Wednesday, September 12, 2012


One of the most insensitive, clueless and just plain warped statements Romney has made in the campaign was when he spoke in Israel and said that the reason why Israel had a per capita income of $20,000 while the Palestinians only had $10,000 was due to a superior culture. To begin with his numbers were off by a factor of ten: The true numbers are $31,000 for Israel, $1500 for the Palestinians. You’d think someone in his entourage would take a minute to do an internet search to get the correct numbers. His statement was roundly criticized by many Israelis, and rightly so.
In the event, I’ve been pondering for quite a while how culture impacts a nation’s intellectual and economic advancement. Why is it that some nations are hopelessly poor while others are fabulously wealthy?
All peoples are not the same, all cultures are not the same, though political correctness places taboos on us making certain types of judgments and assumptions.
But even before you start judging a nation’s cultural status based on per capita income, you’ve got to step back and check for outside forces that might’ve affected those numbers. In the case of Israel versus Palestine, you have Israel, an already wealthy nation that receives $4 billion per year in military aid as well as an additional large amount more in private donations from Jews around the world and ‘Palestine’ – in quotes because it’s not a nation – which has been under military occupation for 45 years during which time it’s seen its land stolen, its water stolen, its access to the outside world strictly controlled by another country, which decides, based on how much pressure or difficulty it wishes to burden the Palestinian people with, what can be imported and what can be exported, it’s people subjected to more than 500 checkpoints in an area equivalent to Delaware, America’s second smallest state, so that merely going from one village in your ‘country’ to another is regularly designed to be a frustrating and humiliating experience, where guards routinely make Palestinians, including the elderly and pregnant women, wait out in the elements - women have been forced to give birth out in the open because the guards won’t to let them through to nearby hospitals, where... well I could go on and on and on, but suffice to say it’s a ludicrous comparison to make considering the circumstances.
However, it’s entirely possible that, even on a level playing field, Israel would have a higher income than a true, free Palestinian state. Culture undeniably has an impact on a people’s drive for financial success, though concurrently, financial success isn’t the only determinant of the value of a culture. It’s especially dangerous, not to mention morally and philosophically corrupt to try to equate a nation’s value based solely on its income.
First a little digression on per capita income. There are two ways to calculate it. One is to simply covert local currency to dollars. That method seriously understates quality of life in developing countries, since a dollar goes a lot farther in a poor country than in a rich. Before you come to the third world, you just can’t imagine how people can survive on $800 per year, Cambodia’s current nominal per capita income. But I can go to a local produce shop, which is a bit more expensive than the public market, and get two tomatoes, a small green pepper and an onion for 35¢. The same is true for almost everything produced locally. The second is Purchasing Power Parity in which the skewing against poor countries is corrected by adjusting for the greater purchasing power of a dollar in those places. On that basis Cambodia’s income is more like $2400 per year.
Back on subject: Qatar, calculated by PPP, has the highest income in the world at about $100,000. Does that mean Qatari culture is three times better than Israeli culture? Or merely superior? German income is close to $40,000. Do we really want to suggest that German culture is superior to Jewish culture because their income is higher? In the cases of both Germany and Israel there are special circumstances that have brought their income down. In Germany’s case they spent fabulous amounts of money in the cause of bringing East German society up to western standards. In Israel’s case they’ve spent vast sums on their colonization project in the West Bank and concomitant occupation and suppression of the Palestinian people. Still, setting the mitigating factors aside, one may well have a ‘superior’ culture when it comes to income and maybe other factors also. Every race, nationality, culture is different.  
Income is an essential factor in determining a country’s progress and advancement. Without a certain minimum income some people will be hungry, or be without access to education or health care. But that doesn’t mean a low income country has an inferior culture, only that it either isn’t focused on income or mitigating factors have brought income down.
Cambodia’s current poverty is mostly a result of its sordid history. Back in the sixties the country was one of the area’s wealthiest. While nobody but the Khmer can be blamed for the gruesome years of the Khmer Rouge, their takeover of the country did not happen in a vacuum. In the early sixties, King Sihanouk abdicated his throne to become the country’s political leader. That time was the heyday of Cambodian culture. While he wasn’t faultless, he was a respected and often revered leader; he also was a leftist with affinity for Mao and communist China. This did not sit well with the CIA so they staged a coup in 1970 in which the former king was deposed and Lon Nol, an imposingly corrupt right-winger was put in his place. That in turn did not sit well with the Khmer Rouge and the king who sided with the KR. Nixon’s ‘secret’ Cambodia bombing campaign in which more bombs were dropped per capita than any time in history, gave the KR a fantastic recruiting tool and sealed Cambodia’s fate. BTW, 40 years after the bombing ended Cambodians are still dying from UXO’s, unexploded ordnance, left in the countryside. The US always has the money to start new wars but somehow can’t find the relative pittance needed to clean up after the old ones.
While only the Khmer people could produce a Pol Pot, it’s reasonable to conjecture that the KR might never have been able to take over had the US not intervened in Cambodia’s affairs. Cambodia’s $2400 per year per capita income doesn’t compare favorably with the US income of $45,000, but is it entirely culture that made the difference? Had Cambodians been left to their own devices, they would be far above that figure today, but who knows exactly where they would stand?
Cambodia’s people may not compare in income, social advancement or intellectual attainment but it’s a hell of a lot easier to live here than in the states. The atmosphere is friendly, easygoing and relaxed, exemplified by the fact that the country has 26 public holiday days a year and that underestimates how much time people take off for Khmer New Year. The official holiday is three days but the private schools I taught at scheduled a full week off and nobody ever showed up for classes the last couple of days before the scheduled break. And that also doesn’t include Chinese New Year, a three day unofficial holiday that almost everyone who can takes off. We celebrate the new year three times in Cambo.
Speaking of the Chinese, when it comes to financial success, they undeniably have a superior culture. Nearly everywhere you go in southeast Asia they control a disproportionate share of the businesses and own an outsized share of the wealth. But does that mean their culture overall is better? For instance, when Chinese summon a waitress they use the term for servant and it’s always spoken in a gruff haughty voice. In contrast when Cambodians do the same they use a word that roughly translates as good person and they speak naturally.
I could go on, I intended to go on, but I’d just get into trouble. Suffice to say, there’s a lot more to culture than income. Leave it to vulture-capitalist Romney, the richest man ever to run for president, to see value exclusively in terms of material wealth.