The handwriting on the wall: A message from Egypt

The burdens on Egypt's young and poor are similar to what we are seeing in our country. As in the restive Arab lands, youth unemployment is running at high levels in the U.S. and Europe.

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Crowds protest against the Mubarak regime in Egypt.

The burdens on Egypt's young and poor are similar to what we are seeing in our country. As in the restive Arab lands, youth unemployment is running at high levels in the U.S. and Europe.

It’s easy, too easy perhaps, for we Americans and our political leaders to look at the astonishing events in Egypt and say, “They want what we’ve got: democracy, freedom, self-determination.”

That’s true, of course, and we should be true to those values by supporting the pro-democratic protest movements in Egypt.

It’s also easy for us to focus primarily on the administration’s messaging and positioning, examining each carefully chosen word from the president, vice president, or secretary of state. Absolutely, that’s all important, and it may well be that their carefully considered words have played an important role in the restraint shown by the Egyptian military. Hurrah!

But there is another message in the protests that we may not be hearing and can’t quite be so smug about. The protesters are a broad cross-section of Egyptian society, but they tilt young. Why is that? Young people are more idealistic than their elders? Probably so. But here’s another thing about them: many are unemployed. Employment among youth is Egypt is put at 33 percent. And too often the jobs they do have are low-wage, dead-end ones.

While we might like to think that’s an Egyptian, or an Arab, problem (youth unemployment in Yemen is 49 percent, in Palestine 38 percent, and in Tunisia 26 percent) it is not. It is, as Harvard Business Review blogger and author of “The New Capitalist Manifesto: Building a Disruptively Better Business” Umair Haque points out, “a global problem.”

Youth unemployment across Europe is at, depending on the estimate, 20 to 40 percent. "And in the USA, estimates range from 20 to 50 Percent."

As we watch events in Egypt, we hear a lot about democracy and political freedom. We hear less about unemployment and a society where the rich have gotten very rich and the poor and middle class have either sunk more deeply in poverty or barely stayed even over the last 30 years. We may not hear about that because, truth is, it sounds a lot like the U.S. in the last 30 years

Haque writes that what we’re watching in Egypt (and elsewhere) is, “a massive malfunctioning of the global economy.” Here’s Haque: “At the root of the problem: dumb growth. Dumb growth is, in many ways bogus [growth] — rather than reflecting enduring wealth creation, it largely reflects the transfer of wealth: from the poor to the rich, the young to the old, tomorrow to today, and human beings to corporate ‘people.’ Dumb growth is growth without prosperity. And it’s far from an Egyptian problem.”

Last week the stock market in the U.S. continued to soar. But unemployment hardly budged. Only 36,000 new jobs were created last month. Eight million jobs have disappeared in this recession. Are those the markers of “dumb growth?”

The prosperity, or bubble from 2002 to 2006, that caved into our Great Recession was driven by “dumb growth,” growth that doesn’t translate into a healthier society, but results often in an greater overall social dysfunction. Dumb growth is the consequence of short-term thinking that may bolster a quarterly earnings report, but doesn’t build an economy.

Perhaps the message from Egypt, and the Middle East, is a more complex one, even a double-edged sword. Democracy and political freedom — you go guys (and gals), building an economy that works not just for the very wealthy but for everyone. Gulp! 


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About the Authors & Contributors

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Anthony B. Robinson

Anthony B. Robinson was the Senior Minister of Plymouth Church in downtown Seattle from 1990 to 2004. He was also a member of the Plymouth Housing Group Board. After living for many years in southeast Seattle, he moved recently to Ballard.