Historical inaccuracy aside, the ads for a variety of butter you could see in London few months ago was truly great – it stressed a point deeply at variance with the liberal consensus. Of course ‘building empires’ is not exactly on the agenda of the democratic & liberal discourse: but that may still be the best way to introduce (and quickly review) an interesting book that has come out recently – to a host of acrimonious denunciations. Let us see what and why.
In ‘The Triple Package’1, tiger mom Amy Chua and her husband Jed Rubenfeld– both law professors at Yale – argue that the success of all (census) groups that outperform the median American in terms of income is predicated on three traits that crucially run counter to today’s liberal thinking:
1. (personal) insecurity
2. superiority complex
3. impulse control
As regards 1) – insecurity means nurturing a deep-seated sense of unease towards his/her own personal achievements. The authors are fond of the intuitions of a subtle French observer: “American suffered, said Tocqueville, from a ‘secret restlessness'” (pg. 85).
As regards 2) – superiority complex, our culture, observe the authors, cannot even make passing reference to such obvious facts as that Jewish people (with 0.2% of world population) have amassed ca. 20% of all Nobel Laureates to this day, or that ‘Asians are now so overrepresented at Ivy League schools that they’re being called the ‘new Jews'” (pg. 7). That is not to say that they are superior indeed, but that they entertain a deep sense of superiority compared to other groups.
As regards 3) – impulse control (famously captured by the Stanford marshmallow test), its force lies in the fact that ‘Drive predicts accomplishment better than IQ’ (pg. 195).
The conclusion from all this is quite stark: the whole liberal educational project appears then vastly overrated and (judging from the authors’ findings) clearly underperforming in the type of results it delivers.
What can we make of those suggestions? Discarding them as tautological – surely immigrants coming into US from the top percentile of the original societies, where cultural, social and economic capitals reinforced each other, would outperform most other people – does not appear intellectually honest. Surely the sample is biased, but cultural traits like those analyzed in the book seem to be sensible regressors on personal achievements. That begs of course the question: based on which metric? ‘Triple package cultures tend to channel people into conventional, materialistic careers’ (pg. 159). In any event, pace Baruch Spinoza, who maintained that that certain social traits like greed or ambition can be irrational passions and not display of active -ie rational -behaviour 2, those traits engender drive which translates into lust for the new & uncharted which propels our society forward.
On a more fundamental level, the book is a very intelligent variation on Max Weber’s ‘The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism‘ (indeed, the authors refer to it towards the end). ‘Christianity eccelled at teaching the poor to seek security in faith, love and salvation, not in wordly possessions. A theological revolution was required to bring the Triple Package into Christianity, and […] precisely such a revolution took place at the time of Reformation’ (pg. 185). This is quite a novel reading of Weber’s central thesis – interpreted as one of the first accounts of disproportionate group success. ‘Protestants success in America was a version of Triple Package success. The reason the Puritans toiled and saved (impulse control) was that they simultaneously believed they were special (superiority) and literally had something to prove (insecurity) at every moment of their lives’ (pg. 185). Schuld is famously the same word – in Luther’s German – for debt and sin.
The choice of a metric by which to orient each one’s existence is surprisingly difficult:
the fact that our newly polytheistic world assigns such a huge premium to conventional, material targets & careers confirms on the one hand the authors’ central thesis – ranks do exist, judgements and comparison between individuals make sense – but betrays on the other hand a fundamental nervous breakdown: that of a half backed theory of modernity – whereby the liberation from old burdens has not accrued into a renewed -more powerful – vision of man. But here Chua & Rubenfeld’s book is out of its depth and so we leave this suggestion for more extensive discussion on another post.
The conclusion, in any case, is very powerfuls and refreshing. We ought to thank the authors for their message of hope and generosity:
‘Triple Package driveness by definition makes it difficult to live a non-driven life. A simple, decent existence, – with no scrambling to climb any ladder, without caring whether anyone thinks you’re successfull enough – may be the most admirable life of all. But it is rarely available to people afflicted with the Triple Package’ (pg. 166). But finally: ‘this cultural edge has its own price, exacting its own psychological toll, but it may be one of the most liberating and creatively productive places a person can inhabit’ (pg. 164).
Thanks again for your splendid book – tiger mom.