A vision of success in business as a product of the tribal genes



Joel Kotkin.

Random House.

343 pages. $24.

Not far from downtown Tel Aviv sits a ruling palace of the world diamond trade, where the industry's pulse is endlessly monitored, analyzed and acted on.

Geography has nothing to do with the Diamond Center's location in the heart of the Jewish state. Geography, indeed, is a good reason why it might not have flourished in a place that has been so isolated at times by wars and hostile neighbors.

It exists, says author Joel Kotkin, for the simple reason that it was built, nourished and maintained by Jews. They had the skills, knowledge, contacts and will to maintain it. It was, as he might say, part of their tribal legacy.

The chemistry that has enabled Jews to succeed economically throughout time around the world, he argues, is found today in at least four other tribes -- the Japanese, Chinese, Indians and Anglo-Saxons. Because they possess similar keys to success, these five tribes will determine the world's economic fate in the 21st century, he predicts.

Taking up the mantra of global corporations, he offers a controversial thesis that the world will also soon become a place of global tribes instead of global nations, tribes dispersed by social and economic forces but inalterably linked by modern communications in a close-knit network of tribal dealings.

This theory seems, at first, somewhat plausible. But on consideration, the explanations for the tribal victories are frayed and faulty. More basically, the vision of a future lorded over by tribes is a grim and depressing one. It stirs the kind of dread that is the reason why nations are born, and why humanity forever struggles to overcome tribal urges and excesses.

It essentially becomes a question of success thanks to a destiny sown deep in the tribal genes -- or success spurred by conditions and fortune over the long haul of time. The latter seems more likely.

The Jews are a good example. Financial success has clearly touched some Jews; one-fifth of the 64 billionaires in the United States in 1990 were Jews, according to Mr. Kotkin. But the Jewish economic miracle in the United States and some Western nations doesn't easily translate elsewhere.

Israel, to be sure, is hardly an example of economic brilliance. The Israeli economy is one of the last socialist models around, and its problems mainly come from its Zionist founders. They were socialists and not capitalists, and their children have been unable to accept the idea that tough economic principles come before anything else.

Then there is our problem, the dilemma of the British and their Anglo-Saxon progeny, which mostly means the United States. To Mr. Kotkin, the British succeeded marvelously in carving out empires where others failed because a commercial zeal drove them. Americans inherited this and passed it on wherever they went.

But the American tribe has been reinvented 100 times over, and it is difficult to argue that the conservative British business mind-set is what propelled the American economic upheaval.

Furthermore, where our economic wisdom has ultimately taken us is questionable. Without our physical isolation and vast natural resources, it is not clear the United States would have soared to such heights. One of the reasons the United States is facing such an economic crisis is that its basic vision, our legacy from the British, failed at a time when other economies were roaring ahead.

The core of Mr. Kotkin's argument is that tribal groups have prospered because they shared a sense of identity, relied on each other and clung to a faith in progress. This is hard to deny.

Yet what basically shapes his five groups, except the Jews, are their national identities. Mr. Kotkin points out that the best example of a group that clings to its national and not global identity is the Japanese.

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