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.
But Israel (which neither book examined) and the Arab world (which only the Landes book examined) illustrate the primacy of culture as both necessary and sufficient for economic development. Israel, a country with no natural resources, an economic backwater even in the Ottoman Empire, rose to the top of the developed world in a century on culture alone. 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.