Tiger mom: author Amy Chua at a the Jaipur Literary Festival in 2012. (Photo: Getty)
Show Hide image

Playing the race card: the Triple Package by Amy Chua and Jed Rubenfeld

A provocative new exploration of ethnicity vs success in modern America by the authors of Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother

The Triple Package: What Really Determines Success
Amy Chua and Jed Rubenfeld
Bloomsbury, 336pp, £18.99

It is not surprising that The Triple Package has caused such a stir. Its subject matter – the connections between culture, ethnicity and success – is emotive and controversial. Written by the husband-and-wife team of Jed Rubenfeld and Amy Chua, the author of the parenting memoir Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, it has a fluent style and possesses all the hallmarks of American comfort food: it is easy to consume but not altogether fulfilling.

The “triple package” is touted as the combination of magic ingredients that enable certain ethnic groups to achieve extraordinary success in modern America. Chua and Rubenfeld identify three key qualities: a superiority complex, a sense of insecurity and “impulse control”.

Some have denounced the book as racist. This loaded term is often bandied about in discussions about culture and achievement. Yet to point out the material success of Mormons in the United States is clearly not racist. Mormons represent just 1.7 per cent of the US population but they are disproportionately represented in the higher levels of business and politics in the country (Mitt Romney is perhaps their best-known representative). When the subject is Jews or African Americans, people get nervous. However, to talk about sociological differences is precisely the opposite of the biological racism that was prevalent in the 20th century. The book’s point is that it is cultural, not genetic, factors that lead to success.

The Triple Package is not racist but it is certainly provocative. Chua and Rubenfeld write: “The majority of African Americans typically still do not – to put it mildly – grow up with a group superiority complex.” This trite observation is used to explain their underachievement.

The book is peppered with interesting but rather meaningless facts. We are told that Jews, who make up just 2 per cent of the US population, have received 36 per cent of all Nobel Prizes ever awarded to Americans. Among African Americans, Nigerian immigrants are held up as exemplars. In 2010, there were some 260,000 people of Nigerian origin in the US – 0.7 per cent of the black American population. Yet in 2013, between 20 and 25 per cent of the 120 black students at Harvard Business School were Nigerian. One response is simply: “Who cares?”

The three determinants of success are curious, if rather crass, subjects of speculation. The superiority complex is familiar to historians. The British empire was shaped by it; no class in history has been as self-confident as the late-Victorian imperial administrator. Unfortunately, the past is a glaring omission from The Triple Package. Identifying groups is all very well but you cannot understand culture without an appreciation of history, an observation that surely applies with as much force to the example of the computer whizz-kid son of Chinese immigrants who sails through Stanford with top grades in the US today.

Next, Chua and Rubenfeld deftly explore the roots of insecurity among their fav­oured ethnic groups. Here, American Iranians, Arabs and Indians are held up as examples of peoples who have deep insecurities that derive from the casual stereotyping they have experienced, especially since 9/11. Depictions of Arabs as baddies in films and popular culture have reinforced a sense of insecurity in the past decade.

The third ingredient is impulse control. This refers to delayed gratification. The con­cept is not new; even the most casual sociologist will know Max Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1905), which describes the hoarding instincts of Protestant capitalists in the early modern era. John Maynard Keynes, from a different intellectual tradition, described this instinct to accumulate more than 90 years ago, when he wrote about Europe in the 19th century: “To save and to invest became at once the duty and the delight of a large class.” As the economist put it, in a spirit of irony: “A rich man could, after all, enter into the Kingdom of Heaven – if only he saved.”

The last chapter of The Triple Package addresses the favourite subject of all Americans: the United States of America. The authors somewhat naively call for the US to recover its triple package, to ensure economic dominance. Despite the range and diversity of the ethnic groups described, the book is intensely self-regarding. It remains firmly in the “America the Beautiful” genre.

Though parochial, Chua and Rubenfeld’s argument is enjoyable and timely. After the financial crisis – and with rising material inequality – discussions about the cultural roots of economic success are necessary. The Triple Package may be superficial but the issues it raises are serious. They will no doubt generate more controversy and impassioned debate in the years ahead. l

Kwasi Kwarteng is a Conservative MP and the author of “Ghosts of Empire” (Bloombury, £9.99)

This article first appeared in the 05 March 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's power game

David McNew/Getty Images
Show Hide image

The Wood Wide Web: the world of trees underneath the surface

Mycorrhizal networks, better known as the Wood Wide Web, have allowed scientists to understand the social networks formed by trees underground.

In 1854, Henry David Thoreau published Walden, an extensive rumination on his two years, two months and two days spent in a cabin in the woodlands near Walden Pond. It was situated on a plot of land owned by his friend, mentor and noted transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson.

Thoreau’s escape from the city was a self-imposed experiment - one which sought to find peace and harmony through a minimalistic, simple way of living amongst nature. Voicing his reasons for embarking on the rural getaway, Thoreau said, “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life.”

Walden cemented Thoreau’s reputation as a key figure in naturalism; his reflections have since been studied, his practices meticulously replicated. But in the knowledge that Thoreau’s excursion into the woods was a means to better understand how to integrate into society, curious minds are left to wonder what essays and aphorisms Thoreau would have produced had he known what the botanists of today know of nature’s very own societal networks.

As scientists have now discovered, what lies beneath the ground Thoreau walked upon, and indeed beneath the ground anyone walks upon when near trees, is perhaps the most storied history and study of collaborative society in something which is now known as the mycorrhizal network or the “Wood Wide Web”.

Coined by the journal Nature, the term Wood Wide Web has come to describe the complex mass of interactions between trees and their microbial counterparts underneath the soil. Spend enough time among trees and you may get a sense that they have been around for centuries, standing tall and sturdy, self-sufficient and independent. But anchoring trees and forestry everywhere, and therefore enjoining them into an almost singular superoganism, is a very intimate relationship between their roots and microbes called mycorrhizal fungi.

Understanding the relationship between the roots of trees and mycorrhizal fungi has completely shifted the way we think about the world underneath them. Once thought to be harmful, mycorrhizal fungi are now known to have a bond of mutualism with the roots – a symbiotic connection from which both parties benefit.

Despite the discovery being a recent one, the link between the two goes as far back as 450 million years. A pinch of soil can hold up to seven miles worth of coiled, tubular, thread-like fungi. The fungi release tubes called hyphae which infiltrate the soil and roots in a non-invasive way, creating a tie between tree and fungus at a cellular level. It is this bond which is called mycorrhiza. As a result, plants 20m away from each other can be connected in the same way as plants connected 200 metres away; a hyphal network forms which brings the organisms into connection.

At the heart of the mutualistic relationship is an exchange; the fungi have minerals which the tree needs, and the trees have carbon (which is essentially food) which the fungi need. The trees receive nitrogen for things such as lignin – a component which keep the trees upright, and various other minerals such as phosphorus, magnesium, calcium, copper and more. In return, fungi get the sugars they need from the trees’ ongoing photosynthesis to energise their activities and build their bodies. The connection runs so deep that 20-80% of a tree’s sugar can be transferred to the fungi, while the transfer of nitrogen to trees is such that without the swap, trees would be toy-sized.

It’s a bond that has resulted in some remarkable phenomena. Suzanne Simard, an ecologist at the University of British Columbia, has researched into these back and forth exchanges and has found that rather than competing against one another as often assumed, there is a sort of teamwork between the trees facilitated by the mycorrhizal fungi.

In one particular example, Simard looked at a Douglas fir tree planted next to a birch tree. Upon taking the birch tree out, there was a completely unexpected result: the fir tree – instead of prospering from the reduced competition for sunlight – began to decay and die. The trees were connected underground via the mycorrhizal system, transferring carbon, nitrogen and water to one another, communicating underground, talking to each other. As Simard says in her TED talk, “it might remind you of a sort of intelligence.”

It has been documented that trees share food not just with trees of the same species, but with trees of all kinds of species, forming a social network which some have come to describe as a socialist system. Growth rates are positively affected while seedlings face greater chances of survival. There is in fact a group of plants – the mycoheterotrophic plants of which there are around 400 species – which wouldn’t survive without the mycorrhizal network. These plants are unable to photosynthesise and are therefore heavily dependent on other plants for carbon and minerals.

Over the years, Thoreau has had his fair share of critics who deemed his trip to the woods nothing more than an exercise in self-indulgence and narcissism. Perhaps if Thoreau had the chance to head back to Walden Pond with the knowledge of the Wood Wide Web at hand, he would fully understand that no one man is an island, as no one tree is a forest.