On Immigrants, Power, and Prosperity

No tiger mom would have let her daughter publish this piece for a fifth grade project, let alone in the New York Times. Amy Chua, in a little under 3000 words, explains her theory of power and prosperity in modern America. Absent from this essay, however, is a single reference to any scientific study. Not only does the article exclude any hyperlinks – appalling for any serious journalism in the 21st Century – it refers to several anonymous “studies” without providing any information about the authors, making it well-nigh impossible for a reader to track it down. 

The form is bad, but the message is worse. Chua and Rubenfeld (who, surprise surprise, extol Asians and Jews) argue that Asian success is largely a function of a superiority complex tempered by deep insecurity and a low discount rate, that is delayed gratification. They argue that initial wealth disparity is largely irrelevant:

The most comforting explanation of these facts is that they are mere artifacts of class — rich parents passing on advantages to their children — or of immigrants arriving in this country with high skill and education levels. Important as these factors are, they explain only a small part of the picture.

In fact, it would be comforting if the propensity towards prosperity could be captured in three, wishy-washy traits shared by a large group of people. Reality is much more complicated, as the authors surely understand, and a host of other factors do matter. Responsible journalism would demand that Chua and Rubenfeld at least acknowledge the limitation of this argument in this form, but readers are not made aware of any competing explanations.

The facts are also pretty shaky. The authors contend:

Today’s wealthy Mormon businessmen often started from humble origins. Although India and China send the most immigrants to the United States through employment-based channels, almost half of all Indian immigrants and over half of Chinese immigrants do not enter the country under those criteria. Many are poor and poorly educated. Comprehensive data published by the Russell Sage Foundation in 2013 showed that the children of Chinese, Korean and Vietnamese immigrants experienced exceptional upward mobility regardless of their parents’ socioeconomic or educational background.

The words here quietly pull wool over the eyes of a casual reader. Half of Indian immigrants do not enter the country under the intense criteria of employment-based channels. That means half do. I wonder what percent of caucasian, black, or latino children have parents that work in jobs important enough to qualify for such visas. The figure is certainly well below 50%.

While some Indian emigre are definitely “poor and poorly educated”, even the immigrants who enter without a Bachelor’s degree face the hard climb out of India to begin with. The initial culture and characteristic of Indians who have the wherewithal to pay for a ticket to the United States and the gumption to take that risk sets this group far apart from the immigrant culture. An observer need only walk through London – to which the entry barriers for an Indian are (or at least used to be) substantially lower – to see that the rich Indians of America are a lucky exception, not the rule.

It is interesting to compare the fate of Indians – who are by far the richest ethnicity in the United States, earning on average more than $85,000 annually – with their Sri Lankan, Pakistani, and Bangladeshi compatriots who earn $65,000, $61,000, and $46,000 respectively. Cultural differences are a natural explanation, but Indians are closer to all of these groups than they are with caucasians suggesting that there is something else going on. Of course, if one is inclined to think that this story is about Indians in general (as opposed to Indian-Americans) he need only see that Sri Lanka is twice as prosperous as India, Pakistan is not all that much poorer, and Bangladesh, while a little poorer, fares better on many social indicators.

This tells us that there’s something special about the type of Indians that make it to America. Whether it be education, intelligence, or an entrepreneurial spirit, it would be ridiculous – in the words of Chua and Rubenfeld – to compare this attribute to this group’s some stereotypically-selected characteristics not shared by caucasians.

It would be remiss to discuss Indian-American success without considering medical professionals, an oddly protected class. Wikipedia tells me that 35,000 Indians are physicians which is fivefold larger than what would be expected from a random distribution. However, the American Medical Association (approximately a cartel) and inefficiently strong health-related regulation prevent the equilibrium rate inflow of medical professionals keeping the wage rate of doctors artificially high, suggesting that many Indians benefit from an artifact of the law rather than some cultural force.

Groups rise and fall over time, and that may even be for the reasons suggested in the article. But by the authors’ own logic, the United States should be scared shitless of Japanese and Korean prosperity – surely these countries, with their laborious education and work ethic, must be more prosperous? New York Times readers may be interested to learn that the average American earns a whole $20,000 more than the Koreans, despite our “failing” school systems and complacence. Some may be tempted to argue that this is largely due to affluent immigrants, but remember that Caucasians earn at or above the national average.

Children of successful immigrants, like myself, are in many ways as privileged as blue-blooded protestants. And, similarly, many of us feel every bit as entitled (we work hard, but I doubt many of us think that we’ll actually ever earn $46,000 a year by the time we have kids). While at an archetypical level it may appeal to speak of certain traits – superiority, insecurity, and self control – shared by many successful immigrants, this is informed by neither theory nor evidence, but rather someone’s wish to project her idea of success onto a group as a whole.

Ultimately, some parts of this article are unimpeachably accurate. No doubt that attaining power and prosperity demands hard work, patience, and confidence. This is common sense, and not in any significant way restricted to immigrants. The authors further a sad misconception among liberal elites – that immigrants work hard while complacent Americans watch TV. This couldn’t be farther from the truth. Americans – particularly the stagnant middle – are among the most hard working (even overworked) in the world. Moreover, these workers are also incredibly productive by international standards, bringing in over $60 per hour on average.

I conclude by agreeing with Chua’s conclusion. It is crucial for America as a political entity to rekindle a sense of urgency and insecurity vis-a-vis China, but this is not at all a mirror of similar conclusions they draw to Americans as a cultural group. China’s ascendence is almost irrelevant on a per capita basis, where even the 80th percentile of urban workers hardly hold a candle to the 20th percentile of all American workers. China’s relevance is predicated on the control this one political entity has on such large a group of people.

More importantly, America’s glory to which the authors allude, while supervised by a sense of insecurity, was almost entirely political. Bipartisan consensus let America fight, and indeed win, the Cold War by putting a man on the moon, passing landmark civil and social legislation, and overseeing the most rapid rise in living standards in the country’s history. But, if anything, Americans work harder today while politicians flounder. This is a story of politics, not people.

I am open to disagreement on this issue, and a piece with actual references may be a nice start.

  1. Erik said:

    an impressive entry; also a needed corrective for the psuedo-science of chua- perhaps she is taking the malcolm gladwell route to mainstream fame. i wondered if you could comment on your assertion that white-collar americans are among the most hard-working in the world: the link you give says they work the most hours, but there is little talk of productivity. Certainly a key variable in this equation is not only hard-working, but actual productivity.

  2. Kaleberg said:

    My impression is that immigrants are generally better educated and willing to work harder to build a better life for themselves, and if not for themselves, for their children. The children are usually driven to go into business, the professions or other high paying fields, often fields that require education or preparation. The next generation tends to fluff out as the sense of purpose gets lost in the mists of the past. The children of the immigrants see their parents working hard, and they are pushed to work hard. Their children see their parent as already successful, and are less likely to be driven. Every immigrant culture in the US has this story, so we can usually tell that a group has arrived when the trope shows up in movie or as the premise for a sitcom.

    In general, the people who choose to immigrate tend to either be better educated or value education more than those who tend to stay behind. They also tend to be the ones who can scrape together the money for an airplane ticket and some start up expenses. Some years back, I read about a caste in India that traditionally did everyone’s laundry but was being replaced by washing machines. Why weren’t they running laundromats in Los Angeles? Probably for the same reasons they weren’t running laundromats in Mumbai or Madras. They were dirt poor, never had much access to education and didn’t have the connections to get a loan. If you’ve just gotten your CS degree from IIT Madras, you are in much better shape. You’ve got a university degree. You have some English language skills. You have access to money, so you can afford a plane ticket. You probably could run a laundromat in Madras, but you have better options than that.

    I poked around a bit. Indian immigrants tend to be well educated. This shows up as higher salaries in the US, but it isn’t just the US. Via the Huffington Post, which is the electronic equivalent of a rag, I found a link to a report at http://www.cream-migration.org/publ_uploads/CDP_22_13.pdf which deals with UK immigrants from EEA (European Economic Area) and non-EEA countries. If Table 2a is to be believed, non-EEA immigrants were always as well educated as natives, but starting with the economic downturn there has been a real rise in non-EEA immigrants with university degrees. Obviously, non-EEA doesn’t mean India, but I doubt the UK is getting enough Indian school leavers to skew things. In particular, the last column notes that a lot fewer UK immigrants are school leavers than UK natives. I wonder if there is a similar pattern in the US. It would show up as higher earnings.

  3. The last figures I found for Canada show that South Asians generally have a lower income than other Canadians- the stereotypical Indo-Canadian when I was there ( Vancouver in the 1980s) was a lumber-mill worker.

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