Thursday, August 11, 2011

Finally, Some Level-headed Thinking

The riots in England don't appear to be racially-motivated or just young punks without jobs in a long hot summer...well, maybe a little of the latter:

The riots and fires consuming London are a story about senseless violence and crime. They are also a story about urban politics, race relations, education inequality, and British culture and society. But underneath all of that, they are part of an economic story that is universal.

For the last year, Great Britain has embraced austerity to a degree that would make some American conservatives blush. The purpose of shrinking government was to reduce debt. But the effect has been to kill the economy. With the UK tottering on the razor's edge of recession, consumer confidence is at a record low, unemployment is rising, and even the most optimistic economists predict one-percent expansion for the rest of the year.

The scourge of young restlessness growing in this noxious petri dish is potent enough to have a nickname. The British call them the NEETs, as in "Not in Education, Employment, or Training." Last year, British Employment Minister Chris Grayling called chronic youth unemployment a "ticking time bomb." That bomb is way past ticking.

Imagine you're twenty (and if you are, I envy you, and don't envy you, all at once). You're sat at home, watching the tube, and seeing news reports about corporation after corporation making money hand over fist. Banks and auto companies getting bailouts. Nations completely unrelated to your situation getting emergency loans from your country, among others, to tide them over.

And you wonder, "Why am I not getting some of that?" (or words to that effect)

You get a little angry. You go out to get some air and run into your mates. You walk downtown to the high street, and see the shops lined with fine jewelry, and computers, and phones, and you wonder when you'll ever be able to afford any of that. Sure, you'd love a job, you've looked hard but there just aren't any to be had. Companies aren't hiring. But they're pocketing gobs of money. Why? Why are corporations trying to tear the very fabric of life apart out of greed?

You head down to pub because you have a few quid in your pocket left over from the dole you got and carefully parceled out last week, and get a pint. The lads join you, one or two sipping your beer when you're not looking because they can't afford one themselves. The barkeep takes pity and buys a round for his loyal customers who are having a go at long term unemployment.

And the conversation turns to work. Or not work, rather. Someone, Ginger maybe, makes a joke about how Greece would be out of work if it lived in Brixton. You laugh, but you feel angry.

The anger swells as you boys take the piss on each other, have some fun, horse around, blow off some steam. It's late now, shops are closing. You slip out of pub and start heading home, crossing the high street again. The windows look so inviting. So very inviting.

A stranger, someone you've not seen around, staggers past, and stumbles into you. He mutters "'Scuse me," but your trigger just's been fired...

It's not hard to write the script of the riot. Sure, there was a killing involved, the macroeconomic version of the stranger bumping you, but in truth, it could have been anything. Another wave of layoffs. Another hacking scandal. Anything to remind people that we've become small cogs in a machine that grinds us up until it's time to replace us with a younger, faster model.

And those younger faster models have tempers.

There's a racial aspect of this, to be sure:

"Educated youth have been in the vanguard of rebellions against authority certainly since the French Revolution and in some cases even earlier," Jack A. Goldstone, a sociologist at George Mason University School of Public Policy, told journalist Peter Coy in February. If that's true, we are only in the first chapter of a worldwide rebellion against lost opportunities for the young. In North Africa and the Middle East, people aged 15-29 make up the largest share of the population ever. In Iran, they account for a third of the country. In Jordan, Egypt and Morocco, they make up 30 percent.

What about us? One in five Americans are between 15 and 29-years old. And one in five of those Americans are unemployed. For minorities and the under-educated, the picture is much worse. Black teenagers have an unemployment rate of 44 percent, twice the rate for white teens.

Minority populations tend to be undereducated, is the takeaway, which means underemployed, and underserviced by governments. That's just a fact. Civil unrest can start anywhere, but it usually starts with the educated (who know what's going on and start talking about it earlier) and moves onto the populace.

Ironically, crime has dropped since 2008 in the United States, but it would be premature to say we will be immune to the troubles in England (and soon, Spain, France and Italy). One big reason crime hasn't been an issue yet is Barack Obama and the youth vote he garnered. His presence in the White House has been a bulwark. People believe (perhaps wrongly, perhaps not) that he is sensitive to the needs of the young and unemployed.

It's not a matter of if, but when, we start seeing this kind of violence. And what triggers it? We're rounding the corner on summer, which has traditionally been when we've had violent outbursts, but give the markets a few more weeks of this nonsense and we may see it sooner rather than later.