Gadfly’s grandfather had a saying: shirtsleeves to shirtsleeves in three generations. This means that hardworking parents of low socioeconomic status raise children of higher socioeconomic status, who then raise children of privilege who slip back down the income ladder. (From a tailor, say, to an accountant, to a maker of stained-glass windows.) This adage ties directly into Amy Chua and Jed Rubenfeld’s The Triple Package, a thought-provoking new book about upward mobility in America. Chua and Rubenfeld examine the U.S. as a whole and eight U.S. subgroups (Mormons, Jews, Nigerians, Lebanese, Chinese, Indians, Iranians, and Cubans) that at one time or another have been disproportionately upwardly mobile. The authors attribute this economic success to three characteristics, which they call the “Triple Package:” a superiority complex (my people are chosen), a sense of inferiority (my people have been oppressed), and impulse control (I refuse to eat that marshmallow). Such a person has a chip on her shoulder, has something to prove, and is abstemious. The source and degree of each characteristic varies with the group, but all three are present during each ascent. All in all, the authors make a pretty compelling case. Despite the controversy surrounding the book, the authors discuss the declining American work ethic more than the differences between racial and religious subgroups. In this sense, the book plows familiar ground (remember how old the shirtsleeves adage is). But it’s also attractively simple and meticulously complete. Accompanying their central thesis, Chua and Rubenfeld tactfully touch on the hazards of each characteristic, why certain groups don’t exhibit all three, and how upwardness typically slows when a group achieves a measure of success. They’re also very aware of the treacherous racial/ethnic/religious lines they walk and traverse them carefully. They strive to avoid politically incorrect speculation, admit that theirs is only one of many possible theories of “success,” and acknowledge that causation is unprovable. Most impressively, they painstakingly back up nearly every sentence with research (the book has as many endnotes as it has content). Still, it may not be necessary to read the whole book to get its gist. The authors’ New York Times op-ed serves as a solid summary.
Amy Chua and Jed Rubenfeld, The Triple Package (New York, NY: The Penguin Press, 2014).