First, it’s impossible for me to be objective about HTOHB. I remember 2 years ago at Ted’s Most Best (yes, it's good local pizza with a kid-friendly sandpit, yes that's its name) telling Mehrsa to submit an editorial to the NYT about postal banking. I remember sharing her elation at the editorial’s publication, and of her book contract. I’ve been on the sideline cheering this book for a long time, and I’ve watched its reception with pride and pleasure. Funnily enough, however, I never actually read it in draft form, although we’ve spoken about aspects of it over the past two years, so I've been eager for an excuse to take it up.
My overall first impression was: This isn’t your typical academic book. This is an unabashed cri de coeur, with a tone of barely concealed anger and urgency. It’s a book with a message much broader than advocating for postal banking although, that being the culminating chapter, that is where the reviews have focused. HTOHB is describes and diagnoses the current banking problem facing poor and middle-income Americans, contextualizes that problem historically, and proposes a solution. The funny thing--and it may well be a calculated move--is that the solution addresses so little of the problem.
First, on the descriptive: Even though I consider myself a fairly educated banking reader, I learned a lot. Like that there are more payday lender storefronts than Starbucks and McDonald’s combined. Wow. Like my co-bloggers I found her description of the role of regulation in banking compelling. She skillfully rebuts the arguments of those who would blame the financial crisis on the CRA or on greedy and improvident subprime borrowers.
Second, the book leaves me feeling sorry for the big banks. Given the world that they live in—and yes, they created via lobbying and campaign contributions—they’re stuck. They just can’t afford to let the poor bank with them. Let’s take overdraft fees. They’re close to my heart, because once upon a time, in a moment of youth, inattention and temporary low bank balance, I swiped my bank card instead of my credit card and wound up overdrawing my account. I fumed at the overdraft fee, but knew it was my mistake.
Overdraft fees look a lot worse these days. Mehrsa describes one customer who received a notice of 5 transactions ranging from $4.35-$39.46 for which there was not enough money in the account. Bank of America reordered the withdrawals so that the highest withdrawal was taken out first—without that manipulation, there would have been 2 overdraft fees, instead of 5. At $35 a pop, these added up to $175, or an interest rate of 3,335%. And fresh fees are assessed each day you’re overdrawn. And now apparently banks pool their data in a ChexSystems database and banks will decline account applications because of them—97.5% of the denials are from this kind of “account mishandling,” and just one overdraft can cut you off from conventional banking for years.
What this story makes clear is that, although the banks are imposing punitive fees on these borrowers, they're not trying to make a business of it--they're trying to drive them away. Although the percentage profits are high, these absolute dollar numbers are just too small to be worth it for the big banks.
Do you remember back in 2010 when Bank of America tried to institute a $5 debit card swipe fee? It sparked a social uprising, including a “Bank Transfer Day” where people were urged to take their money out of big banks and put them in small banks and credit unions. President Obama weighed in against the outrageous fee. But I remember feeling sorry for BoA at the time—it was responding to regulation in Dodd-Frank and imposing an upfront fee, just like it was supposed to. Political firestorm followed. What was the lesson big banks learned? Keep the fees on the downlow, and no one gets hurt. And if the fees aren't enough to make the business profitable, the only alternative is to get out of the business.
So ultimately I guess I'm with Matt, who said this much better: that there's "an ambivalence that underlies a lot of the book. Yes, banks are making beaucoup bucks while safely within the arms of their government protectors. At the same time, however, they are just being what they were designed to be: profit-making businesses operating within a market." Mehrsa tacitly accepts the status quo and works within it to argue for postal banking. But her larger argument, particularly the larger historical narrative, seems to support a much more radical rethinking of government's support for banking. Mehrsa starts off with a shrewd move, nodding to history by pointing out that debate about banking’s identity and core function dates back to the founders, with the Hamilton central banking model at odds with Jefferson’s localism and suspicion of concentrated banking power. She makes clear in that chapter that the tension between consolidated and local banking is an age old one in our republic. She asserts in the first line of Chapter 1 that "One of the most important sand oft-forgotten truths about any banking system is that it simply cannot exist without the government." Her overall narrative sets the stage for a larger rethinking of what we as a society expect of the banks our government enables to exist. Well-written and engaging, this is a big and important book, with big implications--for postal banking, and for banking as an industry.
I will echo the praise of the prior contributors: this is a really well-written book, packed full with insightful and accessible anecdotes, thoughtful analysis, and a strong message. Like Christine, I was particularly interested in the middle chapters, as I worked on bank lending and Community Reinvestment Act issues with the Woodstock Institute prior to law school. My former boss at Woodstock went on to work with South Shore Bank/ShoreBank, and I remember the real enthusiasm and optimism surrounding that bank and its mission. But as the book points out, ShoreBank became insolvent in 2010 after being refused TARP funding. The story of that bank's failure could be one of liberal cronyism and ideology run amok, or simply the collapse of an undiversified regional bank in the midst of an international financial breakdown.
The narrative is important and therefore contested because blame is important in this space. The facts, marshaled clearly and thoroughly by the book, are undeniable: approximately 70 million Americans do not have a bank account or access to traditional financial services. The services provided to the unbanked or underbanked are generally much more expensive and filled with costly penalties and fees. At the other end of the spectrum, banks provide services to the well-off for reasonable prices and in turn are backed by a myriad of federal and quasi-federal protections. The book makes a convincing case that our banking system is not a free market, but rather a highly-regulated market that is supported by the government. And, due to a series of changes in the law over the last century -- ones that accelerated after the 1980s -- average Americans are much more likely to be left out of traditional banking services.
So who is to blame for all this? The book essentially paints a picture of greedy banks shunning the poorer and less profitable consumers in flagrant disregard for their original, public purpose. It is Jeffersonian in its approach: smaller is better, more local is better, community is better. It is not wholeheartedly in this camp -- it acknowledges that large banks are more efficient, less vulnerable to regional conditions, perhaps better (and even cheaper) at providing certain services to certain clients. And it also recognizes that banking services for the poor may not be that profitable (not profitable?) when conducted along the same terms as applied to richer folks. But the central theme of the book, at least on my reading, is that banks have become unmoored from their public trust and are exploiting their special relationship with the government to capture the upsides of capitalism without the downsides.
So it is somewhat surprising that the book lets banks off the hook at the end by promoting a public option for banking, specifically postal banking. The idea has a lot to recommend it, beyond even the problem of underbanking. But it also raises a lot of questions. Can the post office do what community banks couldn't? Do we think post offices will do a better job of moving beyond the credit score to asses the "real" credit risks presented by each loan applicant? Does the public really trust the post office?
But my more theoretical question is this: why should we let the big banks off the hook? If the book had presented the problem of underbanking as a natural and understandable market failure, based on the inability of the poor to make traditional banking profitable for banks, then a public option would make a lot of sense. But if banks are pulling a fast one here by shirking their public responsibilities , shouldn't we make them accountable? The book's discussion of the CRA does a nice job of briefly outlining the history of the act, as well as the views of its supporters and critics. But it left me wondering whether the CRA was doomed to failure, or whether it just hadn't been implemented with the appropriate teeth. And I think this strikes at an ambivalence that underlies a lot of the book. Yes, banks are making beaucoup bucks while safely within the arms of their government protectors. At the same time, however, they are just being what they were designed to be: profit-making businesses operating within a market.
Perhaps, in the end, we'd rather solve the problem of underbanking than exact a just recompense from powerful economic and political actors. Or perhaps we can square the circle by requiring banks to fund the public option with a special bank tax or fee -- something similar to the FDIC. But I think a whole lot more people will be asking these questions thanks to Mehrsa's thoughtful, engaging, and provocative book. Congrats to her on this terrific accomplishment.
Rarely does a fellow law prof's well-researched, well-written nonfiction book deserve as much attention as Mehrsa's book does. In a very readable manner, the book gives all readers a window into the underbelly of banking. HTOHB provides several contributions: a brief history of banking, a broad overview of fringe banking and the high cost of being poor, a survey of governmental, market and philanthropic responses to the problem, and a proposal to implement postal banking. The title is a nod to the middle chapters; an alternate title might be "How the Post Office Could Save Retail Banking."
As someone who teaches The Law of Microfinance and has spent a lot of time in the economic development literature on microfinance, I was fixated on the middle chapters. Microcredit and microfinance are proposed fixes to the ills of the unbanked in developing countries, and not enough time is spent discussing the challenges of the unbanked in the U.S. Though being unbanked is difficult in a developing economy, being unbanked is becoming nearly impossible in our own cashless, electronic economy. As Mehrsa notes, turning a paycheck into cash and then back into money orders and transfers for everyday expenditures is extremely inefficient and expensive. If the book was Chapter 5 alone, it is worth the price just to see the daily toll being unbanked extracts. The problems of the unbanked can be divided at least into two categories: access to payment systems (the ability to write checks, make ACH transfers, use debit cards/ATMs) and access to credit (for either income smoothing or longer-term finance). I say this because the solutions to each category may be different. A payday lender may also cash checks and sell money orders; a microlender may only make small loans; a community bank may take deposits, make loans and sell financial products. I believe that Mehrsa envisions the postal banking solution to address at least the most basic needs in each category: payment systems, deposit accounts, and small loans.
One might envision unmet banking needs to be addressed by the market, government regulation or philanthropy. Chapter 6 runs down the pitfalls in each. Though I understand that postal banking may be the best of these solutions, I would push back a little on the reasons why neither the market nor philanthropy have fixed these concerns. The one tension that will always be present in any solution is the tension between profit and protection. As Mehrsa points out, commercial banks don't chase small depositors or borrowers because the profit margin isn't there. But when the fringe market steps in, those players have the same math that big banks do. So, interest rates have to be higher and so do transaction fees. That may be enough to dismiss a market solution. However, P2P businesses have tried to fill this niche with a different, cheaper model than brick-and-mortar businesses. They seem to be meeting a need, but of course that is the need of people with access to computers and the internet and a bank account for funds to be wired into -- Lending Club cannot reach out and put cash into your hand. However, one reason that the profit margins aren't there is regulation. In talking to founders of P2P banking ventures, state lending laws come up quite a bit (not depositary safety and soundness laws, just lending laws), and of course Prosper and Lending Club had to eventually deal with SEC regulation. It is very hard to simultaneously democratize credit and pursue consumer protection. Perhaps this is where postal banking has an advantage with preexisting infrastructure and perhaps relaxed regulation. In addition, philanthropy suffers from the same regulatory costs. Chapter 7 talks about the now-defunct Chicago Shorebank. Chicago is also the headquarters of Opportunity International, a global microfinance organization. In talking with managers about why microfinance does not work well in the U.S., regulation will also be mentioned. The magic question is how to simultaneously provide credit and banking services to the poor at affordable rates, with a low default rate, at a profit, in a highly regulated environment. I think Mehrsa is saying that the answer is postal banking, and I think a lot of people are intrigued enough to hear more details!
I'm looking forward to hearing that answer in "How the Post Office Could Save Retail Banking"!
Mehrsa's fine book is an appealing combination of history and policy. On the one hand, the book reviews the way that the poor and middle-class have accessed the finance system in the United States over decades, and how that access has been a story of changing institutions. On the other, policy, hand, the book features an appealing recommendation, not for a return to the community banking days of yore, but rather for a supplementation of our current national banking system with a reanimated postal bank. While community banks, for a variety of reasons, handled the banking needs of the poor and middle class (or so she argues; I'm not entirely convinced about that), national banks are unwilling to chase small depositors, for profit lies only in servicing big ones. A postal bank might at the very least be able to provide the unbanked with debit cards, and at best might be able to give them the sorts of financial services that are now being provided by shadow banks such as payday lenders, title loan companies, and the like.
I could see assigning this book to the class of business school or law school students interested in how the banking system has changed and what it does today.
One of the things it does, and has always done, according to Mehrsa, is dependent on the government. On page 16, she posits that "government support is the only reason depositors trust banks, and without trust from depositors, banks don't exist." One of the interesting memes that I have noticed in law and finance scholarship is that, in marked contrast to corporate law scholarship, many of the authors agree with Mehrsa that finance, by some measures the largest component of the economy, is almost entirely a creature of regulation. For other examples of this sort of work see here and here. As someone interested in regulation generally, I see why I've grown particularly interested in financial regulation, though I suspect that an important component of financial intermediation is not purely an example of regulatory beneficence. Indeed, the whole regulatory arbitrage story that plagues financial oversight suggests that regulatory fixes to fundamental finance problems, like banking the unbanked, will always be challenging.
We are launching our Conglomerate Book Club on my friend Mehrsa Baradaran's How the Other Half Banks: Exclusion, Exploitation, and the Threat to Democracy. Mehrsa has been tearing it up with this book, and it is well worth the read. Here's a sample of some reviews:
Ben McLannahan, Financial Times
Ralph Nader, Huffington Post
Nancy Folbre, New York Times
Daria Roithmayr, Jotwell
Brian Bethune, Maclean's
We look forward to a lively discussion of How the Other Half Banks!
Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday. We have been making the same recipe for about 15 years, and it's simply dreamy (Cooks Illustrated: high-roasted, brined and butterflied bird, set atop a broiler pan set atop a pan of dressing that is basted in drippings as the turkey roasts. Yum).
For many of us this week will be filled with food, family, and friends....What could be better? Well, if you're an introvert or your family has less-than-functional moments, if all of that togetherness starts to feel a little claustrophobic, why not retire to a quiet room with a book? We Glommers will be reading my friend and colleague Mehrsa Baradaran's How the Other Half Banks , which has been favorably reviewed by the NYT, FT, and many others. Starting on 12/1 we'll host a book club on How the Other Half Banks. We hope you can join us next week!
Larry Cunningham's Berkshire Beyond Buffett is the kind of book I might expect to see produced by a business school academic; it is unsurprising to see that it has been published by an excellent business school press. The book is oriented around an extremely interesting question: does Berkshire offers some sort of competitive advantage beyond that provided by its once-in-a-generation-brilliant chairman Warren Buffett?
Berkshire has invested in a vast array of businesses; in each of those businesses Buffett looks for a "moat." That is, he looks for a market position that will deter competitors from appearing, prevent customers from disappearing, and retain contracting advantages over suppliers, workers, and other inputs.
But what is Berkshire’s moat? Is it the fact that it is good at finding moats? Or is it something else? Larry answers this question in a way that gets at a division in business schools between management-oriented approaches to scholarship and finance-oriented ones. Financial analysis would focus on the existence of barriers to entry (moats); it might also focus on the low cost of capital that Berkshire Hathaway enjoys, given, among other things, its stellar track record. Management departments might look to something else: a strong corporate culture. In this case, Larry reads more as a management scholar than a finance scholar. Larry's describes, through case studies on a number of Berkshire’s subsidiaries, an ethos that focuses on:
- long time horizons
- an approach to management that is hands off but investor-oriented
- an eschewal of complicated financial engineering
- a preference for straightforward products and quiet but respected branding.
In his view, it is this ethos that makes Berkshire a better manager of firms than most.
Can corporate culture explain business success? It is difficult to measure, but obviously it must play some role. If culture was meaningless we could evaluate the quality of a workplace without setting foot inside it, and nobody does that. In my mind, the more difficult question is this: is Berkshire’s culture replicable? Although Larry has developed a translatable story about what works for Berkshire, implementing it may require a certain set of special skills that most managers simply do not enjoy or possess – to describe, in this view, would not result in the ability to do.
Along the way I learned some interesting things about Berkshire. For example, and for what's it worth:
- The firm is not secretly an insurance company with a hobby in acquiring other firms. Insurance revenues form a minority of the revenues of the conglomerate.
- Nor is it a hedge fund, although it does take positions in numerous companies that it does not own. Those revenues, however, are dwarfed by the revenues provided by the firms it does own.
- Nor is Berkshire a story about a few winning companies saddled to a bunch of modest losers, or, at least, it does not seem to be. In its extremely diversified way, the company has enjoyed productivity from almost unit.
At the Glom, we haven't hid our fascination with the Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, and we have even held a discussion among other law prof supermoms on the book. One of my disappointments with the book was that Prof. Chua didn't discuss her dreams, aspirations, successes and failures in her on career path. Today, I saw this interview with Chua that talks a little bit about her dissatisfaction with law school and practicing law.
Law school tore down my confidence. I hated being called on. It's not a discipline that comes naturally to me. I did not click with law. I'm the hardest worker, but I could not retain the information
Chua then explains that her hard work led her to a clerkship, which she did not enjoy, and a career at Cravath, which she also didn't enjoy, though she worked extremely hard at both. After a 14-year odyssey to break into tenure-track teaching, she found a niche for herself in law and ethnicity in developing countries, a few leaps away from traditional law classes and law practice. One can jump to the conclusion that she might have been happier in a different graduate program in that field without the wandering in the wilderness.
As a professor, this makes me wonder how many really smart folks stumble into law school and just don't enjoy it because they would "click" with a different discipline. As a law professor, we have the amazing flexibility of dabbling in other disciplines, but most folks in law school are destined for the less flexible world of practicing law. I know that I have seen my share of students who are used to succeeding in school by working very, very hard and are flummoxed by the first year of law school. Some double down and work even harder, like Chua, but others sort of stall. (Of course, this is one reason why there are a growing number of people arguing to make it cheaper for law students to leave after one year: Me, Ian Ayres & Ahkil Amar, and Ari Kaplan.
Of course the tabloid-y bit of information in the interview was that Chua and her older daughter, Sophia, were asked to be on The Amazing Race, though they declined. From reading her book, I think Chua and younger daughter, Lola, would make a more ratings-ready pairing!
We Glommers have very much enjoyed the past two days of posts and comments on Amy Chua's funny and fascinating memoir, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. Thanks to all our law professor mom participants! If you are just happening by, check out all the posts:
One of the reasons that I gathered together a whole bunch of law professor moms to talk about Professor Chua's book was that I imagined that the book would raise the question of balancing work and parenting. However, the question was raised then ignored. Though Chua focuses on the tension between pushing her children and not pushing them too hard, she skips over a tension that I know she must feel: the tension between her own career ambitions and her children's success. Early on in the book, she mentions that at Yale she felt like her world was split in half: she went to work early and left in the middle of the day to begin her second job molding her children. That's what I want to hear more about.
Chua briefly describes her childhood, in which she was raised to always be the first person in her class (no ties!), then she quickly skips over a decade to depict her ensuring that her children were first in their respective classes. Bracket for this discussion whether there is coercion in her tactics (our other posts have covered that); the bottom line is that her tactic takes an inordinate amount of time. She pushes Lulu to be concertmaster and Sophia to be the youngest pianist at Carnegie Hall, but she doesn't talk about whether that type of motherly determination required her to not push herself to be concertmaster in her own career realm. Chua is obviously an accomplished and successful teacher and scholar, but she is spending 100 hours a week driving kids to out-of-state lessons, supervising practices and writing improvement notes. However, we all have colleagues inside and outside Yale that are spending those hours on their own careers. Now, I gave up being first in my class sometime in high school, so I'm quite sanguine about letting my colleagues Larry Ribstein and Larry Solum bury me in downloads while I create a balance between productivity and parenting, but I'm wondering whether Chua had to make a decision at some point that her daughters' ranking was her priority.
Balancing career and parenting is a common topic here on the Glom, and I would have loved to have read Chua's take on that. We all have to pinpoint the equilibrium between career and parenting, and the flexibility of law teaching makes that easier than some professions. However, our profession has a lot to tempt the Type A personality and suck up every hour she has: article placement, book publishing, article downloads, media attention, university chairs/awards, etc. If the Tiger Mother was raised to drive herself in the fierce competition of life, then when did the competition shift from her own achievements to creating achievements for her children? Is this a painful shift? When her daughters are in college, will she regret that shift in priority? Will Chua enroll Coco and Pushkin in agility training, senior division? Of course, as I'm writing this I realize that the last month has made Chua and her book famous, so perhaps she is rebalancing with the writing of this memoir. However, I would have liked to have heard more about her working mom issues from the past fifteen years.
Imagine three-year-old Lulu Chua-Rubenfeld standing outside in twenty-degree wind chill weather in skirt and tights because she won’t do what her mother says. What do you see? I see a brilliant negotiator.
I tell my students that negotiation is everywhere. This aphorism may be trite, but its truth is manifestly evident in Amy Chua’s Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. Reading the book, I repeatedly found myself analyzing Professor Chua’s interaction with her daughters from a negotiation perspective.
Perhaps one of the most powerful concepts that has emerged from writing on negotiation in the last thirty or so years is that of the BATNA – the best alternative to a negotiated agreement. The idea of a BATNA is that you need to think carefully about what will happen if you fail to reach a negotiated agreement. If your negotiated deal isn’t better than your BATNA, forget it. For lawyers, the BATNA for negotiating a settlement is nice and easy, at least in theory: if negotiation fails, you’ll go to court. So if your expected value at trial is better than the agreement on the table, reject it. If your expected value is worse, take it. Strong BATNAs provide power at the negotiation table.
The BATNA calculation, as any parent who’s ever had a child on the verge of a meltdown in the supermarket checkout line knows, is not so easy in parenting. Nonetheless, it works pretty much the same way that I've described above. What are the consequences that will ensue from not reaching some kind of agreement with your child? Will there be a tantrum of immense proportions? Will the child learn an important life lesson? Will an important family event be cancelled? It’s a calculation that parents often perform in a split second; sometimes, the miscalculations are the most edifying. (Expected value calculation, after all, is just a number that captures a combination of outcomes and probabilities. And expected value calculations might not look so good stacked up next to the reality of a child screaming bloody murder for 20 blocks as strangers on the sidewalk give you that beady, suspicious stare. Not that that’s ever happened to me, of course.)
So when Amy Chua took Lulu outside in the freezing cold, she was trying to say, “Lulu, your best alternative to a negotiated agreement here is not looking that good. I know you don’t really want to freeze, and so I think the terms I’m offering are pretty good in comparison.” And, lo and behold, Lulu did something amazing – something that marks a really great negotiator. She turned a weakness into strength. She saw through the “your BATNA is to stay out here freezing” gambit to think about what her mother’s BATNA was. In common parlance, we would say that Lulu "called her bluff." I almost feel bad for Professor Chua: it’s a rookie negotiation error. And indeed, as Professor Chua explains quite clearly, all of the sudden her own BATNA wasn’t looking too good. She saw the future, and it involved some ugly interactions with child services. Lulu has the last laugh here, coming inside to a nice warm bath and hot cocoa.
Sure, you might be thinking, but we’re talking about a child here. Well, exactly. A great point about negotiation is that power dynamics can be tremendously fluid, and sometimes they’re defined in ways we wouldn’t predict. They can be especially interesting when the parties, like children, act in unexpected ways. Who has more power, Lulu or her mother? On paper, Chua holds the cards. She runs the house: she can threaten to burn the stuffed animals, prevent trips to the bathroom, and so on, and so on. But Lulu has power too. She can force her mother to either actually carry out her wild threats or abandon them, showing that they were empty threats all along. Perhaps more powerfully, she can mortify her mother and demonstrate that their relationship hangs in the balance. She uses a child’s unpredictability to her great advantage. Lulu the negotiator makes it clear that Chua’s BATNA is a bummer: have a really bad relationship with your child, not just now but maybe later, not to mention having that relationship play out in public.
Certainly, it may be peculiarly Western to believe that you need to negotiate with your child. Indeed, Chua mentions explicitly at one point in the book that Chinese parents view children as extensions of themselves. But children are people, and I’d argue that watching Lulu negotiate is a good reminder that it’s awfully useful to take children seriously as human beings. Lulu is a terrific negotiator. I’d like to have her come and speak to my students.
Sigh. I wish Amy Chua was my mother. Now, keep in mind that I (a) can't draw to save my life (ask my basic tax students, who erupt into peals of laughter when I attempt to draw a tree) and (b) am the least musical person I know (ask anyone who has heard me sing along to the car radio). I'm sure my birthday cards would have been rejected by Chua, and that I'd never be able to master the Little White Donkey.
So why do I feel compelled to defend Chua? As I read her memoir and the ensuing criticism, I kept getting the feeling that this debate is a luxury. Yes, I think being impossible to please is a poor parenting technique that likely produces anxiety-ridden children later on. And yes, I strongly believe that a child should feel loved for herself, and not just for her accomplishments. That said, I think kids are tougher than we often give them credit for, and that we should expect more from them. What we are all trying to do, therefore, is balance unconditional love with high expectations.
The common reaction to Chua is that she gets this balance wrong by focusing too much on accomplishment and perfection. This reaction, however, assumes that the default is the stereotypical upper-middle class mother who shuttles her son to little league games where no score is kept, and raves about his performance as "Villager Number Six" in the school play. And if the choice were Chua or this stereotype, I'd probably choose the stereotype.
But for me growing up, and for a large chunk of children not in the upper-middle class, that's not the choice (I wasn't poor, but I was the scholarship girl in second-hand clothes who lived on the wrong side of the tracks). All too often, the default is parents who are physically or emotionally absent, or parents that don't have the time and money to decide between Western and Tiger-style parenting. Think of all the "choices" upper-middle class professionals have: breast or bottle, nanny or day care, to work outside the home or not. For many, however, those decisions are made for them by their economic circumstances. In a sense, the debate over Chua reflects our luxurious environs: Whether one or three hours is the appropriate-length practice session is irrelevant when you can't afford a piano and have to work nights instead of supervising your child's practice sessions at all. I bet a ton of people would kill for the opportunities the Chua children have, however they are packaged.
The bigger problem, however, isn't parents who want to do right by their kids but just can't afford the opportunities Chua provides. The bigger problem is parents who basically don't care about their kids, for whatever reason. When I was younger, I called my parents "libertarian" in their parenting approach; now I call it "negligent." The result was a mother who was never home, a father who was always asleep, and nobody who was interested in what I was doing or how well I was doing it, or in spending any time with me at all. I essentially raised myself. On a micro-level, I bet it's much harder on a child when they think nobody cares about them at all, rather than when they think their parents care too much or in the wrong way.
And on a macro-level, I think negligence is worse than over-parenting. When negligence happens in an upper-middle class environment, it might not be such a big deal (but for the emotional toll on the child). The child likely goes to a school with caring teachers who can take her under their wing. Perhaps a neighbor or a friend's parent does so. To the extent her peer group is a bad influence, this probably means they skip school once in a while to get drunk, but do not drop out altogether. But they still get a decent education, go on to college, and then live a life of their choosing. I tend to think, like a recent WSJ article suggested, that once a family is economically secure, parenting decisions are not that influential.
But when parental negligence is coupled with economic insecurity, the results can be devastating. The local schools are failing, and it's less likely the neglected child can get a teacher to take an interest in her. Due to the prevalance of single parents and adults scrambling to take whatever job they can get, there are probably fewer adults around after school to pay attention to her. And if the norm is to quit high school or not attend college, the effects of a bad peer group are much worse. Not only does the child herself have fewer options, but the net impact on our society's economy and well-being is magnified.
So if the choice is no parent or a tiger parent, I'll take a tiger parent any day.
As I said in my intro to this book club, I'm having trouble articulating my thoughts on Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. I'm caught between talking about the substance of the book and the "meta": how Chua presents herself and her story. So let me try a paragraph or two on each.
First, substance. Chua presents a strident call-to-arms, "we're different and that's better and we're not going to succumb" approach with a conviction in her own rightness at which I marvel. Because parenting is such a shot in the dark. We make choices for our kids and hope that we're doing the right thing for them, equipping them for a world we can't even imagine, any more than my parents in 1983 could imagine the YouTube or the iPhone4. But we don't know what the right thing is, in general or for any particular child. Maybe pushing a child to be "number one" is the answer. Maybe it's the road to depression, self-loathing, and dysfunction. We don't know. We just kind of fake it and hope for the best.
Lyrissa reminds us of Herodotus' teaching that we can't say anyone is happy until they are dead, i.e. until the end of the story. I share Christine's sense of frustration with Chua's nonending, but I also think that's a strength of the book. We don't, any of us, know how our children's story will end. Hopefully none of us will.
In terms of meta, Sarah just posted an elegant account of the many Amy Chuas, so I'll content myself by observing the destabilizing role of death in the book. Some of the most haunting lines for me described Chua's relationship with her mother-in-law, Florence. Here's the passage:
Florence saw childhood as something fleeting to be enjoyed. I saw childhood as a training period, a time to build character and invest for the future. Florence always wanted just one full day to spend with each girl--she begged me for that. But I never had a full day for them to spare.
I find these words almost unspeakably sad.
Chua recounts how, in a conversation where her cancer-ridden sister has just told her that she didn't have any hope for survival, Katrin tells her not to be so hard on Lulu. Chua is a frustratingly unreliable narrator, but it seems like Katrin's sickness, the loss of Florence, and Lulu's intransigence combine to force Chua to acknowledge that some things are outside her control. She can't quite give up her old ways (tennis, anyone?), and "humbled" certainly seems like the wrong adjective to describe her at the end of the book. But she does seem more willing to make things up as she goes along and to let us see her doing it.
My immediate reaction to Amy Chua's fascinating and brave book and the media storm that followed it was surprise. My surprised reaction was not to Chua's story but to the distinction between Western parenting and Chinese parenting on which it was based and that was particularly highlighted by the media. Strict ambitious Chinese parenting described by Chua was consistently compared to permissive Western parenting. Having spent a lot of time in the last two years thinking and writing about the transformation of American parenting norms - I believe the differences are not as stark.
Chua describes Chinese parenting as extremely intense, demanding children to excel at all costs and investing family resources (time, money and energy) to ensure these goals are met. In our article titled Over-Parenting, Zvi Triger and I describe the ways in which parenting in the United States has changed over the last two decades and has become what we call "intensive parenting." Intensive Parenting is prevalent in middle and upper-middle class families. Intensive parenting is first of all cultivating. Parents spend time and resources identifying their children's strengths and scheduling their days to cultivate these strengths. Children's lives are chock-full with activities designed to make sure they develop to their full potential. Intensive parenting is also informed - parents spend significant amounts of time making sure that they are abreast of all the information necessary to excel at child-rearing. This may mean reading volumes of child development literature or spending hours researching the best after-school French class. Finally, intensive parents consistently monitor their children to assure these goals are met, whether through constant cell phone communication or regular involvement in schools. So really Western intensive parenting and Chinese parenting share a lot in common. Both have high expectations and ambitions for children and parents alike.
Since both parenting styles have high expectations from parents, they both exert an enormous toll on parents. Chua in her book describes in many words the cost of her parenting style to her relationship with her youngest daughter - the daughter who resisted. But neither Chua nor Western intensive parents discuss the toll of these parenting styles on themselves. Both Western intensive parenting and Chinese parenting are extremely intense for parents. They require a massive investment of time. whether it is to accompany your child to piano lessons and oversee hours of practice as Chua describes or whether it is to take children from one after-school activity to another and continually negotiate that each institution caters to your child's need as many Western intensive parents do. These parenting style have costs for adult careers, time spent with spouses and just general adult free time. Unlike our parents, parents today have far less free time that is real adult-time -- not catered to children activities. Yet, this is a topic rarely discussed by Chua or by Western parents.
Having said all of that, I should acknowledge that there are obviously differences between the two parenting styles. These differences become stark particularly when things go wrong. When things go wrong and the child fails, the Chinese parent, according to Chua, blames the child and demands more work to achieve the goal. The Western intensive parent instead blames the institution or the teacher, arguing that the child would have excelled, absent a problem with the institutional arrangement.
Finally, I have to say that I am very glad that Chua wrote her book. Glad not just because it was an honest book and a fascinating read. I am glad because I believe it underscores the message of our Over-Parenting article. In the article we show that the law in many ways is already endorsing Western intensive parenting norms and we caution against further incorporation of intensive parenting norms into the law. We argue that Western intensive parenting is class and culture dependent and not shared by all cultures and classes. In the article we highlight other cultures' parenting practices, which endorse less parental involvement and more free play. Chua's parenting style is a different variation, endorsing intense involvement but using methods that are foreign to Western intensive parenting. The storm that followed the publication of Chua's book showed how strongly people feel about their parenting styles and the danger of enforcing one parenting style through legal standards on all.
I want to build on Christine's earlier post and focus on the fact that Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother is a memoir. So there are at least three Amy Chuas to discuss: Author Amy Chua; Narrator Amy Chua; and "Amy Chua," the book's subject. The book makes clear from very early on that Narrator Amy Chua is unreliable. (Indeed, in a recent interview, Author Amy Chua says, "I've always loved books with unreliable narrators.") Sometimes Narrator Amy Chua is just inconsistent: for example, at the beginning she tells us that her daughters were "never" allowed to go on sleepovers, and later we find out this isn't true. But more frequently, and more enjoyably, she's obtuse, which is the source of most of the humor in this very funny book. For example, in a section that caused both my father and me to laugh so hard that we had to put down the book, "Amy Chua" berates her husband, "What dreams do you have for Sophia, or for Lulu? Do you ever think about that? What are your dreams for Coco?" Sophie and Lulu are the daughters, and Coco is, of course, the family's dog. Narrator Amy Chua implies that "Amy Chua" means this seriously, but Author Amy Chua asks us to laugh.
In other words, Author Amy Chua has created a character, an intense, exaggerated, over-the-top character. (This seems to be a character that she created over time, telling these stories at dinner parties like ones she describes in her book.) A character doesn't have to be false, exactly. I highlight particular aspects of myself when I teach, and they are real, but by leaving some parts of me out of the classroom and emphasizing other parts, I create a character. This person is similar to me in many ways (Professor Lawsky loves tax, video games, sports, her kids, and tax, and she loses things, like the eraser and the remote control), but she is not all of me (just one obvious example: any serious stuff related to my family stays out). If you got to know just the character who teaches my classes, you would not know me.
So I find it unsurprising that Author Amy Chua is maternal and moderate and thus "disappointing" when she discusses parenting at Davos, or that Amy Chua's real-life daughter writes in the New York Post that "no outsider can know what our family is like." Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother is a memoir, but it is enjoyable in large part because Author Amy Chua does such a good job of creating characters, instead of giving us an accurate blow-by-blow account of life in the Chua-Rubenfeld household. I think Ali G is funny, but I don't expect to get the same sort of entertainment from an interview with Sacha Baron Cohen. And if the organizers of Davos had wanted Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother to come alive, they should have asked Amy Chua to come as "Amy Chua."