Here’s my latest article on Impakter. A must read for anyone concerned with what is happening to the middle class in America! It’s changing, and changing fast and in unexpected ways…
Book Review: The Sum of Small Things: A Theory of the Aspirational Class by Elizabeth Currid-Halkett, published by Princeton University Press (May 2017)
Have you ever wondered why in an America replete with 13,000 Starbucks stores, small bars serving totally unknown, unbranded coffees can survive, and even thrive though the coffee they sell may be more expensive?
These are “single origin specialty coffees”, like the ones served by the Intelligentsia coffee company that practices “direct trade”, working with farmers in Guatemala and elsewhere, removing the middleman:
IN THE PHOTO: DIRECT TRADE PRACTICE, LOCAL FARMERS BECOME PARTNERS. SOURCE: INTELLIGENTSIA COFFEE.COM
As explained on their website, the company adheres to sustainable farming and environmental practices and, at the same time, is committed to “paying above FairTrade prices for truly outstanding coffee”. The point is “responsible stewardship of the land and a sustainable business model” for the farmers whom they view as “partners”.
Also, to deliver quality coffee, special rapid roasting machines are used, including some of the last highly prized Gothot Ideal machines that date back to the 1940s and 1950s – they were produced by a German manufacturing firm founded in 1880.
Intelligentsia started off with a coffee shop in Chicago in 1995, and now they are present in four more cities, New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Atlanta. (In the photo: Logan Square Coffee Bar, in Chicago, one of Intelligentsia’s locations. Source: IntelligentsiaCoffee.com)
It is one of the many fascinating cases reported in Elizabeth Currid-Halkett’s latest book, The Sum of Small Things: A Theory of the Aspirational Class. Do read it this summer, it will change forever the way you view the American middle class. And it will give you a glimpse of what is ahead.
This is not the work of a neophyte. She is a Columbia University graduate and currently a professor at the University of Southern California (USC) where she holds the James Irvine Chair in Urban and Regional Planning and is professor of public policy at the Price School. Most recently she has contributed to a paper co-curated by USC and the World Economic Forum (WEF) on consumption patterns of the rising global middle class – more on this later.
The Sum of Small Things is her third major book after a couple of well-received works focused on art, high fashion and celebrities, and it is remarkable on two scores: the importance of the theme addressed – the rise of a new elite class in America – and the ground-breaking methodology used. The academic community was quick to take note, notably Tyler Cowen, author of The Complacent Class and Richard A. Easterlin, of Easterlin paradox fame (the idea that there is a disconnect between economic growth and happiness).
This is a book that manages to pull together a huge amount of data, for the first time mining American consumption data (the Bureau of Labor Statistics Consumer Expenditure Survey) that is usually ignored by researchers because of its complexity. The book draws conclusions that are both insightful and yet highly readable. The trick was to separate the “boring stuff” – all those statistical analyses that occupy a huge part of the book – from the chapters presenting the findings. Those chapters are given pride of place upfront; they are written in elegant English and filled with interesting anecdotes and observations that enliven the discourse and brings it home.
Many people will recognize themselves in this portrait of a new elite in America, that the author has aptly named “the aspirational class”.
In fact, among Amazon customers reviewing this book, several have said exactly that. One reader who defined herself as a “doctor and Mom” noted with surprise: “Our obsession with what our kids eat, their education and music lessons and the breastfeeding felt like a complete insight into my life! I live in Manhattan and we are dealing with the same issues and pressures as the moms in California.” Another wryly remarked, “As a reluctant member of the very class the author describes, I’ve been conscious of the quirky spending characteristics of my hipster cohort in all the places where I’ve lived as an adult (Brooklyn, Washington DC, and LA naturally) but never had an organizing theory for what I was witnessing. The author articulates these principles beautifully, and backs them up with interesting data. Despite its scientific rigor, this is a quick, fun and accessible read.”
It is indeed fun and accessible, which, considering the hefty subject matter, is a feat in itself. The last time a similar effort was made to analyze a rising new class in America was over hundred years ago: It was a stiff treatise written in wooden English yet it was replete with arresting descriptions of the habits of the new rich. And that is what salvaged it from oblivion. Today, it is best remembered for coining a couple of unforgettable terms, “conspicuous leisure” and “conspicuous consumption”.
I am speaking of course of the Theory of the Leisure Class (1899), the magnum opus of social critic and economist Thorstein Veblen. His book defined the Gilded Age, and gave a theoretical framework to those lampooning the “robber barons”.
IN THE PHOTO: “THE BOSSES OF THE SENATE”, 1889 LITHOGRAPH FIRST PUBLISHED IN PUCK. CARTOONIST JOSEPH KEPPLER DEPICTS THEM AS GIANT MONEYBAGS REPRESENTING THE NATION’S FINANCIAL TRUSTS AND MONOPOLIES, THE COPPER TRUST, STANDARD OIL ETC. SOURCE WIKIMEDIA
Likewise, Currid-Halkett’s book aims to define our age, as the title of the first chapter suggests: “The Twenty-first Century ‘Leisure’ Class”. She uses Veblen’s concepts as her starting point and makes some illuminating comments, for example, pointing out that with industrialization and mass production, conspicuous consumption “goes mainstream” and became a defining feature of the middle class in its heyday, in the 1950s and 1960s.