The Tiger Mom is back. And this time Amy Chua’s brought along her husband, Jed Rubenfeld, a Yale Law professor like her, for backup. Their brand new book “The Triple Package: How Three Unlikely Traits Explain the Rise and Fall of Cultural Groups in America” (Penguin Press) has been billed as their attempt at social theorizing about economic disparity in the country.
Critics have widely described it as a pop sociology book in the vein of Malcolm Gladwell, fused with some self-helpy optimism. And it indeed fits those descriptions. As I read it I kept wondering where the companion workbook with mental conditioning exercises was—a missed business opportunity for the Chua-Rubenfelds, to be sure.
Here’s the shorthand of what Chua and Rubenfeld cooked up: some groups in the U.S. are posting outsized economic and educational success because they’ve figured out America better than Americans. Hyper-successful groups owe their achievements to the Triple Package: an ethnocentric belief in their own superiority, a simultaneous inferiority complex, and a dogged commitment to the value of delayed gratification.
The book is more or less bunk social science. The Triple Package is premised squarely on a logical fallacy: if some successful groups have common cultural traits those traits must be the reason for those groups’ success. According to Chua and Rubenfeld, groups which don’t have the Triple Package either don’t care about living in a capitalist society (the Amish) or they’ve had it “ground” out of them by poverty and racism (African-Americans). Still, the skills are transferrable, and success is therefore a matter of how you orient yourself in the world. It’s an intriguing line of thought, but the argument only holds in an imagined world where culture, institutions and social structures move independently and have little bearing on each other and people’s ability to succeed, or even survive, in life. It’s as if Chua and Rubenfeld worked backwards from their conclusions by cherry-picking some successful groups and then honing in on cultural traits which suited their argument.
Chua and Rubenfeld anointed eight ethnic and religious communities in the U.S. Triple Package Groups: Mormons, Jews, and those of Chinese, Indian, Cuban, Nigerian, Lebanese and Iranian descent. These groups were chosen because they produce exceptional outcomes (ie. first-generation Nigerians as compared with other black Americans) or based on median household income measures. Sure, they acknowledge in their endnotes: “No authoritative metric and no conclusive ranking exists for disproportionate group economic success in America.” But who reads endnotes? Chua and Rubenfeld disqualify Koreans because despite popular stereotypes of Koreans as obsessed with classical music lessons and filial piety as Chinese folks, Koreans have high levels of poverty and a median household income of roughly $51,000, “barely distinguishable from that of the U.S. population as a whole.” (I’m still not sure whether people should be relieved or insulted if Chua and Rubenfeld overlooked them.)
“The Triple Package” actually makes more sense if approached as a book-length rebuttal to the world for the public lashing Chua took when she released her parenting memoir “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother” in 2011. Three years on, it’s clear that Chua’s still nursing the wounds she picked up amidst the torrent of criticism directed at her and “Battle Hymn,” much of it from the Asian-American community whose parenting playbook she claimed to be working from. Chua was misunderstood, she now says. She hardly meant for her ideas to be taken seriously, and she reminds people she had nothing to do with the awful Wall Street Journal op-ed headline which launched her Tiger Mom career. “That was irony,” she said of the extreme parenting tricks she detailed in her book, like burning her kids’ stuffed animals. “That was irony!”
The hardcover version of “Battle Hymn” spent more than two months on the New York Times best-seller list and Chua was subsequently named one of Time magazine’s 100 most influential people in the world. Based on her own Triple Package definition of success, her daughters’ admission to Harvard and Yale seems like true vindication. Not so, apparently. Her fame is still based on notoriety. “I don’t want to be controversial,” she told the New York Times. “I just want to be liked.” It would also help if she were right.
Why not turn a parenting philosophy shared by some people in some cultural groups into a theory of success? The Triple Package is “Battle Hymn” backed with carefully arranged intellectual heft. A response to all the naysayers—with citations. “Every one of the premises underlying the theory of the Triple Package is supported by a well-substantiated and relatively uncontroversial body of empirical evidence,” Chua and Rubenfeld write at the outset of their book.
Chua has learned a few lessons from her “Battle Hymn” days. Chua and Rubenfeld anticipated their critics and crafted a theory pliable enough to accommodate any kind of exception and counter-argument. They smartly deploy case studies of classic outliers like Cuban-Americans and first-generation Nigerians as a bulwark against charges of racism. The message is that economic success is a matter of pushing past petty barriers like poverty, and discrimination. More damaging is the implication that racial inequity is only a problem for people who choose to be held back by it. Still, Chua and Rubenfeld insist they don’t think any one culture is innately more hardworking than another because, “That’s one step away from saying that successful groups are successful because they do what it takes to be successful—and two steps away from saying that unsuccessful groups are unsuccessful because they come from ‘indolent cultures’ and don’t do what it takes to be successful.” Chua and Rubenfeld preempt their critics by pointing out that they know exactly where the line is. And then unwittingly or otherwise, they repeatedly cross it.
With their book, Chua and Rubenfeld join a long line of social scientists who’ve attempted to make sense of persistent inequity by turning to cultural explanations. Others have been drawn to the bottom: Daniel Moynihan, who authored the 1965 federal report “The Negro Problem” while he was the Secretary of Labor, identified the black nuclear family as the root of U.S. racial disparities. In 1961 Oscar Lewis coined the term “culture of poverty” and identified a set of distinct cultural deficiencies that he believed poor people everywhere held.
“Since its inception, American social science has been closely bound with the American Negro,” Ralph Ellison wrote—in 1944. The same is true today. Chua and Rubenfeld might have done the inverse, choosing instead to examine the highest stratums of society, but their work is implicitly directed at all those who’ve never managed to throw off the yoke of racism and inequity and discrimination that, see, these other Triple Package groups did. For authors as aware of the pitfalls of this kind of social science research as Chua and Rubenfeld are, they all too frequently blunder right into them.
Chua and Rubenfeld blame the 2008 economic collapse on the country’s forgetting its Triple Package roots. America has abandoned “norms of restraints and responsibility, discipline and investment,” and consumers’ lust for immediate gratification is what led to the housing crisis. A familiar refrain, to be sure. That the crisis was disproportionately shouldered by black and Latino families in the country, who were in fact targeted by bankers with subprime mortgages, seems to be beyond the scope of Chua and Rubenfeld’s theory.
Culture is not nothing. I recognized in Chua and Rubenfeld’s writing echoes of lessons that I, the daughter of Chinese-American professionals, internalized growing up. My mother would often tell me that perseverance and the promise of future payoff is what got her through medical school. Just because this is true, doesn’t mean it’s the whole story. The rest of it involves the interplay of cultural, institutional and structural factors: a mix of immigration policy, social and human capital (“useful but bland terms,” in Chua and Rubenfeld’s eyes), and the social protection that comes from not being labeled black by a virulently anti-black society.
Ultimately, “The Triple Package” is a reformulation of tired tropes and long-ago-debunked theories for a 21st century audience sore from a never-ending recession and in the throes of existential crisis set off by the rise of India and China. Their worldview, simplistic as it is, speaks directly to the anxiety over the lack of any control so many people have over their economic survival anymore. Wouldn’t it be something if a simple and contradictory three-step formula alone could lead to economic success?
One can only wonder what the follow-up to this book will be. We’ll see when Chua reads the reviews.