Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Will the New Global Middle Class Adopt American-Style Bourgeois Values?

David Brooks discusses the new global middle class in an interesting column prompted by a new version of Hans Rosling's viral TED video about income growth and life expectancy. Brooks is usually good when he sticks to his forte, which is sociology, but his attempt to sell the U.S. model as the future for the new middle-class is to stretch it too far, way too far.

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.
(...)
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. (David Brooks: Ben Franklin’s Nation)
This is a narrow American perspective, "bourgeois values — emphasizing industry, prudence, ambition, neatness, order, moderation and continual self-improvement." It excludes other values that have grown all over the world as more and more people are entering the middle class, values such as social welfare systems, universal health insurance, long paid vacations, paid maternity leave, abolishment of death penalty, and so on. I don't know if Ben Franklin would have objected to parental leave, but that doesn't really matter. For all their glory, the Founding Father's had their limits (as well as their slaves). The new global middle class will of course get "Americanized" as they become relatively wealthy, but that doesn't mean that they will give up their traditional culture or preferences for social security and a more humane society. U.S. observers often think they see themselves whenever somebody abroad opens a can of soda, but that is not always the case!

Hans Sandberg

Here is Hans Rosling's presentation:

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