Rand Paul and the Ghost of Jack Kemp

Detroit’s once glorious Michigan Theater has been turned into a car park.

Photo by Mira Oberman/AFP/Getty Images

Sen. Rand Paul is heading to Detroit on Friday to open the Michigan GOP office. In 2012, Detroit residents voted for Barack Obama over Mitt Romney by 73–26 percent, so opening a GOP office in the city is a bit of a #slatepitch to begin with.

But 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.

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.”

Paul’s plan is akin to Jack Kemp’s urban enterprise zones, which Paul says didn’t go far enough. But reading this New York Times Magazine piece on Jack Kemp from 1993, it’s clear the “new” slate of compassionate conservative causes hasn’t changed all that much:

Debating the meaning of “empowerment” was one of the more consuming activities of the Bush domestic planners. When pressed, Kemp and Pinkerton would fall back on a familiar roll call of policies: enterprise zones; vouchers that let parents choose their children’s schools; tax credits for the poor; and the HOPE program. They had a hard time coming up with other examples, but championing the phrase was a way of sounding activist and conservative at once.

Kemp was able to pass the enterprise zones through the House, but it was largely watered down in the Democratic Senate and vetoed by Bush I. To Paul’s thinking, the solution is to dream ever bigger.