January 09, 2014


The Triple Package: How Three Unlikely Traits Explain the Rise and Fall of Cultural Groups in America. By Amy Chua and Jed Rubenfeld. Penguin. $27.95.

     Well-written, strongly argued and patently designed to be as provocative as possible, this 320-page book – nearly one-third of it comprising notes and the index, as if defying readers to disbelieve any of its assertions – throws a new spanner into the works of ongoing American “culture wars.” The wife-and-husband Yale Law School team of Amy Chua and Jed Rubenfeld sheds considerable light, and not a small amount of heat, on an issue best encapsulated as “equality of opportunity vs. equality of outcome” – an issue that, so formulated, is of crucial sociopolitical importance in the United States.

     Essentially, one side of the argument says that the United States should be a culture in which everyone has an equal chance to succeed in whatever way he or she chooses to define success – and that if some sort of societal barrier can be shown to interfere with this chance, it is society’s responsibility to remove that barrier so certain people are not hobbled by an unfair “opportunity disadvantage.” The other side says that societal barriers are so widespread and significant that simply removing them is not enough – that people suffering from them must be given an “opportunity advantage” equal to the disadvantage imposed on them by society, and thus must be raised to a level that they simply cannot attain on their own because of the depth of their disadvantage.

     This formulation plays out in nearly every sphere of everyday life, and its nuances can be extraordinarily complex. Should African-American children receive additional tutoring before taking standardized tests that are crucial for college admissions – “equality of opportunity” if one accepts that idea that the effects of slavery demonstrably affect them 150 years after slavery’s abolition, even if neither they nor anyone in their families was ever enslaved? Should they be admitted to colleges with lower test scores than other ethnic groups achieve – “equality of outcome” based on the same analysis? Should the tests be rewritten to eliminate possible cultural or social bias that could make it harder for them to achieve high scores – “equality of opportunity”? Or should the tests be dropped by colleges altogether so there is no hint of possible disadvantage imposed on any group – “equality of outcome”?

     There are no right or wrong answers to these questions – only opinions, albeit ones with far-reaching consequences. And in The Triple Package, Chua and Rubenfeld make arguments and offer opinions that may render the opportunity/outcome dialectic largely obsolete in its current form. Taking undoubted statistical outcomes as their basis, the authors argue that three specific characteristics explain the extraordinary success of certain racial or religious groups relative to others and to the United States as a whole. One of the three elements they cite is no surprise, but the other two are sure to be more controversial.

     The unsurprising finding relates to self-control, the ability to defer gratification. “America is the great wrecker of impulse control. …It’s hardly news that modern America today is not big on strictness in childhood or impulse control in general, at least as compared to traditional societies. …American culture today celebrates a powerful live-in-the-moment message. The not-so-secret truth, however, is that successful people typically don’t live that way. On the contrary, the successful are often the ones profiting from the people who do live that way. …Success in America today comes more often to groups who resist today’s dominant American culture.” This point is arguable, but only half-heartedly, since the preponderance of evidence, whether cited by Chua and Rubenfeld or not, seems clearly to support it – at least as long as one deliberately excludes certain forms of success, for example in the entertainment field (pop music, movies and so forth).

     The other two elements of The Triple Package are more disputable and more intriguing. One is a group’s belief that it is superior in basic ways to other groups and to American society as a whole – Jews as the “chosen people,” Mormons’ belief that “they can and do receive direct divine communications and revelations,” Indian Americans’ “belief in their ‘distinctive and superior family/ethnic culture,’” etc. The fascinating thing is the way Chua and Rubenfeld find this second element of the “package” intertwined with the third: along with feeling superior, members of successful groups “tend to feel insecure, inadequate, that they have to prove themselves.” That is, two-thirds of The Triple Package consists of the belief that “we are better and know it, and have to prove it to the others out there.” That is not a quotation from the book but a summation of part of its argument. And certainly the authors understand that the need to assert and prove one’s superiority is not an unalloyed blessing: “In case it’s not obvious, there’s nothing intrinsically empowering about being the object of discrimination and prejudice. For anyone, including members of groups with a superiority complex, the accumulated weight of having the ‘wrong’ skin color or facial features, the relentless tide of stereotypes and media caricatures, can eventually be too much, crushing the spirit.” But in some marginal or marginalized groups, this is not what happens: group members, to a disproportionate degree, absorb stereotypes and negative portrayals, meld them with an underlying conviction of superiority, and as a result succeed, measurably, to a greater degree than do other groups and American society as a whole.

     This is a fascinating argument and sure to be a highly controversial one, as the authors quite obviously intend. It has the distinct advantage of being in large part backed by statistical findings regarding large numbers of people: Cubans who fled Fidel Castro’s regime with virtually nothing but the clothes on their backs and settled in Miami demonstrably rose to prosperity remarkably quickly, within a single generation; Nigerians statistically earn doctorates in the United States at exceptionally high rates; and so on. But The Triple Package has the distinct disadvantage of being unable to show how and why the statistical trends emerge – that is, why the three elements cited by Chua and Rubenfeld operate on a macro level but have no predictive value on a micro level. If all members of a particular racial or ethnic group share the three cited “upward mobility” characteristics, what is it that leads some group members to turn those elements to their advantage while others fail to do so? For example, Chua and Rosenfeld cite the case of Lebanese-American Joseph L. Jacobs, who became a top executive of Mobil Oil and then head of Montgomery Ward – a tremendous success that, amusingly, disappointed his mother, who wanted him to buy his “own store.” But in telling the story, the authors mention, entirely in passing, that the success pressure that helped Jacobs excel did not motivate everyone in his family: “his eldest brother rebelled.” Why? In what way? What personality differences lead the same “triple package” to affect Person A in one way and Person B entirely differently? These are questions that Chua and Rosenfeld consistently sidestep, with the result that their book is less persuasive than it could be if they had good answers to them.

     It is certainly interesting, though, particularly when the authors assert that the United States, taken as a whole, was a “triple package” country for some time but has been losing that distinction for quite a while. If this is true, does it portend “doom” of some sort for American society as a whole, or “merely” for ingenuity and creativity within the United States – or neither of the above? Readers should not look for answers to such complex questions here. They can, though, look for – and find – plenty of fodder for cocktail-party conversation and maybe, just maybe, some new insights that help elucidate the complexities underlying the ongoing argument about equality of opportunity vs. equality of outcome.

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