BBC BLOGS - Mark Mardell's America

Archives for July 2010

Keeping Philadelphians in their homes

Mark Mardell | 18:50 UK time, Friday, 30 July 2010



"Give me some love, just give me some love," Gaviyonne Gibbons urges the toddlers who are already clambering all over her for another hug.

The ground room of her home in run-down north Philadelphia is bright with paintings and posters and a giant furry frog. After losing her job as a medical assistant, she struck out on her own and set up a day-care centre. One of the posters is headed "Emotions", and is full of young faces, sad, happy, puzzled.

I don't see one for "jubilation," but that is what shines from her face.

"I am so happy that my home is saved," Ms Gibbons says.

"Today, my home is saved. It's wonderful, wonderful, I have no complaints at all."

Ms Gibbons will not have to sell her home and lose her business despite falling behind on her payments, thanks to a programme run by Philadelphia's city government.

It began because in the City of Brotherly Love, Sheriff John Green refused to enforce the repossession and sale of homes when people fell behind with their mortgages. A thoughtful, quietly spoken man, he's been tough in pushing through this radical policy.

Sitting in the city's Jefferson Square Park, he tells me that the policy is vital - and obvious.

"A home is the major wealth factor for most people," he says.


"Not only does it represent wealth, it represents a personal status, it represents how one feels about him or herself. It also represents the ability to stabilise a community, so when you look at all of that its just a no-brainer for most elected people and people in public policy positions to really appreciate and be concerned about the issue."

Then Judge Annette Rizzo got involved and ordered that when people fell behind with their mortgages, the companies had to talk to them and negotiate.

The action happens in Room 676 of the magnificent city hall. It looks like the setting for an US courtroom drama, but when you expect the hush to be broken only by one commanding voice, of lawyer or judge, there is a busy hubbub.

Beneath the judge's bench little groups huddle, homeowners negotiating with lending companies through city-appointed case officers.

About 200 people come through these doors every day and Judge Rizzo says it is like a petri dish where the development of the city's economy can be examined in minute detail.

On the day that the latest US GDP figures indicate a faltering, unsteady recovery how does it seem to her?

"We're beginning to see people starting a new job, they don't have much of a track record, but are getting some sort of minor employment or part time work. They remain under-employed, which creates an issue for long-term stability with their mortgage, but at least we are seeing some sort of turnaround. We're not out of the woods yet. It's on an individual basis. For every one or two who [can pay something towards their mortgage] because they've had some type of employment come, we are seeing others who've just lost their job after several years. So it's really a mixed bag."

Sheriff Green agrees: "The economy is theoretically rebounding. Companies have shown a larger profit. Unfortunately that's not being transferred into creation of jobs so there are still a lot of people out of work and there's still a need to consider people's circumstances when you consider missed mortgage payments. So the economy is on its way back, but it hasn't really reached employees enough to make a difference in the number of foreclosures."

I visit a couple who have also had good news: their home is saved because of the Philadelphia programme, but Karen and Ralph Wiess recall the horror of their home being under threat.


"Very difficult, very depressing," says Mrs Wiess.

"Go to bed with it on your mind, wake with it on your mind," her husband adds.

"Don't want to eat," Mrs Wiess says.

They ran a family dry cleaning business, which Mr Wiess had taken over from his father who was in the business all his life.

But in the recession fewer people were using their service, and business declined until they couldn't keep up with payments. With their home saved they say things are looking up, and they are planning a new door-to door dry cleaning venture.

"It's slowly, slowly, slowly picking up a little," Mr Wiess says.

They leased out their business and now it is doing well.

"It's getting better than it has been the last few years, it's making more money than when we were actually doing it."

Ms Gibbons too sees things looking a little better. Her home and day-care centre is in a battered part of town, where many homes look neglected. She says in the last couple of months business has been good, with many mums finding training programmes if not jobs.

She says the economy is improving "slowly but surely".

"This neighbourhood is very poor and needs a lot of help," she says.

Is the recession over? "Not really, that's a long way to go."

Sharp sting of Arizona immigration debate

Mark Mardell | 20:14 UK time, Wednesday, 28 July 2010


road_ap224.jpgIt's not over yet. A judge has struck down the most important part of Arizona's new law aimed at discouraging illegal immigrants coming in from Mexico.

Police won't be required to check the immigration status of those they arrest. The ruling said that "requiring Arizona law enforcement officials and agencies to determine the immigration status of every person who is arrested burdens lawfully-present aliens because their liberty will be restricted while their status is checked".

Perhaps more importantly, it finds that the new law undermines the federal government doing its job and creates a "a likelihood of irreparable harm to the interests of the United States".

The Department of Justice has welcomed this, saying: "While we understand the frustration of Arizonans with the broken immigration system, a patchwork of state and local policies would seriously disrupt federal immigration enforcement and would ultimately be counterproductive."

Arizona's Republican Governor Jan Brewer has said, in a delightfully mindboggling image, that this is just a "bump in the road" which she is trying to get her arms around. Let's hope she doesn't get run over. In plain English, there will be a challenge and this is likely to go all the way to the Supreme Court.

So no-one is hollering victory. But it will further fire up an already heated debate in the run up to November's elections. The right will feel they are being robbed of a important tool to deal with lawlessness. Many Democrats will feel they've scored a first victory against covert racism.

A lot of Latinos will urge President Barack Obama to make more illegals legal. Conservatives will urge him to strengthen the border and increase deportations. This ruling has stopped the law coming into effect but it hasn't drawn its political sting, just made it sharper.

The head above the parapet

Mark Mardell | 17:28 UK time, Tuesday, 27 July 2010


hayward_afp_304.jpgThe US media have been making much of the fact that an American is in charge of BP for the first time.

It seems to be a source of some satisfaction here. It's taken as an acknowledgement of the importance of the US to the company. It is America's largest producer of gas and oil, and a third of its reserves are here.

Indeed BP ballooned in size in the 90s when it took over the American firm Amoco. There is a good argument that BP's safety problems stem from taking over the sometimes antique equipment owned by Amoco and not updating it.

But the acquisition means that in the US, BP mostly looks and sounds American.

Tony Hayward was the exception. As I've been saying for weeks, the concept that BP was being singled out for attack because it was a British firm was a media myth that received wide currency in the UK, without any evidence from the US. But not having a foreigner in charge may smooth the way ahead a little.

A change of accent may not be answered by a change of tone from the White House which has previously insisted it's not who's in charge that matters, but that BP honours its promise to clean up and pay out.

And the absence of estuary English may not sway those politicians pressing for criminal charges and new safety rules that would stop BP getting licences for new wells.

While BP's figures are startlingly good, given what it has to pay out, it is not out of the woods yet. Neither, of course are the people of the Gulf of Mexico, where the economic and environmental damage is still difficult to quantify.

But will this emergency be taken as lesson by chief executives of the dangers of leading from the front?

Mr Hayward's fate, while not exactly excruciating, is not what he would have wanted. I think that what he did - getting on a plane, taking personal charge of the disaster, being the public face of BP - was an act of courage and leadership. It was also a catastrophe.

He didn't have the media skills or the right plans in place to parade along the parapet, without getting shot at.

In future, CEOs in a similar situation may murmur at an unfortunate underling: "Best if you handle this one, I need to stay here at HQ."

Wikileaks reveals awkward truths

Mark Mardell | 17:39 UK time, Monday, 26 July 2010


The scale is breathtaking. This is isn't a leak, it is a haemorrhage. Some 92,201 secret documents posted on the internet, snapshots from a messy war, the biggest such breach since the Pentagon Papers, the 7,000 pages that arguably changed the course of American involvement in Vietnam.

The leak of the internet age is not likely to have that sort of impact. The Pentagon papers revealed lies. These detailed logs confirm a truth that has been long suspected.

The White House has reacted with predictable fury. Its national security adviser, Jim Jones, has said the leak threatens America and the lives of US troops and their allies. But he is also quick to point out that the documents are from between 2004 and the end of last year. For most of that time, President George W Bush was in charge, the rest was before President Barack Obama's new strategy could take effect.

Only the news that the Taliban are using surface to air missiles is brand new. The often terse reports filled with military acronyms - "TF 733 conducted an air assault insertion to assault obj" ..."rcp hit an ied near the village" - are like thousands of pixels that build into a clear picture: one familiar to most who've been closely observing the conflict. It suggests a war conducted by secret forces, dogged by the behaviour of Pakistani intelligence, marred by constant civilian casualties, where anything resembling victory is elusive.

The danger for the administration is the judgment of pessimists that not much has changed since the huge increase in troops, that if reports from 2010 were included the new pixels wouldn't dramatically alter the picture.

The Democratic House Armed Services Committee Chairman Ike Skelton has released a statement saying: "These leaked reports pre-date our new strategy in Afghanistan and should not be used as a measure of success or a determining factor in our continued mission there."

He adds: "It is critical that we not use outdated reports to paint a picture of the co-operation of Pakistan in our efforts in Afghanistan. Since these reports were issued, Pakistan has significantly stepped up its fight against the Taliban, including efforts that led to the capture of the highest-ranking member of the Taliban since the start of the war."

This is fair enough as far as it goes. We can't make a complete judgment on a very fluid situation based on reports from the past five years. But it is also fair enough to ask if much has really changed and, critically, whether the politicians are giving it enough time to change.

American pessimism

Mark Mardell | 17:59 UK time, Wednesday, 7 July 2010


Sad_America.jpgOne of the defining qualities of Americans must be their optimism.

To Europeans, it can sometimes appear to be an overly cheerful enthusiasm or a wilful reluctance to look harsh facts in the face.

Obama's election was one expression of that optimism - the audacity of hope - embodied in Bob the Builder's constructive phrase "yes, we can".

But gloom appears to be the new mood in the US these days.

Commentators on the left like Robert Reich warn of a double dip recession.

So do commentators of the right.

Those giving investment advice say they see the signs everywhere.

While cooler commentators keep their heads, there's no doubt whatsoever the jitters are out there.

In the country, rather than in print and on the internet, this may not be down to predictions but because of what is happening now - or isn't happening.

A recent survey suggests eight out of ten of those who lost their jobs in the last couple of years still haven't found a new one.

President Obama is sticking to his guns, unwavering in his big picture policy prescription.

He wants to refocus America, to once again become one of the world's great manufacturers and exporters - rather than just being one of the globe's biggest consumers.

This vision is how Mr Obama sees jobs coming back.

In a speech today he said, "This is where American jobs will be tomorrow. Ninety-five percent of the world's customers and fastest growing markets are beyond our borders. So if we want to find new growth streams, we've got to better compete for those customers - because other nations are. As I have said many times, the United States of America should not, cannot, and will not play for second place. We mean to compete for those jobs - and we mean to win."

While this may be excellent analysis of the problem, the difficulty is the policy prescriptions - such as more free trade and a rebalancing of the Chinese currency - hardly go to the heart of the matter. The heart of the matter being that America doesn't make enough of the goods the world wants to buy.

In a thought provoking article in Times, Anatole Kaletsky argues forcefully that Obama's prescription is right.

But he sees one big threat - pessimism itself.

He contends this is largely caused by intense political polarisation, adding that he hasn't seen such intense mutual hatred since Scargill and Thatcher faced each other in 1980s Britain.

Is it time to abandon bipolar bipartisanship and for Americans to pick themselves up and dust themselves down?

I look forward to your answers and will read them at my leisure: I am taking some leave, so I won't be posting for a while.

Would Arizona harass US citizens?

Mark Mardell | 21:56 UK time, Tuesday, 6 July 2010


The US government is claiming Arizona's tough new law to tackle illegal immigration would cause the harassment of American citizens, ignore humanitarian concerns and interfere with foreign policy.

So it is taking the state of Arizona to court to try to stop it ever happening.

Critics of the Arizona law, which is due to come into force at the end of this month, claim it is racist. The government's complaint doesn't go that far but it does say the state is overstepping its authority and suggests it is blundering into a delicate area.

The Arizona law would mean that police officers would be able to arrest people on "probable cause" of a public offence "that makes that person removable from the United States".

The US government's official complaint says "it will cause the detention and harassment of authorized visitors, immigrants, and citizens who do not have or carry identification documents specified by the statute" arguing this would "result in countless inspections and detentions of individuals who are lawfully present in the United States".

The government's wider argument is that immigration policy is the rightful preserve of the federal government, which has to balance many competing interests. It says it can't be done at the level of a state. It says the Arizona law is only interested in reducing the problem of illegal immigration ("attrition"), and, it says:

"It will altogether ignore humanitarian concerns, such as the protections available under federal law for an alien who has a well-founded fear of persecution or who has been the victim of a natural disaster. And it will interfere with vital foreign policy and national security interests by disrupting the United States' relationship with Mexico and other countries."

No doubt there will be an agonised debate about states' rights and some will be keen to portray this as intrusion by central government. But there is a much more basic problem. The United States, nation of immigrants, has long see-sawed between welcoming new blood and pulling up the drawbridge.

President Barack Obama suggests much is being done to keep illegal immigrants out, insisting last week:

"Today, we have more boots on the ground near the south-west border than at any time in our history. Let me repeat that: We have more boots on the ground on the south-west border than at any time in our history. We doubled the personnel assigned to Border Enforcement Security Task Forces. We tripled the number of intelligence analysts along the border... The southern border is more secure today than at any time in the past 20 years."

But there's a perception that whilst this may be the federal government's job, it is not doing it. While Mr Obama has signalled it is a priority to introduce new rules about immigration, nothing has happened. His strong speech has not been matched by any move in Congress. Anyhow, if there was a new bill the president has made it clear it would centre on turning illegal immigrants into citizens, rather than finding new ways of making their life more difficult and throwing them out.

It is the apparent failure of the federal government, seemingly frozen by the difficulty of the problem, that has goaded Arizona into action.

America's independent spirit

Mark Mardell | 20:45 UK time, Monday, 5 July 2010


A belated happy Independence Day to you all, and, yes, as a Brit, I am happy you got out from under our heel. I began my 4 July watching a sweetly-small neighbourhood display: a big fire engine, an old Chevy and about 30 kids on bikes with stars and stripes flying. I've munched on several lots of hot dogs and finished up watching the Washington fireworks with friends from the BBC, American and British. As we watched the staggering display from a balcony, on the street below an individual - displaying true independence of spirit - let off his own Roman candles and crackers beneath a tree on the pavement. It was a lot less impressive than the federal government's show but lasted longer.

At the party a couple of American colleagues were talking about what a wonderful man Thomas Jefferson was and how they would have loved to have met him. This struck a chord today when I was flicking through a slim book called 2014 - How to survive the next world crisis, by Professor Nicholas Boyle.

My eyes lit on a passage claiming that America's conception of itself can be understood in the desire to disguise what he calls "the darkness beneath Jefferson's cloak". I haven't yet read the whole thing but, as far as I can see, he argues that the defining event in US history was not the American War of Independence but the Civil War and that the darkness was that the American state (like all others) was based on force, not consent.

He says Jefferson is the American saint and "if a saint tells you there is no elephant in the drawing room" you can, like the northern states, ignore the elephant, or, like the southern ones, "call the elephant something else". He goes that this is why southerners hold a belief that "America was made by God, not by the Yankee state, however heretical and implausible that belief may be". If it stays a quiet news day, I may find time to do more than skim-read the book, but it promises to be provocative stuff.

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