When the husband of the Tiger Mom says you've entered a subject area that's "about as politically incorrect as we can get," that's saying something. I elicited that response after asking Jed Rubenfeld to analyze the success and relative stability of Jews vs. the decline of WASPs. Rubenfeld is the less-known half of the married duo that just brought us The Triple Package: How Three Unlikely Traits Explain the Rise and Fall of Cultural Groups in America.
Shame on Rubenfeld and Amy Chua for not including my own triple threat - Montenegrins, Italians, and descendants of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Instead they lauded the success of Asians, Cubans, Jews, Indians, Nigerians, Mormons, Iranians, and Lebanese. The Yale Law School professors assert those eight groups distinguish themselves by leading lives dictated by their superiority complex, insecurity, and impulse control. (Each trait, they say, runs contrary to a core tenet of contemporary thinking.) They believe that while any person from any background can embody those traits, their research shows it is instilled more frequently by the groups they chart.
How else to explain why, in 2010, Nigerians were 0.7 percent of the black American population, but (in 2013) accounted for between 20 to 25 percent of the 120 black students at Harvard Business School? Or that, in 2010, the Wharton School placed 31 of its graduates at Goldman Sachs - exactly the same number as the much lesser-known and Mormon-affiliated Brigham Young University's Marriott School of Management?
"There are literally dozens of groups outperforming the national average," Rubenfeld told me. "We focused on the groups you mentioned for a couple of reasons: One, because they're the largest of the successful groups, but two, because their success is the most striking and the most quantifiable, and they change over time. This is something we really want to stress, that is, the successful groups in America. It's a dynamic thing. The traits remain the same that we focused on, but if we had looked 20 years ago, we would have found different groups at the top of the income ladder, and if we look 20 years from now, we will find different groups."
So what happens in the future in a world that New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman describes as "flat"? When groups intermarry and there are fewer differences among countries and cultures, don't the cultures that have been prospering lose the traits that make up the triple package?
Rubenfeld thought the question valid. He told me that Asian American kids famously scoring better on tests is "verifiable fact, not stereotype," but not permanent.
"This success tends to dissipate after a couple of generations. . . . Somehow those first-generation, second-generation immigrants, they're communicating something to their kids, they're putting a charge in them. They are communicating, through the values and the way they raise them, some kind of special drive. And we're saying, What if we could bottle that?"
One of the groups that have had a decline of fortune is white Anglo-Saxon Protestants (WASPs), who Chua told me were the original triple-package culture.
"But this is a very fluid theory, and that's what I think is so interesting," Chua said. "Look at the second half of our title. It's about the rise and fall of cultural groups because success breeds less insecurity."
Which is when I asked my politically incorrect question of Rubenfeld. His answer:
"My family is Jewish, and I can tell you something interesting about that. So, my dad's dad was the immigrant. My dad was born in 1929, so he lived as a child through the Second World War and, it is a fact about the Jewish experience . . . that you get constantly reminded of how insecure your people are. Certainly I saw that in my own father. . . . He was an American, he was born in America, but . . . that sense of insecurity that other groups start to lose, boy, he had it. The Holocaust, anti-Semitism . . . Jews maintain this sense of peril and insecurity in a way maybe that other groups don't. Although I've got to say one more thing: There is some evidence, it's by no means conclusive, that Jewish academic performance has begun to decline, and if so that would probably confirm what we're saying."
Credit the duo for their willingness to broach subject matter that is both intriguing and bound to offend. A Time magazine reviewer said the book was emblematic of a new racism. Another, in the Atlantic, accused the duo of crassly defining success as money, fame, and power. How do they respond to the critics?
"Our book is exactly the opposite of racist," Chua said. "I mean, it puzzles me. We show that among the most successful groups in America today are African American and Hispanic groups. So that debunks racial stereotypes. Now we do state facts, and I think that's what makes people uncomfortable. You know, we say things like, 'Asian American SAT scores are 140 points above the average.' That's a fact. Or Indian Americans have a national household income of almost double the national average. Mormons are hitting it out of the park, and we say: 'Look, they're doing something different from mainstream America. Let's look at them.' Let's look inside - people don't know what goes on - and learn from them, and, honestly, I think if we can't just state a statistic without being accused of racism, then we are not going to be able to learn and make any improvement."