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June 2, 2012 6:40 AM   Subscribe

The Global Middle Class Is Bigger Than We Thought A new way of measuring prosperity has enormous implications for geopolitics and economics.[...] the number of passenger cars in circulation serves as the most reliable gauge we have about the size of a country's middle class.
posted by infini (26 comments total) 1 user marked this as a favorite

 
That's all well and good, but what does the number of passenger cars stuck in trees gauge?
posted by One Second Before Awakening at 7:15 AM on June 2, 2012 [1 favorite]


Calculating the middle class through car ownership excludes rural populations living in places where cars are impractical. Some of the guys I worked with in the Ivory Coast are probably middle class by Ivorian standards ... they have multiple farms and employ people to run the farms for them, they have relatively high paying jobs that allow them to support multiple families, they're from families that are village leaders politically and religiously, but the infrastructure is such that the roads are just terrible and nothing short of a land rover can really make it through. Some of them have motorcycles, but they don't have cars. Motorcycles were also the vehicle of choice for most people in the town in the Amazon I spent some time in because the town was small enough that having a car was an impractical expense. I'd argue that many of these people were still middle-class Peruvians, though. But I like the idea that we're not measuring the right thing when calculating global class status.
posted by ChuraChura at 7:18 AM on June 2, 2012 [6 favorites]


That's all well and good, but what does the number of passenger cars stuck in trees gauge?

Honestly? Seems like the complete inability of economists adn analysts to figure out a way to quantify the unmeasurable and unpredictable, hence all this trees and cars and whatnot. What's going to show up next? Goat's entrails? Swallows in the sky?

ChuraChura, not to mention how many of these passenger cars serve as public transportation.
posted by infini at 7:25 AM on June 2, 2012 [3 favorites]


Motorcycles were also the vehicle of choice for most people in the town in the Amazon I spent some time in because the town was small enough that having a car was an impractical expense. I'd argue that many of these people were still middle-class Peruvians, though.

In fairness, though, the idea of using car ownership as a proxy for middle class probably still works for most Peruvians, given that the population is about 3/4 urban -- for the 25 percent who are living in tiny towns in the Amazon or on farms up in the altiplano, you'd have to use other markers that might be much harder to calculate from a distance.
posted by Forktine at 7:31 AM on June 2, 2012


This also precludes middle class people like myself how are trying to do the right thing but I suspect that number is so vanishingly small that there is no practical utility in estimating how many of us there are.
posted by srboisvert at 7:47 AM on June 2, 2012 [3 favorites]


This also precludes middle class people like myself how are trying to do the right thing but I suspect that number is so vanishingly small that there is no practical utility in estimating how many of us there are.

Now there's an irony, as countries like Singapore seek to increase public transport use while many European urban dwellers shift to bicycles etc (Any number of such examples)

Automobile = middle class, with all due respect to all my American friends, is a blinkered perspective, yet we must deal with it showing up in presumably respected global journals as a conceivable measure of potential democratic progress.
posted by infini at 8:34 AM on June 2, 2012 [5 favorites]


The whole article is a bit of a dodge. Using made up numbers to render a quantifiable mark for an abstract concept, concluding in a blithe statement about a billion car pile up.

But the money quote I think is in the conclusion, about what this materialist and upwardly mobile trend in the world says:

The people of this burgeoning middle class also expect their governments to be representative and accountable, and they are sure to put increased pressure on the nondemocratic systems in many developing countries. Seen in this light, the rising incidence of protests and dissent in China, Russia, Thailand, and the Arab world is not surprising.

Which is actually interesting. And a little understated. Because I think one of the implications of the growing "middle class" is the fact that the world can become much more connected through alternatively mediated means. You have power and water, a mobile phone and an internet connection and you join a very interesting club, globally speaking. Furthermore, people can not only demand accountability from their own governments but from governments whose foreign policies affect them. I mean, look at the photo of the Vietnamese girl posted today on Metafilter. 40 years ago no one could do anything about this situation. These days, photos like that could provoke a massive decentralized response of outraged middle class people. Such people might learn how to fly planes, for example. Or leak documents. Or go all Anonymous.

On a smaller scale, the growing middle class can use its material wealth to do things other than buy cars. For example, a newly middle class Egyptian could buy food to support an occupation of a park in New York. the new models of philanthropy can be many to many, inverting the idea of "giving to the poor."

The article has a pretty narrow and outdated view of its own subject ("First World" - really?) and it ignores the deeper, dare I say, foreign policy implications of a middle class that may yet reach the critical mass needed to slow the 1% and redirect that serious wealth to needier parts the rest of the 99%.

In the rest of the world, I wonder if this is what the new middle class is doing. In North America we do a whole lot of "I've got mine." Class mobility in this continent is woeful, and class nobility, especially among the local 85% (of which I am a member) even worse.

Ultimately, it doesn't matter how many of us there are. It matters what we do with these numbers.
posted by salishsea at 8:38 AM on June 2, 2012 [1 favorite]


Having tracked emerging markets, emerging global middle classes (since the 1990s, actually when India's 'golden summer of liberalization' opened up the markets woo hoo etc) for some time now, what is capturing my attention is that this is the first time the concept of the emerging global middle classes is receiving attention beyond their ability to consume. That is, they've stepped out of the pages of HBR and McKinsey and into the pages of Foreign Policy et al in a manner not previously seen, even with the BoP rush of a few years ago. The OECD's Development Center's Director said recently:

This vulnerability is especially worrying, since if those in the middle have precarious incomes and unstable employment, their consumption cannot be counted upon to drive national development, nor can their growth be taken as a sign of social progress. What is more, their political preferences may veer towards populist platforms not necessarily conducive to good economic management.


while this in Forbes highlights the following from yet another FP article, so:

The middle class’s conservatism was not unique. Far from being the force for change envisioned by Samuel Huntington and other advocates of modernization theory, the middle class in many young democracies is now actually acting as a brake on change. In the Philippines, middle-class men and women throughout the 2000s rallied in Manila to try to evict an elected government. In Pakistan, the middle class has increasingly called for a return of army rule after years of inept civilian government. In Bangladesh in the late 2000s, middle-class citizens supported a return of army rule, angry about the corruption of civilian politicians and fearful of the power of these elected populists. And now, one year after the Arab uprisings began, many middle-class and elite Egyptians, who a year ago joined protests to end Hosni Mubarak’s regime, are publicly calling for the military to retain a sizable role in politics in order to dilute the power of democratically elected Islamist parties that enjoy widespread support among the poor. In Syria, meanwhile, the middle- and upper-class citizens of Damascus have continued staunchly backing Bashar al-Assad’s regime, even though its security forces have massacred thousands of civilians.

I've bolded all the instances of middle class in this block of text ... do we see a concerned pattern emerging here that may explain why we're now reading about driving them into a ditch rather than wondering how sell them sugar water?
posted by infini at 8:58 AM on June 2, 2012 [3 favorites]


Middle class = Upper class. There is no middle. You have or you don't.

Automobile ownership is a poor gauge of prosperity.
posted by mrgrimm at 9:08 AM on June 2, 2012 [1 favorite]


Sure, if you define "middle class" as "those people who own cars," and then it turns out that more people own cars than you thought, then yeah, the middle class is also going to be bigger than you thought.

Seems like the real issue here is that "middle class" is more like a set of culture-specific expectations than it is a classification with any intrinsic content. I think we can all pretty much agree that a floor on what constitutes middle class would be feeling reasonably confident you will continue to have food, water, and shelter, and maybe some higher-level things like health care. Trying to define it any more specifically than that is going to be a moving target. (Even within countries; here in NYC, owning a car or owning your home puts you far above middle-class, but in most of the country you're probably considered working class if you don't have both of these things.)
posted by dixiecupdrinking at 9:32 AM on June 2, 2012


That is, they've stepped out of the pages of HBR and McKinsey and into the pages of Foreign Policy et al in a manner not previously seen, even with the BoP rush of a few years ago.

Yes and no? Since at the '90s here's been this very facile Tom Friedman Golden Arches Theory of Conflict Prevention narrative of the new global middle class (whose Homeric epithet in headlinese was of course "burgeoning") as a force for neoliberal peace and prosperity. Now that the mirage of the End of History is behind us, I think there's maybe a slow realization that wanting a refrigerator and a Toyota Corolla doesn't automatically make you a Third Way democrat.
posted by strangely stunted trees at 10:27 AM on June 2, 2012 [1 favorite]


Since at the '90s here's been this very facile Tom Friedman Golden Arches Theory of Conflict Prevention narrative of the new global middle class (whose Homeric epithet in headlinese was of course "burgeoning") as a force for neoliberal peace and prosperity.

Any particular authors or papers from that era or the early noughties?
posted by infini at 10:53 AM on June 2, 2012


Middle class = Upper class. There is no middle. You have or you don't.

Wow. This is LITERALLY the Fallacy of the Excluded Middle. Good job.
posted by Slithy_Tove at 10:59 AM on June 2, 2012


So, if you use a different metric to measure something, then the number changes? This is what passes for revolutionary in economics?
posted by cmoj at 11:01 AM on June 2, 2012 [2 favorites]


This is stupid. I'm in Copenhagen right now, and this is the most bicycles friendly city I've ever been in. Separate bikeways (not just painted lanes) on most streets, separate traffic lights, bike parking everywhere, and a cycle shop every other block.

My guess is that 1/2 the traffic is bicycles rather than cars, and with Denmark having a great train infrastructure, many people don't have or need automobiles.
posted by CheeseDigestsAll at 12:27 PM on June 2, 2012


Any particular authors or papers from that era or the early noughties?

Well, of course there's His Royal Mustache's own The Lexus and the Olive Tree in all its obnoxious neologism-laden glory.

For something at least slightly more highbrow in the same vein there's late '80s/ early '90s Fukuyama. He's since changed his tune quite a bit, but you have these little pearls of conventional wisdom from "The End of History?":
I want to avoid the materialist determinism that says that liberal economics inevitably produces liberal politics, because I believe that both economics and politics presuppose an autonomous prior state of consciousness that makes them possible. But that state of consciousness that permits the growth of liberalism seems to stabilize in the way one would expect at the end of history if it is underwritten by the abundance of a modern free market economy. We might summarize the content of the universal homogenous state as liberal democracy in the political sphere combined with easy access to VCRs and stereos in the economic.
and
What is important from a Hegelian standpoint is that political liberalism has been following economic liberalism, more slowly than many had hoped but with seeming inevitability. Here again we see the victory of the idea of the universal homogenous state. South Korea had developed into a modern, urbanized society with an increasingly large and well-educated middle class that could not possibly be isolated from the larger democratic trends around them.
posted by strangely stunted trees at 12:42 PM on June 2, 2012 [1 favorite]


An entire four-pager about burgeoning consumption of cars and the political implications of that, and not a mention of climate change? The water's obviously getting hot too gradually.
posted by imperium at 12:52 PM on June 2, 2012 [2 favorites]


strangely stunted trees, I'll take your Moustache and End of History and raise you a Corporate Imperialism,

When managers in the West hear about the emerging middle class of India or China, they tend to think in terms of the middle class in Europe or the United States. This is one sign of an imperialist mind-set—the assumption that everyone must be just like us.

and a Communist state symbol:

As a publication of China’s Police Academy reveals, it is also becoming a symbol of all that China wants to be:

Our country needs the middle strata because it is the political force necessary to stability, it is a regenerative force of production, it is the scientific force behind creativity, it is the moral force behind civilised manners, it is the force necessary to eliminate privilege and curb poverty, it is everything.

posted by infini at 1:01 PM on June 2, 2012 [1 favorite]


Wait a minute, the middle class as a symbol of corporate imperialism AND the communist state?

*synaptic meltdown*

Has the middle class always been a political construct and necessity and I've just been to blind/dumb to note this from my own blinkered perspective?
posted by infini at 1:06 PM on June 2, 2012


More Copenhagenites bike to work than drive (or take the metro). So Cheese's observation might be overestimating the capacity of the car traffic. That's normal.
posted by anthill at 1:17 PM on June 2, 2012


It's a little impressive that they went searching for a metric to measure the middle class, and they came up with the only one I can imagine that is simultaneously:
  1. A consumer purchase, as opposed to a quality of life measure
  2. Remarkably destructive to the global environment
  3. Implicitly condemning public services and collective action
  4. A major cause of public health problems
When your measure suggests that major cities could radically increase the size of the middle class by shutting down their subway systems, or that New York, Boston, Chicago and San Francisco have a smaller proportion of middle and upper class citizens than Fresno or Detroit or El Paso or New Orleans, that says a lot more about your facile oversimplifications than it does about global development.
posted by Homeboy Trouble at 1:26 PM on June 2, 2012 [3 favorites]


Aren't successful fascist movements often predicated by the support of the petit bourgeois? Man, they're just blaming the middle class for everything now aren't they.
posted by Apocryphon at 2:51 PM on June 2, 2012


"The number of internet users [in Africa], which can be used as a proxy for middle class lifestyles, has increased from about 4.5 million people in 2000 to 80.6 million people in 2008." African Development Bank 2011

Oy vey, goat's entrails... I've seen beachboys in shacks go on Facebook with their phone.
posted by infini at 11:34 PM on June 2, 2012 [1 favorite]


I think people concerned that cars as indicators of the middle class miss people in Copenhagen and Amsterdam and stuf may be missing the point. Chances are, nobody questions that the vast majority of people in The Netherlands or Denmark are in the global middle class, and reassessing those numbers won't affect northern Europe's foreign aid allocations.
posted by ChuraChura at 7:29 AM on June 3, 2012


Direct connections between the growth of a "middle class" and a politically liberal society have been outdated at least since the rise of Wilhelmine Germany over a century ago. Middle class (or, for that matter, working class or outright poor people) are not necessarily "liberal" or "conservative" or anything else.

What the rise of a middle class does mean is the arrival of a new force within the social/political world which will almost definitely disagree with the way the previous ruling class organized things (because the latter have built a system geared for themselves, not for newcomers) and which has the economic power to put some weight behind their disagreements. Insofar as the predominant ruling groups in places like the Arab world or Africa or China are authoritarian and bureaucratic in nature, yeah, you're going to see dissent in the direction of democracy and (maybe) the free market.

If you look at the first wave of growing European middle classes back in the late 1800s, you see a push against the free market and royalist/Concert of Europe-style internationalism towards nationalism and protectionism. Then after WWII you see the resurgent middle class pushing for social democracy. In the United States the middle class was highly liberal and New Deal-oriented after WWII, and became somewhat more conservative as their perception of their interests changed from Nixon through Reagan.

That said, I've come to really like Fukuyama these past couple of years. He's shown the ability not only to change his mind but to actively try to figure out where he went wrong and engage with ideas on a deeper level.

And no, cars don't really mean a thing. Counting them is particularly deceptive in places where the infrastructure (street layouts, trains, etc.) militates against them.
posted by AdamCSnider at 7:35 AM on June 3, 2012 [1 favorite]


I think people concerned that cars as indicators of the middle class miss people in Copenhagen and Amsterdam and stuf may be missing the point. Chances are, nobody questions that the vast majority of people in The Netherlands or Denmark are in the global middle class, and reassessing those numbers won't affect northern Europe's foreign aid allocations.

I personally used well-known American cities as examples because I thought that that would be more meaningful than to compare, say, Jakarta, Hanoi, Mumbai, and Beijing. Which presupposes knowledge about Jakarta's auto-intensive urban form and Indonesian petroleum subsidies generally, and Hanoi's relatively unusual road vehicle mix and Mumbai's extensive commuter rail system but limited progress in intracity transit, and Beijing's rapidly-changing mass transit systems that means that using the number of cars to estimate middle class residents will, for the foreseeable future, the number of cars will overestimate the number of middle class residents of Jakarta relative to the other cities.
posted by Homeboy Trouble at 10:10 PM on June 3, 2012


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