Romney cites David Landes, offends Palestinians (whose honor must be preserved at the cost of their prosperity)

JERUSALEM — Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney angered Palestinian leaders on Monday when he suggested here that the Israeli economy had outpaced the economy of the Palestinian territories in part because of advantages of “culture.”Palestinians said that Romney had ignored the long-running Israeli restrictions on crossings from the Gaza Strip and West Bank, which they say are an enormous drag on trade.

Romney’s campaign said afterward that the remark had been misinterpreted. “This was not in any way an attempt to slight the Palestinians,” Stuart Stevens, Romney’s chief strategist, told reporters in a later stop in Gdansk, Poland. “And everyone knows that.”

Romney had said at a breakfast fundraiser that he had pondered the reasons for Israel’s huge economic advantage over the neighboring territories.“As you come here and you see the [Gross Domestic Product] per capita, for instance, in Israel which is about $21,000 dollars, and compare that with the GDP per capita just across the areas managed by the Palestinian authority, which is more like $10,000 per capita, you notice such a dramatically stark difference in economic vitality,” Romney said, according to a pool report.
And then compare it with areas with far less international capital pumping up the economy, like Jordan, or Egypt, or Syria, or Lebanon, and you realize that it’s not just an issue of Israel vs. the PA, but Israel vs. Arab political economy which, without oil, is the least productive in the world.
In fact, the difference is far more stark than that. According to the World Bank, Israel’s GDP per capita is actually $31,282. The same figure for the Palestinian areas is around $1,600.Romney said he had studied a book called “The Wealth and Poverty of Nations,” searching for an answer about why two neighboring places–the U.S. and Mexico, for instance, or Israel and the Palestinian areas–could have such disparate prosperity.“Culture makes all the difference. Culture makes all the difference,” Romney said, repeating the conclusion he drew from that book, by David Landes [my father]. “And as I come here and I look out over this city and consider the accomplishments of the people of this nation, I recognize the power of at least culture and a few other things.”
It has always been a matter of some wonder to me that while Israel represents the single most exceptional example of Landes’ thesis that culture counts (i.e., a place with virtually no natural resources which, in 1900, was at the bottom of the third world and in one century went from there to the top of the first world almost entirely on the basis of its cultural capital), he devoted none of his chapters to that case study. Indeed Romney seems to have made precisely that point in contrasting the argument of Jared Diamond in Guns, Germs and Steel about the critical factor of primary resources in economic advantage with Landes’:
As he has at home, Romney in Jerusalem cited a book titled, “Guns, Germs and Steel,” that suggests the physical characteristics of the land account for the differences in the success of the people that live there.”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,” Romney said, before citing another book, “The Wealth and Poverty of Nations,” by former Harvard professor David Landes.
Apparently at least two people in this debate know how to reason historically.(NB: Diamond’s book came out the same year as Wealth and Poverty of Nations and won the Pulitzer for its deeply flawed [it also doesn’t deal with the Israeli economic development, despite being a “Short History of Everybody,”] but politically correct argument: it’s no one’s fault they’re economically retarded, it’s just lack of access to primary resources. In that sense Erakat [below] is a child of Diamond’s responsibility-free history.)
Romney’s campaign said that the candidate had made similar observations before. Staffers sent out a transcript of a speech that Romney gave in Chicago in March, in which he recounted the same research. In that case, Romney cited a slightly different Middle Eastern comparison: Israel and Egypt, a sovereign country that does not face the same trade restrictions as the Palestinian territories.
Idem, Jordan, idem Syria, idem any Arab country without oil to throw off the pervasive poverty of these nations. Indeed, to apply David Landes’ logic, these are not poor countries, they are impoverished by their political culture, a point made quite powerfully by Arab researchers in a UN Development Report in 2002.
But there, Romney’s main point was not about Israel. It was about the U.S., and the advantages American culture had given this country’s economy.“It was a point that he has made and made today about the differences between such countries as Chile and Ecuador and United States and Mexico and that the economic situations for prosperity are interesting to study and important,” said Stevens, Romney’s strategist, on Monday. He criticized the Associated Press for publishing a story that described criticism by Saeb Erekat, a top aide to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, about the remarks. “The Romney campaign was never called for comment before this story was written,” Stevens said. “And it’s extraordinarily unfortunate this sort of thing would happen in this situation.”

Reporters pressed Stevens to explain what Romney had meant by “culture,” but he did not.

What culture means is attitudes towards hard work even among elites, the commitment to positive-sum game play (voluntary win-win relations), the treasuring of intellectual capital through encouraging curiosity and innovation and thinking out of the box, the principle of a rule of law that regulates trade, the acceptance of women into the workforce, the confidence that public criticism will not lead to violence… in a phrase a culture dedicated to making, not taking money.

On the other hand, Arab political culture, amply embodied by the Palestinian variety, promotes a cultue of  contempt for hard work by leisured elites, widespread commitment to zero-sum games of dominance, an distrust of intellectual openness and external influences, a strong emphasis on rote learning and respecting those older and more powerful, hostility to women in the public sphere, ubiquitous protection rackets (e.g., Arafat the PA), a violent repression of public criticism… in a phrase, a culture dedicated to taking, not making.

Or, as Bernard Lewis put it, in some cultures, you make money to go into politics, while in others, you go into politics to make money.

In the same speech, Romney also said he recognized “hand of providence in selecting this place [Israel].”

In terms of his argument about culture, one might argue that God chose the most forlorn deserted land, at the crossroads of great powers that would constantly trample the inhabitants under their imperial feet, and yet, with His bizarre and demanding laws, created a culture that could thrive nonetheless.

For Romney, the episode seemed another misstep in an overseas trip that has brought home the difficulty of being a candidate abroad.

So far, Romney has tried to follow an unwritten rule of American campaigning: don’t criticize the president on foreign soil.

But he has struggled with another unwritten rule–one that applies to travel more generally. It is also a bad idea to criticize foreigners on foreign soil.

On Monday, a White House spokesman told reporters that Romney had put himself in a delicate situation.

“One of the challenges of being an actor on the international stage, in particular when you travel to such a sensitive part of world, your comments are closely scrutinized for meaning, nuance and motivation,” Deputy Press Secretary Josh Earnest said. “It is clear there are some people who’ve taken a look at these comments and are scratching their heads. I would leave it to Governor Romney to further explain what he intended, what he meant.”

I like that “sensitive part of the world.” Of course the Palestinians will take issue with what Romney said, but maybe they should be thinking about whether or not it was true. In typical Palestinian style, they prefer to blame “the occupation” no matter how hollow the argument (on the contrary, having Israel as their foe has brought significant economic opportunities, not to mention huge sums of foreign aid their way). Granted the barriers and restrictions hinder the Palestinians, but they surely should take some responsibility for that; after all, the Israelis never would have built the separation barrier were it not for Palestinian terrorism.

Saeb Erakat went swiflty on record complaining about the blow to Palestinian honor:

“It is a racist statement and this man doesn’t realize that the Palestinian economy cannot reach its potential because there is an Israeli occupation,” said Saeb Erekat, a senior aide to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

Typical empty rhetoric of name-calling. “Racist” is precisely not the issue in an argument about “culture.” But since racist is a convenient name for smearing anyone who criticizes you, hey, use it no matter how inappropriate. As for the potential of the Palestinian economy, it was thrown into a tailspin by Arafat and by the pervasive opacity (i.e., undetectable corruption) that characterizes an economy in which the politicians and “security force” leaders live in villas while the vast majority live in hovels. Erakat is not only a symbol of what’s wrong with Palestinian culture, he’s a symbol of how they’d rather scape-goat than self-criticize. As Irshad Manji said, “Anti-Zionism is a weapon of mass distraction.”

“It seems to me this man lacks information, knowledge, vision and understanding of this region and its people,” Erekat added. “He also lacks knowledge about the Israelis themselves. I have not heard any Israeli official speak about cultural superiority.”

Just because the Israelis are too tactful to rub it in your highly sensitive face, Saeb, everyone knows that from an economic point of view, Israeli culture is vastly more productive and creative. It’s like the judge in Ionesco’s The Bald Soprano, who’s shocked when someone mentions his wig. “You know I wear a wig?” he exclaims in surprise. “Everyone knows you wear a wig,” responds his interlocutor.

Indeed it’s not merely a matter of economics, it’s a matter of morality. When you ask an Israeli leftist not committed to moral equivalence to be a little less morally perfectionist, and compare Israel to the surrounding countries (its enemies), he or she will respond predictably: “I don’t want to be compared to our neighbors!” Implication: any such comparison would demean us. The secret contempt of the left for Arab culture.

Earnest also took issue with another statement by Romney, who said during his visit to Israel that Jerusalem is its capital. Israel itself says its capital is Jerusalem, but–since both Israelis and Palestinians claim that city–the U.S. and many other countries keep their embassies in Tel Aviv.

That actually doesn’t follow. If Israel declares its capital as Jerusalem, then why not accept that? If the Israelis negotiate a peace with the Palestinians that includes a capital in Jerusalem, then recognize that. There’s no reason to withhold that recognition in anticipation. Only if one is deferring to an Arab insistance that the Israeli capital cannot be Jerusalem – which, alas, has always, and still is the case – can such a withholding of recognition make any sense. Erakat again states the Palestinian position:

Palestinian Authority chief negotiator Saeb Erekat said presumptive Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s statement that Jerusalem is Israel’s capital is “absolutely unacceptable.” 

Romney’s declarations are harmful to American interests in our region and they harm peace, security and stability,” Erekat told Agence-France Presse. “Even if this statement is within the U.S. election campaign, it is unacceptable and we completely reject it,” Erekat continued. “Romney is rewarding occupation, settlement and extremism in the region with such declarations.”

This hardly sounds like the words of a man interested in sharing Jerusalem with Israel. Rather, he sounds like so many other figures in the PA who deny that the Jews have any relationship to Jerusalem at all.

Earnest said that Obama has a different position: “The view of this administration is the capital should be determined in final status negotiations between the parties. That’s the position held by the previous administrations, both Democratic and Republican. If Mr. Romney disagrees with that, then he also disagrees with the position of presidents like Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan.”

Actually no. This president has taken the American attitude to Israel far beyond anything from previous presidents. As Noah Pollak points out:

Although in 2008 Obama called Jerusalem the “eternal and undivided capital” of Israel, he has backtracked—so thoroughly that State Department and White House spokesmen have been recently caught in painfully awkward exchanges [make that “pathetically awkward exchanges] with reporters trying to extract whether Obama recognizes Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.

There can be no reason for Palestinians to object to a Jerusalem capital if they have the intention – as so many believe they do – of compromising and finding a win-win solution to their problems with Israel.

But then, it’s one of their cultural traits to refuse positive-sum games. As one Arab rioter in 1936-39 replied to the question posed by the Peel Commission about why he so hates the Jews when it is clear that their presence has enriched everyone economically:

You say we are better off: you say my house has been enriched by the strangers who have entered it. But it is my house, and I did not invite the strangers in, or ask them to enrich it, and I do not care how poor it is if I am only master of it.” (Weathered by Miracles, p. 207)

 It could be an epitaph for Palestinian, Arab, even Muslim culture. Sooner rule in hell than share in heaven.
As for the claim that Romney has somehow ruined chances for peace in the region, I’d argue the contrary. It’s Obama’s systematic appeasement of Palestinian “sensitivities” that have hurt the chances for peace. Obama may be more popular among Arabs, but that’s only because they can push him around, not because it produces results in the form of Palestinian concessions. Maybe with an American president who makes demands on them, we’ll see a more pliable negotiating strategy.
After all, Erekat’ colleague, Nabil Sha’at, when asked by Stephen Sackur on BBC’s Hardtalk why the Palestinians had turned down Ehud Olmert’s offer in 2007, responded, “Well, we have to say “no” sometime.” (at 5:12)

19 Responses to Romney cites David Landes, offends Palestinians (whose honor must be preserved at the cost of their prosperity)

  1. Eliyahu says:

    One of the things that hold back economic development in the PA is the system of monopolies in basic commodities that arafat set up in the 1990s. There is a monopoly in cement, in cigarettes, etc. As far as I know that system was never undone.

    But Arabs have succeeded in business in a big way outside of the Arab countries, as in West Africa where there is a large Lebanese Shiite community in business, and in the USA and Latin America where there are many prosperous Christian and Muslim Arab communities. Lebanon too was very prosperous up to the civil war by worldwide standards of the times, although the prosperity was uneven, with the Shiite community noticeably poorer than the others.

    So the problem has to do with political culture. Before Israel took over Judea-Samaria in 1967, it was a poor backwater but made great economic progress under Israeli rule. Now there is a certain deceptive prosperity in the “west bank” fueled by huge per capita foreign donations. Obviously this is an unsustainable situation. The basic backwardness seems to derive from the Islamic values that you describe above. We can look at Egypt which was prosperous in ancient times before the Arab conquest, but now, largely Islamized, it is a basket case.
    Romney would have been more precise had he blamed Islam specifically, but then the attacks would have been much more vehement, indeed violent.

  2. Steve says:

    Richard does a yeoman’s job in clarifying what David Landes and by extension Romney meant when he mentioned culture. Palestinian culture suffers from a zero sum mentality-i.e. your success is my tragedy. It recalls the Russian attitude toward happiness “my greatest joy is when your cow dies”. When there is no positive sum culture there will be little economic development. Too much energy is expended on harnessing businesses to politics or limiting success to the favored view to allow broad economic development.

    However there is a larger issue embedded in the treatment of Romney by the press. Virtually every day the front page of the NY Times and Boston Globe headline a critical article toward something Romney said the previous day. The critique is relentless and knows no bounds. There is nothing that Romney says that will not be described as a gaffe while Obama gets a pass and is barely criticized. Romney will have an uphill battle for votes with the press inclined to treat him so poorly.

  3. Tom Prasch says:

    Unless “being occupied” is a cultural characteristic (a rather unlikely construction), Romney & Landes miss a rather significant point.

  4. w.w.wygart says:

    Writing in my own blog over the weekend on the subject of pirates and piracy, specifically mentioning the long enduring Barbary Pirates and associated slave trade, I found myself reaching the conclusion that one of the distinguishing characteristics of pirate culture that makes it a kind of kleptoparasitism is the fact that it, “…produces nothing in return.”

    I wasn’t trying to make a comment on Arab or Islamic culture in general, but I find a deep irony in the congruence of our separate conclusions that , those two cultures “…in a phrase, [are] a culture dedicated to taking, not making.”


  5. […] several occasions, most recently: Poison in the Well of Culture.  Landes’s latest article, Romney Cites Landes, Offends Palestinians is a discussion of the recent controversy surrounding US Presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s […]

  6. Blue says:

    Not that I agree with him often but Fareed Zakaria argues pretty convincingly that it’s Capitalism, not culture, that drives economies:

    • PW says:

      Sorry…culture produced capitalism not the other way around…typically Zakaria has it backwards…

    • Cynic says:

      How can one have capitalism if the “culture” won’t permit it?

    • Peter Kovachev says:

      Bullfiddles from the leftoid academia, I say.

      Capitalism didn’t just magically “autogenerate” through a primordial soup of environmental and socio-economic conditions. Those chipping away at the role of Protestantism forget the dysfunctional alternative: Catholic economics, which was governed by Church Law in cahoots with statism. It was an iron-clad system of inherited land tenures, serfdom, protected and protective guilds, prohibitions against “usury,” cronyism in the form of granting special privilegia and outright robbery. Looting in the form of confiscations from Jews, heretics and propertied, widowed women (“witches”) and a pretend generation of wealth from the sale of useless “products” such as religious trinkets and indulgences (kind of like carbon credits) did temporarily fill coffers of the clever and powerful, but all that did was to shift or “redistribute” capital. Of course, there were exceptions, loopholes and all that, but the difference in the cultures behind the Church-statist system and the alternatives was vast and decisive.

      Another rarely recognized factor, I think, was the percolation of the sophisticated Jewish legal, talmudic approach to business and business ethics, coupled to their forced engagement in money-lending and management. The use of Jews as financial “sponges” to soak up capital which could be heavily taxed and the remainder eventually expropriated on this or that pretense, spans centuries and the entirety of Western Christendom. This cycle was only broken by Protestant culture which emancipated itself rom the the static economic theories and which was at least moderately receptive to another way of thinking and doing business. Capital-based economics, the legitimacy of profits and the view of money as a way to generate more money was entirely absent in the Catholic South, of course, but ther exceptions (e.g., Italian banking houses, merchant guilds) werem’t enough.

    • Veron says:

      Who at Foxnews has been a Romney supporter in the past, prsenet or future?O’ReillyHumeHannityKarl RoveLaura IngallsCharles KrauthammerNina EastonThat’s a handful right there. Now let’s look at who had/has there own show that they can espouse praise on Romney to their viewers.O’Reilly, Hume and Hannity.And who are frequent guests on shows: Rove, Ingalls, Krauthammer and Easton.C’mon Romney supporters how many more people do you want at Fox shilling for Romney?Let’s not pretend that Romney has no friends there.He has plenty. And they are well watched people who hear positive comments/segments about Romney quite a bit.

  7. Jan Andersson says:

    There’s some rather weird interpretations of Romney’s (admittedely simplistic) reasoning in this review (and among the comments, for.ex. that the presence of Arab oil “disproves” the culture thesis??):

    • Richard Landes says:

      the article by Chait that you link to doesn’t discuss oil at all. the reason i think oil proves the culture thesis is that with all that money, it had virtually no effect on the social structure of the arab countries who had the oil, and gave no impetus to a productive economy (even the “productive” countries like the gulf states import most of their labor, high as well as low.

  8. […] part of a series of posts about the recent “culture-counts” flap, I’m tackling some of the (many) articles weighing in on the subject, partly as a way of […]

  9. dymphna says:

    Mr. Romney tactfully did not point out that his own Mormon culture espouses a kind of “New Jerusalem” mentality.

    At its best Morman culture encourages a mindset of abundance – e.g., when he gave away his inheritance from his father instead of hoarding it.

    His references to Landes prove how diametrically opposed is his political/economic philosophy to that of Obama’s Chicago mentality. The latter is much closer to the Arab paradigm of hoarding and envy.

    It is hard to comprehend how much destruction Islam caused throughout its history. There are few records left of Egypt’s careful and creative agriculture; so few that it is hard to imagine the time when she was the Med’s bread basket, or how her cheap papyrus led to a widespread literacy.

    Islam destroyed all that as did its pirates close down Mediterraneaan commerce and culture. Wherever Islam reigns a Dark Age follows.

  10. Observer1 says:

    This cultural values and economic success debate has to face up to a critical counter-example: China over the past 30 years.

    There is plenty of authoritarianism there, but coupled with some of the fastest economic growth anywhere. I don’t admire the authoritarianism one little bit, you have to acknowledge that it hasn’t prevented rapid economic advance in China.

    And I think some of the commenters here, as well as at the WSJ, miss the irony in their dismissive attitude to the 1936 Arab leader who preferred to be master in his own house even if it left him poorer. I thought most American conservatives were fans of Patrick Henry – “Give me liberty or give me death” and the New Hampshire state motto – “Live Free or Die.”

  11. Richard Landes says:

    I’ve discussed the China/Asian tiger argument at other subsequent posts on Zakaria and Acemoglu and Robinson.

    as for the Peel Commission quote, there’s a world of difference between give me freedom and give me dominion. I’d say that goes to the core of the cultural issue.

  12. Evelyn says:

    Karim,You are, in a word, full of it. I hate to say it quite that way,but it’s simply true.The ULTIMATE human right is the right to live palecfuely, and that is the right that Arab terrorists have attempted to deny to Israel since 1948.That’s what built the wall, Pal.Take some responsibility.As for `apartheid’, nice try. It’s a funny kind of `apartheid’ that has Arabs on both sides of a defensive barrier.I believe we’ve discussed the so-called `occupation’ before, and once again you refuse to answer simple questions or take any responsibility for the Arab part of this problem. The entire Arab claim to these disputed areas comes from agreement the `Palestinian’ leadership chose not to keep, so th eland reverts back to the owners in fact, Israel. Israel has as much right to that land as anyone else. More,in fact because lots of it was legally purchased from the Arab emirs through the Jewish National Fund.You also once again fail to address the fact that the ARabs made no complaint prior to 1967, whenthe area in question was illegaly occupied BY FORCE by Jordan and Egypt.Your hypocrisy is mindboggling.You REALLY need to educute yourself. I realize youhate the idea that Israel exists, which is your right. But it isn’t going to go away.Here’s a puzzler for you: what security guarantees would YOU, Karim, be willing to make to Israel in order to remove the defensive barrier?You planning on eliminating Hamas and Islamic Jihad? How about al-Aksa? You planning on eliminating the hatred taught to Palestinians in the mosques, schools and media?I didn’t think so.You’re simply an apologist for Arab terrorism, Karim. And THAT’s THE PROBLEM.YOU CAN’T EXPECT TOLERANCE WHEN YOU REFUSE TO EXTEND IT TO OTHERS.

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