FRUM: The economics of political unrest

Commentator David Frum.

TEXT OF STORY

Bob Moon: As we told you at the top of the program, demonstrations in Egypt turned violent today -- following President Hosni Mubarak's vow to serve out his current term. Both the U.S. and European Union are calling on Egypt's government to begin its transition now, and end attacks on protestors.

The events unfolding in Cairo over the last few days have commentator David Frum thinking about role of economics in political unrest.


David Frum: Much of the press coverage of Egypt has emphasized President Mubarak's lack of democratic legitimacy. Which is true enough, of course. Also true: That this lack is not unique. Yet undemocratic China has a generally quiescent public. In fact, if opinion surveys can be trusted, China's people express more satisfaction with national conditions than those of any other large society on earth.

Why? How do you say "It's the economy, stupid!" in Mandarin? Let's compare Egypt and China: When Hosni Mubarak assumed power in 1981, Egypt's per capita GDP was 250 percent greater than China's. Today, China's is 50 percent greater than Egypt's. Since 1981, the Egyptian economy has grown, and grown faster than its population. That's impressive, because Egypt's population has doubled since 1981, from 40 million to 80 million.

But Egypt's economy has grown nowhere fast enough to satisfy the aspirations of its people. Half the country subsists on less than $2 a day. Upward mobility is blocked. Egypt has the largest population of unemployed college graduates in the Middle East.

China's rapid economic growth and slow population growth has raised incomes so fast that ordinary Chinese people see meaningful improvement in their lives: Better food, better housing, better clothing. Yes, many Chinese obviously remain very poor, but enough Chinese have benefited rapidly enough that they understandably prefer to wait for further betterment rather than do anything that might upset an improving status quo. China's turn toward dynamic capitalism has bestowed legitimacy on its otherwise authoritarian government. Egypt's sluggish state-controlled economy has fomented the discontent now shaking the state's controllers. There is a lesson embedded there for dictators -- and for democratic leaders too.

Moon: David Frum is the editor of FrumForum, and a former speechwriter for President George W. Bush. Robert Reich is up in the rotation next week.

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