Lutheran latte, butter princesses, and lots of politics at the Great Minnesota Get-Together

Lutheran Latte at the Great Minnesota Get-Together — Swedish egg coffee with vanilla ice cream — how can you not love it!

Lutheran LatteBut if you for some reason don’t, you can have a Meatball Sundae, or one of Ole’s Candied Bacon Cannoli and a cup of Swedish coffee – that’s “The breakfast of State Fair champions” for those who don’t know it, or Norwegian lefse with lingonberry jam at Lynne’s, fried pickles, and anything on a stick: corndog, shrimp, chicken, turkey, long dog…Or you could drink Minnesota wine and any number of Minnesota microbrews.

And all this in almost one hundred degree heat this past weekend, when over one hundred thousand people visited the Minnesota State Fair, every day — all part of the twelve days of the “Great Minnesota Get-Together.”

It’s been like this for decades at the end of the summer in Minnesota. I’ve never seen anything like it, never imagining watching a sculpture of Princess Kay of the Milky Way as the winner of the Minnesota Dairy Princess Program is called, being carved in 90 pounds of the best Minnesota butter in a walk-in, glass-walled refrigerator with people surrounding and watching. Each of the twelve finalists gets her own butter sculpture made and she gets to take it home after the Fair. What a show!

Butter QueensAnd it seems that no one wants to miss it. Everyone is there. Every radio and TV station, the environmentalists in the Eco building, the art lovers in the big art exhibit, the friends of the state’s national parks, and, of course, the politicians, lots of politicians, almost all of them…

Al Franken at State FairIn one corner is the Minnesota Democrats’ tent, the Democratic Farmer Labor Party as it is called here, and it is buzzing with activity. DFL runs Minnesota, from Governor Mark Dayton to both houses of the State Legislature and both US senators, and with five of the eight members of the House of Representatives in Washington. And just across the street is the AFL/CIO plaza with numerous union representatives and a big banner calling for higher minimum wage.

Senator Al Franken, who is up for re-election in November 2014 also has his own booth, and so does the other Minnesota senator, Amy Klobuchar. Both are at the Fair, on separate days, this steamy weekend, working the crowd and talking to their constituents.

Franken says he loves coming here because he gets to meet people from all across Minnesota, and he asks for support from the trade unions as well as the faithful in the DFL tent, where voter registration forms in Somali, Hmong, and Spanish reflect the new immigrant groups in Minnesota. He loves to quote the former liberal Minnesota senator Paul Wellstone, whose untimely death in an airplane crash in October 2002 in many ways still haunt Minnesota politics, who said, “we all do better when we all do better,” and Franken launches into a fierce defense of unions, of a higher minimum wage, of investments in infrastructure, of college affordability, of protecting social security and Medicare, and of the importance of the Affordable Care Act – he never used the term “Obamacare” – which brings so many good things to America’s citizens. He ends by asking for help in next year’s re-election, when he hopes to get more than the 312 votes by which he defeated Norm Coleman in 2008 – somewhere, he says, in between that number and what Amy Klobuchar got in 2012 when she was re-elected in a landslide, 58 percent to 38.

Amy KlobucharFor Amy Klobuchar in the brutal heat, it was the first time, she said and laughed, that she wore shorts to the Fair. No speeches. She is not up for re-election until 2018. But there were plenty of one-on-ones with the curious and the well-wishers, and at the end, judging a food contest.

The Republicans are at the State Fair, too, and so are the Minnesota Tea Party, the Libertarians, the Greens, and many others. But in these blue days for Minnesota, they fight a losing battle for attention at the Great Minnesota Get-Together.

And now, Detroit is officially bankrupt…

Detroit is now, officially, bankrupt, and it’s time, again, in telling the history of this once great city of Detroit — home to the automobile as well as to The Supremes — to remind of the book, “Ruins of Detroit,” by two young French photographers Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre.Ruin in Detroit

Their photos tell the tragic story better than any words of how Detroit’s decline has created a city of poverty and neglect and decay — an urban tragedy.

And then, it’s time, again, to ask the question – how could America let this happen?

Detroit United Artists Theater

This is no way to run a government…

You often hear, “this is no way to run…,” a business, a theater, a team, a school, and, yes, a government.

In today’s political mess in Washington, DC, this saying is most certainly true – this is no way to run a government!

Because of the scandalous inability of the political parties in the nation’s capital, from the White House to Congress, we don’t have a budget, we can’t agree on the simple and, yes, completely sensible notion, that the country’s economic problems after the worst economic recession since the Great Depression in the 1930s, need to be solved and that they can only be solved through savings, new revenues, and, very importantly, new investments to create jobs in order to make a substantial dent in unemployment, which, hovering around 8 percent, is still much too high.

We need a plan. We need action from Washington. But we have neither, because the White House, the Democratic Senate and the Republican House of Representatives cannot agree on anything.  There are many separate plans and the result is deadlock when we all seem to agree that the country needs to push forward, urgently.  Instead, we are standing still, waiting…for what? Godot?  He’ll never come, we know that.

And in these times of deadlock, and waiting, something happened that was never supposed to happen: sequestration. A strange word, which in this case means automatic budget cuts. It came out of the big debt ceiling crisis last year, agreed to by the White House and Congress, and its goal was to force a real budget agreement by way of the so called Super Committee – remember that one? – because sequestration — the automatic budget cuts — were so harsh that neither side wanted them.

But here they are — 85 billion dollars’ worth of cuts only this year — in health, transportation, social services, defense – starting this week, across the board, with no priorities. Unbelievable.

It is, indeed, a sad verdict of the state of affairs in today’s Washington, DC, where the ideological battle is fiercer than ever and where the word “bipartisanship” has become a dirty word.   There is blame to go around, for everyone.  Obviously, President Obama, who entered the White House four years ago with bipartisanship as a main message, has now given up on this. His message is now one of a “balanced approach” to the country’s economic woes, meaning cuts, but also new revenues.  He won the election on that message and he has continued to take it to the American people, who, according to the polls, support him, but not by much.

Meanwhile, the Republicans, who had to agree back in January on the first tax hikes in over two decades, are saying no to any new revenues.  No more. All they want to do now is to cut, cut, cut – the only thing they agree on. But it is strongly felt and the party seems united behind this main message.  So, even though the automatic budget cuts include serious cuts for Pentagon, which is ordinarily anathema to the Republicans, they have decided to accept them, all in the name of spending cuts and savings.

Their goal is to balance the budget by 2023 – without any new taxes.  That’s not economically realistic, and, on top of that, it’s politically risky, because it will mean cuts in extremely popular programs like Medicare and Social Security. Will the Republicans be able take the political heat that such proposals will bring? That’s highly unclear.

Now, the good thing here is that this will never happen, because the Senate, controlled by the Democrats, will never agree to it, and, even if they did, Obama would veto it. But where will this lead us? To one crisis deadline after another as the frustration in the nation grows and as the economy continues to limp along, when it could do so much better.

As I said, this is no way to run a government…

“God fortsättning” in the New Year — that’s doubtful…

In Sweden, my old home country, we used to say “God fortsättning” after the holidays — “good continuation” in the New Year. That’s not an expression you hear in America, which is perhaps as well, particularly in these times of the financial cliff, the debt ceiling, and the political disharmony in Washington.

Yes, the cliff was avoided but at what price? Was it worth it?

New York Times columnist Paul Krugman recently wondered if the deal was a “Pyrrhic victory,” a tactical victory that could pave the way for a major defeat later this year. Yes, the victory was tactical in the sense that the Republicans in Congress for the first time since 1993 voted for a tax increase. But what else? It did nothing to resolve the country’s major economic problems, the debt, budget deficit, unemployment. The settlement contained no new stimulus money to invest in the woefully neglected infrastructure or to create new jobs. Remember, the U.S. still has almost eight percent unemployment. Last Friday’s figure of 155,000 new jobs during December was certainly acceptable, but not more. Many more jobs are needed, every month, to seriously tackle the unemployment crisis.

In the deal, President Obama had to give up on his campaign pledge to raise taxes for everyone earning more than 250,000 dollars per year. Instead, the limit was set at 450,000 dollars, meaning than less than one percent of American tax payers will see their taxes increase. Those are not middle class figures. These are high income earners, who will now be exempted from paying their fair share at the same time as more revenues are needed but when Americans are paying less in income tax than the populations of other developed countries. As Stephan Richter pointed out in The Globalist:

“In all the other countries that come to mind, protecting such levels of income is the sole preserve of conservative parties. In the United States, it is a matter of bipartisan consensus.”

Yes, America IS different from Europe –it’s certainly more conservative. In America, taxes are toxic in a way they don’t seem to be in Europe, maybe because Europeans feel that they get something for their taxes, like universal health care, good public transportation, and affordable education all the way through college?

Washington is also similar to Brussels, if you read The Economist, which called the cliff deal an “abject failure” — “Washington’s pattern of dysfunction is disturbingly similar to the euro zone’s.”

But Europe has also made progress, averted disaster and come together around the euro, as Floyd Norris recently wrote in the New York Times, wondering: “Will the United States follow the European path in 2013? Let’s hope so.”

That’s not likely to happen. With the debt ceiling crisis and the resolution of the automatic spending cuts looming in a couple of months, the Republicans seem primed for revenge after the cliff deal, which could make the cliff deal negotiations come to seem like child’s play.

“Good continuation…” well, the New Year actually doesn’t look that good.

Fear can pave the way to avoid the “financial cliff”

I haven’t blogged much lately, in fact, very little since the November 6 elections. I needed a break, and I hope you haven’t missed me too much. In any case, I am back with the goal of writing more about issues beyond politics and the political quagmire here in Washington.

My blog posting yesterday about the death of jazz legend, Dave Brubeck, was part of that effort, and I hope to continue so. But, first, I must write about the “financial cliff” – the financial Armageddon that looms at the end of the year if the White House and Congress cannot agree on a new approach on how to solve America’s serious financial problems and growing national debt.

It’s already a month since President Barack Obama’s convincing victory over the Republican challenger Mitt Romney. The Republicans are still trying to come to terms with what actually happened and why. Meanwhile, all eyes in Washington have been focused on the “fiscal cliff,” by some called the “austerity crisis,” a matter of seldom seen proportions and seldom seen consequences if not dealt with before the New Year. If the White House and Congress cannot come to an agreement, a series of automatic events – all extremely negative — will unfold, both on taxes and on budget cuts.

The financial cliff came about because of previous failures in Washington after the big debt ceiling crisis of 2011 to lower the budget deficit and the national debt. The parties decided to postpone the tough decisions – kick the can down the road, as it is so often put. So, no one imposed the cliff on Washington – the politicians did it this to themselves, and they will go down together if there is no deal before December 31, although polls show that most voters will blame the Republicans.

If there is no deal, all American will see their taxes go up next year — by an average of 3 446 dollars. In addition, 200 billion dollars in tough spending cuts will take effect. A non-deal will cause the U.S. economy to shrink and unemployment to turn upwards, to over 9 percent. That would be not only a shame, it would be catastrophic for an economy that now shows encouraging signs of steady improvement, including steadily lower unemployment figures – to now 7.7 percent, the lowest since December 2008, just before Obama entered the White House.

Indeed, it’s a frightening scenario, and, for many, it seems incomprehensible that the White House and Congress will let this happen. Too much is at stake, both politically for the parties, and economically for the whole country. No one wants to be blamed for such a collapse and common sense says that there will be a deal. But time is rapidly running out in this “magic moment,” for a deal, as a leading Democrat put it recently. There is no better time than right now to make a deal.

So far, the Republicans have resisted the “balanced approach” — with tax rate hikes for the richest two percent of the population, those with incomes of over 250,000 dollars per year, combined with a series of spending cuts – an approach on which Obama campaigned and won the election. Stubbornly, the Republicans have so far said no to all tax rate hikes, but without them, Obama has repeatedly and firmly stated, there will be no deal.

During the election campaign, the majority of voters seemed to think that Obama’s “balanced approach” was sensible, and those sentiments linger. The President’s approval ratings are up, over 50 percent, and he is now clearly in the driver’s seat.

Maybe, in the end, plain fear of a failure and the subsequent wrath of the voters, who want a deal and want Washington to come together, will drive the parties together to reach an agreement. There have been cracks in the unified resistance among the Republicans in Congress to higher taxes. No doubt they see the writing on the wall.

If the Republicans don’t meet Obama partway, they “would contribute to a recession that would discredit them for a decade,” David Brooks warns in the New York Times today.

Fear… fine! Who cares? The main thing is that there is a deal before midnight strikes on December 31.

Shocked Republicans face a new political reality

The air during the walks in the woods outside Washington, DC a few days after Barack Obama’s convincing victory is somehow easier to breathe under the clear, blue November sky.  It’s been a long, an awfully long, campaign, emotionally draining. Most are just happy that it’s over, and at least 61 million voters are happy about the outcome.

The American voters chose the man they trusted to continue to lead them in these difficult economic times, while Mitt Romney, his challenger, beckoned to an old America as he asked the voters to trust a man they really did not know, a man who would not release his tax returns, who never explained why he invested money in tax havens in the Cayman Islands or in Switzerland, who denied his own moderate political record as a governor of Massachusetts, supportive of a woman’s right to choose, implementer of universal healthcare in his home state.

The bruising Republican primary campaign forced him steadily further to the right, and by the time he won and became the party’s presidential nominee, it was too late change in a credible way. 

As conservative columnist Kathleen Parker writes in the Washington Post today:

“The truth is, Romney was better than the GOP deserved. Party nitwits undermined him, and the self-righteous tried to bring him down. The nitwits are well-enough known at this point — those farthest-right social conservatives who couldn’t find it in their hearts to keep their traps shut. No abortion for rape or incest? Sit down. Legitimate rape? Put on your clown suit and go play in the street.  Equally damaging were the primary leeches, who embarrassed the party and wouldn’t leave the stage. Nine-nine-nine, we’re talking about you, Herman Cain. And Gov. Oops?  You, too. And then there were Rick Santorum and Michele Bachmann, who never had a real shot at the nomination and certainly could never win a national election, yet they refused to surrender to the certain nominee.”

The name of Newt Gingrich should be added to these names.   

The result was that the “Etch-a-Sketch” in the last month of the election campaign, when “severely conservative” Romney suddenly turned moderate, never worked. By then, the Obama campaign had already defined him for the voters and they did not trust him, he did not care about the ordinary voter.

The end result was an Obama victory by 332 electoral votes to Romney’s 206 – way more than the necessary 270 to win.  Of the nine battleground states, Obama only lost North Carolina. That means that Obama captured 61,7 million votes compared to Romney’s 58,5 million, or 50,6 percent compared to 47,9 percent.

The Romney campaign, which up to the last moments really believed they would win, never knew what hit them according to John Dickerson in a fascinating piece in Slate Magazine.

“Mitt Romney says he is a numbers guy, but in the end he got the numbers wrong. Even on the morning of the election, Romney’s senior advisers weren’t close to hedging. They said he was going to win decisively…How did the Romney team get it so wrong? According to those involved, it was a mix of believing anecdotes about party enthusiasm and an underestimation of their opponents’ talents.”

Instead, Barack Obama won among Blacks (93 percent), Hispanics (71 percent), and Asians (73 percent), among women (53 percent) and among working women with children under 18 (62 percent), among gays and lesbians (76 percent), among those between 18 and 29 (60 percent) and those between 30 and 44 (52 percent), among those in big cities (69 percent) and those in cities up to 500 000 people (58 percent), among Jewish voters (69 percent) and Catholics (52 percent,)  among those without a high school diploma (64 percent) and among those with a post-graduate degree (62 percent,)  and among those earning less than 50,000 dollars (56 percent).

Romney won among men (52 percent), among those above 45 years of age, among white voters (59 percent) among those with incomes above 50,000 dollars per year, among Independents (50 percent), and among those in the suburbs (50 percent), the small towns (56 percent) and in rural America  (61 percent). And he won the protestant votes, including the white born-again or evangelical Christians (78 percent).

His support was white, old, and rural, when all demographic trends point to a younger, multi-ethnic, and more urban America.  That’s a losing proposition. It’s the old America vs. the new America, and the Republicans, in a state of shock, have suddenly come face to face with this political reality. A long and fierce internal debate is expected whose outcome is far from certain. 

That debate is taking place as America faces a fiscal cliff by year’s end, when almost one trillion dollars in automatic budget cuts will be implemented at the same time as taxes are raised for everyone, if a new budget deal is not struck before that.  The cliff is of Congress’s own making when it failed last year to reach a budget deal.  The question is: are the players more ready now? We will soon know.

Some good news for Obama in the final campaign days

Ninety dead, including 38 only in New York City, and around 50 billion dollars in damages — Hurricane Sandy could be the costliest hurricane in the United States, ever.

And suddenly, in the last frenetic hours of the presidential election, the environment, climate change, and global warming have become part of the campaign. When New York City’s independent Mayor, Michael Bloomberg, endorsed Obama’s re-election yesterday, he referred particularly to the president’s vision on global warming, a priority issue for Bloomberg, but something that neither Obama nor Romney unfortunately have talked about at all in this campaign.

“Our climate is changing. And while the Increase in extreme weather we have experienced in New York City and around the world may or may not be the result of it, the danger that it might be – given this week’s devastation – Should compel all elected leaders to take immediate action … . One (Obama) sees climate change as an urgent problem that threatens our planet, one (Romney) does not. I want our president to place scientific evidence and risk management above electoral politics.”

The think tank Center for American Progress writes in a new report about the links between extreme weather and climate change. The report, called Preventing Future ‘Frankenstorms’, states that Sandy is unfortunately just the latest in a long series of extreme weather events over the past two years. These include droughts, heat records, forest fires, floods, tropical storms, hurricanes, winter storms, and they have collectively caused nearly a thousand deaths and over 110 billion dollars in damage.

However, only four days to Election Day, the environment and climate change are unlikely to decide the election. But Hurricane Sandy has given Obama a new wind in his back. According to a new Washington Post/ABC survey 79 percent of the respondents said that Obama did a good job during Sandy. And today, the president got more good news when jobs figures from October pointed to the continued rise — 171,000 new jobs in October – far more than the expected 125,000. Unemployment rose slightly, from 7.8 to 7.9 percent, but that was mainly due to the fact that many more Americans now actively are looking for jobs, another positive signal for the economy and its future.

Not since the days of Franklin Roosevelt has a president been re-elected with an unemployment rate of more than 7.2 percent. It was in 1984 and Ronald Reagan. Roosevelt was re-elected in 1936 as well as in 1940 with unemployment at 16.6 percent and 14.6 percent, respectively. When Obama became president in January 2009, unemployment was 7.8 percent. That’s almost exactly like today. Will that be enough to bring Obama four more years? I think so.