One of the few things Americans on both sides of the partisan divide can agree on is that this election is shaping up to be vexingly petty. The hunt for gaffes -- some real, many imagined -- has taken over. Romney's recent overseas tour, we are told, produced three: an impolitic, if defensible, statement about Britain's preparations for the Olympics; a statement about the importance of culture in economic development; and when an aide to Romney dressed down a reporter with an inflated sense of entitlement.
Not only is that list pathetic in its own right, in the rush to paint Romney's campaign as hapless, the press and partisans glossed over a philosophical insight worthy of a presidential debate.
In a thoughtful discussion about Israeli prosperity, particularly in comparison to neighboring Palestinians, Romney cited the work of Harvard economic historian David Landes, who had concluded after a lifetime of study that culture was the greatest single factor in explaining a society's successes and failures. "Culture makes all the difference," Romney said, paraphrasing Landes. The Palestinian Authority immediately cried "racism," and their complaints were taken as proof that Romney's diplomatic skills are wanting, as if diplomacy is all about telling countries what they want to hear and offending no one. Does anyone honestly believe that the Palestinians -- half ruled by the murderous terrorists of Hamas, half ruled by the kleptocratic thugs of the Palestinian Authority -- lack cultural impediments to peace and prosperity? Really?
Outside the hothouses of the election season and the Israel-Palestinian conflict, virtually no one disputes the importance of culture. If you've only read the Cliffs Notes to Max Weber's foundational "The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism," you'd know this was an utterly defensible, if not wholly uncontroversial, observation.
Though conservatives are more likely to tout this fact than liberals, the truth is virtually every serious liberal believes it to be true to one extent or another. When you hear liberal politicians celebrate diversity as essential to a 21st century economy, they are making a point about culture. When they lament the legacy of slavery and Jim Crow as a partial cause for the various challenges facing the black community, they are making an argument about culture. When they talk about the "culture of corruption" on Wall Street, they're not talking about advances in computerized trading.
In recent years, economists have focused on "intangible capital" -- the wealth of a nation not captured by statistics about such things as industrial production, oil reserves and real estate values.