Stephen J. DUBNER: Once upon a time, I was on a plane with Nassim Taleb. He is a philosopher of sorts, and he writes fascinating books – most recently The Black Swan and Antifragile.
Nassim TALEB: Hello, I’m Nassim Taleb. I’m an author and I would say a statistical engineer.
DUBNER: Now, Taleb is originally from Lebanon, and he still goes back a few times a year. He lives just outside of New York City now. On this plane trip, he told me something I’d never heard before, which was that if you look at ten or twenty or thirty of the richest countries around the world, that among the richest people in those countries is someone from Lebanon.
TALEB: When we met last we were going from London to South Africa on this beautiful trip with extremely hospitable people. It was great. And so we were going, and then suddenly we started discussing the Lebanese diaspora….
DUBNER: And when he started talking about this, about how successful the Lebanese diaspora is, I had three quick reactions. 1: Interesting, if it’s true. 2: Is it true? And 3: If true, why?
ANNOUNCER: From WNYC: This is FREAKONOMICS RADIO, the podcast that explores the hidden side of everything. Here’s your host, Stephen Dubner.
DUBNER: So, the author Nassim Taleb, who is Lebanese-American, tells us that the Lebanese diaspora has been incredibly successful, and he’s got some theories – some deep-seated historical theories – as to why that is. But before we get back to him, let’s take a closer look at the Lebanese community in the States and elsewhere. We’ll start with a friend of mine, named George Atallah, Jr. Remember the Jr. George is 35 years old; he works for the N.F.L. Players’ Association. And he too is Lebanese-American.
DUBNER: All right, so, George, if there was one person you could think of who could explain the mysteries of Lebanese prominence and prosperity around the world, where would I go?
George ATALLAH JR: You’d have to talk to my dad. He is probably as encyclopedic a character as there is on the Lebanese community. You know my dad always used to tell me stories about, you know, and I will use his accent here, ‘the richest guy in Brazil is Lebanese. The most famous guy in Mexico is Lebanese.’
Georges ATALLAH SR: I mean, you have, you read his name Carlos Slim, Carlos is Lebanese.
Suzie LECHTENBERG: So I called George Atallah’s dad.
DUBNER: This is Suzie Lechtenberg. Hi Suzie.
DUBNER: She’s a producer on the show.
LECHTENBERG: He was in the midst of a lovely evening when I talked to him.
ATALLAH SR: I mean, I’m sitting by the balcony looking over Beirut and enjoying a nice glass of white wine.
LECHTENBERG: These days he splits his time between New York and Beirut. And, basically, he echoed much of what his son told you.
DUBNER: Okay, and we should just say that the Carlos Slim that he mentioned is not just the most famous guy in Mexico, but also the richest man in the world. So, Suzie, tell me a bit more about the Atallah family.
LECHTENBERG: Right, so, basically, they emigrated to the United States after the civil war broke out in 1975.
ATALLAH SR: I left Lebanon in 1978…
ATALLAH JR: We made our home in Queens, New York.
ATALLAH SR: I was married, with a three-month child.
DUBNER: Okay, so that’s little George Atallah, Jr.
LECHTENBERG: Yep. And the family has this classic, boot-strap immigrant tale.
ATALLAH JR: My dad had a high school degree, my mom had a high school degree, neither of them went to college.
LECHTENBERG: The elder Atallah could only speak a few words of English when he arrived in the United States.
ATALLAH SR: My first language is French, my education is French.
LECHTENBERG: Even so, he became super successful. He got a job as a banker. And he started to build up his client base. And how did he do that? By opening a phone book and looking for Lebanese names.
ATALLAH JR: …he looked through the white pages, found anybody’s name who sounded like it was Lebanese, and called them up out of the blue.
DUBNER: So, the idea is you have a Lebanese last name …. do you want to be my client at my bank?
LECHTENBERG: That’s right. And just by looking at their names, he could tell even more about them.
ATALLAH JR: So, he recognized where the last names correlated with what parts of Lebanon they were from.
LECHTENBERG: Clearly, this guy knows a thing or two about Lebanese names.
DUBNER: Okay, so, when I talked to George Jr., he told me about his father’s intense pride in their heritage. And that whenever the name of any successful person comes up, George Sr. tries to claim that person as Lebanese. Is that actually true?
LECHTENBERG: That is definitely true. Are you ready?
DUBNER: Yeah, I’m ready.
LECHTENBERG: Okay, here goes:
ATALLAH SR: You have so many, you have so many successful people. You have Casey Kasem, Jamie Farr. Have you heard of Jamie Farr?
[M*A*S*H* SOUND EFFECT]
DUBNER: Yeah, right, Corporal Klinger, right, on M*A*S*H*, the guy who is always trying to get a Section 8.
LECHTENBERG: Now, I know Jamie Farr. You know who else is Lebanese?
DUBNER: Who else is Lebanese?
LECHTENBERG: Everyone else! Like Marlo Thomas.
ATALLAH SR: Yeah, Marlo, she’s the daughter of Danny.
LECHTENBERG: Also Helen Thomas, the former White House correspondent.
ATALLAH SR: Yeah, Helen, Helen, sure, Helen Thomas is Lebanese, no question.
DUBNER: Nice. Who else?
ATALLAH SR: George Mitchell is part Lebanese. Tony Shalhoub is Lebanese, yes.
DUBNER: I love Tony Shalhoub. From Monk. Great actor. All right, Suzie, who else?
ATALLAH SR: John Sununu, Spencer Abraham…The first governor of Oregon was Atiyeh, Governor Atiyeh, very successful…The one who started Kinko’s is Lebanese…Salma Hayek, she’s Mexican-Lebanese…the heart surgeon DeBakey… Carlos Ghosn…Joe Haagar…Khalil Gibran… Elie Saab…You have one famous scientist also with NASA, but I don’t know his name. And who owns the bridge between Canada and Detroit? He’s a Lebanese guy, Moroun. Google!
DUBNER: So, George Atallah Jr. was right. His dad does try to claim just about everyone as Lebanese — even if they might not be.
ATALLAH JR: I mean, tell you, even athletes, he’ll look at his name and he’ll say, John Elway, is Lebanese. And I’ll say, what are you talking about? And he goes, yes, Elway, the Elway family. And we grew up with that all the time. He’s just the best when it comes to that stuff. And, you know, we take a lot of pride in our culture.
DUBNER: Was anybody in your father’s view not Lebanese?
ATALLAH JR: Some people were. Yes.
DUBNER: Give me an example of someone who plainly couldn’t be…
ATALLAH JR: Well, even my Irish principal, Mr. Healy, at one point was considered to be Lebanese. So, and he was clearly not.
DUBNER: As for John Elway? The truth is, we don’t know. His name is listed on a website of prominent Lebanese-Americans — but when we tried to ask him directly via the Denver Broncos, where he starred as a quarterback and is now an executive, we didn’t get an answer. Whatever the case with John Elway: I do understand the Atallah family’s pride in all things Lebanese. But just think of the successful Italians and Irish and Swedes in this country. Couldn’t we make a big list from any of them? Did you know that Nigerians are one of the most educated immigrant groups in America? Did you know that Slovaks have the highest rate of homeownership? And look at the Jews. Jews make up less than .2% of the global population, but more than 20% of all Nobel Prize winners are Jewish. So, is the Lebanese diaspora really that successful?
Akram KHATER: It’s very difficult to sort of say across the board that they were the most successful diaspora.
DUBNER: Akram Khater is a professor of Middle Eastern history at North Carolina State University. He moved here from Lebanon in 1978, during a long and brutal civil war. While Khater tells us that the Lebanese may not be the most successful diaspora, the data show that, at least in the U.S., they are doing pretty well.
KHATER: There’s no doubt that if you look at the statistics today, and this is from the census, the Lebanese community, on average, they actually do seem to have, in terms of economic measures, on average, bigger houses, they’re more professional in terms of their employment, they have better income. So if one is to take that as a measure, then they are fairly highly successful, yes.
DUBNER: In the U.S., the median household income is about fifty thousand dollars. For Lebanese-Americans? Sixty-five thousand dollars. Pretty impressive. So, what else?
KHATER: What you find on average is that in terms of Ph.D.s there are usually as many as three Lebanese-Americans with Ph.D.s to everyone sort of general-population American who has a Ph.D. So they’re really a much higher rate. In terms of Master’s, you see a much higher rate, about 2.4 to 1, and a bachelor’s degree it’s a little bit lower than that. So I think you will find the most Lebanese-Americans, and really actually, by the way, most Arab Americans tend to be more highly educated than the general population.
DUBNER: So if Lebanese-Americans are doing so well, the next logical question is:
Why? Coming up on Freakonomics Radio: What makes the Lebanese do what the Lebanese are so good at doing?
TALEB: A little bit of adversity results in a little more performance in anything.
ANNOUNCER: From WNYC: This is FREAKONOMICS RADIO. Here’s your host, Stephen Dubner.
DUBNER: Everyone we talked to for this episode had an opinion as to why the Lebanese diaspora is so successful. Georges Atallah Sr. thinks that success simply courses through their veins.
ATALLAH SR: You know, it may be in their genes. Lebanese has in his blood, he’s hard-working, he likes to improve his life, and he has some network that he can count on. If he wants to go into business, I mean, he can call a cousin in Brazil or a sister in Africa or whatever. So the network is very important. Plus, he blends in society and adapts very well.
DUBNER: And here’s his son, also George, who works for the N.F.L. Players Association.
ATALLAH JR: We tend to trace it back to the folklore of our Phoenician merchant days. All of that’s part of our history. And I think we pride ourselves on our relationship with people. That’s really what I would attribute it to.
DUBNER: Akram Khater, the historian at N.C. State pinpoints two pivotal moments in Lebanese history. The country had two major waves of emigration. The first ran from about 1880 to 1920.
KHATER: The Christians of Lebanon left because they were being persecuted by the Ottoman authorities.
DUBNER: But religious persecution was just one reason.
KHATER: The reality is, the predominant reason they left is economic. And specifically what happened in that time period is that the Lebanese economy had become very dependent on silk production.
DUBNER: Khater says a crash in the silk market drove people into poverty and, subsequently, out of the country. The next exodus came during Lebanon’s civil war, which began in 1975. Forty percent of the population left the country.
KHATER: And, basically, the violence led to severe economic difficulties and instabilities between 1975 and 1990. So, what you find is that these university graduates were sitting there trying to figure out what to do, and they could not find jobs, so they would leave.
DUBNER: So these highly educated, middle-class Lebanese fled to places like Brazil, Argentina, Canada, the U.S., South Africa, and Australia. Which is what leads us to one of the most interesting things about the Lebanese diaspora.
KHATER: If you look at the diaspora community, with these two waves that I spoke about, the 1880 to 1920, we think somewhere around 360,000 left from that time period. And if you sort of multiple by about three or four generations, I mean, you can’t really get an accurate number, but by three or four generations, you’re looking at about, maybe 2 to 3 million globally. Then of course, from 1975 forward you have another 1.7 million that left. So, ostensibly, there are at least as many Lebanese outside of Lebanon as there are within Lebanon.
DUBNER: There are roughly 4.2 million people living in Lebanon today. We’ve seen estimates that as many as 15-20 million people of Lebanese descent live outside of the country. And when they leave, Lebanese stick together. They network. They work hard. They place a lot of emphasis on education, which segues into highly skilled and highly paid jobs.
KHATER: I think what you find is the two major areas are engineering and medicine. Those are sort of, for myself, speaking personally, I’m part of the 1970, post-1975…I came here in 1978. And at the time I was attending high school. Basically, every good Lebanese boy, every good Arab boy really had to be a doctor or an engineer. Those were the two venues of success. Those were your entry points into middle and upper-middle class. That’s how you would succeed.
DUBNER: Akram Khater did become an engineer. But he was also interested in the
humanities. He studied history and, somewhat unusually, women’s studies. He is in fact the only double-major in engineering and women’s studies we’ve ever come across.
KHATER: I don’t know. I have to be quite honest, and I don’t know if I should say this, but, you know, the truth of the matter is, I took the women’s studies course because they told me there were a lot of girls in the class.
DUBNER: So the Lebanese success story really does seem to be about a certain kind of entrepreneurial spirit. But Nassim Taleb says it’s more than that. Taleb, you remember, is where we began this episode. He’s a Lebanese-American author, most recently of a book called Antifragile: Things that Gain From Disorder. In his view, Lebanon itself and the Lebanese have, in some ways, gained from disorder.
TALEB: The idea that in a natural setting, anything natural, anything organic, anything biological up to a point reacts a lot better to stressors than without. So, in other words, now, for example, I’m talking to you now on this line. If the line has some noise on it, a little bit of mess here and there, and there’s a little bit of noise, then the listeners will grasp the message a lot better and remember it longer. A little bit of adversity results in things, a little bit of strain, of stress, results in a little more performance on anything.
DUBNER: Explain in the case of the phone line why that is.
TALEB: You switch from what Daniel Kahneman calls system one to system two. One system where you’re passive and not making an effort to an effortful one. And that switch takes place via a stressor. You prune a tree, it grows stronger, you see. It’s the same kind of response in a different domain. And when you and I were on a plane, the conversation was definitely about this “antifragile” reaction by people who, when they face adversity, exile, they tend to fare better when we go to… And then we got to South Africa, and sure enough the Lebanese diaspora there is very small but monstrously successful.
DUBNER: All right, let me ask you this then. We had the Ottoman Empire collapse, and the Levant became Lebanon and Syria. And things changed politically there. Then a very bad civil war in Lebanon in the 1970s, a lot more emigration. And now, the situation in Lebanon is changing daily as we speak. It’s rather chaotic with Hezbollah…
TALEB: It’s not chaotic. It’s not chaotic. Let me tell you something because I go to Lebanon several times a year, I have a place there in my village, which, incidentally, I have a chapter in Antifragile where what I do is a very comparative analysis. I went to Abu Dhabi and they were building these universities, hoping to get the people, you know, to have their industrial revolution. And then I went to my home village that had been destroyed during the war and is now richer than ever. I see a bunch of villas and then realize the value of stressors. So, Lebanon has… you’re in the news business, you know…the news is not about…
DUBNER: The anomalies.
TALEB: The anomalies, it’s about the lurid. So, if you take the homicide rate in Lebanon, including the few problems that we’ve had, it’s still considerably lower than the United States, and vastly lower than Brazil. So it’s much more stable than we think. Now, the other thing about being “antifragile,” Lebanon has gone through war. I think it has some immunity to war because every time you think the whole thing is going to collapse, like in Syria, nothing happens. And effectively in The Black Swan, I was warning pseudo-stability, Syria, the more you stabilize, the more a place seems non-chaotic, like today Saudi Arabia, tomorrow is going to have problems. Or look at Egypt, it looked very stable. Lebanon on the other hand is continuous fear of chaos and yet is very stable. If you forget the news and look on the ground, you see remarkable stability. Even prosperity, in spite of everything.
DUBNER: So, in Taleb’s view, the Lebanese people have developed inner stability — an inner drive to succeed, even — because of a “continued fear of chaos.” As interesting as you may find his thesis, you may also be tempted to argue with it. There are plenty of countries where chaos and war didn’t leave behind a population that was ready to take on the world. Quite the opposite, in fact. But the success of Lebanese immigrants around the world is, indeed, something to admire. We should also note, however, that when we talk about the success of one or another group of immigrants, we should focus on one key component of that equation: these were people who emigrated. Here, again, is North Carolina State historian Akram Khater:
KHATER: The first thing I would say is that anybody who immigrates is already a self-selecting population. In other words, when you make the decision, and this kind of goes on a larger notion. Our understanding of immigration is of these sort of desperate souls that are sort of clinging to lifeboats and arriving here, and just, that’s it. It’s a very nice narrative, but it’s a false narrative. In fact, most people, whether we’re talking about the Great Migration of the nineteenth century or the current migration, Hispanics and what have you, they don’t come here beyond the fact that most of them, the great majority of them come here to make money with the full intention of going back, by the way. And if you look at the rate of return in the nineteenth century, the Great Migration period, whether you’re talking about Germans with 80 percent return rate, or Northern Italians with about 60 percent, or Southern Italians with 30 percent, or even the Lebanese with about 37 percent. These people came here, they uprooted themselves from their culture, from their family, the familiar world that they exist in, many of them, especially in the turn of the twentieth century, many of them with not even a word of English. And, you know, it’s a little bit better. But still, people are arriving in this whole new alien place in which they had to adjust in all sorts of ways. They’re coming here specifically to make money. So, it takes a particular kind of individual to do that. It takes somebody who is already self-selecting. So, you’re looking at a population that has, you know, has the tools, the sort of entrepreneurial, adventurous, pioneering spirit, personality, mentality. And so that already prepares them to undertake this incredibly risky process, investment if you will. I must hasten to add, by the way, that not everybody succeeded.
DUBNER: It’s a great point that Khater makes. When you look at a big group of people or a big pile of data, our attention is often captured by the bright, shiny success stories. And we forget about everyone that failed. This is sometimes called survivorship bias. Let’s say I were to ask you to name a “high-tech company that started in a garage,” what company comes to mind? Depending on your age, you might say Apple or Hewlett-Packard. But what about the thousands and thousands of other people who started tech companies in their garages — and who failed? They are pretty much forgotten. So, the fact that you are alive to listen to this program means that someone, somewhere in your family tree, survived. Maybe they beat some long odds; maybe they escaped war or an economic depression — or a saber-tooth tiger out for lunch. In any case, congratulations. And, if you also happen to be Lebanese? Hey, double congratulations.