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

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Obama on guns — and his State of the Union finally took off

President Barack Obama’s State of the Union last night was not, I am afraid, a speech to be long remembered.  It was good, but ordinary, although at the same time “extraordinarily ambitious,” as Ezra Klein writes on his Wonkblog:

“Imagine, for a moment, that President Obama managed to pass every policy he proposed tonight. Within a couple of years, every four-year-old would have access to preschool. The federal minimum wage would be at $9 — higher than it’s been, after adjusting for inflation, since 1981. There’d be a cap-and-trade program limiting our carbon emissions and a vast infrastructure investment to upgrade our roads and bridges. Taxes would be higher, guns would be harder to come by, and undocumented immigrants would have a path to citizenship. America would be a noticeably different country.”

That is unlikely to happen, as Los Angeles Times’ Doyle McManus writes, but if Obama meets his most significant and realistic goals – “immigration reform, even modest steps on gun control, an end to the U.S. combat role in Afghanistan, a free-trade agreement with Europe and, oh yes, implementation of Obamacare — and manages to keep the economy growing, even if slowly, that’s not a bad list. Plenty of two-term presidents have done worse.”

What Obama mentioned in his speech is clearly popular with the American public, according to Daily Beast’s Michael Tomasky but “the Republicans just sat there like statues ignoring” them. They are such crybabies every day about what Obama allegedly does to try to make them look bad. They’re doing plenty well at that themselves.”

“Long gone,” writes The New Yorker’s John Cassidy on his blog Rational Irrationality “is the era when he (Obama) treated Republicans as reasonable men and women with whom he could do business. Nowadays, he is in permanent campaign mode. With the ongoing dispute over taxes and spending still far from decided, he is intent on rallying his supporters whilst depicting his opponents as crazed ideologues and craven defenders of the privileges enjoyed by the ultra-rich. “

Well, ok. Still, in my view Obama’s fifth State of the Union never really took off until the end and when the subject was guns and gun control. “They deserve a vote,” Obama repeated time and again:

“Gabby Giffords deserves a vote; the families of Newtown deserve a vote; the families of Aurora deserve a vote; the families of Oak Creek, and Tucson, and Blacksburg, and the countless other communities ripped open by gun violence – they deserve a simple vote.”

“Our actions will not prevent every senseless act of violence in this country.  Indeed, no laws, no initiatives, no administrative acts will perfectly solve all the challenges I’ve outlined tonight.  But we were never sent here to be perfect.”

And the President returned to his them from the Inauguration about inclusiveness, about “us” and “we.”

”The American people don’t expect government to solve every problem.  They don’t expect those of us in this chamber to agree on every issue.  But they do expect us to put the nation’s interests before party.  They do expect us to forge reasonable compromise where we can.  For they know that America moves forward only when we do so together; and that the responsibility of improving this union remains the task of us all.”

Ryan Lizza in The New Yorker thinks that Obama’s urgent message that “they deserve a vote” may come to serve “as the rallying cry for 2013,”  and so “if last night was any indication, the two years to come will be far more confrontational. “

So, no political peace is to be expected in Washington.  But Obama, a much different and more self-confident President than in his first term,  got to say his peace, and he made his troops happy.

“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.

Lower unemployment brings consolation to criticized Obama

Unemployment in the United States has fallen below 8 percent for the first time since Barack Obama became president in January 2009. The new figures suggest that unemployment in September fell 8.1 to 7.8 percent.

Jubilation in the Obama campaign? Hardly, but, surely, relief, and, definitely, consolation for the president after all the brutal criticism of his performance during the Denver debate last Wednesday.

“Never has such a strong political hand been so needlessly, carelessly, calamitously thrown away,” wrote historian and Columbia University professor Simon Schama on the Daily Beast.

On the Republican side, joy is mixed with relief and new hope. Columnists like George Will, David Brooks, and Charles Krauthammer lined up in their praise for Mitt Romney’s effort. The Romney campaign has undoubtedly new wind in its sails. But will it last? And is there enough time in campaign for Romney to reinvent itself in the eyes of voters?

Obama campaign will of course make every effort to prevent this from happening. Counterattacks are already underway zeroing in on the question: who is really Mitt Romney — the candidate who moved steadily to the right during the Republican primary election campaign, or the new, “moderate Mitt”, the Massachusetts Governor who worked with Democrats and passed Romneycare?

The Democrats have plenty of ammunition. Just look at Jonathan Cohn’s blog at The New Republic!

In the remaining three debates, on 11 October between Joe Biden and Paul Ryan and on 16 and 23 October between Obama and Romney, we will certainly see a very different president than Wednesday. He, with the help of Biden, must now go on the offensive, because we have a new race.

Democrats come out ahead after Charlotte convention

The two political conventions are over and the question is: who won?

We will know in a week or so. The Republicans, with a bland speech by Mitt Romney, a speech by Paul Ryan that drove the fact-checkers crazy, and with Clint Eastwood…, they did not have a strong convention. It seems that they received only the smallest of bounces in the polls, but the verdict is not in yet, for either party.

I would be surprised, though, if the Democrats do not come out ahead, thanks to the cumulative effect of the past three days in Charlotte. It had the better speeches and the greater enthusiasm. It had the unforgettable testimony by Michelle Obama and the equally unforgettable, masterly lecture by Bill Clinton. And, of course, last night it had Barack Obama himself, whose speech left the delegates enthusiastic and strengthened in their resolve to win in November, although he did not deliver another glorious, mesmerizing speech that we have almost been spoiled with. It was a good speech, more than ok, solid, and, at times, eloquent, but there was also somehow something missing.

Joe Klein on his blog in Time Magazine was disappointed. He wrote that the president did not close the deal and it left Klein him wondering what Obama will do in his second term, if he is re-elected. And John Cassidy in The New Yorker wrote that the president was playing it safe, short on new ideas and policy proposals, knowing he was head in the polls and not wanting to give the Republicans new ammunition.

I don’t know, maybe our expectations were set too high, maybe we failed to take into account the fact that, this time, it was the President speaking, not a young State Senator like in 2004, or a presidential candidate like in 2008. Here was a battle-hardened leader of the country, who had been dealt an awful hand, and who realized that things were not improving as fast as he, or the country, would like. Yet, he said that the country was better off today than four years ago and that the choice in November was one between going forward and turning back to the failed policies of the Bush years, policies that got us in this fix in the first place.

“All they have to offer is the same prescription they’ve had for the last thirty years: “Have a surplus? Try a tax cut.” “Deficit too high? Try another.” “Feel a cold coming on? Take two tax cuts, roll back some regulations, and call us in the morning!”

And, he asked for more time:

“I won’t pretend the path I’m offering is quick or easy. I never have. You didn’t elect me to tell you what you wanted to hear. You elected me to tell you the truth. And the truth is it will take more than a few years for us to solve challenges that have built up over decades.”

Today, on Friday morning, the hard reality struck when the latest job figures were published, pointing to a continued slow recovery. Only 96,000 new jobs were created in August, although unemployment decreased from 8.3 to 8.1 percent, but mostly because so many had stopped looking for a job.

Will such numbers decide the election or will the American people let Obama continue his unfinished work? That’s the big question.

Is Romney’s risky bet on Ryan about to fail?

Lots of stuff about Mitt Romney’s choice of Paul Ryan as his running mate.

John Cassidy in The New Yorker writes about “desperation:”

Until Romney picked Ryan, the principal rationale for his candidacy had been that he was a practical businessman who could appeal to independents and get the economy moving. Now Romney has tethered himself to a conservative ideologue who serves in an institution, the House of Representatives, that, according to the latest Gallup poll, has an approval rating of ten per cent. Such an abrupt reversal smacks of desperation.

Nate Silver on his blog FiveThirtyEight calls the Ryan selection “dubious” and compares it to John McCain’s choice of Sarah Palin in 2008. Silver thinks Romney’s chances of winning in November have been reduced.

My first take on the selection was that Mr. Romney had looked at the polls, concluded that he was losing, and deliberately made a high-risk choice that could shake up the campaign — somewhat as Mr. McCain did with Ms. Palin four years ago. Reporting since then, however, has suggested that Mr. Romney made the pick despite reluctance from his pollsters and others on his political team. So it looks increasingly as though he made a different sort of gamble — more of a true all-in move.

Paul Ryan has been called a ”deficit hawk” and we know he wants to cut the taxes, especially on high income earners, but also cut sharply in the government’s role when it comes to pensions, Medicare, Medicaid, food stamps, etc. Leading economic commentators are punching holes in Ryan’s reputation as a responsible economist and write that it’s impossible to reach a balance in the economy with the Ryan plan.

Paul Krugman in the New York Times calls Ryan an “unserious” man. His plan would increase, not decrease, the deficit:

If this sounds like a joke, that’s because it is…Mr. Ryan isn’t a serious man — he just plays one on TV.

And the Financial Times’ Martin Wolf is equally critical, calling Ryan’s plan ”incredible.”

Is the Ryan bubble about to burst? Is Romney’s bet on this right-wing ideologue about to fail? It is still a bit too early to tell for sure. But the signs are ominous. We will know more after next week’s convention.