Cultures of Development, Cultures of Impoverishment: WSJ Op-ed

I have an op-ed at the WSJ on the Mitt-Romney-Jared Diamond-David Landes “economic development and culture” debate today. Since the WSJ won’t allow me to post it (or a variant) at my site for 30 days, I offer below:

1) Opening paragraphs of the op-ed with links (WSJ does not include links in digital edition)

2) Links for the rest of the article that was published.

3) Segments of a longer piece which I cut down to fit within op-ed dimensions (in bold)

Richard Landes: Romney Is Right on Culture and the Wealth of Nations

Mitt Romney caused a firestorm last week in Jerusalem by commenting on the cultural dimensions of Israeli economic growth. Palestinian spokesman Saeb Erekat, correctly seeing an implied criticism of Palestinian culture, called Mr. Romney a “racist” and complained that Palestinian economic woes are really caused by the Israeli occupation. Analysts said Mr. Erekat’s reaction was a sign that Mr. Romney has disqualified himself as a broker for peace. The episode reveals as much about the dynamics of the Middle East conflict as about presidential politics.

In making his brief case, Mr. Romney cited two books: “Guns, Germs and Steel,” by geographer Jared Diamond, and “The Wealth and Poverty of Nations,” by economist David Landes (my father). As in other fields of social “science,” economists argue about whether development derives from cultural advantages or from natural ones such as resistance to disease and access to primary resources. Prof. Diamond, whose book focuses on societies’ natural advantages, last week wrote an op-ed in the New York Times emphasizing both culture and nature and trying to draw Prof. Landes in with him.

Read the rest.

…[Israel] rose from the bottom of the third world to the top of the first world, in a century: Israel, the Start-up Nation. The Arab nations, on the other hand, illustrate the necessity of (a certain kind of) culture: even those with vast petrodollars still have among the least productive economies in the world. Alas, Saudi Arabia’s major exports are oil and hatred.

cognitive egocentrism


But probably the most important trait in any such society is the ability to self-criticize, to allow people to “speak truth to power,” to encourage people to recognize valid criticism and learn from it. Societies with such cultures treasure intellectual capital… The better a society can embrace the paradox of rebuke (it’s easier to take than it is to give well), the higher their learning curve, the more effective their entrepreneurship. “rule or be ruled” Here, where someone else’s gain is experienced as one’s own loss, one may decline opportunities that benefit others as well. As Adam Smith pointed out, men prefer inefficient slavery to wages because they treasure dominion over wealth…

Many analysts prefer to emphasize institutions over culture. While that may be true in some cases, the attempt to impose economically beneficial institutions (rule of law, free press) cannot succeed where the culture rejects it. For example, one can legislate a press “free” as often as one wants, if the alpha males in the culture find public criticism an attack on their manhood, they will retaliate in ways that make sure the press self-censors. As our experience in Iraq shows, democratic institutions, even well-attended elections, cannot overcome the pervasive mistrust of tribal, ethnic, and religious commitments.

In the “prime-divider” societies created by such zero-sum values, powerful actors acquire wealth by taking, rather than making, an ethos that goes back to the tribal warrior’s principle, “plunder or be plundered.” For the plains Indians, he who raised horses was not nearly as manly as he who stole them from the enemy (other). 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.

2002 report by Arab intellectuals to the UN

cultures of impoverishment 

It’s worth noting here that no culture is monolithic. Every culture has people with different tendencies, different styles. A “culture” in the sense of something that characterizes the style of a given group of people is the product of favoring and encouraging certain ones over others. In a tribal warrior honor-shame culture, “senseless violence” is an oxymoron: all violence is meaningful, a sign of seriousness. In a modern civil society, “senseless violence” is a tautology: all violence is irrational, a sign of an inability to reason.

The culture sets the tone, establishes the values of the “honor group.” In some cultures, a community’s pressure will force a family to kill a daughter for the sake of the other children who would otherwise be shunned for not washing the family’s honor in blood; in some cultures, group pressure will make domestic violence a mark of shame. And as Anthony Appiah argues, moral revolutions come from a shift in what the “honor group” treasures. 

From the late 19th century on… Arab populations remained stagnant and poor where Jews did not (Nablus, Gaza, Nazareth), something noted by pro-Zionist Arabs like Hasan Bey Shukri, as early as 1921.

presence of Jews a great advantage.

…under Israeli rule (the notorious but remarkably prosperous “occupation”)

ten fastest-growing economies in the world

To this day, every Israeli policy-maker, right, left and center, advocates encouraging economic growth in the West Bank: in classic positive-sum terms, it’s in Israel’s interests to have a successful Palestinian economy. …if I am only master of it.” (Weathered by Miracles, p. 207)

…And these actors have dominated Arab political culture (and their public sphere), starting with the attempt to obliterate the offending “Zionist entity” in 1948. The Arab League, shamed by the psychological Nakba (catastrophe) of 1948, implemented disastrous negative-sum policies, imprisoning their own refugees in camps, and kicking the Jews out of Arab countries. That Jewish exodus, now being replicated by a Christian one, left the Arab world bereft of a vital economic force. As a result, just like the Spaniards who had kicked the Jews out in 1492, the huge flow of wealth that followed – gold from the New World for Spain, petrodollars from the West for Arabs – washed through these economies like water through desert soil.

Palestinian “leaders” and the frustrated alpha males of the “Arab Street” followed suit, preferring to sacrifice their own people on the altar of lost honor. They denounced and punished anyone working with Jews as traitors. They fostered the culture of death that praises suicide mass murderers as “martyrs,” that poisons the minds its own children with burning hatreds. In the 1980s, they trashed the growing West Bank economy with an “intifada,” rapidly led by the newly minted, paranoid and genocidal Hamas, in the late 1980s. Recently, Nabil Shaath, a PA figure Western journalists often label “moderate,” denounced the economic prosperity brought on by cooperation with Israel as accepting “servitude for prosperity,” not because living well alongside Israel – Palestinians have the highest standard of living of all Arabs in the region with the exception of Israeli Arabs – necessitates servitude, but because in their zero-sum world, if Israel wins at all, Palestinians lose, and so not dominating means servitude.

The new youth group, Palestinians for Dignity, carries on the “honorable” tradition even today: they threaten to throw their own people under the bus just to force the EU to snub Israel. This political culture of zero-sum honor, gives new meaning to the expression “cutting of your nose to spite your face.”

Even where Israelis played no part, these patterns of behavior applied. Arafat took over the West Bank and Gaza and parceled out the successful businesses to henchmen; the myriad “security forces,” paid for out of Arafat’s vast and opaque funds, established protection rackets; and, of course, when Arafat said “no” to Camp David he brought further catastrophe upon his people. Decades of open borders and employment vanished rapidly in the years of terror.

daily chooses a culture of death

suffering of their own people.

And the eagerness with which many observers have seized on Erekat’s complaints, sometimes against their own logic, reveals an underlying prejudice against the very people they think they defend… It’s not genes but values that matter, it’s not predetermined, but a matter of choice. And anyone who considers Romney a racist for praising Israel by pointing out the obvious, because that hurts Palestinian feelings, tacitly assumes that Palestinians cultural traits, like a deep aversion to self-criticism and a corresponding appetite for scapegoating, are inalterable. That’s a prejudice almost as bad as racism, even if disguised as sympathetic condescension.

Jared Diamond concludes his column:

Mitt Romney may become our next president. Will he continue to espouse one-factor explanations for multicausal problems, and fail to understand history and the modern world? If so, he will preside over a declining nation squandering its advantages of location and history.

Anyone who thinks that “culture” is a one-factor explanation does not understand the argument for “culture.” On the contrary, until Westerners start thinking in far more sophisticated and less essentialist ways about cultural differences and change, there’s no way we’ll understand history and the modern world, and we will preside, as the current dominant voice in both academia and journalism seem to do, over a declining civilization, squandering its hard-won and hard-earned advantages for the chimeras of moral equivalence and post-colonial anti-Zionism.

5 Responses to Cultures of Development, Cultures of Impoverishment: WSJ Op-ed

  1. elihustone says:

    As always, Richard’s analysis is insightful and constructive. Would that the Palestinian Arab leadership accept it and use it to move forward. Those who consistently infantilize the Palestinians by referring to them as “Third World” – and give their leadership a ‘pass’ for their destructive and self-destructive behaviors – need to recognize this paternalizing, patronizing tendency as a holdover of the very Colonialist thinking they purport to abhor.

    • Cynic says:

      The Palestinians get a pass for their actions, as do the Arabs in general, because of the West’s accomodating actions, from before the Second World War, appeasing its anti Jewish sentiments.
      When one sees the blatant hypocrisy applied with respect to Israel/Jews it must be apparent to those prepared to see.
      The latest example is the judgement in Germany against circumcision of male babies but not a whimper about female genital mutilation being practiced.

  2. […] The 4th follow-up article:  Cultures of Development, Cultures of Impoverishment: WSJ Op-ed – [notes on his currently embargoed Op-ed piece from The Wall Street […]

  3. AnneKavkaz says:

    The New York Times pulled out all the stops on this one. They had more than one op-ed on it.

  4. ANARCHITEK says:

    In his opening salvo, Landes lauds the State of Israel as the start-up-star country of the century, for “(rising) from the bottom of the third world to the top of the first world, in a century” without offering thanks to the US, and Britain, France and most of NATO, for not only military support, but a staggering amount of financial aid, with little, if any, strings attached. It is commensurate with congratulating a trust fund baby on his attainment of a college degree and job offer, when the individual did little more than to study sufficient to get decent grades. Far more credit goes to those who pay for their schooling on their own, working as much as time and sleep allow, while studying on breaks, on the bus to school, and when they should be sleeping in the little time left over. In like manner, Israel would deserve congratulations had it achieved greatness the way, say, the US did, by the determined efforts of its citizens, in the face of determined and constant opposition. Rather, Israel mobilized the support of Jews in other countries to exert influence in order to cause them to assist the start-up nation. Contrast that with the US, in it’s early days, struggling without many friends anywhere, to achieve respect, by EARNING it!

    Landes cites Romney’s recent speech, similarly, congratulating the political candidate for his perspicacity, when he did little more than recite a speechwriter’s text, once again mistaking being carried by others with attainment through real effort. In an earlier essay, (The Problem with Today’s Intellectuals when they Think about Culture: Sloppy Symmetry), he slandered intellectuals with his misapprehension of Voegelinian Philosophy, ignoring the application of Voegelin’s theory of the Gnostic movement as it applies to the self-styled “Christian” groups driving the Super-PACs behind the Romney campaign. Their “purported direct, immediate . . . vision of truth without the need for critical reflection . . .(as) the special gift of a spiritual and cognitive elite”, textbook in its pertinence, is behind much of the rhetoric and excess of this year’s particularly divisive campaign. When a writer uses a podium like the WSJ to disseminate additional kerosene on the conflagration, neither truth nor philosophy emerge. Instead, we are subjected to yet more meaningless psychobabble masquerading as thoughtful discourse. Perhaps pere Landes had insight to offer, but the son is a pale shadow far too impressed with his own wittiness and erudition. In other words, he is the very “slopp(il)y symmetric(al) intellectual” he decries, an imposter in sheep’s clothing.

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