Opinion and Forefront

BROOKS: Ben Franklin's nation as a world model

December 25, 2010

David BrooksAfter 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 past few decades, 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 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 to 583 million from 50 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.

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.

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.•

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Brooks is a New York Times columnist. He has been at The Weekly Standard, Newsweek and Atlantic Monthly, and is a commentator on “The Newshour with Jim Lehrer.” Send comments on this column to ibjedit@ibj.com.
 

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