Global trends to 2030 and the confusion of alternative worlds
The National Intelligence Council of the USA, earlier in 2012 December, released the latest Global Trends report, which is titled ‘Global Trends 2030: Alternative Worlds’. The Global Trends project is described as bringing expertise from outside (the American) government on factors of such as globalisation, demography and the environment. In the USA, the Director of National Intelligence serves as the head of what in America is called the ‘intelligence community’, overseeing and directing the implementation of the American National Intelligence Program and acting as the principal adviser to the President, the National Security Council, and the Homeland Security Council for intelligence matters related to national security. Specifically, the goal of the Director of National Intelligence is described as “to effectively integrate foreign, military and domestic intelligence in defense of the homeland and of United States interests abroad”.
With that background, ‘Global Trends 2030: Alternative Worlds’ is the fifth installment in the National Intelligence Council’s series aimed at providing to the ruling regime of the USA “a framework for thinking about the future” by “identifying critical trends and potential discontinuities”. This 2012 report distinguishes between ‘megatrends’ (factors that will likely occur under any scenario) and ‘game-changers’ (critical variables whose trajectories are far less certain). Finally, to better explain the diversity and complexity of various factors, the 2012 report sketches out scenarios or alternative worlds.
From our Asian point of view, ‘Global Trends 2030: Alternative Worlds’ has a most interesting section describing the middle classes, which the report says almost everywhere in the developing world are poised to expand substantially in terms of both absolute numbers and the percentage of the population that can claim middle-class status during the next 15-20 years. “Even the more conservative models see a rise in the global total of those living in the middle class from the current 1 billion or so to over 2 billion people,” said the report.
All the analyses reviewed by the authors of the ‘Global Trends 2030: Alternative Worlds’ suggest that the most rapid growth of the middle class will occur in Asia, with India somewhat ahead of China over the long term. According to the Asian Development Bank, if China “achieves the new plan target of increasing household expenditures at least as rapidly as GDP, the size of its middle class will explode” with “75 percent of China’s population enjoying middle-class standards and $2/day poverty will be substantially wiped out”.
The report does not make an attempt to link the impact of the rise of this middle-class with either one of the ‘mega trends’ described or two of the ‘game-changers’ described, which speak in a halting manner about the effects of over-consumption and galloping resource grabbing.
‘Global Trends 2030: Alternative Worlds’ has conceded that “establishing the threshold for determining when someone is middle class versus climbing out of poverty is difficult, particularly because the calculations rely on the use of purchasing power parity”. In India the debate about who is poor is 40 years old and remains intractable – thanks mostly to the intransigence of central planners who still refuse to link the current cost of basics with current low levels of real income.
Instead, ‘Global Trends 2030: Alternative Worlds’ has forecast that most new members of the middle class in 2030 will be at the lower end of the spectrum. “Their per capita incomes will be still rated as ‘poor’ by Western standards even though they will have begun to acquire the trappings of middle-class status. Growth in the number of those living in the top half of the range of this new middle class — which is likely to be more in line with Western middle-class standards — will be substantial, rising from 330 million in 2010 to 679 million in 2030.
Much of the future global leadership is likely to come from this segment,” said the report, raising a number of worries. Firstly, I would be loath to see any kind of leadership – political, economic or social – come from this segment as such leadership will strengthen, not diminish, the consumption patterns destroying our environment. Second, it is less the chasing of ‘Western’ per capita incomes we need and more the re-education of the middle-class to emphasise the virtues of ‘less’ and ‘small’ that is urgently needed.
More to the point, ‘Global Trends 2030: Alternative Worlds’ has forecast that with the expansion of the middle class, income inequalities — and the report says these “have been a striking characteristic of the rising developing states” — may begin to lessen in the developing world. This is astonishingly misread. Approximately a generation of economic liberalisation (which has gone under various names in different large countries) in India, China, Russia, South Africa, Brazil and Indonesia have proven the opposite.
The report goes on in this befuddled vein: “Even if the Gini coefficients, which are used to measure inequalities, decline in many developing countries, they are still unlikely to approach the level of many current European countries like Germany and Finland where inequality is relatively low”. Again, a decade of ‘austerity’ under various guises (longer in Britain in fact, under Thatcherism) in Europe has created inequalities approaching the true levels seen in the BRICS and similar countries, and these have been camouflaged by welfare measures that are fast-disappearing and by community action. So this ‘Global Trends 2030: Alternative Worlds’ is flat wrong on these matters.
However, the report has made an attempt to infuse some social science into what is otherwise good news for the global consumer goods multinationals (and of course for the fossil fuel barons). “That said, a perception of great inequality will remain, particularly between urban- and rural-dwellers, motivating a growing number of rural-dwellers to migrate to the cities to seek economic opportunities. Their chances of becoming richer will be substantially greater in cities, but the increasing migration to urban areas will mean at least an initial expansion in the slums and the specter of poverty,” said the ‘Global Trends 2030: Alternative Worlds’ report. More interesting is the warning the report has issued, which is that if new middle-class entrants find it difficult to cling to their new status and are pulled back toward impoverishment, they will pressure governments for change. “Rising expectations that are frustrated have historically been a powerful driver of political turmoil.” Hear, hear. Remember the 99 per cent.