With the knowledge that what I am about to write is going to make me sound enormously elitist, let’s examine our two presidential candidates, Barack Obama and Mitt Romney. The first graduated from two prestigious Ivy League schools, Columbia and Harvard Law, was president of the Harvard Law Review, authored an objectively well-written and thoughtful memoir, and was a professor of constitutional law at one of the top ranked law schools in the country. Guess what though? Apparently Barack Obama is one of the dumbest politicians we have ever had. He uses a teleprompter! Bill Ayers ghostwrote his book since there is no way he is smart enough to have done it himself! We need to see his college transcripts since he couldn’t have possibly gotten into Harvard Law on his own merit! For a typically representative example of this type of thinking, read this casual putdown of Obama’s intelligence by someone who is no doubt a Rhodes Scholar and NASA engineer.

Mitt Romney began his undergraduate career at Stanford and was accepted into the joint JD-MBA program at Harvard, meaning that he is one of about 500 people to have graduated from Harvard Law School and Harvard Business School simultaneously. Romney was no slouch while at Harvard, finishing at the top of his MBA class, and he later founded Bain Capital, a pioneering private equity firm, and then ran the 2002 Winter Olympics. So you might not realize it from this record of academic and professional achievement, but apparently Mitt Romney is a simpleton. As Jared Diamond notes in today’s New York Times, he is incapable of complex thought and believes that complicated outcomes of history are caused by only a single variable! He believes in Mormon fairy tales that are obviously made up! He thinks that “love of freedom” is enough to create wealth!

Let’s set something straight right away; both of these men are very, very smart guys. That their intelligence is even in question is somewhat dumbfounding. The emerging conventional wisdom over the past few days that Romney must be an idiot demonstrates how vapid presidential campaigns have become, where candidates try their best not to to say anything much of substance for fear that partisans or the media cycle will bring them down, and the media bemoans the lack of substance while literally jumping up and down and waving their hands in the air over the most inane and minute non-substantive comments the candidates make. I am no social or media critic so I won’t go off on a rant about what this tells us about our society at large, but the whole thing is absurd. Yes, Romney made a stupid comment about culture affecting development, one that any first year political science graduate student could spend 20 detailed footnotes pages ripping apart. It can’t escape notice though that the causal link between culture and capitalism was first posited by Max Weber, the forefather of modern political science, so it’s not like Romney is alone out on a limb. Take a guess at who wrote this in January 2010 after the Haiti earthquake:

Why is Haiti so poor? Well, it has a history of oppression, slavery and colonialism. But so does Barbados, and Barbados is doing pretty well. Haiti has endured ruthless dictators, corruption and foreign invasions. But so has the Dominican Republic, and the D.R. is in much better shape. Haiti and the Dominican Republic share the same island and the same basic environment, yet the border between the two societies offers one of the starkest contrasts on earth — with trees and progress on one side, and deforestation and poverty and early death on the other.

As Lawrence E. Harrison explained in his book “The Central Liberal Truth,” Haiti, like most of the world’s poorest nations, suffers from a complex web of progress-resistant cultural influences. There is the influence of the voodoo religion, which spreads the message that life is capricious and planning futile. There are high levels of social mistrust. Responsibility is often not internalized. Child-rearing practices often involve neglect in the early years and harsh retribution when kids hit 9 or 10.

We’re all supposed to politely respect each other’s cultures. But some cultures are more progress-resistant than others, and a horrible tragedy was just exacerbated by one of them.

Anyone remember? It was David Brooks in the New York Times, someone generally viewed by people on both sides as a columnist who is intelligent, thoughtful, and educated, and writing for the same publication that just published Diamond insinuating that Romney is a simple-minded fool for expressing the exact same thought. Do I agree with the substance of Diamond’s piece? I sure do. I think the cultural argument glosses over what is really going on, not to mention that as others have pointed out, Romney wasn’t even referring to culture when he fingered it as the culprit, but was actually talking about institutions. Does this mean that Romney is a moron? It sure doesn’t. It means that an enormously smart and capable individual hasn’t spent much time reading academic literature dealing with disparities in political and economic development.

It’s perfectly fair to criticize Romney on his seeming lack of foreign policy knowledge or experience, but it is a matter of never having been in a position that required this knowledge or experience rather than being a blathering dolt. Does anyone other than the most partisan of hacks really think that Romney can’t get himself up to speed on foreign policy issues? He will undoubtedly still hold views that plenty of people, myself included, will find objectionable or just plain wrong, but last time I checked, that was not a mark of stupidity. There are plenty of legitimate complaints about both Obama and Romney. Stupidity is not one of them, and opining about how dumb they both are says a lot more about the people making these claims than it does about either of the two men running for president.

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