In a land as tortured about class, religious, and ethnic differences as the United States, any conversation about why some groups tend to thrive and others do not is going to be a heated one. So such an examination, if it is to be useful, should be conducted in a careful, rigorous way.
It’s unfortunate that Amy Chua and her husband Jed Rubenfeld, both Yale law professors, fall far short of this in their new book, “The Triple Package: How Three Unlikely Traits Explain the Rise and Fall of Cultural Groups in America.”
Chua, of course, inspired a fevered nationwide conversation with her 2011 book “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother,” her personal account of her attempt to shun Western parenting, with its emphasis on respecting and nurturing children’s individuality, in favor of what she views as the Chinese method, focusing on fostering an unrelenting drive toward achievement through unyielding work habits.
Here the pair argues that the most successful groups in America share three attributes: a belief in their inherent superiority, a driving sense of insecurity, and impulse control. Chua and Rubenfeld cite many groups that fit the bill, but focus their gaze largely on Jews, Mormons, and Chinese. They also devote some time to recount the downsides of “Triple Package’’ values — for example, the intense pressure “tiger moms” like Chua put on their kids to, say, practice violin for hours and never get anything less than an A+.
The problem with the “The Triple Package” is that its fundamental argument is half-baked. The question of how cultural, societal, economic, and historical factors interact, and how this interaction gives rise to problems like inequality, is one of the trickiest in the social sciences, and Chua and Rubenfeld fail to give it its intellectual due. For a theory like theirs to be useful, it would have to do a better job of accounting for various socioeconomic realities than the reams of preexisting research, and it simply does not.
The authors claim otherwise, though. For example, Chua and Rubenfeld argue that only the “Triple Package’’ can account for why Mormons have become one of the healthiest, wealthiest religious groups in the country, since “Mormon success in America . . . defies all the leading explanations of group economic performance.” One of the alternative explanations they mention is geographic — “it’s hard to think what a geographical explanation of Mormon success would even look like.”
But is it? Early in their history, the Mormons were chased by an intolerant nation out to the hinterlands of Salt Lake City. So today, Mormonism has as its epicenter a part of the country where there’s plenty of cheap land available and, as a result, building costs are low. For a faith that values big families and capitalist striving, surely this is one advantage that made it easier for the group’s members to amass wealth, education, and prestige.
Chua and Rubenfeld’s flippant language suggests they didn’t bother really considering this — they wave off the possibility as if it isn’t even worth a Google search. This kind of shoot-from-the-hip style bespeaks a sloppiness and looseness of thought that persists throughout.
Flawed though it may be, however, “The Triple Package” is not, as some online murmurings would have it, racist. Every step of the way, Chua and Rubenfeld go out of their way to argue that disenfranchised groups such as African-Americans face challenges because of longstanding racial oppression — not as a result of lacking certain cultural characteristics.
Moreover, the authors state, rightly, that in a country where many poor and minority people are just one slip-up away from falling through the social safety net, it’s perfectly rational for members of these groups not to think they can climb the ladder simply by adopting another culture’s mores.
So while Chua and Rubenfeld do identify certain groups as lacking “Triple Package’’ characteristics — which some people will certainly find offensive — they don’t impugn the groups themselves. Rather, they frame this absence in light of historical oppression.
It’s also worth pointing out that “The Triple Package” isn’t without its charms. Chua and Rubenfeld’s recountings of how various ethnic groups carved out chunks of the American dream are engaging and concise. If the book had been structured to focus on this topic, rather than on an underdeveloped notion that feels intentionally provocative, it would have been a lot better.Jesse Singal is a regular contributor to the Globe. He can be reached at jesse.r.singal@ gmail.com, or on Twitter at @jessesingal.