IMAGINE you lived in a city that went bankrupt.
A so-called "emergency manager" is duly appointed, with draconian powers that he is not scared to use - including dismissing city employees, slashing their pensions, selling off the main municipal assets and revoking agreed pay deals. Of course such drastic measures tend, in the short term, to make things even worse.
This is exactly what is happening in several US cities. Detroit is the most famous, or infamous. example, but other cities in the state of Michigan are having extraordinary expenditure cuts visited on them. States such as California and Pennsylvania have several cities experiencing desperate, swingeing cuts. Indeed the dreaded question is now being asked: is any American city too big to fail?
The answer, which would have been unthinkable a generation ago, is: certainly not. The future of Chicago, the city most closely associated with the political career of President Barack Obama, is already being talked about in worrying terms.
Perhaps the biggest single fear that the beleaguered citizens of America's broken cities have concerns unfunded healthcare liabilities. The very young and the very old are, as usual, the most vulnerable.
This latest slant on America's acute urban crisis reflects the total failure of the mayoral model. The mayor used to be a big man in the best American sense, an awesome power broker, often a visionary with swagger, someone who had real clout and knew how to use it. Not now. Emergency managers render mayors almost irrelevant.
When pondering the apocalyptic collapse of this aspect of the American dream, I wondered if it could happen here. Then I realised that it is probably not complacent to suggest that Scotland's principal cities are actually in pretty good shape.
In recent years I've been a strong critic of Edinburgh's civic management, mainly because of the trams fiasco, but our capital is currently on the mend, not least as a result of the appointment of an effective chief executive. Glasgow, which has more long-term inherited problems than any other Scottish city, is doing pretty well, and is set fair for an absolutely marvellous 2014. Dundee is enjoying a renaissance, partly because of its spectacular waterfront developments and the vibrant state of higher education in the city. Inverness was named as Scotland's fifth city because of its success, and that success has continued.
Funnily enough Aberdeen, over the past couple of generations something of a boom town and in recent times the most obviously successful of Scotland's cities, is now struggling just a little - ironically in part because of the continued lack of a proper bypass. And of all the fine streets in our fine cities, Aberdeen's Union Street is the one that is in the worst condition.
These five cities are characterful places with a well-developed sense of their own worth. Their contribution to Scotland's wellbeing is fundamental to our nation's future. Happily, none of them is likely to fail in the foreseeable future.
Meanwhile Perth and Stirling are splendid towns that have very recently acquired official city status, but have not yet developed into city-states like the "big five".
Formerly, a place that had a cathedral used to be able to call itself a city. Scotland has no fewer than 35 cathedrals, and it would be, with respect, ludicrous to suggest that somewhere like Dornoch or Brechin is a city. (Although there are football teams called Brechin City and Dornoch City).
Most of the world's population now live in cities. It is ironic that the nation that more or less invented the cultural idea of the modern city, and went on to celebrate it in so many songs and movies, is now facing a series of exceptionally grisly municipal calamities.
But then one of the big overriding narratives through the coming century will be the continuing decline of the US, and the concomitant rise of the new super states -and not just China. America no longer represents the future, and the grim actuality of its present is pretty disturbing.
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