London Riots, the Domestic Version

One of the more persistent self-congratulatory questions I hear people ask is this, “What would it take for something like the London riots to happen here in the U.S.?” The implication is that for all its flaws and wildness the U.S. is somehow more civilized in its incivility than is Europe, at least London.

It is, of course, deadly wrong. As the U.S. has discovered many times over history to its dismay, the patina of civilization here is as thin as anywhere. What protects the U.S. has been wealth, complacency, and American exceptionalism in service of the idea that bad things don’t happen here.

What would it take? A year of austerity and more cuts ahead, plus  a wobbling economy, did it in London, and I’m reasonably sure the same thing would happen here in the U.S. Arguably, it would happen faster given this country’s modern inexperience with societal sacrifice in service of a common goal. All of this makes late 2012 — a year into U.S. austerity alongside a wobbling economy — the time to watch the U.S. streets.


  1. Late 2012, just in time for the end of the world!

  2. Hate to bring facts to the left-wing narrative but there has been no austerity in the UK. Government spending is up 5% yoy.

    More pertinently benefit claimants have seen rises of over 4% in-line with CPI while workers are averaging 2%. The unemployment rate is static or slightly down on last year.

    • Paul Kedrosky says:

      Partisanship bores me, so take it somewhere else. According to OECDfigures, U.K. government consumption will grow 0.2% this year, wellless than inflation, and then fall 0.7% in 2012. While we can quibbleabout whether it will hit those figures, that is the “cuts” messagepeople are getting.

      • Nostradamus says:

        Those figures don't look right. The OBR forecast has general government consumption growing in real terms by 1% in 2010, 0.8% in 2011, and falling thereafter. The "austerity" plan was designed to kick in from fiscal year 2011, which started in April; there were little in-year changes in FY2010, though maybe you mean the *talk* of austerity is what matters.

        I think it's basically a misread of the data to claim the low UK real GDP figures are related to fiscal austerity. They are low because inflation has been high; nominal spending has been stronger than in the US.

    • I guess what's interesting is that the 'austerity' cuts haven't actually taken effect yet – the riots are preceding the social problems which will arise once we have hundreds of homeless due to housing repossessions and thousands of jobless due to bankruptcies etc

  3. misterz12 says:

    The US is much more willing to use force against rioters. The National Guard was deployed by Day 4 of the 1992 LA riots – meanwhile the British are still debating whether to let the police use rubber bullets.

    I also think the high rate of US gun ownership is a major deterrent to widespread public lawlessness. This picture says it all.

    • Public disorder is rare in both in the UK and the US but far more deadly in the US: 53 people died in the LA riots vs 1 in London.
      Admittedly it is early days in London but as now (night 4) it looks like the worst has passed.

      • There is a really big difference in the tolerance to loss of human life. In Europe people would rather see many stores burn than someone get shot. In the US there is more tolerance to killing someone who's destroying property (just as there is a high tolerance to death penalty). It's extremely unlikely to imagine a private individual picking up a gun to shoot someone who's burning their car.

  4. Humm… let me think
    Mob breaking in and setting fire to where I live.
    Sig 556 + Holo sight + 100 round drum mags = ?

    Don't tell me I know the answer to this one…

  5. As an American who lives and works in London, I found this a rather curious commentary. From what I can tell London has not especially suffered from the "wobbly economy" or austerity. In comparison to the US, the impact on unemployment has been less severe and home foreclosures have stayed very low. Your argument would be slightly more sensible if this all kicked off in the north of England where austerity is meant to bite (although the evidence of its bite has been slow to appear). I recall riots breaking out in American cities after similar incidents involving police shootings. I think this is a very lazy analysis.

  6. Paul, can it be that the growing problem of urban "flash mobs" — i.e. rioting — in the US has entirely escaped your notice? Of course the major media silence is something akin to US naval radio ahead of D-Day.

    Google 'flash mob' and you will see that it is more than just people breaking out in song and dance in a food court.


    Most certainly caused by a government action, though not that of cutting benefits to the unemployed.

    Of course, super-civilized Canada has had riots in quite recent memory.

    So, who's to say we couldn't see unrest/violence akin to that of London?

  8. Runnan Yang says:

    It's very possible that something might happen earlier than later in 2012. I'm thinking specifically of the concurrent G8 and NATO summits that are happening in Chicago in May of 2012. Take the unrest that's always followed G8 summits, add an uncertain economy, a polarized political climate, and the departure of Daley, and you have a very, very dangerous situation. I hope Rahm Emanuel and the city are ready for something massive . . .

  9. Luckily I'm not in a city affected by the riots in England, but I have previously lived and worked in socally deprived neighbourhoods in the past. The problems here stem from several things which, although they in no way excuse the violence or damage etc, help create an environment where these things become more likely.

    1. Progressive lack of discipline in the home and at school. At my daughter's former school (we have moved her now – money does buy happiness…) detentions for bad behaviour (like anti social behaviour orders by the courts) were seen as badges of honour – or the kids just didn't turn up, there was lack of control by the teachers in many classes and low level bad behaviour, swearing, bullying etc was not effectively dealt with. A former colleague of mine worked in a much worse school as a teacher for a few months and they had a system of alarms so that other teachers could come in and basically crowd control – it was impossible to actually teach as the kids just did not care.

  10. 2. Many parents do not know what their kids are doing or getting up to or indeed are just as aggressive when challenged about their kids behaviour, and they know the system, make accusations "you've touched my kid" or spread rumours around an estate or encourage others to create problems for the people who actually dare to complain.
    3. Lack of employment – especially unemployment concentrated in certain areas, mainly urban but affects former coal mining and other post industrial areas – generations of families where no one has worked for years. Working the system of benefits so they are better off not working….

  11. 4. Withdrawal over past year of so of various support services – education maintenance allowance that encouraged poorer children to stay on at school and college to gain skills, withdrawal of funding due to council cutbacks from social activities and charities and other support aimed at helping kids and adults from deprived neighbourhoods.
    5. General lack of hope that anything is going to change for the better and feeling that in general you are going to be poorer,face higher bills and debts and have no way out….

  12. Mobs Sarwar says:

    Actually PK….to your point, look to whats happening in PHI right now re the Flash Attacks and subsequent curfews

  13. Does no one remember the riots that laid waste to large parts of cities like Detroit, Cleveland, Newark,
    and LA in the 1960s, to name four that I'm sure of. Maybe most of the participants were marginalized
    visible minorities, to impose current terminology on those times. But I'd say the conditions they were
    reacting against aren't too different from those a lot of people of non-color could face in the next year
    or so. One difference will be that they'll be blocked from the job market due to economic conditions
    rather than social discrimination, but the end result is the same. Poverty, and then lashing out.

    I hope this doesn't happen, but given the way so many Americans continue to elect representatives
    who carry out the exact opposite of what would be in their economic interests, it's hard to be

    The recent Vancouver riot was more a case of a good chunk of the current adolescent generation
    showing that they could out-riot the 1994 generation. Poverty doesn't usually show up wearing
    $100 hockey fanboy sweaters.

  14. Just wait ten years. When we have $11 oil and vastly higher food prices, combined with critical infrastructure failing on a weekly basis, it's inevitable that there will be riots here as well.

    • Brandstad says:

      You will see the solution posed later this fall when the Federal Gas tax gets debated.

      One good proposal will be to stop sending the money to Washington to have Washington return a portion of it to fix the roads and bridges. This money should be collected by the state, and used by the state to maintain all roads in the state. Can you imagine how much more infrastructure money there would be if half the hands were kept out of the cookie jar? This way like our founders said the government closest to the people is most responsible to the people.

  15. Brandstad says:

    What austerity cuts occurred this year in the US to make 2012 a realistic date of Armageddon? Didn't we just pass a Federal budget deficit bill that cut less than 1% of federal spending this year and less than one week after that Obama asked for the continuation of the temporary payroll tax cut which just happens to increase federal spending by about 1.5% so in net terms we will increase government spending by the end of the year!

    Don't get me wrong, the continuation of the temporary payroll tax cut is a good thing for the US in every way except adding to the debt.

  16. The key issue wrt rioting, mobs, and anarchy, is youth unemployment.