Kazakhstan declared a state of emergency earlier this week and made mass arrests after several days of riots as what CNN no doubt would call “mostly peaceful” protesters burned police cars, government offices, and battled riot police. What caused these protests? A big jump in fuel prices on top of already rising food prices.
The government had more than doubled the price of fuel on January 1, causing taxi fares to triple and other transportation-related costs to soar. This was apparently the last straw for Kazakhs, fed up with the rising cost of food over the past two years. Minimum wage in this former Soviet republic is about $65.
On Wednesday, protesters seized control of the airport at Kazakhstan’s largest city, leading to the cancellation of all flights. Protesters also burned government buildings.
The riots appear to have been effective as their president has since returned fuel prices to their previous levels. Then the country’s cabinet resigned. But that hasn’t stopped the protests.
This may be a case where inflation kicked off a protest that was about dissatisfaction with far more than fuel prices. The price increase was the straw that broke the camel’s back. Now that the repressed citizens have tasted their power, who knows when the riots will stop or how much damage will be done?
Just as the price of food contributed to the Arab Spring uprisings in the Middle East, this may be but the first of multiple protests in 2022 that result in the overthrow of a government.
Inflation Causes Protests Globally
Before Christmas, Turkey also faced protests as their currency, the Lira, lost more than half its value in 2021, including seeing a 20 percent drop in December. The minimum wage in Turkey had been the equivalent of about $380 in January 2021. It is now worth about $220.
In Spain, truck drivers protested rising fuel prices, which had climbed 35 percent. Metalworkers and farmers have also protested rising inflation.
Even Cuba had protests in 2021 as residents exhibited anger at rising costs and shortages. There have also been protests in Pakistan and other countries.
Much of Europe has seen protests, focused mostly on resistance to lockdowns, mandates and other COVID-19 rules and regulations. France also experienced the infamous Yellow Vest protests over rising fuel costs. Whatever the topic, there seems to be a sense of dissatisfaction with our rulers and governing parties across much of the world.
Don’t Think it Can’t Happen Here
If you think it can’t happen here, then you are naïve and too young to remember inflation riots during your lifetime. Your grandparents probably remember.
The United States has a history of protesting price increases and rising inflation. Protests and boycotts at grocery stores became quite common in the 1960s and 70s as women protested the jump in food prices. Meat prices were rising rapidly then, just as they are today. According to the Wall Street Journal, “Meat prices increased by 37% in 1973, 22% in 1975, 24% in 1978 and 27% in 1979.” That totals to an increase of 163 percent, meaning a pound of meat that cost $1 in early 1973 jumped to $2.63 in 1979. Today, that same cut of meat would cost $10 or more.
How Much Inflation will it Take?
At some point, when you take away a person’s ability to put food on the table or gas in the car, they are going to get upset. When the number of people angry about inflation reaches a critical mass, we’ll see protests here as well. However, I doubt we will see polite housewives this time around. I think it’s more likely to be screaming, angry masses.
The unanswered question is how much inflation is too much? How much inflation can the U.S. consumer take before protests break out? Will they protest at the grocery stores and gas stations, or will the protest in Washington, D.C.?
I think the turning point will come when the average American family spends as much on food as they do on housing, leaving little money left over for anything else. That is when delivery trucks will be hijacked, grocery stores will be targeted by smash and grab rings, and criminals will follow home shoppers leaving the grocery store so they can carjack them and their groceries.
I expect we’ll also see a protest at the ballot box. I wouldn’t be at all disappointed if they voted every single elected politician out of office.