Viscerally Annoying, Cerebrally Dissatisfying – my reaction to “The Triple Package,” part II

The authors of “The Triple Package” have been on the talk circuit, as part of the heavy marketing and promotional strategy for their book.  As a result, there is no shortage of reviews and critiques from the main street media.  Most of the sentiment from the “pundits” ranges from mixed to unfavorable; a good portion of “regular” readers think the authors are “brave” to say the unsay-able and resonate with their thesis.  A few critics downright accuse Chua and Rubenfeld of racism.

To recap:  “Triple package” refers to the three key factors that propel certain minority groups to be more successful than the rest in their host country.  These factors include: superiority, insecurity, and impulse control.

My triple package of flowers: Calla lily.

My triple package of flowers: Calla lily.

After absorbing a wide range of readers’ and critics’ perspectives, I still feel torn about this book.  I welcome “bold” opinions, or studies that provide counter-conventional ideas.  However, these ideas still need to be based on facts and evidence.  This is what I find most troublesome regarding “The Triple Package” (henceforth referred to as “3 pkg”).  As I mentioned in the previous post, the authors provide plenty of economic data, but all statistical data are subject to interpretation.  It wasn’t until I ran across the most convincing critique, penned by a law professor at USC and published in Slate.com, that I found my anchor.  Daria Roithmayr not only provides a more balanced analysis but also offers alternative and grounded explanations to Chua and Rubenfeld’s arguments.  Roithmayr’s essay helps me solidify the various conflicting emotions and thoughts swirling in my head after reading “3 pkg.”

First of all, I never remarked that “3 pkg” is a “trade book for trade press” till reading Roithmayr’s article.  In other words, “3 pkg” intended audience is the general public.  I don’t quarrel with that, but this particular book lacks rigor in presentation, especially in terms of theoretical foundation and methodology, the 80+ pages of footnotes not withstanding.  Granted that most readers would just bypass the boring academic jargon – who can blame them? — the authors could have easily provided academic rigor in appendices for those of us who are curious.

2nd element: hibiscus

2nd element: hibiscus

Several critics have also noticed the weakness of methodology.  Most of the critiques, though, tend to use anecdotal stories to refute Chua and Rubenfeld’s thesis.  All of the critics’ stories have valid points, and perhaps Chua and Rubenfeld should have paid more attention to similar exceptions.  Nevertheless, anecdotal evidence is as weak as what “3 pkg” has to offer.

According to Daria Roithmayr, the major, and glaring, flaw of “3 pkg” thesis is its dismissal of the role of history.  Most of the “successful” immigrant and minority groups have “first wave” advantage.  For instance, the first wave of Cuban exiles were from the educated elite class. The first wave of Mormons acquired land (through their wealth) and political power to establish a stronghold in Utah. While the early Chinese immigrants were of laborer status, most of the next wave came to pursue higher education.  The point is that these “waves” are usually bounded by certain characteristics.  Most of the south Asian Indians came to this country, either to pursue advanced degrees or for professional work.  As has been pointed out, if the Mexican government had forced out most of their educated class, the Mexican immigrants in this country might have a very different status.

In other words, if “3 pkg” accurately describes causal factors determining the success of the chosen successful immigrant groups, it should apply to them regardless of the time they came to the States.  History, or context, matters.

Further, there is another important factor, networking, that underlies much of the immigrants’ push for advancement.  Immigrants’ networks provide valuable information, opportunities, loans that might not have otherwise been available, and other large and small assistance and resources.  The authors address this aspect only in passing.

In addition to some of these major glaring holes in the “3 pkg,” the authors often cherry pick examples to support their overall arguments.  They are savvy enough to provide some counter arguments to their claim; they even devote a whole chapter to “the underbelly of the triple package.”  For instance, a group that latches onto its “superiority” too strongly invites backlash.  The perpetual emphasis on material gain, which is based on insecurity, leads to greed.  They use Bernie Madoff as an example.  Really?  That would apply to all the Wall Street sharks, wouldn’t it? Yet, did these “greedy” people all start with “3 pkg?”

In the end, the most troublesome aspects of “3 pkgs” are two fold: one concerning the content and the other the authors.  The content strongly implies causality; that it is because of the “3 pkg” that certain minority groups have succeeded.  One of the thorniest aspects in social science is the issue of causality; it is rare when scholars ascertain causality, certainly not without numerous studies and over a long period of time.  So, for these two authors to make such a claim – without even a strong methodology — reveals their lack of humility.

3rd: interesting even if I forgot its name.

3rd: interesting even if I forgot its name.

Having said all this, I think our society can and should have open and honest discussions about whether the United States is still a leader in creativity, innovation, and economic growth.  We need to critically examine our systems, in education, social mobility, career opportunities, R&D, etc.  If we keep screaming that “we are exceptional,” without doing anything to prove or bolster that statement, then we are doomed to be delusional.  Angela Duckworth (a psychologist and a 2013MacArther Fellow), who researches and coins the term, “grit” – resilience, determination, persistence — shows a promising direction.  Duckworth’s work is what we need to move our conversations forward.  While Chua and Rubenfeld’s work maybe stirring, and is certainly provocative, it is not, however, generative nor contributory.  Best-selling books are not necessarily great works; just as often, profound, thoughtful and well-researched books aren’t usually the best sellers.

Till next time,

Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

Direct Contact:  taso100@gmail.com

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