Mitt’s accomplishment

His trip didn’t get within 7000 miles of Mexico, but he still managed to annoy the Mexicans.

The Mexican Embassy isn’t buying Mitt Romney’s slur on Mexican “culture.” The man is such a foreign policy genius he can piss off countries without even visiting them. That’s not as impressive a feat as moving Ecuador next to Chile – on my rather old-fashioned map, there’s about 700 miles and a place called “Peru” in between them – but pretty impressive nonetheless.

If we want to play along with Daniel Drezner and pretend for a moment that Romney uttered an actual opinion rather than merely making a racist crack about lazy A-rabs, the actual opinion was pretty damned stupid. Of course culture is among the drivers of different levels of economic activity: compare the Chinese and Indians in Malaysia with the Malays, for example. But also note that, until very recently, the Chinese and the Indians – prosperous overseas – were dirt-poor at home. Russian and other Eastern European Jews have done pretty well for ourselves in the U.S.: not so much back where we came from.  Culture matters, but institutions matter more.

Update Jared Diamond isn’t happy with the way Romney (mis)quoted him, and suspects that the candidate hadn’t actually read Guns, Germs, and Steel before flapping his jaw about it.  Andrew Sullivan makes a point I hadn’t thought of:

I wonder when the last time was that Romney was personally and aggressively challenged about some platitude he just uttered. A long time ago, one suspects.

Romney’s plenty smart, but he rose in a culture where glib b.s. goes a long way, and then spent years being The Boss at Bain Capital, at the Olympics, and as Governor. McGeorge Bundy described his tenure at the Ford Foundation as “twenty years without eating a bad meal or hearing a harsh word.” That sort of thing can lead to intellectual laziness unless – like Bundy but, apparently, unlike Romney – you come to it with a strong faculty of self-criticism and a sense of humor.

Of the many deficiencies you’d like a President not to have, deficient reality-checking has to be close to the top of the list.


Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact:

20 thoughts on “Mitt’s accomplishment”

  1. Culture matters, but institutions matter more.

    But does the success of those institutions matter on the culture in which they’re embedded and operate? Apart from the self-selection filter applicable to immigrants, their success may be dependent on having to adapt to the culture of their new homes. An immigrant who ambles in at 9:30AM won’t last long in a punctual environment. If culture is a catch-all term for the bundle of attitudes, behaviors and dispositions then those will naturally be reflected and sustained in the institutions in the absence of countervailing external forces.

  2. “Culture matters, but institutions matter more.” So does the stock of physical and human capital built up by preceding generations of that society. The penniless Jewish, Italian and Irish immigrants passing through Ellis Island were arriving from poor societies in a comparatively rich one. (“Human capital” recognizes culture here a bit, but the physical capital and technical knowledge are not culturally specific.)

  3. The opinion that culture determines economic success is essential to denying the effects of racism in the United States — one of the foundations of conservatism here. Otherwise, the persistent inequality between whites and blacks would indict our present arrangements as unjust. Romney is not just talking about Israelis and Palestinians, or the US and Mexico; he is talking about us. As soon as he said it, my dogs started barking at the TV.

    1. Tom is correct. The states with the highest per capita income include some of the very blue states (Connecticut, $56K; Massachusetts, $51.5K) with some of the very red states (Utah, $ 32.6K, Idaho, $32.2 K, South Carolina, $33.2 K) having some of the lowest per capita incomes.

      Therefore, Mitt is not just insulting Palestinians; he is insulting conservative red states as well, saying that the hoity-toity elitist blue liberals are superior to them. How do they like being told that they are inferior by the nominee of the Republican party?

      This may not be material for a 30 second spot on TV, but perhaps some prominent official from one of those states could take umbrage publically at Romney’s dissing the people of his or her state. Force Romney to explain and back pedal some more!

      1. Taking a cue from Drezner, it would be interesting to ask Romney the follolwing:

        You seem to think culture is the main determinant of differences in economic performance. Do you therefore think the differences between North and South Korea, and former East and West Germany, are primarily cultural, and have nothing to do with their political and economic arrangements?

    2. This is a fascinating issue, and goes to the core of progressive and conservative attitudes about human agency. I would, however, untangle racism a bit more. The persistent inequality we see between blacks and whites is complex, and indeed involves white prejudice. But I would argue the current persistence has more to do with economic segregation, and a “culture of poverty” that is divorced from ethnicity. Instead, it arises from sustained depletion of societal and human capital, leaving families with low levels of agency and capacity for self-actualization. This is an equal opportunity oppressor, attacking both poor blacks and whites alike. It is fed by low education, neighborhood segregation, lack of opportunity, and a steady supply of poverty-wage jobs.

      1. Eli — the reduction of “racism” to “white prejudice” evades the issue. You list “economic segregation, culture of poverty, sustained depletion of societal and human capital, low levels of agency and capacity for self-actualization, and to continue the list, low education, neighborhood segregation, lack of opportunity and a steady supply of poverty-wage jobs. All of these things are the institutional structures created by the historical events of slavery, the failed reconstruction, segregation, Jim Crow, the limited integration of the Southern migrants into the economy of the North, government subsidized white flight — in short, all the ways that white prejudice manifested itself in history. They are how racism has been institutionalized, creating a reality in which people like Romney can say that the non-white poor have only themselves to blame.

        1. I completely agree with all of that. But when talking about racism, I think it is important to differentiate between active prejudice and the kind of legacy effects you describe. Because what happens too often I think, is too many progressives emphasize racism as the “active” variety, loading the argument onto that pillar. Yet push-back then becomes about denying the importance of active racism, and thereby pulling the rug out from under the larger legacy argument. Too often the “race debate” seems locked in this dynamic. My point was that in emphasizing the legacy aspect of racism, and how it is fueled by basic capitalist structures and ideologies, a more powerful critique can be leveled.

  4. “That’s not as impressive a feat as moving Ecuador next to Chile”

    He said, and this is in the link, “… And that is also between other countries that are near or next to each other.” I guess it comes down to whether you think 700 miles is “near” in geoeconomic terms.

    1. Culture can also lead a rich country to help destabilize democratically elected governments of other countries, when they don’t like them. As the US has done quite often in this hemisphere. You will sometimes even find otherwise respectable people here trying to defend, say, Pinochet on the basis of the growth rates that followed his coups, tortures and murders. It’s amazing what you can get away with saying in a country as ignorant as America.

  5. I would like to point out that in Alexis de Tocqueville’s “Democracy in America” he dismisses Mexico with a comment that the country will never amount to much due to “the depravity of their morals”.

    1. IIRC, he had a similar opinion of the Southern United States. Which is Ed Whitney’s point.

  6. Wait a second. You’ve all missed the elephant in the room.

    In the Obama “If you’ve got a business. you didn’t build that.” speech, the President was making the point that an individual’s success is based, on large measure, on the economic infrastructure and the culture in which the individual finds him or herself. Romney, dishonestly, disagreed.

    However, take the benign version of Romney’s comments in Israel. (The less benign version is that he was expressing some sort of philo-Semitism that is sort of a reverse anti-Semitism.) What the benign version is positing is pretty much what the President was arguing.

    1. Um, no. What he *appears* to have actually said was this:

      “Somebody helped to create this unbelievable American system that we have that allowed you to thrive. Somebody invested in roads and bridges. If you’ve got a business, you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen. ”

      He never said small biz folk didn’t build their businesses — he was *very* clearly referring to the ROADS, etc.

      This is not a point that should be fudged.

      Otherwise, I appreciate your attempt to give Romney some benefit of doubt — it’s nice of you — but I don’t think he deserves it in this case. (I will keep a tiny space of openmindedness for other times…) He was very clearly taking a swipe at Palestinians and putting down their culture. He may not actually be a mean person — though, there’s evidence for it — but in this instance, he really said something quite clumsy and offensive. (I’m not sure he meant it either. But it’s not my job to try to look into his soul.)

    2. On second thought, I think I was being obnoxious just now. You didn’t do anything wrong. It is just that the little quote does sound so bad if there’s no context. And the prez is getting beat to hell over it out in nonRBC land. I happen to know a lot of libertarians now, more or less by accident, and they really think he meant it in the bad way. Crazytown for sure.

  7. In a different reality, Mr. Romney would be described as someone who tells stories and believes them. That may be a slightly better frame for Sullivan’s thesis. For me, it’s as if Romney continues to believe that fairy tales are really true. it’s hard to say this because we don’t expect people with Romney’s track record to show this kind of deficit, but he really does have trouble with critical thinking.

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