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December 05, 2013 3:50 PM Rand Paul Pulls Out His Dog-Eared Playbook

By Ed Kilgore

Sen. Rand Paul decamped in Detroit today to open a new GOP office (good luck with that), and while he was at it, pulled out his thin, dog-eared playbook of conservative urban policy ideas, as reported by Slate’s Emma Roller:

Paul’s real mission in Detroit is his new plan to stimulate the bankrupt city’s economy. In a call with reporters Thursday, Paul announced a bill that he insists is not a stimulus. The gist: radically lower taxes for areas that have 1.5 times the national unemployment rate, or roughly 11 percent. As of August, unemployment in Wayne County was at 11.1 percent, and 17.7 percent in Detroit proper.

Yes, it’s “enterprise zones,” the crown jewel of 1980s-style Republican expressions of concern for urban areas, associated especially with HUD secretary and conservative warhorse Jack Kemp. As Roller notes, it hasn’t been a particularly successful idea:

Would insanely low corporate taxes convince Jeff Bezos to build Amazon’s next warehouse in some long-abandoned Detroit building? Would they even convince business owners in adjacent Macomb County—which has an only 9.5 percent unemployment rate—to venture into the city? Critics (as they are wont to be) are skeptical:
“Enterprise zones are not especially effective at increasing overall economic activity or raising incomes for the poor,” said Len Burman, director of the Urban-Brookings Tax Policy Center and a former Clinton administration official. “They just seem to move the locus of activity across the zone’s boundary — reducing activity outside the zone and increasing it inside.”

Burman might well know, because probably the most extensive application of the enterprise zone concept was actually as a small element of the Clinton administration’s “empowerment zone” initiative, which packaged federal grants with tax concessions in urban areas agreeing to undertake a comprehensive strategy for self-improvement. This was not one of my favorite Clinton policies (as I expressed once in a magazine op-ed that enraged the initiative’s majordomo, a guy named Andrew Cuomo), but it was a lot better than the original GOP model.

But here it is again, a truly undead policy idea.

Once when I was involved in rural development efforts in Georgia I wrote (for the private amusement of my colleagues at the state agency where I worked) a savage parody of enterprise zones by “proposing” that we offer poor counties the opportunity to legalize every kind of income-producing vice: prostitution, gambling, drugs, you name it. They’d be called “erogenous zones.” A quarter century later, enterprise zones haven’t become any less worthy of ridicule.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.

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