On August 5, Fareed Zakaria published an op-ed entitled "Capitalism, not culture, drives economic growth". In his article he discusses the comment made by President Romney about how culture factors in to a nation's ability to be economically prosperous. Mr. Zakaria takes the position that history has shown us that culture must not play much of a role in predicting a nation's economic success given that two of the fastest growing economies at this point in time are China and India, two nations that many believed were doomed to lackluster economic performance.
This is not to say that culture doesn't play ANY role in the economic success of a society. The Puritans who landed in New England brought with them a belief in the importance of public education as well as a belief in the virtue of labor. This is not to say that American must then undeniably be the shining city on a hill, but the influence of our culture can not be so easily discounted.
There is a joke that has become popular in China in recent years about an American woman and a Chinese woman who have both recently passed away and met in heaven. The Chinese woman tells the American woman "before I died I was finally able to afford a house" the American woman responds and says "yeah, before I died I was finally able to pay off my mortgage."
The joke, while it may seem insignificant and unrelated, is an interesting way to look at the idea that culture influences economy. If western historians want to argue that the prosperity of the west was partially due to a cultural pre-disposition to hard work and organization, then they must also concede that those same cultural influences helped fuel the real estate bubble, the 2008 market crash, and the unbelievably high levels of personal debt a majority of Americans are in.
Culture is a hard thing to pinpoint, because we all cherish our own, but many fear the culture of others. Sometimes they are afraid because they have been misinformed, but more likely just because it is alien and different. To say that there are certain aspects or beliefs within a culture that could help the economic standing of a nation is not really in question. What remains ridiculous, however, is the notion that culture is the main difference between two nations when there have clearly been institutional advantages for one. Capitalism isn't the only thing that produces economic growth, so does luck. Being in the right place in the right time with the right environment and the right resources helped create western power as much as any other single factor.