The Triple Package by Amy Chua and Jed Rubenfeld

Another controversial book that turns out to be full of bad reasoning.

The central thesis is that certain minority groups do well financially in America, and the reason they do is because of a trio of cultural attitudes: a feeling of group superiority, coupled with a sense of individual insecurity, mixed with strict impulse control. These traits help them succeed because America’s dominant culture is one of instant gratification and personal self-esteem.

The implication is that these minority groups are hard-working go-getters, while the rest of us are lazy coke-heads waiting for our next welfare check.

Unfortunately, the authors have no evidence for either the Triple Package in their minority cultures, or for the dominant lazy culture they insist the rest of America has. They do have hard numbers that certain minority groups, after immigrating to the US, have higher median incomes than the rest of the country. But that’s it. All their cultural evidence is anecdotal, the sole exception being a survey that showed Asian Americans tend to spend more time studying than others.

They use this anecdotal evidence to sweep away the numerous studies that show a slowdown in American social mobility (the rich are staying rich while the poor are having a harder time climbing up into the middle class) and a decline in the share of national income going to lower income tiers (the vanishing of the middle class). There are children of poor immigrants that end up running multi-national corporations, they say, so surely we could all do the same if we just adopted the Triple Package? That these children are the exception, and not the rule, doesn’t seem to bother them.

Perhaps, if pressed, the authors would blame the recent hardening of class boundaries on the success of the self-esteem movement. After all, they lay numerous other social ills at its feet, including the Great Recession of 2008, the increase of US public debt, and the decline of American “soft power” in the early 21st century. Never mind that all of the above were created by leaders raised long before the self-esteem movement took hold, nor that these leaders often came from the very minority groups the authors want to praise.

Refreshingly, the authors acknowledge that the traits they want the rest of America to adopt often lead to psychological problems. A sense that your ethnic group is superior is the basis for every form of racism. A sense that you can never be good enough drains all the happiness you might feel from your accomplishments. And extreme impulse control can drive you to never relax, never take time to enjoy the fruits of your labor.

After acknowledging these problems, though, the authors sweep them under the rug. To them, such psychological problems are simply the price of success. If you’re not willing to pay it, it’s because you don’t want to be successful enough.

The idea that you can be successful without these traits never occurs to the authors.

I was raised to value education and hard work, too, but without the punishing complexes the authors praise. That seems to be the real lesson of their research: that investing in education, coupled with ambition (to set lofty long-term goals) and patience (the ability to perservere in the achievement of those goals) can still be a formula for success in America. Unfortunately, that would have made the book much less controversial, so they had to focus on the cultural elements they see producing those traits.

In truth, there’s no need for the psychological complexes the authors think so highly of. Confidence can naturally come from accomplishment, and parents that are consistent with rewards and punishments can help instill discipline in their children. With those two traits, and a lot of luck, you can push through the obstacles between yourself and your goals. No chip on the shoulder, no crippling sense of insecurity required.

I did learn one thing, though: they recently did a follow-up study to the famous Marshmallow Test that showed that children who were primed to distrust the adult were less likely to wait for the second marshmallow.

Ron Toland @mindbat