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Mitt Romney is living every social scientist's nightmare

Late at night, when your humble blogger is troubled in his sleep because of some crap argument he was making in his day job, some version of this Annie Hall scene plays out in his head:

This is, far and away, my worst nightmare. 

I bring this up because yesterday in the National Review, Mitt Romney doubled down on his "culture comments" he made in Israel:

During my recent trip to Israel, I had suggested that the choices a society makes about its culture play a role in creating prosperity, and that the significant disparity between Israeli and Palestinian living standards was powerfully influenced by it. In some quarters, that comment became the subject of controversy.

But what exactly accounts for prosperity if not culture? In the case of the United States, it is a particular kind of culture that has made us the greatest economic power in the history of the earth. Many significant features come to mind: our work ethic, our appreciation for education, our willingness to take risks, our commitment to honor and oath, our family orientation, our devotion to a purpose greater than ourselves, our patriotism. But one feature of our culture that propels the American economy stands out above all others: freedom. The American economy is fueled by freedom. Free people and their free enterprises are what drive our economic vitality.

"Double down" is appropriate here, because he went from a speech in which he said there were "other factors" that mattered as well to zeroing in on culture. Again, to be fair, a close read of what Romney describes as "culture" in his essay clearly includes political and economic institutions. To get academic-y about it, Romney is being "conceptually fuzzy" with his terms.

So sure, Romney has been pilloried by political reporters and left-wing columnists and foreign policy writers and former U.S. diplomats and snooty British publications for a bad trip... but they've mostly been focusing on the "gaffes."

This morning, however, Romney is having his Marshall McLuhan moment. In the New York Times, Jared Diamond grades Romney's citation of his book Guns, Germs and Steel:

Mitt Romney's latest controversial remark, about the role of culture in explaining why some countries are rich and powerful while others are poor and weak, has attracted much comment. I was especially interested in his remark because he misrepresented my views and, in contrasting them with another scholar’s arguments, oversimplified the issue.

It is not true that my book “Guns, Germs and Steel,” as Mr. Romney described it in a speech in Jerusalem, “basically says the physical characteristics of the land account for the differences in the success of the people that live there. There is iron ore on the land and so forth.”

That is so different from what my book actually says that I have to doubt whether Mr. Romney read it.

Then there's Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson here in FP, attacking Romney on the conceptual fuzziness thing:

Unfortunately, Romney's views are seriously out of sync with those of the great mass of social scientists. For one, as his more extended argument in the National Review illustrates, he confuses "culture" with institutions. By culture, social scientists mean people's values and beliefs. Romney refers to Americans' "work ethic," which is cultural, but he also claims that political and economic freedoms are the real keys to economic success. But political and economic freedom are not guaranteed by (or even related to) culture but by institutions, such as the U.S. Constitution or its system of property rights. Romney did cite Harvard University historian David Landes, who did indeed argue that values and beliefs are crucial for economic development, as providing the intellectual origins of his views -- but his focus on institutions is much more in line with our book Why Nations Fail than with Landes. Indeed, the facts on the ground in the Middle East illustrate the power not of culture, but of institutions.

Fareed Zakaria weighs in the Washington Post [Wait, he counts?--ed.  He earned his Ph.D. in political science at Harvard under Samuel Huntington.  So yeah, on this, he definitely counts]: 

Had Romney spent more time reading Milton Friedman, he would have realized that historically the key driver for economic growth has been the adoption of capitalism and its related institutions and policies across diverse cultures.

The link between economic policies and performance can be seen even in the country on which Romney was lavishing praise. Israel had many admirable traits in its early decades, but no one would have called it an economic miracle. Its economy was highly statist. Things changed in the 1990s with market-oriented reforms — initiated by Benyamin Netanyahu — and sound monetary policies. As a result, Israel’s economy grew much faster than it had in the 1980s. The miracle Romney was praising had to do with new policies rather than deep culture.

Ironically, the argument that culture is central to a country’s success has been used most frequently by Asian strongmen to argue that their countries need not adopt Western-style democracy. Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew has made this case passionately for decades. It is an odd claim, because Singapore’s own success would seem to contradict it. It is not so different from neighboring Malaysia. The crucial difference is that Singapore had extremely good leadership that pursued good economic policies with relentless discipline.

Finally, there's the Center for Global Development's Charles Kenny, who is far and away the most supportive of Romney's argument:

Mitt Romney created a stir this week when he pointed to the immense difference in wealth between Israel and the Palestinian territories and explained it with his interpretation of Harvard economic historian David Landes’s work that “culture makes all the difference.”

By now there is wide agreement that Romney used a pretty terrible example to illustrate Landes’s point. And yet the proposition that “culture” is a factor in long-term economic performance is increasingly accepted among development economists. What Romney seems to have missed is that culture is a declining barrier to development worldwide.

Still, three out of four social scientists have flunked Romney's comparative political economy comp. Will this make a whit of difference in the campaign? That depends entirely on whether you believe that voters still respond to cues from elites... so for me the answer is "probably not." This entire episode is nevertheless an instructive parable for graduate students studying for comps everywhere:

1) Define your terms clearly;

2) Make sure you've done your reading and not staffed it out relied on book reviews or summaries of the Big Arguments -- cause those summaries can be way off base;

3) Don't double down when you make a bad argument.

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