Another immolation in Tunisia

The Associated Press reports that the same sort of event that kicked off the “Arab Spring” in 2010 has occurred in Tunisia again, with a street vendor setting himself on fire:

Burns center director Imed Touibi said the 27-year-old cigarette vendor, from a poor town in northwestern Tunisia, set himself ablaze Tuesday and is in a coma with 90 percent burns.

A woman who witnessed the incident told The Associated Press that the vendor complained of the challenges for young job-seekers as he doused himself with gasoline. She spoke on condition of anonymity, saying she was shaken by the scene.

An economy in which young job-seekers face such “challenges” is deeply unhealthy.  The New York Times took a look at the state of affairs in Tunisia in December 2012, and did not find a happy scene:

Nearly two years after riots that began over economic frustration and unemployment toppled the Tunisian government and started the Arab Spring, the frustration that people here are not better off is starting to overflow again. The gross domestic product is down, unemployment is up, debt and inflation are growing and social unrest is simmering.

Last week, the government sent troops into Siliana, south of the capital, after four days of violent protests, mainly over demands for jobs and more government investment, turned violent. Thousands participated and hundreds were injured in clashes with the police.

President Moncef Marzouki, acknowledging Friday on television that the government had not “met the expectations of the people,” expressed concern that unrest could spread to other towns in the underdeveloped interior.

“Tunisia today is at a crossroads,” he said. “Tunisia today has an opportunity that it must not miss to be a model because the world is watching us, and we mustn’t disappoint.”

Unemployment remains the biggest economic problem and catalyst for unrest. A vicious circle imperils all the Arab nations with unfinished revolutions: political unrest scares off the investors needed to create jobs.

Uh-oh… GDP down, unemployment up, debt growing?  That sounds rather familiar.  There are many ways to scare off job-creating investors besides violent political unrest, you know.

Tunisia closed out 2012 with 18 percent unemployment (up from 13 percent) and a 1.8 percent contraction of its economy.  A September 2012 paper on the Tunisian employment situation, prepared by an international team of academics, noted that “young university graduates have been particularly hurt by the current deterioration in job creation in the Tunisian economy.”  A deliberate effort to restrain population growth over the past several decades, coupled with an increase in college education and a rising number of women entering the job market, created a situation that disturbingly resembles the American youth situation in some ways: a shrunken cohort of young people grappling with educational costs, a tight job market, and the burden of caring for a large aging population.

The other variables plugged into this equation are all dramatically different – the culture and economy of Tunisia don’t match up very well, in either character or scale, with the United States – but the problem of restless, unemployed young people battling demographic shifts is troublesome in any setting.  In America, the unemployment rate for 18-29 year-olds generally is 12.5 percent; among African Americans, it soars to 22.8 percent; and those figures don’t count the 1.7 million young adults who have dropped out of the workforce completely.  Throw them back in and you’re up to 16.2 percent overall for young Americans.  It’s not Tunisia, but you can see Tunisia from atop that grim percentage.  And Tunisians aren’t living in the shadow of the mountain of crushing entitlement debt that hangs over American youth as the Baby Boom generation retires.  No one else on Earth lives in such a long, cold fiscal shadow, because no comparable mountain of liability has ever been accumulated.

“In 2008, the national debt was $10 trillion, and youth unemployment was spiraling out of control. Five years later, our national debt has nearly doubled to close to $17 trillion, and young people have even less economic opportunity. Perhaps it’s time to admit that government is the problem, not the solution,” said Evan Feinberg, president of Generation Opportunity, when reporting these unemployment numbers for March 2013.

Demography and economics mix in a series of rolling tides that can swiftly overwhelm poorly structured markets.  Young people should be a vibrant source of growth, not a burden to the economy… or pack animals harnessed to an almighty vehicle of debt assembled by their parents and grandparents.  The youthful job market, particularly among those with expensive secondary educations, should be a place of crackling energy and buoyant optimism.  Society needs those educated young voters to bring their enthusiasm, creativity, and ambition along, throughout the middle-aged construction of their careers.  Send them plodding listlessly into a realm of diminished opportunity, trapped within a decaying system they are sternly instructed they can never reform, and their middle years will be even more melancholy.  No one, in Tunisia, America, or elsewhere, should be willing to condemn the next generation to live in a recurring nightmare.