Editor’s note: J.D. Vance, a National Review contributor currently working on a book about the social mobility of the white working class, offers thoughts on The Triple Package, the controversial new book by the legal scholars Amy Chua and Jed Rubenfeld, the former of whom is best known for her comparative work on the intersection of ethnicity and economic inequality in emerging democracies and, most recently, her tongue-in-cheek paean to aggressive parenting, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. You can find J.D. on Twitter at twitter.com/jdvance1.
If you pay any attention to the national debate about inequality, poverty, and upward mobility, you might have noticed something odd: it rarely focuses on the actual people who are impoverished or lacking upward mobility. If you’re a conservative, you might read Charles Murray’s Losing Ground, and learn that government incentives created an entirely rational dependency among the poor—a dependency that saps their work ethic and consigns them to the bottom rungs of the social ladder. If you’re a liberal, you might instead read Paul Krugman, who will tell you about the host of structural forces arrayed against the working poor—the plutocrats rigged the economy, and so on. But these conversations all share a common theme: the poor are objects, not subjects; they aren’t doing things, they are having things done to them. They are cogs in a wheel, victims of either bad incentives or insufficient public spending, but victims nonetheless.
Tomorrow, Amy Chua and Jed Rubenfeld will blow a hole in that narrative with their controversial new book, The Triple Package. (Full disclosure: I studied under both in law school and remain close with them.) Their book is a sometimes funny, sometimes academic, and always interesting study of the cultural traits that make some groups outperform others in America. In it, they argue that three qualities—a superiority complex, cultural insecurity, and impulse control—combine to explain much of the performance variation in our country. The superiority complex gives people confidence, the insecurity gives people a chip on their shoulder, and the impulse control gives people the grit necessary to overcome the inevitable obstacles. In isolation, each of these traits might prove counterproductive to material success—the Amish have tons of impulse control, for instance, but little of the other traits.
There are stock (and fair) criticisms to levy against the book. The authors, as they freely admit, are defining success very narrowly—they’re not talking about Aristotelian happiness but achievement that can be measured in dollars and cents. Their theory that the equality language of the Civil Rights struggle deprives African Americans of cultural superiority is compelling, but I’m not sure it’s persuasive.
Nonetheless, the book asks a very important question: why are some of us doing so much better (or worse) than others? Predictably, much of the commentariat sprung into faux outrage over the apparently shocking thesis that some cultural groups outperform others. An early review in the New York Post called the authors racial supremacists. A recent tract by Suketu Mehta in Time criticized the book’s invocation of cultural traits, wary that any mention of culture collapses invariably into talk about inborn superiority.
The odd thing about the book is that it provides mountains of data refuting the idea of innate group superiority. Some of the uglier arguments about the African-American achievement gap suggest that black people are just inherently stupid, their lower IQs the consequence not of some environmental factor (or factors), but of genetics. But Chua and Rubenfeld reject this idea out of hand: if black people are just dumber, then why does the average Nigerian American obtain more education and earn more money that the average white person? The racial supremacist can’t provide a good answer.
Other ideologues can’t provide a good answer, either. If crumbling schools and a rigged economic system are to blame for the poor’s travails, then it makes little sense that the Asian poor outperform the white poor. Yet they do, in areas ranging educational attainment to earning potential. Chua and Rubenfeld force us to consider why this is happening and what might be done about it. And their thesis suggests that whatever might have caused certain problems to begin with—from racial discrimination against African Americans to economic stagnation in Appalachia—the solutions may lie in getting these groups to believe in themselves and encourage the acquisition of skills that many lack. That’s not easy work, and it’s not something The Triple Package devotes any airtime to, but it may be the only work that bears any fruit.
This is, I must admit, a very personal topic. Having grown up in a working-class neighborhood in a very working-class town, I have wondered for over a decade what makes my community different. The county I come from has one of the lowest rates of upward mobility in the country—lower even than the Appalachian coal country my grandparents escaped in search of a better life. Why did my neighbor spend her welfare money on drugs and alcohol? Why did so many of my classmates drop out of high school when it was obvious where that path would lead? A recent New York Times piece documented how people in Jackson, Kentucky—where my grandparents were born—were removing their kids from reading classes so that they didn’t lose their child’s monthly mental disability check. In one sense, it’s easy to explain these problems away by talking about government poverty traps and “disincentives.” But those disincentives are out there for everyone. What troubles is me is that some groups (including my own) seem more susceptible to those incentives than others.
The Triple Package tries to tell us why. I’m not sure that Chua and Rubenfeld have all the right answers. But I do know that by focusing on people—and the cultures that support and affect them—they’re asking the right questions. That’s more than I can say for most of the social policy experts occupying the airwaves today.