Good Reads: on optimism, rise of a global middle class, and geek revivals

It may be easy to feel down in an election year, but between the rise of the global middle class and a geek resurgence, there are reasons for hope.

Rick Bowmer/AP/File
In this April 24 file photo, job seeker Alan Shull attends a job fair in Portland, Oregon.

The Eeyore Era

Scan the headlines at your local news stand these days, and you’d think we’re doomed.

The economy has gone through a “correction,” and now may be sent to correctional school for good measure.

Wars are breaking out all over, in many cases spontaneously.

Young people can’t seem to find jobs, but they do find time to play “Angry Birds,” sometimes during job interviews.

And let’s not even talk about the Red Sox.

Yes, we are doomed.

But before someone turns off the lights on this big bright world of ours, let’s consider a few things that aren’t going so poorly. The Economist helpfully lists a few of these in an article well worth reading, for those waiting to kvetch on your local call-in talk-radio program. Here’s a sampling that gives one pause for thought.

While “America is prone to bouts of ‘declinism,’” the Economist writes, “anyone who prefers their glass half-full can find grounds for optimism.The first Boeing 787 Dreamliner has just landed in Washington, DC. It will be decades before China can make such a machine. The IMF is predicting average growth of over 2% for 2012 and 2013, not meteoric but not bad for a mature economy. America has a young workforce, with plenty of skilled people knocking at the door to come in. It still has more of the world’s best universities than any other country. It is the world’s largest producer of natural gas and its biggest food exporter. Amid the gloom, the economy is getting 'Better, Stronger, Faster', argues Daniel Gross, in a book of that name published this week.”

Rise of the global middle class

Here’s another sign of hope. Economists have found a new way of measuring the size of a country’s middle class, that key grouping of people who have salaried jobs, who pay taxes, send their kids to school and then to college, who vote and then hold their leaders accountable for their actions. The new way to measure this middle class? Car ownership.

According to a piece by Shimelse Ali and Uri Dadush in this week’s Foreign Policy, the global middle class is growing fastest in the developing world, creating brand new markets for products still made in the USA. (This does not include Angry Birds, which was developed in Finland.)

“The middle class in the developing world is rising,” Mr. Ali and Mr. Dadush write. “The only question is how high it will go and how fast it will get there. About 85 percent of the world's people live in developing countries, yet they accounted for only 18 percent of global consumer spending just a decade ago; today, they account for nearly 30 percent. Consumer spending in developing countries has been increasing at about three times the rate in advanced countries, and we're not just seeing a growing demand for necessities, but also for middle-class staples such as meat, toothpaste, cell phones, and air-conditioners.”

Geek revival

One more reason for hope: Geeks are getting organized.

Here in the US, science has gone from being a national savior (remember the Apollo missions to counter the Soviet Union’s Sputnik) to its current status as pariah. Science is blamed for ruining our economy (all that dreadful research linking industry with global warming), our environment (all those nifty machines in industry that created global warming), and even our value system (Big Bang theory, dinosaurs, abortion, Tom Cruise.)

The pushback against science is not just an American phenomenon, of course: It’s global. But with the publication of a new book by Mark Henderson called “The Geek Manifesto,” we now have a strong argument for smart people to get involved in the grubby world of politics, standing up for good public policies that are based on facts rather than gut feelings and prejudice.

Here are some facts from the Geek Manifesto, selected in a book review by Stuart Farrimond, a lecturer at Wiltshire College, published on the website

“...86 percent of physics teachers don’t have a physics degree; only one of the UK’s 650 MPs has a science background; and £19 million ($30 million) was spent on useless ‘bomb detection’ dowsing rods in Iraq – at the cost of lives.”

What is required, writes Angela Saini in this week’s New Scientist magazine, “is for those citizens who value science to rise up and force it onto the mainstream political agenda.”

“…even if we don't see protesting crowds waving bright orange copies of his book before Parliament, it is impossible not to admire Henderson's focused anger at the lack of science in policy-making and his passion to change things. If this inspires just one more scientist to enter politics, it will have done its job.”

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