On Mitt Romney, the Culture of Poverty, and the Denial of Structure

There’s been a lot of media coverage of Mitt Romney’s gaffes on his foreign policy mini-tour of the UK, Poland and Israel. After accusing London of being unprepared for the Olympics*, Romney moved on to Israel where he accused Palestinians of being poor because of their bad culture. Here’s the quote via WaPo:

“As you come here and you see the [Gross Domestic Product] per capita, for instance, in Israel which is about $21,000 dollars, and compare that with the GDP per capita just across the areas managed by the Palestinian authority, which is more like $10,000 per capita, you notice such a dramatically stark difference in economic vitality,” Romney said, according to a pool report.

“Culture makes all the difference. Culture makes all the difference,” Romney said, repeating the conclusion he drew from that book, by David Landes. “And as I come here and I look out over this city and consider the accomplishments of the people of this nation, I recognize the power of at least culture and a few other things.”

First, a glaring factual problem: the differences in GDP per capita are much, much starker, as the WaPo notes: “According to the World Bank, Israel’s GDP per capita is actually $31,282. The same figure for the Palestinian areas is around $1,600.” So, instead of a difference of 2:1 the real ratio is about 20:1. Oops.

While some have read this comment as an indicator of Mitt Romney’s complete foreign policy naivety, I actually worry that it speaks more to his complete unwillingness to see structure behind the determination of any outcome, no matter how obvious the structures are. Palestinians hardly live in a land of opportunity. Rather, they are routinely denied basic freedoms of movement, just for starters. It’s quite hard to make a good living if you aren’t even allowed to go to work. It’s mind-boggling to attribute the difference in incomes to the nebulous, and racist in a low-information-signaling sort of way, “culture”, when so many structural forces are plain to see with the naked eye.

I find this particularly disturbing because the structural forces at play in the US that produce and reproduce inequality are so much subtler (if not exactly subtle). Segregation’s still a big deal here, but there aren’t as many military checkpoints enforcing it. And so on. If Mitt Romney denies the existence and relevance of structural barriers to opportunity and equality in Palestine, what must he think of the economic position of, say, minorities in the US?

EDIT: For a much better informed, and more informative, discussion of why Romney’s assertion about Palestinian poverty makes no sense, see Juan Cole’s recent post, Dear Mr. Romney: Palestinians are Poor Because You Stole from them and Kept them Stateless.

* Occasioning a fantastic retort from British PM David Cameron who noted that it’s harder to host the games somewhere people want to go as opposed to “the middle of nowhere” (i.e. Salt Lake City).

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1 Comment

  1. Excellent commentary. Thank you for posting.