David Frum

08.01.12

What Romney Meant to Say

Discussions of economic development can easily bruise people's feelings. Who should understand that better than Americans?

Through most of US economic history, the states of the Yankee North have been richer and more successful than the states of the Old South. In 1900, the gap between Massachusetts and Mississippi was probably about as great as that between West and East Germany during the Cold War. Even today, income per-capita in Massachusetts is about 60% higher than Mississippi. Why?

Answering that question prods ancient wounds. Southerners can point to Northern policies that disadvantaged their development: protectionism in the 19th century, when it did not suit them; free trade in the late 20th century, when again it did not suit them; and throughout the period, monetary policies designed with Northern interests uppermost in mind.

Northerners can equally plausibly point to the deficiencies in Southern culture: the racial caste system, under-investment in education, a violent gun culture, and a populist politics hostile to business. (Mississippi may be more "conservative" than Massachusetts, but if I were a corporate defendant accused of some spectacular tort, I'd rather face a Massachusetts court than a Mississippi court: there's no Massachusetts equivalent of Dickie Scruggs.)

Very understandably, politicians prefer not to "go there": sensibly, they usually opt to talk about how their country or state or city can advance, not about why other countries, states, or cities have failed.

And yet there is wisdom in the contrast too, and it's a sign of the power and curiosity of Mitt Romney's mind that he has read, pondered, and now spoken about this issue—perhaps the most fundamental issue for the leader of any nation.

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