In 2006, the World Bank issued a study, "Where is the Wealth of Nations?", which found that "natural capital" (croplands, gold deposits, etc.) and "produced capital" (cars, roads, iPads, etc) amount to a small fraction of a nation's wealth.
Researchers concluded that worldwide, "natural capital accounts for 5 percent of total wealth, produced capital for 18 percent and intangible capital 77 percent."
In 2000, the richest country in the world on a per capita basis was Switzerland. But only 1 percent of its riches were attributable to natural resources, making it physically poorer than many Third World countries. All of Switzerland's expensive watches, chocolates and other forms of produced capital added only 15 percent of its wealth. Meanwhile, intangible capital -- its laws, respect for law, industriousness, skills, customs and expectations -- provide 84 percent of Switzerland's wealth.
Think of it this way. We all know the saying about giving a man a fish vs. teaching a man to fish. Well, who's richer? A lazy man who doesn't know how to fish with 10 flounders in his fridge, or a fishless but industrious man who knows how to fish?
Now, just because it is a simple truth that culture is incredibly important -- vital -- to economic success, doesn't mean it's a simple phenomenon. Cultures are complex things. Palestinian culture -- such as Arab culture generally, according to the U.N. Report on Arab development -- has many problems, but the causes and remedies of those problems are worth debating, without tired whining about "racism." Cultures can produce prosperity, but cultural changes, often driven by government, can erode prosperity -- just look at Greece and Spain today.
What is clear is the fact that cultural factors are inextricably tied to a productive society. For instance, researchers show that low-skilled Mexican laborers become 10 to 20 times more productive simply by crossing the border into the U.S.
This could have been the basis for an informative and revealing debate between the two campaigns. President Obama, who (outside of education) emphasizes policies tied to tangible capital, has long inveighed against the culture of what he considers excessive capitalism (in his memoirs he describes working in the private sector as serving "behind enemy lines"). Romney argues that the American tradition of free enterprise needs to be renewed.
Rather than get bogged down in the tired "gaffe" storyline, wouldn't it have been better to have both candidates explore this idea more?