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Friday 02 April 2004

Culture Pays

James Surowiecki writes in the New Yorker about Ecuador’s Campaña Contra la Impuntualida, or campaign against lateness. Ecuadorians are, it appears, stereotypical South Americans in that they tend to be late for everything. This is estimated to cost their economy about 10% a year, so they’re trying to change their habits.

The one-page article is particularly interesting in that it more or less plainly states something that you’re not supposed to talk about, particularly in a left-of-center magazine like the New Yorker: that culture matters, and that the wealth of nations is tied to the national habits.

What Ecuador really has to overcome is the idea that culture is destiny, that showing up late is just what Ecuadorans do. In the past two decades, great attention has been paid to the economic significance of cultural predispositions—to the role, for example, of trust and risk-aversion in the old Soviet-bloc countries’ fitful attempts to adapt to capitalism. Culture, we have discovered, matters more than many bondholders wish it did.
We are constantly being told, about social norms in places like the Middle East, “That’s just the way it is.”

The danger is that this might lead to people thinking that the United States is wealthy because the United States’ culture tends to produce wealth, rather than that the United States is wealthy because of systematic oppression of the downtrodden flavor-of-the-month. It also would seem to imply that any nation, or any person, can improve their or his lot by simply adopting values that lead to betterment. How about that.

Anyway, it’s a good article and worth a read.

Posted by tino at 14:00 2.04.04
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Portugal and Spain have also be pressured from within and without to change the way their culture works. Notably the mid-day siesta. The arguement is that puts them out of step with the workday in the rest of Europe and is hurting them.

In my recent trip to Barcelona I noticed they still shut down the city (outside of tourist spots) from about 2pm to 4pm. Then again those Catalons do have an independent streak.

Posted by: Paul M Johnson at April 2, 2004 02:42 PM