I’m thinking of a word. Can anyone guess what it is?

"Watcha gonna do when Aid Thoughts runs wild on YOU?!"

Nancy Birdsall has put up a post about the need to research a hitherto undiscovered class of people who may be crucial for development in poor countries, which they call ‘The Catalytic Class’. Key excerpt:

[There has been a] recent round of analyses by development economists on who and where the world’s middle class members are and why they matter too, including for the poor… Now Andy and I are thinking about trying to define and “find” the … the catalytic class. They are not necessarily comfortably middle class – but they want and benefit from clear rules of the game.

I’m afraid that the catalytic class may already be studied under a different name. In fact, this guy might argue that this research might be coming some 144 years after the definitive study of this group. I’ve been talking for a while about how they’re a crucial but neglected part of the development process.

Still, rebranding aside, I’m glad to see interest from such smart and influential people on this topic. Really looking forward to see how it turns out.

(As an aside my brother-in-law, a historian teaching at Cambridge, once pointed out to me that Robert Puttnam’s much touted concept of Social Capital was nothing more than an inversion of Emile Durkheim’s concept of anomie. Still, the rebranding worked – it became the must-have variable in a thousand regressions after the publication of Bowling Alone).

6 thoughts on “I’m thinking of a word. Can anyone guess what it is?

  1. Daniel Altman

    March 19, 2011 at 3:17pm

    I don’t think she’s just talking about capitalists. In theory, a capitalist must have capital (and not just believe in what is commonly called a capitalist system). I’d guess that a lot of the strivers denoted by the “catalytic class” are professionals who don’t necessarily have much in the way of saving, though they might some day. Of course, if you want to pick nits, you could say that anyone who owns a house, a car, or any durable good owns capital. Or you could include human capital. No shortage of ways to wriggle out of this one, eh? Clever you.

  2. Ranil

    March 19, 2011 at 3:18pm

    Actually, I would wriggle more by saying ‘potential capitalists’. At some point in developmental history all capitalists had to accumulate their capital – I guess you could argue that until they do, they’re catalytic and not capitalist, but… it doesn’t seem to me to be all that useful a distinction… belief in a capitalist system has nothing to do with it. But De Soto would probably take the way out you provide – that there’s a lot of ‘dead’ capital around (which is actually one of the hyperlinks in the blog). Anyway, my point is simply that looking for the catalytic group is still the same thing as looking at how you stimulate and support the movement to a capitalist system, which can’t exist until there are capitalists.

  3. Daniel Altman

    March 19, 2011 at 3:19pm

    I’d beg to differ. You could still have a socialist system built on the work of a professional class. The capital they helped to accumulate would just belong to government. I’m not saying this is a great way to go, but I think you’re overgeneralizing.

  4. Ranil

    March 19, 2011 at 3:19pm

    fair enough, but I stand by the point that the distinction between catalytic and capitalist is very minor here. I seriously doubt Sumner and Birdsall are looking for a way of identifying and analysing the potential for accumulation in public ownership of the means of production system. But yes, you’re correct that capital can be accumulated or catalysed in other systems.

  5. Lee

    March 23, 2011 at 2:00am

    I reckon Sumner and Birdsall know exactly what they’re doing, it’s a clever rebranding ploy to sanitise capitalism for the leftist aid and development crowd.

  6. Ranil Dissanayake

    March 23, 2011 at 5:53am

    LEe, you might be right, but I think this is as much targeted towards liberals and the right (in short, everyone). I think people from across the spectrum take capitalism for granted, and don’t think about whether it exists in a viable form or not. They think that the relative freedom of exchange that characterises most of the world is sufficient for capitalism, but it isn’t.

    Like I said, I don’t mind the rebranding much if it gets the issue on the table. I just think its disingenuous to pretend it’s a new idea in economic papers. They could write a book about it, rather.

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