Thursday, April 10, 2014

Getting ahead - a Tiger's manual

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, sociology, cultural evolution

This is not a Bible study, but I will begin with a few items from the Bible:
Remember the day you stood before the Lord your God at Horeb, when he said to me, “Assemble the people before me to hear my words so that they may learn to revere me as long as they live in the land and may teach them to their children.” —Deuteronomy 4:10

These commandments that I give you today are to be on your hearts. Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates. —Deut. 6: 6-9

When Moses finished reciting all these words to all Israel, he said to them, “Take to heart all the words I have solemnly declared to you this day, so that you may command your children to obey carefully all the words of this law. They are not just idle words for you—they are your life. By them you will live long in the land you are crossing the Jordan to possess.” —Deut. 32:45-47
In these passages, among several others in Deuteronomy, we see that the LORD God commanded his people to universal literacy. I have always taken it to be a foundation of the success of Jews in any country with sufficient freedom for them to live in comparative peace. From what has arisen so much antisemitism over the years and centuries? All to frequently, from envy.

In the far East, in many countries we find anti-Chinese sentiment (Malaysia and Indonesia come to mind) and even official discrimination against "overseas Chinese". Also due in large part to envy. Ethnic Chinese seem to wind up owning everything and running all the best businesses.

With that as a world context, now we can take a look at America, where both the Jews and Chinese (and most Asians in general) are doing quite well. You'll find a partial explanation for this differential success in Amy Chua's book of a few years ago, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. But now with co-author Jed Rubenfeld we find a more comprehensive study of the phenomenon, in The Triple Package: How Three Unlikely Traits Explain the Rise and Fall of Cultural Groups in America. Let us not forget that Ms Chua is a law professor at Yale, as is Mt. Rubenfeld. (I suppose the possession of a JD degree and a professorship entitles them to the title Dr., but we never call lawyers "Doctor", do we?)

As in all good business writing, the authors do not keep us waiting for their conclusions. They state their theses at the outset, then defend and elaborate them. Note first that they write primarily about groups, not individuals. The "Triple Package" consists of three values that have become practically anathema in modern America:
  1. Superiority – the acculturated feeling that your group is superior to most or all other groups. The Jews are God's Chosen, and have been for 3,500 years. Now the Mormons are taking over that designation, in their own minds at least. The Chinese have the longest cultural history (and didn't die away like the Egyptians). The Puritans who founded American prosperity 400 years ago had the biggest "My God is better than your god" complex in history. But the success of American Lebanese, and American Nigerians, comes not from religious roots, but cultural.
  2. Insecurity – Tiger Mothers (whether Chinese or Jewish or whatever) foster this by a "never quite good enough" mentality, the "guilt syndrome" that is fodder for multitudes of Jewish comedians. Companies also foster this by slogans such as "Continuous Improvement" and by the dreaded yearly progress review. It is even more the undercurrent of though among persecuted minorities, except a few, such as American Indians, who've been more slyly persecuted into "learned helplessness."
  3. Impulse Control – also known as self control; it is the ability to defer gratification in pursuit of a future goal. Not only do religious groups promote self control, even asceticism at times, but businesses also. In business, it can be more subtle. Many companies seem to allow considerable freedom, but it is a kind of intelligence test. Those who fail it find promotions forever out of reach, or may be pushed out. Not for nothing does the Bible say, "When you eat with a king put a knife to your throat." Those who succeed profit at the expense of those with less self control, as is seen most starkly in the illegal drug trade: the upper echelons don't use the drugs.
The central three chapters of the book discuss each trait in detail, with examples from a number of groups. There are also counterexamples, such as the Amish. They excel in impulse control, but promote humility rather than superiority, and also promote a feeling of security both in the community and in God's favor. They don't care for the material success that motivates the rest of America, but in many ways, and by their own standards, they are succeeding very well indeed. I suspect the average Amish elder sleeps better at night than most titans of American industry. Thus I suspect they also fit the model, on their own terms. They have the hope of God's eternal blessing, and do not expect any others to reap it, and they are a somewhat persecuted minority, who have had to defend their practices and particularly their anti-military-service stance frequently.

In an overview chapter, the authors specifically set aside Education as a part of the package. It is easy to see why, as the nation is full of educated fools. But I'd argue that love of literacy, if not schooling, is a requisite. A genius who grew up without learning to read well is not likely to succeed nearly as well as a well-read person of somewhat lesser gifts. Getting educated, whether schooled or self-taught, is a hallmark of self control.

The authors also discuss the pathology of the over-driven. If all your life you could never be good enough, then when you earn your millions, you may not enjoy them much. In one segment of Prairie Home Companion, Garrison Keillor limned a man and his son. The man was coach of a town baseball team. He was incapable of giving praise. One day, the oldest son performed some spectacular play on the field. Then he walked over and stood in front of his father, just looking at him. The old man didn't even look at him. After about a minute, the son walked off and was not seen again. So we are left with the question, what price success? No answer, but I suspect the Amish might have one, in their laconic way.

The book's title mentions not just rise, but also fall. There is the proverb, "It is three generations from shirtsleeves to shirtsleeves." The English who built this country are now disparaged as "Anglos" by strengthening minority groups such as certain Latino groups. The Jews may even have reached their zenith and are moving to the background. We'll see if the Chinese and other Asians carry on for another decade, or longer, but they also will inevitably lose their edge.

The aim of the book emerges in the last chapter. America itself began as a Triple Package culture, and succeeded incredibly, for two centuries. This was initially a general phenomenon. Then the unprecedented freedom of the American system allowed group after group to enter and prosper, even as formerly prominent groups declined. Thus America as a whole continued to boom.

This is still going on, as we see in the growing success of Asians, for example. But other groups have begun to fade. Had such a book been written a century ago, much would have been said about the success of the English, still strong and riding high on Puritan prosperity. Not so much today. I recently saw a special about the space program, and noted the predominance of Italian names among the astronauts, who were mostly in their 40s and 50s. The prior generation had been Armstrong, Shepard and Glenn, and the next, now in their 20s and 30s, tend to be almost anything except English, or even Euro-American.

Well, the pendulum swings, both ways. The overly prim Victorian period was followed by the permissive Roaring Twenties, then the Depression and the "good life" years that followed WW2, during which frugality was the rule…until another permissive swing that began in the late 1960s. This latter swing has about run its course. Can there fail to be a backlash against the incredible problems which have emerged after 2008? President Obama is not to blame for them all, but will get the blame in many people's minds, particularly during the 2016 election cycle. And, I believe many Americans who still value "American exceptionalism", a sense that one could always do better, and are willing to study more and save more and borrow less or not at all, will prevail. Will the post-Millennial generation be more like Victorians, or more like the Flappers? Time will tell, and America's prominence, or lack thereof, will follow.

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