Posted on Tuesday, December 14, 2010
After you read this column, go to YouTube and search “Hans Rosling and 200 countries.” You’ll see a Swedish professor describe the growth of global wealth and well-being over the past 200 years.
He presents an animated time-lapse chart. It starts in 1810, when the nations of the world were clumped on the bottom left-hand side of the chart because they had low income and low life expectancy. Then the industrial revolution kicks in and the nations of the West surge upward and to the right as they get richer and healthier. By 1948, it’s like a race, with the United States out front and the other nations of the world stretched in a long tail behind.
Then, over the last few decades, the social structure of the world changes. The Asian and Latin American countries begin to catch up. With the exception of the African nations, living standards start to converge. Now most countries are clumped toward the top end of the chart, thanks to the incredible reductions in global poverty and improvements in health.
This convergence is great news, but the change in the global social structure has created a psychological crisis in the U.S. Since World War II, we’ve built our national identity on our rank among the nations — at the front with everybody else trailing behind. But in this age of convergence, the world doesn’t have much of a tail anymore.
Some people interpret this loss of lead-dog status as a sign of national decline.
Other people think we are losing our exceptionalism. But, the truth is, there’s just been a change in the shape of the world community. In a world of relative equals, the U.S. will have to learn to define itself not by its rank, but by its values. It will be important to have the right story to tell, the right purpose and the right aura. It will be more important to know who you are.
Americans seem uncertain about how to answer that question. But one answer is contained in Rosling’s chart. What is the core feature of the converging world? It is the rise of a gigantic global middle class.
In 2000, the World Bank classified 430 million people as middle class. By 2030, there will be about 1.5 billion. In India alone, the ranks of the middle class will swell from 50 million to 583 million.
To be middle class is to have money to spend on non-necessities. But it also involves a shift in values. Middle-class parents have fewer kids but spend more time and money cultivating each one. They often adopt the bourgeois values — emphasizing industry, prudence, ambition, neatness, order, moderation and continual self-improvement. They teach their children to lead different lives from their own, and as Karl Marx was among the first to observe, unleash a relentless spirit of improvement and openness that alters every ancient institution.
Last year, the Pew Research Center surveyed the global middle class and found that middle-class people are more likely than their poorer countrymen to value democracy, free speech and an objective judiciary. They were more likely to embrace religious pluralism and say that you don’t have to believe in God to be good.
Over the next few decades, a lot of people are going to get rich selling education, self-help and mobility tools to the surging global bourgeoisie. The United States has a distinct role to play in this world.
American culture was built on the notion of bourgeois dignity. We’ve always been lacking in aristocratic grace and we’ve never had much proletarian consciousness, but America did produce Ben Franklin, one of the original spokesmen of middle-class values. It did produce Horatio Alger, who told stories about poor boys and girls who rose to middle-class respectability. It does produce a nonstop flow of self-help leaders, from Dale Carnegie to Oprah Winfrey. It did produce the suburbs and a new sort of middle-class dream.
Americans could well become the champions of the gospel of middle-class dignity. The U.S. could become the crossroads nation for those who aspire to join the middle and upper-middle class, attracting students, immigrants and entrepreneurs.
To do this, we’d have to do a better job of celebrating and defining middle-class values. We’d have to do a better job of nurturing our own middle class. We’d have to have the American business class doing what it does best: catering to every nook and cranny of the middle-class lifestyle. And we’d have to emphasize that capitalism didn’t create the American bourgeoisie. It was the social context undergirding capitalism — the community clubs, the professional societies, the religious charities and Little Leagues.
For centuries, people have ridiculed American culture for being tepid, materialistic and middle class. But Ben Franklin’s ideas won in the end. The middle-class century could be another American century.
By DAVID BROOKS NYT