Having already been primed by Mitt Romney’s London debacle to look out for gaffes, the traveling press corps immediately jumped on the candidate’s comments about the Palestinians as yet another case of foot in mouth. (The overall impression of a gaffe-fest was finally and invariably cemented by his aide’s angry tirade in the final stop in Poland.) The shame of it, though, is that Romney’s meditation on the Palestinians is not a gaffe, or even merely a deliberate pander to Israel hawks, but a genuine window into his view of the world — not just of the Middle East, but on wealth and poverty in general. Romney has expressed versions of this belief over and over, including in his book. It appears to be a foundational belief of his. It is also a subject on which he appears to be a little confused.
Romney has weirdly (or, perhaps, habitually) denied that he attributed the economic plight of the Palestinians to poor culture. (“I'm not speaking about it, did not speak about the Palestinian culture or the decisions made in their economy.”) But he obviously was. To understand what Romney was saying, we need to read a lengthy transcription:
I was thinking this morning as I prepared to come into this room of a discussion I had across the country in the United States about my perceptions about differences between countries. And as you come here and you see the GDP per capita for instance in Israel which is about 21,000 dollars and you compare that with the GDP per capita just across the areas managed by the Palestinian Authority which is more like 10,000 dollars per capita you notice a dramatic, stark difference in economic vitality. And that is also between other countries that are near or next to each other. Chile and Ecuador, Mexico and the United States. I noted that part of my interest when I used to be in the world of business is I would travel to different countries was to understand why there were such enormous disparities in the economic success of various countries. I read a number of books on the topic. One, that is widely acclaimed, is by someone named Jared Diamond called ‘Guns, Germs and Steel,’ which basically says the physical characteristics of the land account for the differences in the success of the people that live there. There is iron ore on the land and so forth. And you look at Israel and you say you have a hard time suggesting that all of the natural resources on the land could account for all the accomplishment of the people here. And likewise other nations that are next door to each other have very similar, in some cases, geographic elements. But then there was a book written by a former Harvard professor named ‘The Wealth and Poverty of Nations.’ And in this book Dr. Landes describes differences that have existed — particularly among the great civilizations that grew and why they grew and why they became great and those that declined and why they declined. And after about 500 pages of this lifelong analysis—this had been his study for his entire life — and he’s in his early 70s at this point, he says this, he says, if you could learn anything from the economic history of the world it’s this: culture makes all the difference. Culture makes all the difference.
Okay, so Romney is addressing the question of why some nations prosper more than others, and he cites two books devoted to this question, and concluding that he sides with the interpretation in the second, The Wealth and Poverty of Nations by David Landes, over the first, Guns, Germs and Steel by Jared Diamond. In Romney’s shorthand, Diamond attributes everything to geography, and Landes attributes everything to culture.
Even making allowances for the fact that he was speaking off the cuff, Romney oversimplifies the arguments to a degree that he badly misses the point. The primary explanatory point of Guns, Germs and Steel is that some regions of the world had an abundance of domesticable crops and animals, which allowed them the necessary food surplus that, in turn, drove a series of technological advances that followed and which allowed them to conquer other parts of the world. (Iron ore plays a secondary role in the story.)
Diamond’s argument does have some holes in which it fails to explain how some regions that did benefit from early agricultural development failed to develop dynamic political and economic systems. Landes helps fill in that gap, but — judging from the excerpt and review — he is far from the cultural determinist Romney makes him out to be. Landes emphasizes, for instance, that some climates are far more amenable to economic development than others.
A second problem with Romney’s analysis is his attempt to apply it to the divergent conditions of Israel and the Palestinians. Palestinians are living under a military occupation that makes economic development almost impossible. Indeed, George W. Bush used to endorse the idea that the Palestinians are an especially entrepreneurial culture. That’s obviously a hard thing to measure, but Romney’s flip method of attributing Israel’s prosperity and the Palestinians’ poverty entirely to culture is absurd.
Now, in Romney’s defense, in citing the role of political and economic culture, he has identified one of the biggest and most longstanding liberal blind spots. There is a long history of lazy analysis which attributes the success and failure of various groups to their values, often relying on shallow racial stereotypes and usually in the purpose of justifying existing privilege. For that reason, liberals tend to habitually dismiss cultural explanations of difference. Culture does play a larger role than many liberals will admit. The key thing to understand is that cultural differences don’t arise from genetic differences — they arise from material conditions themselves, which shows that culture is itself amenable to changes in material conditions.
It’s pretty hard to know exactly what conclusions Romney has taken away from these books. The shorthand version he offers up on the campaign trail is little more than a modernized version of western self-congratulation: Those of us who are rich owe our success to hard work and strong values, and those who are poor have only themselves to blame. It’s possible Romney actually subscribes to a more nuanced version of this worldview, but in the hothouse atmosphere of a presidential campaign, we’ll never know.