Oh look, another asshat was given space in the Wall Street Journal Op-Ed section, and it seems fair to say that this asshat is even more ill-informed than the last one. What’s particularly surprising is that this particular asshat, Richard Landes, is a historian at Boston University and yet has absolutely no understanding of Middle Eastern, Arab, or Ottoman history — it’s kind of fascinating, actually!
In making his brief case [that culture contributed to the respective success and failure of Israel and Palestine], 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.
Actually, Professor Jared Diamond wrote an op-ed in the New York lamenting the fact that Romney had “misrepresented” and “simplified” his book and expressing doubt as to whether or not “Mr. Romney had read it.” But tomato, tomahto.
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.
No…Palestine was not an “economic backwater” in the Ottoman Empire, so there’s that. And here’s a fun fact for everyone: the idea that “vast petrodollars” are negatively correlated with economic productivity and even human rights is called the “rentier effect” or the “resource curse” and it is not just limited to Arab countries. So oil wealth in fact EXPLAINS the lack of productivity and social justice in Arab (as well as other) countries.
Americans tend to assume that everyone shares their cultural attitudes—that everyone strives to get to “yes,” to positive-sum, win-win, voluntary relations; that everyone holds productive work in high respect and prizes the principles of fairness embodied in the meritocratic principle of “equality before the law”; that everyone encourages criticism, treasures intellectual capital, promotes risk-taking, prizes transparency and fosters innovation. With institutions built on such values—with a culture dedicated to making, not taking, money—a society can make use of whatever primary products a land offers.
Oh Americans value all that stuff? We hadn’t noticed — we were busy watching Congress as they try to cut Pell Grants, NSF grants, and funding for NASA , as well as the White House as they try to clamp down on whistleblowers’ efforts to bring more transparency to the administration.
But there are cultures whose favored mode is not voluntary but coerced and zero-sum relations, where the principle of “rule or be ruled” dominates political and economic life. The elites in such cultures hold hard work in contempt, and they distrust intellectual openness and uncontrolled innovation as subversive. They emphasize rote learning and unquestioning respect for those in authority. Protection rackets rather than law enforcement assure the public order and bleed the economy. Public criticism brings sharp retaliation. Powerful actors acquire wealth by taking, rather than making.
Strikingly, Palestinian culture compares favorably with that of other Arabs. Palestinians have higher education, a strong work ethic and successful entrepreneurs. Much of that comes from their close association with the Zionists, who (unlike Western imperialists) settled the land without conquest, by dint of making everyone more prosperous.
See that guys? Palestinians would have no idea about hard work if they hadn’t learned it from Zionists. The oldest and most prestigious university in Africa is right next door in Egypt and was founded in the tenth century, but yeah, Palestinian higher education DEFINITELY comes from the post-Balfour Declaration era. And even though Arabs invented Algebra, preserved and translated ancient Greek manuscripts, and developed a sophisticated understanding of astronomy hundreds of years earlier (which you’d think a Richard Landes, Medieval historian, would know about) but yeah, that was also probably somehow due to close contact with Zionists.
In calling Mr. Romney’s remarks “racist” and blaming Palestinian economic difficulties on Israel’s “occupation,” Mr. Erekat illustrated one of David Landes’s major points: Blaming others for one’s own failures prolongs failure. Even though his own government daily chooses a culture of death, not life, Mr. Erekat wants to blame Israel for Palestine’s woes; no admission here that he and his colleagues might have some role in the suffering of their own people….Had Western observers criticized Mr. Erekat for his silly and dishonest response, they might have strengthened those Palestinians who could lead their people to the promised land of independence and prosperity. Instead, they threw the real progressives, the ones who could put an end to the occupation by good faith negotiations, under the bus.
Hey did David Landes invent “The Secret”? Because it sure sounds like it! Let this be a lesson to us all: Palestinians blaming the occupation and blockade for stagnant economic growth just PROLONGS the occupation, the blockade, and stagnant economic growth. Just tell them to think positive and that everything will be FINE.