Mitt Romney's 2 Favorite Books That Explain America—and the World

He's been citing the same tomes for at least five years, but the conservative case for the primacy of culture sits poorly on the international stage.

romney jerusalemMitt Romney in Jerusalem. (Reuters)]

In the summer 2007, I followed Mitt Romney around Iowa for a few days. In a small town west of Des Moines, I heard him speak at an "Ask Mitt Anything" town hall and point to America's culture as the reason for its success, citing Jared Diamond's 1997 book Guns, Germs and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies and David Landes' 1998 book The Wealth and Poverty of Nations: Why Some Are So Rich and Some Are So Poor in part as having influenced his thinking. His takeaway from those two works seemed like a classic extension of the frequently heard conservative argument that values help breed economic success, but applied to the international arena, and trotted out as a way of back-patting an audience worried about America's place in the world in the wake of the Iraq War. 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. He made the same basic case at an August 2007 luncheon with David Brooks and other journalists, and later that year, The New York Times' Michael Luo, who traveled with Romney more frequently, noted that Romney often cited these books:

Mr. Romney stands out among the presidential candidates for how often he cites books, from across the ideological spectrum, in his speeches and forums. When talking about globalization, he often mentions ''The World is Flat,'' by the New York Times columnist Thomas L. Friedman; he likes to contrast the perspectives of David S. Landes in ''The Wealth and Poverty of Nations,'' and Jared Diamond in ''Guns, Germs, and Steel,'' on what explains the rise and fall of countries ...

In his 2011 book, No Apology: Believe in America, Romney again returned to the argument he'd pioneered on the stump, this time extending it to a comparison of high-tech Israel and the Palestinians' "not yet even ... industrial" economy to make precisely the argument he did Monday when he attributed Palestinian poverty to Palestinian culture, and contrasted it with the values found in Israel. That argument offended some prominent Palestinians.

"All I can say is that this man needs a lot of education. He doesn't know the region, he doesn't know Israelis, he doesn't know Palestinians, and to talk about the Palestinians as an inferior culture is really a racist statement," Saeb Erekat, an aide to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, told The Washington Post. "The harm he has done to American interests throughout the region is enormous," he added.

Here's the relevant excerpt from Chapter 10 of Romney's book:

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What's most extraordinary about this passage is that Romney repeated it -- a passage keyed to woo conservative domestic audiences in a nearly all-white midwestern American state -- with little variation before a diverse international audience in Jerusalem, rather than writing new material for the occasion or thinking through how his words might play in the tetchy world of Middle East politics. Here's what Romney had to say in Israel:

I was thinking this morning as I prepared to come into this room of a discussion I had across the country in the United States about my perceptions about differences between countries.

And as you come here and you see the GDP per capita for instance in Israel which is about 21,000 dollars and you compare that with the GDP per capita just across the areas managed by the Palestinian Authority which is more like 10,000 dollars per capita you notice a dramatic, stark difference in economic vitality. And that is also between other countries that are near or next to each other. Chile and Ecuador, Mexico and the United States.

I noted that part of my interest when I used to be in the world of business is I would travel to different countries was to understand why there were such enormous disparities in the economic success of various countries. I read a number of books on the topic. One, that is widely acclaimed, is by someone named Jared Diamond called 'Guns, Germs and Steel,' which 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. And you look at Israel and you say you have a hard time suggesting that all of the natural resources on the land could account for all the accomplishment of the people here. And likewise other nations that are next door to each other have very similar, in some cases, geographic elements.

But then there was a book written by a former Harvard professor named 'The Wealth and Poverty of Nations.' And in this book Dr. Landes describes differences that have existed -- particularly among the great civilizations that grew and why they grew and why they became great and those that declined and why they declined. And after about 500 pages of this lifelong analysis -- this had been his study for his entire life -- and he's in his early 70s at this point, he says this, he says, if you could learn anything from the economic history of the world it's this: culture makes all the difference. Culture makes all the difference.

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. One, I recognize the hand of providence in selecting this place.

Romney got the income gap between Palestinians and Israelis wrong -- it's more like $1,600 to $31,000 in per capita GDP -- but the bigger issue is that Romney has for years been making an argument about the causes of international supremacy that's anything but uncontroversial, without anyone calling him on it.

The New York Times in 2007 reported that there was a backlash to Diamond's book, which seemed to naturalize the causes of inequality and erase the impact of politics from the equation:

Although "Guns, Germs and Steel" has been celebrated as an antidote to racism -- Western civilization prevails not because of inherent superiority, but geographical luck -- some anthropologists saw it as excusing the excesses of the conquerors. If it wasn't their genes that made them do it, it was their geography.

"Diamond in effect argues that no one is to blame," said Deborah B. Gewertz, an anthropologist at Amherst College. "The haves are not to be blamed for the condition of the have-nots."

That is, in many ways, exactly the conservative argument in America on behalf of inequality of outcomes. Inequality of opportunity resulting from historic acts of domination or government action becomes, in Romney's telling, the result of cultural pathologies among the have-nots. But that is, oddly, a much harder argument to make around the world than it is at home.