Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Reflecting Amy Chua's 'World on Fire'

IN America even the little guy does not begrudge Bill Gates. But what if Microsoft's founder, and all the other high-tech millionaires and CEOs and those successful at business, were of a separate, distinct ethnicity? Imagine that almost everyone with private-sector wealth had a religion, a diet or an appearance different from that of the ordinary American and that they rarely intermarried.

There are countries like that. They have what author Amy Chua calls "market-dominant minorities." Think of the Chinese in Burma and Indonesia, the English in Zimbabwe and South Africa, Indians in Kenya and Fiji, Jews in Panama and Russia.

America has successful minorities. But it has nothing like the Chinese-Filipinos, who are 1 percent of the population but own all the big department stores and all but one of the major banks in the Philippines. If that described America, this country would be more careful in promoting capitalism and democracy as twin solutions.

In much of the world, Chua argues, capitalism and democracy produce ethnic disaster. Capitalism allows the minority to get rich, and democracy allows the majority to get even. The result: riots against Chinese in Indonesia. Invasions of white farms in Zimbabwe.

Chua is not entirely a bystander. Now a professor at Yale University, she grew up in a "third-tier tycoon" Chinese-Filipino family that owns a plastics conglomerate in Manila. She says her family has "safe-deposit boxes full of gold bars, each one roughly the size of a Snickers bar." Her Aunt Leona, who FedExed her one of those bars as a graduation gift, was later hacked to death by a chauffeur.

Why? It is not explained, and perhaps it does not have to be.

Poor people the world over tend to see members of the dominant ethnic minority as thieves who have won by cheating. That is how the Indonesian majority saw the Chinese tycoons after the collapse of longtime Indonesian President Suharto, and it's also how many Russians in the 1990s saw the seven new private-sector billionaires, six of whom were Jewish.

In most cases, Chua argues, the new rich are largely self-made. Even when a few enjoy official favor, it is after they have become rich -- and the favor is not extended to their kin. A few dozen Chinese were partners with Suharto, but the hundreds of Chinese shopkeepers burned out by mobs had no pull. And further: When the successful minority is chased away and its property seized, the whole country suffers -- as Uganda suffered after expelling Indians and as Indonesia suffers today. That would not be true if the minority were parasites.

Usually the minority wins its position by working, saving, investing and trading harder and more sharply than anyone else. Having succeeded, it is hated -- partly because it succeeded, partly because it takes favors and puts on airs. And partly because it is different.

This is not the story everywhere. Japan, China, Taiwan, Singapore, Argentina and Chile have market-dominant majorities.

World on Fire could have been an argument for socialism, but it isn't. Chua has no use for socialism. Her argument is for capitalism leavened by philanthropy and regulation and for democracy limited by constitutional law. It is for change that is gradual and fitted to local ways.

It is also a warning to foreign minorities to be more generous and, perhaps, to assimilate. In Thailand the Chinese were encouraged to assimilate, and their dominance has been less of a problem.

The book would have been better had it explored this subject and stopped. But Chua has a good theory and wants to explain too many things with it. Three-quarters through her narrative she goes on to argue that Israelis are the market-dominant minority of the Middle East and Americans the market-dominant minority of the world, which explains the fight over Palestine and 9/11 and "why they hate us." This is all very provocative, but it is more analogy than analysis and might better have been shrunk to a comment or left for another book.

The gist of this book is about countries different from the United States, sometimes in ways that are shocking. It ends on a familiar appeal for foreign aid, but most of it is fresher than that. It should make Americans think twice about exporting their political culture wholesale without a thought of who dislikes whom.

Bruce Ramsey wrote this for the Seattle Times.

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