"The Triple Package" is an attempt by Amy Chua and Jed Rubenfeld to explain the economic success of certain ethnic groups. Their thesis is that the economic success of these groups can be adequately explained by three cultural traits (NOT genetic or racial characteristics). These three traits are a superiority complex, a sense of insecurity, and impulse control. The authors focus on the following successful groups: Indian, Iranian, Lebanese, Nigerian, Cuban, Chinese, Mormons, and Jews. They contrast these groups from African Americans, Hispanics, and the general American population.
Claims of Racism:
First, let me begin by stating that "The Triple Package" is NOT a racist book as portrayed by the media. Nor is it a "semi-racist" book as one reviewer put it. At no place in the book do the authors assert that certain racial or ethnic groups are intrinsically superior - although they do claim that successful ethnic groups may view themselves as superior or privileged in some way. Nor do the authors assert that certain racial or ethnic groups are intrinsically inferior to another group. In fact, the authors explicitly claim that key cultural features explain a group's economic success, and that such success is not the result of genetics or any inherent racial or ethnic characteristic. Thus, anyone who states that the authors are making racist claims - i.e. asserting the inherent racial superiority (or inferiority) of one group over another -- has simply not read the book or has severe difficulties with simple reading comprehension.
Second, many of the negative reviewers seem to dismiss the empirical information the authors present. That is, it is an empirical fact that many immigrant groups tend to achieve high levels of economic success in America. This is clearly observable in American society. In many cases, success is achieved despite arriving in America with little money, with few or no connections, and even under oppressive conditions. The authors focus on a handful of groups -- Indian, Iranian, Lebanese, Nigerian, Cuban, Chinese, Mormons, and Jews. However, the authors could've also mentioned other ethnic groups, such as the German immigrants of the 19th and early 20th centuries, the Japanese, or the South Koreans. In fact, many of the same facts have been expressed by Stanford economist, Thomas Sowell, and George Mason University professor, Walter Williams. Both Sowell and Williams are African American.
Moreover, while the authors of "The Triple Package" are criticized for mentioning that Mexican Americans and African Americans are economically unsuccessful groups, their points were not intended as racist attacks. The authors could've easily mentioned the early Irish immigrants to make the same points. During the early 20th century, it was not uncommon to see help wanted signs stating, "No Irish Need Apply". In fact, many Irish business owners themselves preferred to hire non-Irish whites. It was said the Irish were prone to excessive drinking, fighting on the job, and general unreliability. These behaviors are all examples of poor impulse control. And it was not unusual for employers to prefer a "black man" to an Irish man, according to Sowell in his book, "The Economics and Politics of Race". Not surprisingly, such behaviors held back the Irish for a long time compared to their non-Irish counterparts -- the Germans and the English.
Some criticisms of the book...
1) Correlation is not Causation:
The authors' thesis is really an argument based on correlation; that is, there are three cultural traits correlated with economic success. From this starting point, they jump to the conclusion that these traits are complete and sufficient explanations for the success of certain ethnic groups. However, correlation is not causation. Observing that three traits are correlated with success is not the same as claiming that they are sufficient explanations or causes for the success. The latter requires proof, and I didn't think the authors did a very good job of providing that proof. Ice cream sales and the incidence of drowning are positively correlated, but it would be wrong to conclude that ice cream consumption causes drowning. Rather, more people eat ice cream and more people swim during the summer months.
2) Poor Argumentation:
The authors are careful to state that the absence of these "success" traits is not the cause of poverty. Instead, they point the finger at other factors, such as discrimination and exploitation - African American slavery being the most salient example. But this seems like a planned, politically correct response to avoid offending certain ethnic groups. I don't think the authors actually believe their own statement. For if you accept their thesis, it's difficult to avoid the conclusion that an absence of these so-called "success" traits are the cause of economic poverty.
Here's the problem. Other ethnic groups have also experienced discrimination and exploitation, but have found ways to rise to economic prominence. The Jews and the Chinese come immediately to mind. Have the authors forgotten that 6 million Jews were murdered during World War II? Do they not know that Jewish discrimination in Europe can be traced back to Medieval Times? Or that as many as 20,000 Chinese (by some estimates) were murdered in Malaysia in just a few days due to racial tensions and Malaysian animosity toward the Chinese? Nonetheless, the Jews and the Chinese have achieved phenomenal success wherever they settled. The authors would say that the three "success" traits are present in these groups, which enabled them to overcome discrimination and exploitation. But isn't this the same as saying that the absence of these traits in other groups are the cause for their poverty? After all, according to the authors, if the traits were present then these groups would not be poor.
The authors also claim that all three "success" traits must be present. If just one of these traits is missing, then economic success may not be achievable. Interestingly, I couldn't help but notice that the authors didn't mention non-Chinese Asian groups, such as South Koreans, Filipinos, or Vietnamese. On what foundation would a superiority complex rest for these groups? For most of their history, they were dominated by other nations. There was no great civilization in their past that they can point to or admire, at least nothing comparable to the glory days of the ancient Persian or Chinese empires. And they make no claims to being a "chosen" people like the Jews. Nonetheless, these groups are very successful in American society. How do the authors account for this?
3) Alternative Considerations:
Common sense and experience might get you to accept that impulse control is good and that insecurity can motivate a person to excel (to prove oneself), but the authors do not seem to consider other more direct explanations for a group's success. For example, nearly all of these successful groups rose to economic prominence by one of two routes - higher education or self-employment. Perhaps it was the value these groups placed on education or the chosen path of entrepreneurship that explains their success. This is what economist Thomas Sowell claims in his book, "The Economics and Politics of Race." It's true that impulse control plays an important role when pursuing a higher education or trying to launch a business; however, it is less clear that a superiority complex or a sense of insecurity is a requirement for success.
Perhaps these successful groups came to America with existing human capital, which they used to their advantage and imparted to their children. By human capital, I mean the collective set of individual attributes, personality traits, knowledge, skills, and competencies that produce economic value. This certainly seems to be the case with the Cuban Exiles versus the New Cuban immigrants. There is little doubt that people from different socioeconomic groups have different traits, knowledge, and skill sets (on the whole) -- in other words, human capital. The former had human capital of economic value, coming from the higher echelons of Cuban society. The latter lacked human capital, having come from poorer Cuban social classes. As a result is it really surprising that the former was successful in America, while the latter are not much better than other Hispanic groups? Can the authors really assert that they have narrowed down the entirety of such success to just three traits or factors?
4) Poorly Structured References:
The book makes a lot of claims and quotes from various sources, but there are no footnotes or easily traceable end notes (at least not in the e-book version). End notes do exist but it is not in a traditional format, thus, I found it more cumbersome to locate information. Moreover, many of their claims were taken from tertiary sources, rather than from original published articles. And in a few cases, I found the claims a bit exaggerated from what was stated in the original articles.
5) Writing Style:
As far as writing style, the book is a very easy read. It was relatively free of spelling errors and grammar mistakes, and there was no ambiguity in the content. Nothing made me question what the authors meant by a particular term, phrase, or sentence. However, I felt the book was intended for someone with no more than an 8th grade reading level. I realize that an 8th grade reading level will reach the widest audience (according to some studies); nonetheless, I felt this limitation made the writing style wearisome and irritating at times (at least for me).
In summary, the book's thesis is provocative. The authors are bold to tackle this topic, given the predictable back lash and misrepresentation in the media. However, I think their argumentation leaves much to be desired. The book is okay, but there are far superior books that tackle this idea of culture and economic success. I would recommend reading Thomas Sowell's book, "The Economics and Politics of Race" and Theodore Dalrymple's "Life at the Bottom". These books are better written and more convincingly argued. And unlike Chua and Rubenfeld, these authors only make the general claim that culture is a significant contributing factor in a group's economic success. They do not try to assert that a specific number of traits or a particular set of traits is sufficient to explain it all.