Monday, October 12, 2015

The Asian Advantage

My mom knows how to make a three stone fire. If you don't know what that is, don't worry, neither did I. Apparently it's how people made fire to cook before microwaves and stoves. It's how her family did things until "Esso" became available which was the shorthand for propane. Her family got electricity and telephone service in the 60s, the first in her town.

By most material measures, at that time, the Philippines was very poor compared to the US, even compared to the US poor.* Anyway, they came here, worked very hard, sacrificed tons, put me and my sister through college, and are now relatively well-off. Most Filipinos in the US are doing okay. Maybe not as high flying as the Chinese and Koreans, but compared to what they came from just fifty years ago, it's a Cinderella story.**

Nicholas Kristof, trying to defend his thesis that African Americans are doing poorly relative to whites on account of racism, tries to suggest that the reason Asian Americans do even better than whites despite being a minority is because Asian immigrants are well-to-do highly educated professionals.


Most Chinese immigration to the US was in the form of laborers driven by poverty and famine to seek a better life. They were mostly laborers and faced enormous discrimination. The Chinese Exclusion Act and anti-Chinese lynchings and mobs drastically reduced their population - in Seattle at least. Japanese people were sought after to replace them as cheap labor. Similar to Koreans today, the Japanese setup small shops and gradually became successful. Eventually the Japanese were barred from immigrating and Filipinos ended up replacing them.

The Chinese Exclusion act was only repealed during World War II, a period that saw the rise of Japanese internment camps. Although Japan became an important ally in the postwar period, the rise of Communist China, the Korean and Vietnam "wars" have provided plenty of fodder for Hollywood to stoke negative stereotypes. Maybe the post Civil War experience for African Americans has been one of greater oppression. Maybe not, the podium standings at the Oppression Olympics aren't important. What is important is the fact that discrimination does not explain the dismal situation faced by African Americans relative to other groups, especially Asian Americans have also faced systemic discrimination but have thrived.

There are many possible explanations for this: Confucian cultural emphasis on study, high savings rates (i.e. low time preference), strong families, optimal selection (migrants tend to have the risk taking qualities that favor entrepreneurship), and yes, even a racial component. Some of these things we can't change - at least until genetic modification becomes more available - but things like keeping a family together, studying hard, and saving money are things "black" and "white" America could learn from the so-called model minority.*** But all those things require quiet and long term sacrifice, something that does not fit with the news cycle and clickbait proclivities of mainstream media like the New York Times and writers like Nicholas Kristof.


*  Although, interestingly, the Philippines punched well above its weight in health outcomes when compared to income as the following talk shows. It's a long talk and if you had to pick between reading the rest of this post or watching the talk, I suggest you watch the talk. It's the only "Everything You Know About X is Wrong!" piece on the Internet that lives up to the hype.

Hans Rosling, back when TED was good

** Better than Cinderella in many ways because modern civilizations have better health and dental care, access to more varieties of food and entertainment, cheaper and faster travel, near instant communications world wide, hot water on tap, air conditioning, the Internet, etc. And that's for average people, not just royalty.

*** The reasons for the decline in all these things are complex and some of them are external to the immediate actors. There's far less incentive to save, for example, if the government lowers interest rates and erodes the value of savings through inflation as is the case today. The trend over time has been for people to form relationships on the basis of enjoyment rather than to create a stable environment to raise children. Both can exist in a relationship but the outcomes are radically different if the former has priority over the latter. Etc, etc.

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