`Tribes,' Class, Economic Pressure

IF there is a silver lining to storm clouds such as those blasting the eastern half of the United States in recent days, it may be that being stuck in airports for hours at a time provides an opportunity to catch up on one's reading.

Kevin Phillips's new book "Boiling Point: Democrats, Republicans, and the Decline of Middle-Class Prosperity" makes an interesting counterpoint to another hot-ticket volume just out, Joel Kotkin's "Tribes: How Race, Religion and Identity Determine Success in the New Global Economy."

A common theme underlying both - explicitly in the Phillips, implicitly in the Kotkin - is unrelenting economic pressure. Phillips details a political response within American society to that pressure; Kotkin details what we might call an entrepreneurial response within the global community.

In public issues, the economic lens can often make a helpful reality check on the view provided by the political lens, and vice versa. The economic lens forces the discipline of the bottom line; the political lens shows us how we must take people's feelings seriously.

Phillips, the editor/publisher of the National Political Report, first came to national attention in 1969 with his analysis entitled "The Emerging Republican Majority." In 1990 he came out with "The Politics of Rich and Poor." In his latest book he makes the case for how the deregulating, free-market Republican leadership, responsible through the Reagan-Bush years for helping the rich get richer, while the middle classes made gains that would prove only illusory, finally so lost touch with the electorate

that George Bush was defeated in his reelection bid last November.

The title alone of "Tribes" is provocative, and its subtitle even more so, and grimly deterministic-sounding to boot. Kotkin considers five "transnational" ethnic groups - the Jews, the British, the Japanese, the Chinese, and the (Asian) Indians - who have achieved some form of global economic success over the centuries. He also suggests that we keep an eye out for other up-and-coming tribes: the Armenians, the Palestinians, and even the Mormons. Common characteristics of these "tribes" include a strong ethnic identity, a global network that functions like one big family (one far-flung Chinese family keeps in touch via a faxed family newsletter, Kotkin reports), an aptitude for new technology and a flair for spotting new economic opportunities.

The distinctiveness of Kotkin's tribes often has a religious component to it, but the capacity for plain hard work, and lots of it, is probably more important. Many of these tribes flourish best in a "diaspora" mode.

By including "Anglo-Americans" in his definition of tribes, Kotkin presumably deflects some but not all critics who will call him racist; but it's not clear just who the "Anglo-American" tribe is. Similarly, that Kotkin is himself Jewish may make some comments about Jews in the "rag trade" and in the media business in great numbers more acceptable than they would be otherwise; some will likely still take offense.

Does Kotkin intend his book to be somehow inspirational? One is left unsure whether the message Kotkin intends to leave with his readers is that they, too, can learn to achieve "tribal" success by being future-oriented and receptive to new economic opportunity, or that they should forget about certain kinds of success if they are not really part of one of the chosen tribes.

And there is a dark side implicit in his discussion of "transnationals": Although at one level the book is about opportunity, at another it is about a primitive environment in which national political constructs and attempts at what we might call civilized society don't matter much. Even in their success, the "tribes" remain outsiders from the society in which they succeed, even as they are often exiles from their homelands. In the end, the implicit message is, you can count on your tribe, which is just as well, because that may be all you can count on.

And yet the question for a truly open society has to be, how great is a people's ability to give newcomers a genuinely warm welcome, to love its adopted children as much as it loves its native-born sons and daughters?

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