The Flaw at the Heart of The Triple Package

Why Amy Chua and Jed Rubenfeld’s argument about success and ethnic groups doesn’t hold water.

Authors Amy Chua and Jed Rubenfeld

Courtesy of Fadil Berisha, Gianluca Battista

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.

  • 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:

  • 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.

 Plus there’s that pesky issue of race.

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.

The Triple Package: How Three Unlikely Traits Explain the Rise and Fall of Cultural Groups in America by Amy Chua and Jed Rubenfeld. The Penguin Press.