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The Middle Class Goes Global

PARIS – In the twentieth century, the American dream of a middle-class life inspired the world. Now, in the twenty-first, we are moving at high speed toward a world based on a new geography of growth, with millions of people in the east and the south moving out of extreme poverty to become potentially powerful middle-class consumers. Whether the dreams of this new global middle-class are realized or turn into a nightmare depends on several factors.

In today’s shifting world, with GDP in roughly 80 developing economies rising at twice the rate of per capita growth in the OECD, the club of the world’s richest countries, middle-class citizens paradoxically complain and protest regardless of whether fortunes improve or decline. Moises Naim, a former Venezuelan minister of trade and industry, even warns of a possible “emerging global war of the middle-classes.”

While anger over pay cuts and unemployment make sense, it is harder to understand the current protests in fast-growing countries like Thailand and Chile, where standards of living are improving. What is going on?

High growth in Asian and southern countries has meant greater export earnings and rents from natural resources. Unfortunately, this blessing can turn into a curse. In China, former Communist leader Deng Xiaoping’s vision – “let some people get rich first” – has led to impressive economic growth and poverty reduction; but it has also undermined the self-proclaimed “harmonious society,” as recent protests and labor conflicts indicate.