Cebu is the most typical place in the world

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By Tyler Cowen

I’VE LONG wondered what might be the most typical place in the world, and I believe I now have an answer. It is Cebu, the second largest city in the Philippines, from which I have just returned.

What do I mean by the world’s most typical place? On a variety of measures — economic, demographic, and cultural, to name a few — Cebu is remarkably representative of the world as a whole.

First, the most typical place should have an income not too far from the world’s median. According to Gallup, world median household income was almost $10,000 in 2013 (though it is by now somewhat higher). The average family income in the Philippines is about $5,340 at current exchange rates, but as a major city Cebu is richer, and at any rate life is especially cheap in the Philippines.

The world’s most typical place also should have a fairly high degree of income inequality, and Cebu does. There are gleaming shopping malls and skyscrapers, but also considerable poverty.

As for its economy, Cebu is a major center for business outsourcing, such as call centers, and thus has a close relationship with the global technology industry. Those tech ties will become increasingly typical, even if they are not quite the dominant mode of production in emerging economies. In addition to tech services, real estate, shipbuilding and international trade are important economically.

Now consider some non-economic factors. What is the world’s most important and widely spoken language? English. Along with the native Cebuano and Tagalog, English is widely spoken in Cebu, and present on most of the signs. And what about religion? Christianity registers as the most common religion in the world, and the dominant religion in Cebu is — you guessed it — Christianity. Islam, Hinduism, and various native religions are also represented, as well as variants of folk Catholicism and folk Islam, mirroring the syncretic nature of religious belief in so many other countries.

Asia is the world’s most populous continent by far, and the Philippines (of course) is in Asia. Score another point for the typicality of Cebu. Yet there are also Spanish and Spanish colonial influences, and at times I felt like I was in Latin America more than Asia. That broadens the global connections of Cebu.

Also notable is Cebu’s North American heritage, as the Philippines was a de facto US colony from 1898 to 1935. The native culture is still very much its own, but there are more superficial markers of US cultural influence in Cebu, and in the Philippines more generally, than in almost any other emerging economy. There are lots of fast food restaurants, American casual dress is widespread, and basketball is much beloved.

What else? Most of the world’s population now lives in cities, and Cebu is the second largest metropolitan area in the Philippines. The largest, Manila, was an obvious rival for the world’s most typical place, but it is a little too big and too central to the governance of the Philippines to be my first choice. If you look at such populous nations as China, India, Indonesia, and Pakistan, most of their urban populations do not live in the country’s single largest city, nor do they live in its capital. So Cebu is a nice compromise in this regard, with a 2015 estimate putting the region’s population at almost three million.

One nice feature of Cebu is that, like most of the Philippines, it has been growing rapidly. Parents can plausibly expect their children to have much better lives. This hope is typical of most of the world, too.

I wouldn’t say that Cebu has many tourist sites that are major draws for the foreign visitor, although you can see where Ferdinand Magellan died on nearby Mactan Island, and there are wonderful beaches and aquatic activities. Some tourism — but not too much — also seems pretty typical.

Along the lines of this inquiry, I’ve also wondered who is the world’s most typical human. Such a concept is hard to pin down, but might it be someone who lives in Cebu? Although the median age in the Philippines is 23.5, for the world as a whole it is about 30. I therefore nominate a 30-year-old Cebu mother as the epicenter of human existence.

In any case, one thing is for sure: The most typical place in the world is by no means the least interesting.