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Bankrupting cities – the US’s new cut-and-run scheme

$18 billion – that is the cost of Detroit’s debt.

New Statesman
Photograph: Getty Images

$18 bn – that is the cost of Detroit’s debt, as revealed on Thursday when the city filed for bankruptcy, setting a new record in the US. This figure is a gentle reminder of America’s inequality – consider, not only that 30 of the nation’s billionaires could single-handedly pay off Detroit’s debt, but the news comes amid a gloat of optimism in the US.

US jobs figures – the most scrutinised of monthly data in the world’s largest economy – has beaten all expectations in June, May and April (monthly payroll gains averaging 196,000). Other good-news data has encouraged Ben Bernanke, the US Federal Reserve Chairman, to “taper” quantitative easing and equities are topping unknown heights.

But all this means nothing for the citizens of Detroit, or at least those 78,000 who remain in the city, down from two million in its 1950s heyday. Along with the citizens of America’s other bankrupt cities – Stockton, Mammoth Lakes and San Bernardino – they are the dead weight that America must cut in her struggle to the surface of economic buoyancy.

The message is harsh, yet simple – economic recovery is not universal and struggling cities must pay for their own recovery. How many more American cities, then, will we see go bankrupt as the inequality spits ever further? And what if this US tactic caches on in Europe – could we see a bankrupt Nottingham or Liverpool? (Admittedly, America’s Chapter 9 bankruptcy is not quite as dramatic as "bankruptcy" in the UK).

For Detroit, though, this means many more years representing America’s blue collar bust; the demise of industry and the heartland of sub-prime mortgages, while the rest of the country gets back on its feet.  When asked by CNBC if Detroit’s bankruptcy will affect markets, Steve Brice, Chief Investment Strategist of StanChart replied “markets seem to shrugging it off quite significantly”. 

However, to end on a positive note, this filing completes Detroit’s fall from grace. Here on, things can only get better in America’s industrial heartland.