World on Fire

I read this book World on Fire by Amy Chua, about the economic role of ethnic minorities in many developing countries. Chua is a law professor, not a scientist, but she has an interesting thesis. She also deserves props for writing carefully about a dynamic that many people, regardless of their politics, would rather not discuss.
    Ethic minorities form cohesive groups in many countries because they are isolated, according to Chua. When the economy begins to modernize, for whatever reason, the stronger network of ethnic minorities can create an advantage in forging business relationships. While most members of the minority will continue to do poorly, a few highly-visible members of the minority will become very important to the economy --and very wealthy. The consequences are complex, but can often involve an ethnic backlash, sometimes as part of a pro-democracy movement.
    This thesis has something to make almost everyone uncomfortable. Conservatives won't want to consider that capitalism and democracy are often at cross-purposes in developing economies. Conversely, liberals won't want to reflect on the overt racism of pro-democracy movements with legitimate grievances against totalitarian regimes.
    World on Fire is a thought-provoking book on it's own terms. One can also read it as an investigation of social network effects in economic development. It's no secret that the Bay Area is a technology economic engine in part because you can walk into the hot topic in almost any technology area on your way to dinner. Ethnic minorities function as a sort of virtual Bay Area. They represent a more highly interconnected community in which ideas and projects can germinate then break out into larger society with surprising force.
    Interesting that describing the Bay Area in this way doesn't seem to raise hackles, but describing an ethnic minority in this way almost invites racism. The difference between the two situations is both obvious and subtle. If "Bay-Areans" were discriminated against for where they were from, the situations wouldn't seem so different at all.


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