Sotomayor, who gave herself insulin shots for diabetes starting about the age of eight, was "blessed" with a "stubborn perseverance".
Not originally a top student, she did 'something very unusual' in fifth grade, approaching one of the smartest girls in the class to 'ask her how to study'. Soon she was getting top marks and a few years later she applied successfully to Princeton - although her careers guidance counsellor recommended less stellar Catholic colleges.
The point of this example is not "See, it's easy to climb out of poverty in America". On the contrary, Sotomayor's story illustrates just how extraordinary a person has to be to overcome the odds stacked against her. But research shows that perseverance and motivation can be taught, especially to children. This supports those who argue that education budgets for the underprivileged are best spent on early childhood intervention, beginning at pre-school age when kids are most formable.
And remember: properly understood and harnessed, the Triple Package is as capable of producing great art as great entrepreneurial success. It can be a ladder to accomplishments of any kind, including those measured not by personal gain but by service to others.
The Tiger Mother is back. Three years ago Amy Chua caused uproar with her assertion that Chinese parents who imposed martial law over their children's homework, piano and violin practice were far superior to their soft-hearted white counterparts. Now she has taken her analysis of superhuman behaviour into even more controversial territory: race and creed in America.
Next month, Ms Chua and her husband Jed Rubenfeld will publish a book which singles out seven racial groups, along with Mormons, as culturally superior to all the rest.
In The Triple Package: How Three Unlikely Traits Explain the Rise and Fall of Cultural Groups in America, Ms Chua and her husband claim to have isolated the cultural elements that have propelled certain immigrant groups to wealth and success.
Ms Chua, who hails from a Chinese American family, and Mr Rubenfeld, who is Jewish, argue that Chinese, Jewish, Indian, Iranian, Lebanese and Nigerians have all prospered due to innate characteristics in their respective cultures, as have Cuban exiles and Mormons.
These groups, they say, have defied the reported demise of upward mobility in America. 'What do the current or recent CFOs or CEOs of American Express, Black & Decker, Citigroup, Dell, Fisher Price, Deloitte, Jet Blue, Marriott International, Sears, Roebuck, Huntsman, Skullcandy, Sam's Club and Madison Square Garden have in common?' they ask. 'They are all members of the Church of Latter Day Saints.'
They say Cuban-Americans are two and a half times more likely than other Hispanics to be earning more than $200,000, Nigerians are over-represented in the country's top universities and on Wall Street, and Indian Americans 'have the highest income of any census-tracked ethnic group. Chinese, Iranian and Lebanese Americans are not far behind'.
They argue that the reason for the success of the groups is that all possess an innate sense of cultural superiority, a sense of insecurity which drives them to achieve, and a rigid self-discipline which makes them more likely to persevere in the face of hardship.
They maintain that all these qualities, which may once have existed more widely in the nation of immigrants, have been softened by 'post 1960s liberal American principles' which emphasized self-esteem and equality.
They even argue that the Civil Rights Movement may have dented the prospects of African Americans. 'In this paradoxical sense, equality isn't fair to African-Americans,' they say. 'Superiority is the one narrative that America has relentlessly denied or ground out of its black population.'
The arguments have fierce opposition.
"It's incendiary but it's also wrong," said Nancy Foner, a sociology professor at Hunter College in New York. "There is a large literature in the US and in Europe on why certain groups do better than others. Overwhelmingly that literature emphasizes the education and class background of the parents. Indians are the most highly educated immigrant group in the US."
She said the attempt to insist on culturally specific causes was 'distorting' and strongly disagreed with the authors' reading of the effect of the Civil Rights movement. 'Civil rights and affirmative action would lead to opportunities to create a much larger African American middle class,' she said, adding: 'Give me a break.'
(Matthew Syed, London Times)
My dad was born in India, moved to Pakistan after the Partition, then came to the UK to study law. He converted from Islam to Christianity while living in student digs in London, met my mother (a Welsh woman with flaming red hair) and forged his life here. He faced discrimination, but worked like a dog, and eventually won a professorship. His story is, to a large extent, the theme of The Triple Package, one of the most controversial books of recent years.
The book tackles an age-old but rather taboo subject: why do certain cultural groups do so well? Why do Jews, who make up 1.7 per cent of the US population, have 20 of the top 50 richest people in America? Why do Asian-Americans, who account for 5 per cent of the US college-age population, make up almost a fifth of the intake of prestigious schools? Why do Mormons, who represent 1.7 per cent of the population, own "ten times more Florida real estate than the Walt Disney company"? Why, when Hispanic populations tend to fare badly, do the children of Cuban exiles hold so many managerial and professional positions? And why do Indian immigrants, like my dad, do so well in academia?
The authors (Amy Chua, author of Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother and Jed Rubenfeld, her husband, who is also a law professor at Yale) argue that the differences are not genetic in origin; rather, they say, it is about three cultural traits that are common to successful groups: the Triple Package. Firstly, successful groups share a superiority complex (the Jews are the "chosen people", etc). Secondly, they are afflicted by chronic insecurity (the sense of being an outsider). In other words, these groups have a feeling of an exalted destiny coupled with sense of personal inadequacy. The result is a huge drive for conventional measures of success. They want to prove themselves, to show they have made it.
But this drive would be nothing, the authors argue, without the third element of the package. They call this impulse control: the ability to forgo current enjoyment in order to gain future acclaim. Words like grit, resilience and tenacity are used to convey this theme. It is unsurprising that they reference the work of Carol Dweck and Angela Duckworth, psychologists who have demonstrated how a willingness to persevere in the teeth of failure is a powerful predictor of success. They also refer to the famous marshmallow test (where kids who were prepared to postpone eating a first marshmallow in return for a second marshmallow did much better in later life).
This third element of the package chimed powerfully with me. My dad was always talking about the vital importance of not giving up, of the value of failure as a learning process. Many immigrant groups have this quality in spades, particularly in comparison with some elements of Western culture (which, as the authors correctly note, is often focused on instant gratification). We could do with far more grit in British schools, particularly when it comes to maths.
But the empirical evidence is far flimsier when it comes to the first two elements of the package. The problem is that drive, while vital, is about far more than insecurity coupled with a superiority complex. The psychological literature is teeming with experiments that find motivation in places the authors scarcely mention. Indeed, they provide precious little evidence to show that insecurity and superiority have great psychological traction. Instead, there are lots of carefully selected anecdotes.
This brings us to the most important defect of the book. Psychology and culture are very important. Those who succeed need the right mindset. But you can have all the drive and resilience in the world but get nowhere without opportunity. Those who succeed need help. If you want to be a great golfer, you need to have golf clubs and access to a course. Success requires scaffolding. And this is vital in explaining certain types of success. Jews and Cubans, for example, have access to networks: relatives who can help them get a head start, or an internship, or another covert advantage. Mormons, pretty much, have their own State. There is little, too, on the role of self-selection. Many groups examined in the book made it to America precisely because they were better educated and possessed more human capital than those they left behind in their homelands. It is hardly surprising that particular immigrant populations do well when they are drawn from social and educational elites.
An aspect of the book that will dominate coverage in the US is the stinging criticism of American culture. The authors argue that Americans have become too focused on quick success (they call it "instant gratification disorder"). They condemn the self-esteem movement, arguing that people will not work hard unless they feel there is something missing in their lives. They see angst as a blessing, even as they acknowledge it can have a darker side. The lack of success of African-Americans is also placed within the prism of the Triple Package framework - they have been battered into a sense of inferiority by the legacy of slavery and discrimination.
Indeed, you cannot fault the authors for their self-confidence. They use their Triple Package device to explain the gamut of American history from the signing of the Declaration of Independence to the credit crunch. America's initial success was a consequence of the Triple Package. Its recent decline is due to its absence (they say that the only aspect that remains is the sense of superiority, or exceptionalism). "The collapse of 2008 . . . was, to some extent, a pure Triple Package implosion," they write. "At every level of the economy, from borrowers, to bankers . . . people didn't feel anywhere enough insecurity or exercise anywhere near enough self-control".
This book will infuriate many. It pushes its central thesis so far that it, at times, descends into grating simplification. But the authors are to be commended for dealing with a controversial subject, and for revealing some deep truths. It deserves a wide audience, but should be read with caution.
I do admire Amy Chua's spirit. Having ignited an international firestorm among the chattering classes with her bestselling book, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, the Yale law professor has decided to be just as incendiary with her follow-up.
Tiger Mother was a funny, rueful, self-knowing memoir recounting Chua's hyper-demanding parenting of her two daughters (sample story: Chua threatening to throw away her seven-year-old daughter's doll's house because she wasn't practising the piano perfectly). Most critics didn't bother to acknowledge the nuances in her account, nor her eventual realisation that tiger mothering can go too far. Instead, they responded with horror to her tough-love regime. Some readers even sent death threats.
Chua's philosophy made her unpopular because it ran counter to the current western belief that childhood should be fun and that parents should praise and encourage their offspring at all times. Her new book, written jointly with her husband and fellow law professor, Jed Rubenfeld, is already being denounced across the Atlantic because it challenges another liberal tenet: that exploring the cultural differences between groups amounts to racism.
In a lengthy, vitriolic piece in Time, the writer Suketu Mehta argues that praising the cultural characteristics of any particular group implies that others are inferior, and that Chua and Rubenfeld are thus among 'the new racialists'. 'The language of racism in America has changed, although the plot remains the same. It’s not about skin colour any more, it's about cultural traits. And it comes cloaked in a whole lot of social science babble.' The Nation was equally condemnatory. Its subheadline wondered whether the authors were racists or just internet trolls. Salon said the book outlined 'a despicable theory of racial superiority'.
These critics have a genuine concern. They worry, understandably, that generalisations about group behaviour can be used as reasons to discriminate against communities. They point out that in the past, Italians, French-Canadians and Hispanics have all been labelled as possessing undesirable, un-American values. In the 1920s racial and cultural prejudice barred Asians from immigrating to America and established quotas for eastern Europeans that were aimed at excluding Jews. But in their rage and anxiety over the issue, these critics are denying the importance of analysing how societies work, and casually misrepresenting what Chua and Rubenfeld actually say.
The Triple Package sets out to ask a serious question: why do some groups in America radically outperform others? The authors look beyond the categories of class and race to identify the groups whose income, academic accomplishment, corporate leadership and professional success outstrip the norm. 'The reality, uncomfortable as it may be to talk about, is that some religious, ethnic and national-origin groups are starkly more successful than others. Without looking squarely at such groups, it's impossible to understand economic mobility in America and what the levers of success in this country really are.'
Why, the authors ask, do Nigerian-Americans, less than 1% of the US black population, make up some 10% of black doctors, almost 25% of black students at Harvard Business School and 5% of black lawyers at top firms? How have the Mormons gone from being outsiders in Wall Street and Washington 30 years ago to stunning numbers at the top of America's corporate and political spheres? Why do Asian children, many from poor families, make up 5% of college-age students but almost 20% of those at the Ivy League? Why is Jewish household income almost twice the national average? How have white Cuban exiles, Iranians and Lebanese climbed the social ladder so fast?
Chua and Rubenfeld insist that the answer has nothing to do with innate or genetic differences between groups. They are not uncovering in-built superiorities, but identifying belief systems that encourage individuals to achieve. They argue that America's disparate and super-achieving subcultures share three critical characteristics - the 'Triple Package'. They grow up believing privately that their group is superior, whether for religious, racial, historical, geographical or class reasons. All feel insecure about whether the society around them will recognise or reward that superiority, which makes them desperate to prove their worth. And, importantly, each preaches impulse control to its members, particularly children. Sacrifices of time, happiness and money must be made today in order that parents may be proud and that individuals may have better lives tomorrow.
This combination leads to disproportionate levels of worldly success, the authors say, because these are no longer values publicly lauded in America. Schools teach that no group is superior, while self-esteem and living in the present are supposed to be the key to the good life. But while America preaches the advantages of being laid-back, society's rewards go to those who reject those ideas. It is the disciplined and the driven who end up with wealth, prestige and power.
The authors are very clear about the limitations of the TP analysis. They say emphatically that the absence of it is not an adequate explanation for why some groups, notably African-Americans, are doing so badly. For these groups, slavery, poverty and generations of discrimination have meant that the TP values of discipline and hard work were rarely rewarded, so they never took root. That makes life far harder, and demands much more resilience from those in the group trying to break out.
Chua and Rubenfeld are articulating this theory not because they are revelling in their own superiority, but because they would like anyone to be able to follow the Triple Package. It is in part a self-help formula they're expounding. Yet they are not pretending worldly success is the same as leading a fulfilling life. Striving can give us meaning, but, they point out, it can also cause intense misery. That's one of the reasons why immigrant cultures that believe in the TP tend to lose those values within three generations, as they become assimilated and comfortable.
I wasn't altogether convinced by this book. Not only are TP values too extreme for me, but the book is weak on historical and economic contexts, and its evidence is sometimes thin. But I admired it for its humanity, its energy and its determination to throw out provocative, important, accessible ideas. It deserves much more than kneejerk accusations of racism. If you care at all about the social pressures underpinning success and failure, or relish fresh perspectives on how societies really work, you will want to read it for yourself.
Have you ever wondered why finance firms are full of Jews or why the campuses of selective colleges are dominated by Asians? You might not feel free to speculate aloud in polite company, but Amy Chua and Jed Rubenfeld's book The Triple Package will do it for you, and quite loudly.
Chua is the author of The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, a memoir in which she extolled the virtues of harsh disciplinary 'Chinese' parenting. Chua has now become something of a brand, a polarizing figure loved or hated because of her views on the link between culture and success. Rubenfeld (Chua's husband and Yale colleague) is a provocateur in his own right, having authored a controversial article on rape. But this book's most distinctive feature is Chua's stock-in-trade: the claim that group cultures explain why those groups are winners.
The academic community has uniformly dismissed Chua's recent work with much eye rolling, even as Chua and Rubenfeld are laughing all the way to the bank. To be fair, Triple Package is a trade book for a trade press, written in a lively style accessible to Chua's earlier readers. Still, the authors push their academic bona fides on the talk-show circuit, and conservatives are touting the book as scholarly proof that culture explains persistent racial gaps in achievement. For those reasons, it's important to give the book's argument the scrutiny that Chua and Rubenfeld have invited.
Here is the book's thesis: Some groups (Cubans, Nigerians, Mormons, Jews, some Asian groups, south Asian Indians, and Iranians) have experienced upward mobility in the U.S. at higher rates because they possess three cultural qualities: impulse control, feelings of superiority, and feelings of inferiority. By impulse control, they mean the ability to resist temptation (to quit, for example); superiority and inferiority appear to be a simultaneous belief in your group's specialness (e.g., God's chosen people) and deep-seated anxiety about inadequacy, the kind that a Chinese mother might instill in her daughter by calling her garbage.
These cultural traits are the ticket to success. Being Latino is no impediment, Chua and Rubenfeld argue, since Cubans can make it. Nor is being black, if Nigerians can do well (though the authors disclaim these comparisons on talk shows). The Triple Package is available to everyone.
The problem with the thesis is that in setting out their claim, the authors ignore the more obvious explanation for differences in group success: history. To be specific, in their quest to make it all about culture, the authors either ignore or strongly discount the particular circumstances of a group's first arrival, and the advantages enjoyed by that first wave.
It turns out that a group's immigration history explains differences in achievement much better than does the Triple Package theory. For many groups, like Cubans and Mormons, the early wave was a select group endowed with some significant material or nonmaterial resources - wealth, education, or maybe a government resettlement package. For other groups, like Nigerians and south Asian Indians, student and employment-based visas have helped to select a rarefied cross section of people with English skills and educations, making it difficult to now conclude much about the larger groups' cultural traits. The degree of selectiveness that immigration law imposes has varied highly from group to group.
The Triple Package's minimizing of history is a bit curious, given that many of the authors' own sources favor this explanation. Here are some of the early-wave stories that the authors could have told but didn't:
It's not just that Mormons have developed a 'pioneer spirit' or that they believe that they can receive divine revelations, as Triple Package would have us believe. It's more that the first Mormons started with enough money to buy a great deal of land in Missouri and Illinois. They then migrated to Utah, where Brigham Young and his followers essentially stole land from the Shoshone and Ute tribes, refusing to pay what the tribes demanded, and petitioning for the government to remove them. Beyond thousands of acres of free land, early political control over Utah was helpful.
It isn't just that Chinese-Americans have developed a 'how dare they look down on me' mentality and an iron will to succeed. It's more that the second wave of Chinese immigrants - those who have formed the foundation of current Chinese communities - were professionals (nurses, doctors, and engineers) who brought wealth and education with them. (Most of the first-wave Chinese, who were poor railroad workers and miners, died or were sent back.)
The very first wave of Cubans - exclusively white and wealthy or upper middle-class - came in anticipation of Castro's revolution. This pre-revolutionary wave didn't suffer 'the humiliating sting of becoming menial workers,' as Chua and Rubenfeld suggest; they came bringing their art collections, financial investments, and elite connections with them. For later first-wavers, a $957 million dollar U.S. government refugee program (loans for small businesses, for example) didn't hurt, though the authors fail to mention this.
Why do south Asian Indians earn higher wages? As Triple Package acknowledges, immigration law has done a great deal of prescreening for a very select cross section of south Asian Indians. A majority of them come on employment-based visas, with higher educations and English skills, to work in high-tech jobs in California, New York, and Chicago. The Indian median incomes come from this group and not the poorer subsequent waves that the Triple Package profiles.
Likewise, it's not that Nigerians feel they are capable of anything. More to the point, the vast majority of Nigerians in the U.S. do well in higher education because they are non-immigrants who have come on foreign student visas expressly to enroll in U.S. schools. Nigerians get advanced degrees in no small part because they need to stay in school to retain their visa.
First-wave advantage is significant. As I have argued elsewhere, wealth and education for early waves generate significant advantage for group members and their children. Social networks among the elite and well educated help to distribute social assistance, job referrals, financial opportunities, information, and other kinds of goodies not available to people outside the group.
What about the later-coming waves, who came with far less wealth? If the magical Triple Package of traits is the explanation, then the later waves should look very much like the first waves at the same stage of development. But if the story is really about wealth and history, then we should see different trajectories for the later waves. Which of course is precisely what we see. Again, a few stories illustrate the point:
A third wave of poor undocumented Chinese immigrants has come to the U.S. since the 1980s, and this wave has not folded into existing communities. This group's trajectory looks nothing like the earlier waves, nor are they getting into selective schools like Stuyvesant High.
The third wave of Cubans, the Marielitos who were disproportionately poor and black, assimilated into Cuban communities but remained on the fringes, earning far less, in part because white Cubans excluded them.
The most recent (newly converted) Mormons hail from Africa and Latin America, and many of them have migrated to the U.S. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has also begun outreach to U.S.-born blacks (African-Americans have only been allowed in the Mormon church priesthood since 1978). Black Mormon trajectories look nothing like the white Mormons at the center of The Triple Package's argument.
Acknowledging these differences, Chua and Rubenfeld still hold fast to culture but are forced now to slice and dice the argument, to claim that cultural subdivisions within categories can have dramatic effects on group success. The argument starts to unravel, becoming less an argument about group culture and more a claim about cherry-picked sub-subgroups (a restricted range of south Asians; Cubans, but not the black ones; Mormons, but not the black or brown ones) or even individuals at the right time period with the right traits.
What about Mexicans and U.S.-born black descendants of slaves? Which story better explains their trajectory? Compare the wealth of native black and Mexican first waves to that of, say, the elite first-wave Cubans and the preselected subgroup of Nigerians. Not to put too fine a point on it, but Mexicans had no real first wave; they were here before the Anglos, and their land was stolen by the U.S. None of the Mexican waves has been elite or prosperous, nor for that matter, benefited from a government resettlement package. And the early waves of African-Americans came not on student diversity visas but as slaves, chattel property earning nothing.
What might the U.S.-born African-American metrics have looked like if former slaves had actually been given their 40 acres and a mule? Census Bureau economist Kirk White estimates that a very large fraction of current wealth differences between blacks and whites can be traced to differences between blacks and whites at emancipation.
Serious sociologists like Harvard's William Julius Wilson and Yale's Elijah Anderson believe that culture plays a role in economic success, but that history, economic forces, and first-wave wealth explain far more than culture. Put differently, history and structure drive the bus, and culture might be a passenger along for the ride. But the cultural arguments in the book aren't serious, more entertaining anecdote and 'status anxiety as social theory' than well-supported science.
Of course The Triple Package isn't really serious scholarship, notwithstanding the authors' impressive credentials. As yet another intentionally provocative story for a trade press playing to the crowd, the Triple Package narrative works well. But as a rigorous substantive claim about persistent inequality among racial, ethnic, and religious groups, The Triple Package's argument doesn't begin to make the grade.
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