Here's a List of Countries With a Higher GDP Per Capita Than Israel

If "culture makes all the difference" in explaining economic disparity, as Romney suggested of Israel and Palestine, then are Kuwaitis and Belgians culturally superior to Israelis?

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Mitt Romney applauds while speaking in Jerusalem. (Reuters)

Not only was Mitt Romney right about Israel's positively stunning economic success, he actually understated it. In comments apparently meant to demonstrate how well Israelis had constructed a powerhouse economy in the middle of the Levant, he noted that the average Israeli income is about twice the average Palestinian, though the two peoples live side-by-side. In fact, Israel's GDP per person is about ten times that of the Palestinian territories.

That's due in part to the amazing Israeli economic growth of the past generation. From 1985 to today, the Israeli economy grew by a factor of ten, as it expanded from agriculture to computer circuitry, bio technology, pharmaceuticals, and aviation and communications products. The Israeli economic story is so impressive that it is the subject of occasional academic study. So it's hard to find anything wrong with Romney touting that success. And though it's pretty insensitive to Palestinians to choose their shambled economy as the comparative case study -- the Palestinian economy is as poor as it is in large part because of Israel's occupation of the West Bank and blockade of Gaza -- Romney was not wrong to note that these two societies with access to similar geography have nonetheless achieved very different levels of economic success. Where he seems to have gone a little wrong was in his explanation for why.

"Culture makes all the difference," he told a Jerusalem audience. "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." He continued, "As you come here and you see the G.D.P. per capita, for instance, in Israel which is about $21,000 [actually $32,000], and compare that with the G.D.P. per capita just across the areas managed by the Palestinian Authority, which is more like $10,000 per capita [actually $2,900], you notice such a dramatically stark difference in economic vitality."

So it's about culture, then. Scholars might disagree; though this question is complicated and much debated, economists tend to cite, for example, free trade agreements with the U.S. and Europe, or the influx of well-educated, highly skilled Jewish immigrants from the former Soviet Union after its collapse. Romney's near-categorical attribution of economic growth to culture is, Garance Franke-Ruta argues, "a classic extension of the frequently heard conservative argument that values help breed economic success, but applied to the international arena." She translates, "Don't worry, he seemed to be arguing -- as long as we've got our culture and stick to our conservative values, everything will be OK." Romney has also cited geography as a factor in the fates of nations, an extension of the geographic determinism favored by Pulitzer prize-winner Jared Diamond, among others.


Whether Romney really believes that Israel's culture made "all the difference" for its economy or he was just simplifying to underscore some campaign points, it's worth pausing to take his comments at face value. If economic strength is mostly about culture, with some room for geography as well, then here are some countries that might be said to have superior culture to even Israel's.

The 26 countries with higher GDP per capita than Israel, per IMF data:

• Luxembourg $113,533
• Qatar $98,329
• Norway $97,255
• Switzerland $81,161
• United Arab Emirates $67,008
• Australia $65,477
• Denmark $59,928
• Sweden $56,956
• Canada $50,436
• Netherlands $50,355
• Austria $49,809
• Finland $49,350
• Singapore $49,271
• United States $48,387
• Kuwait $47,982
• Ireland $47,513
• Belgium $46,878
• Japan $45,920
• France $44,008
• Germany $43,742
• Iceland $43,088
• United Kingdom $38,592
• New Zealand $36,648
• Brunei $36,584
• Italy $36,267
• European Union $35,116
• Hong Kong $34,049
• Spain $32,360

You might notice a number of European countries on that list, including the broader European Union itself. Romney has been highly critical of what he sees as President Obama's Europe-ification of America, chiding, "Europe isn't working in Europe, it's not going to work here." Yet there sits Europe -- along with the East Asia city-states of Brunei, Singapore, and Hong Kong -- richer per person than Israel. If anything, this actually makes Israel's growth even more impressive, since the young country lacks, for example, the historical legacies that made today's Europe so rich. But that's precisely why Romney's comments are so odd, since Israel, like every other rich society on earth, has had its own historical advantages that surely go beyond "culture."   

Romney would probably be quick to point out, rightly, that a number of these countries enjoy enormous geographic advantages -- say, Qatar's gas fields and oil wells, or Canada's small population relative to its natural resources -- and this is entirely consistent with his caveats that geography can also play a role in a country's economic fate. But geography can't explain them all, and that would seem to leave culture.

Does this mean that the French, Dutch, Finnish, Australians, and Singaporeans are just inherently culturally superior to Israel? Of course not, and there's no reason to think that Romney believes they are. Europe got rich through, for example, colonialism, early industrialization, economic revolutions, and political progress. Japan followed a similar path. Then Europeans brought their successes to the aforementioned trade-route city-states and to Anglophone colonies like Canada. This is relatively straightforward history, which Romney surely knows, so it's odd that he would ignore these sorts of factors when it came to comparing Israel and Palestine -- which have been treated very differently by history -- and announce that here, "Culture makes all the difference."
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Max Fisher is a former writer and editor at The Atlantic.

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