Thursday, September 30, 2010

Is There a Link Between Youth Unemployment and Political Instability?

Over at his blog, Chris Blattman takes exception to the notion furthered by popular economist known for his application of economics to social issues Gary Becker that unemployed youth are a source of social instability (In Becker's case, crime).

Applying this notion to social instability in African countries, Blattman points that there's "little evidence to suggest" that that such a link rest on two assumptions: (a) poor countries are more likely to see political instability, and (b) economic shocks raise the risk of said instability. Blattman thinks this is wrong, and makes a point one hardly hears being made, but really ought to be pointed out more often:
I have little doubt that the people who riot or rebel are poor, unemployed young men. We can see that. The problem is that the people who don’t riot are also poor unemployed young men.

Most of the population is poor and unemployed and young. It’s not clear that the poorer and less employed ones are the more violent.

If anything, we see the opposite. In the Middle East, profiles of suicide bombers and terrorists suggest they are typically more educated and better off than the average youth.

In research on riots, whether in Nigeria or India or the US, the instigators are often university students or other elites.

Now, maybe the instigators are elite, but the masses they organize are poorer and less employed. Here the evidence is equally weak. Surveys of combatants in Sierra Leone and Uganda, rioters in Nigeria or the US, or the politically violent in Philippines or Iraq, show little connection between mobilization and incomes. None of this statistical evidence is terribly good,but none of it argues in favor of this huge assumption underlying massive policy and programs.

Of course, one can go from one circumstance to another and find exceptions, but I think the point about who instigates political conflict is important. Blattma is an economist and understandably is hedging on being definitive, but I think he's spot on about who exactly instigates conflict. I'm going to avoid the "when two elephants fight" cliche, but I will say this - every war or politically unstable situation has someone profiting from it one way or another. Hint: It's not the people getting killed in the streets, and it's not even always the young men fed a steady diet of guns with butter.

The rest of the talk is interesting. Read all of it.

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