Q7 What areas in the US are ripe for civil unrest in 2020? What factors are feeding the potential conflict and how might it play out?

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New Year’s Eve 2019 Forecast (What’s this?)

I forecast no major sustained civil unrest in 2020. There may be a few riots. Property destruction riots emerging out of protest and police-overreaction after shooting incidents. Or self-defensive riots between opposed political groups. But those of these that are violent are going to be few in number and isolated.  Much more common is the kind of no-show protest in Portland and Boston over the summer where one side so massively outnumbers another there is no conflict as discretion rapidly becomes the supreme part of valor.

This is based on the structural demographics of what leads to instability. There are three main factors here. The first is a purely demographic relation between the size of the fighting-age-male population (15-34) with other population segments. The larger the bulge of this segment, especially 15-24, the higher “supply” of fighters is in any society to undertake sustained violent unrest.  In the US this is actually a declining size cohort as the millennial “bulge” is moving into 24-30 age rage and aging out. Nor is there a large surplus in the wings (12-15) waiting to “move up” and fill this gap.

The second factor is a relative comparison of socioeconomic status from these fighting-age-males to generations that came before them. There’s a lot of ways to do this, and a lot of argument about what to use. But unemployment is a simple number. And except in a few states (see below) unemployment even for youth is 3-4x lower than in past generations. So where traditional youth unemployment of the fighting-age-white male population may range from 12-19%, now it’s at around 10% until youth hit age 18, and then it drops to 3-4%. Black populations shift those metrics to the right, traditionally being higher in both categories – but they are still relatively less unemployed than historical means. I use employment because, unlike income inequality (which may provide a motivation for instability) employment creates causal dampers on participating in activities which lead to instability. First, there’s the job to get too. And second there’s the fear of losing the job as an outcome of the instability. Just as important – most people like to work than like to fight. And while it’s been easy to organize surplus idle fighting-age-men cohorts into violent movements historically – it’s been much harder to motivate them to leave employment to do the same.

The final factor has to do with the gap between perceived and experienced expectations. If perceived rising expectations are not being met, the size and severity of the gap can fuel instability. This is not based on objective measurements, but the heuristic of “this is not as good as we thought it would be” or “this is better than we thought it would be.”  This is why China is terrified as growth slows from 9% to 7% to 5%. Five percent growth is not bad, unless the massive young fighting-age-male population was expecting 7% growth and only got five. Then badness erupts. 

We can certainly accept for the sake of argument that this last factor is also an indicator of instability in the US.  (I mean there’s arguments against it as well but let’s just accept the premise.) But that’s still one out of three factors arguing for instability and the one least likely to spark an instability contagion (employment is considered most likely.)

That’s the national picture. Where contingencies may emerge is where those three factors converge in negative ways across the board, especially in urban-dense areas where creating conditions of instability is easier than rural areas. Of the states with currently high unemployment most are rural, like West Virginia, but California has a higher youth unemployment than the national average and given cost of living imbalances in the state it’s more likely to feel the pinch of “this is not working as we were led to belief.” As California is as a State, New York City is as a metropolitan region.

If I had to pick a sate and/or city where sustained instability would arise, based on the analysis of these factors, I’d have to pick within the State of California or New York City. Though I still find the overall probability low given the overall size of the fighting-age-male cohorts in these areas relative to normal levels found in creating instability (such as what’s occurring in Iraq, Iran, Lebanon and Hong Kong right now.)


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