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Tuesday, December 19, 2006

The Cosmopolitan Class

Economist Robert Shiller of Yale University says globalization is producing a growing divide between the "cosmopolitan" and "local" social classes:

A new cosmopolitan social class emerges, by Robert Shiller Project Syndicate: As globalization proceeds, with the help of ever-faster communications, faster travel and more powerful multinational corporations, a new cosmopolitan social class seems to be emerging. These citizens of the world are developing loyalties to each other that cross national boundaries.

I was at a dinner the other night with Yale World Fellows, a carefully selected group of professionals, representing every major country of the world... It was an unusual experience, because I began to feel that none of these people were really foreign to me. It seemed they were probably easier to talk to than the local Americans who were waiting on us and serving food.

Of course, a cosmopolitan class is hardly new. In fact, 50 years ago, in his classic book Social Theory and Social Structure, the late sociologist Robert Merton described the results of a case study of influential people in a typical US town, Rovere, New Jersey. ...

Merton discovered a strong pattern. Rovere's influential people seemed to be sharply divided into "cosmopolitan influentials," who habitually orient themselves with respect to the world at large, and "local influentials," who orient themselves with respect to their own town. As he and his assistants interviewed people, the division between the two groups became more intriguing, and significant, in his mind.

Merton did not say that the cosmopolitan influentials were influential outside Rovere -- apparently none of them was. What stood out instead was their habitual frame of reference, which was tied to their personal identities. When Merton engaged people in conversation, any topic would remind the cosmopolitan influentials of the world at large, while local influentials were reminded of things in their own town.

Cosmopolitan influentials, Merton said, tended to hang their success on their general knowledge, whereas locals relied on their friendships and connections. The cosmopolitan influentials were often uninterested in meeting new people in town -- the locals wanted to know everyone. ...

The local influentials, Merton discovered, spoke affectionately of their town, as if it were a unique place, and often said they would never leave. The cosmopolitans spoke as if they might leave any day.

What was true in Merton's day is becoming even more starkly true in today's globalized economy. What I find particularly striking is the sense of loyalty developing among cosmopolitans. ...

I  ... wonder ... why this is happening on such a scale now. Obviously, improved communications technology plays a role. But how much does that explain the impression that the division between cosmopolitans and locals is so much wider now?

One must realize that individuals ... make a conscious choice to become either cosmopolitans or locals, depending on their own personal talents and the perceived returns from making the choice.

In the twenty-first century, the new information age creates opportunities not just to be cosmopolitan in spirit and orientation, but to forge strong connections with other cosmopolitans. The cosmopolitans have shared experiences -- they are directly communicating with each other across the globe...

The cosmopolitans tend to be increasingly wealthy, and their wealth helps mark them as cosmopolitan. Thus, economic inequality is felt differently in today's world. Perhaps it is accepted resignedly, as the cosmopolitan class is too amorphous and ill-defined to be the target of any social movement. There is no spokesperson for the cosmopolitan class, no organization that could be blamed for what is happening.

I fear for the future. How will the cosmopolitan class behave as their role in the world economy continues to strengthen? How unfeeling will they come to be about the people who share their neighborhoods? Most importantly, if resentment by the locals emerges, what political consequences will result?

I'm not sure I could pick a friend at random and easily classify them according to the cosmopolitan/local distinction drawn above, though I suppose such a distinction might help to explain differences over policy issues such as trade and immigration (and I'm not sure the few I can classify easily had as much choice in the matter as Shiller implies). Locals would presumably prefer to protect a narrow set of interests while cosmopolitans take a broader view when assessing the costs and benefits of policy actions. Maybe I'm just blind to this distinction, or everyone I know is mostly one type. Does the cosmopolitan/local distinction ring true to you when you think about people you know? If so, are you as worried as Shiller is about cosmopolitans increasingly losing touch with or being at odds with the interests of the locals?

    Posted by on Tuesday, December 19, 2006 at 04:14 AM in Economics, Miscellaneous | Permalink  TrackBack (0)  Comments (309)

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