At the height of the Cold War, the State Department put the nation's best-known intellectuals to work as good-will ambassadors, sending artists and writers on propaganda missions to persuade people around the world to embrace American middle-class striving.
At one memorable meeting, Nobel Prize-winning authors Saul Bellow and William Faulkner locked horns over the method of promotion. Faulkner, impatient with the high-concept talk of those around the table enjoying the sound of their own voices, said all we had to do was give people a used car and a TV and they'd understand the benefits of the American way. Bellow stormed out of the room in a fury.
As consumerism surges in the emerging world, from Latin America to Asia, determining how to define middle class isn't quite as simple as Faulkner made it out to be. Though the link with more discretionary spending and the group is clear, the new middle class is proving elusive.
A new field has arisen for economists and think tank analysts in the effort to define the new middle class, but results are inconclusive. The definers are broken up into camps, defending their positions, though with slightly more conciliation than existed between Bellow and Faulkner.
"There's no consensus," said Christian Meyer, research associate at the Center for Global Development. "In all of this mess of confused definitions, we like to think of not defining it, but identification. We think it matters more to think of concept of middle class—is it a Western idea of income security, not being vulnerable to economic shocks, general economic stability and comfort to engage in society and politics?"
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We can look at occupation—the extent to which there's a professional class of workers or the number of workers receiving a pay stub (a sign of regular income and economic stability); technology usage—access to the Internet and smartphones and use of services such as texting and social media; or ownership of durable goods and other higher-priced items, including refrigerators, air conditioners, televisions and cars.
But when defining the middle class, experts primarily look at an income benchmark. And some of the early studies of an income threshold for the developing world's middle class show how far apart the experts can be.
Several of the prevailing definitions of the new middle class don't even overlap at any point on a quantified spectrum.
One of the early definitions came from two MIT poverty researchers, Esther Duflo and Abhijit Banerjee, who zeroed in on a range of $2 to $10 in per capita daily spending. Meanwhile, Homi Kharas, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institute and a former World Bank economist, set the threshold starting at $10 per capita daily spending—the point marked by the MIT economists as the global middle class's upper limit.