False Promises

The columnist Robert Scheer has referred to President Barack Obama as being the equivalent of an Eisenhower Republican. And it’s easy to see why. Obama is no progressive, to be sure, and liberal only if you look at his stances – not his record – on social issues.

The latest example of this is his Promise Zone proposal, a warmed-over variation on the enterprise zones trotted out first during the early Reagan administration by then-Congressman Jack Kemp and later by Kemp during the first Bush administration as a way to create economic growth in depressed urban areas.

The original concept was simple: Give businesses tax incentives (capital gains cuts, interest deductions and “carry-forwards”, etc) and give local governments options to cut red tape and local taxes and cut local sales taxes. The goal was not just to create jobs but to make urban businesses profitable, which in turn would cause them to stick around, pulling the cities out of poverty and reinvigorating America’s urban core.

It didn’t work. As Bruce Bartlett, a conservative historian and economist who worked for Kemp and the Reagan and first Bush administrations, points out, “the evidence shows that enterprise zones are at best a very weak generator of jobs” and that studies have shown “that there was no significant difference in economic growth or job creation inside the enterprise zones from the surrounding area.”

Despite this, the idea has continued to have legs on both sides of the aisle. Conservatives US Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) proposed a version with Sen. Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) in December called an Economic Freedom Zone that the two say will help revive Detroit.

The president, as the New York Times pointed out, first mentioned his version of the enterprise zone in February 2013, during the State of the Union when he announced plans to “partner with 20 of the hardest-hit towns in America to get these communities back on their feet.”

On Jan. 9, he announced the first five “Promise Zones”: San Antonio, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, southeastern Kentucky and the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma.

The zones, according to a fact sheet at, is “part of the President’s plan to create a better bargain for the middle-class by partnering with local communities and businesses to create jobs, increase economic security, expand educational opportunities, increase access to quality, affordable housing and improve public safety.”

Each new zone will create a plan demonstrating how it will “partner with local business and community leaders to make investments that reward hard work and expand opportunity.  In exchange, these designees will receive the resources and flexibility they need to achieve their goals.”

The resources, however, will not include federal cash. As the Times reported, the White House said the initiative “would not provide new money, rather it would be aimed at providing the local governments and agencies ‘aid in cutting through red tape to get access to existing resources.’”

Doug Henwood, editor of the Left Business Observer (, told me in a Facebook message that he thought the president’s plan was “more purely symbolic than the original EZs” and that “we can’t solve those problems (i.e., urban poverty) without an infusion of federal” money. “(C)learly, BHO has no interest in even talking about that.”

Bartlett’s piece in The Fiscal Times “does a good job refuting the whole premise” of the zones, Henwood said.

Bartlett, for his part, said the zones were “a good idea that was worth trying and just didn’t work” and that it is time to move on.

Supporters, rather, “keep beating this dead horse as if it is still an untried idea from which we have no experience of failure.”

Of course, Obama’s promise zones are just part of a laundry list of policies the president has trotted out – from the half-measure that is the Affordable Care Act to the Race to the Top educational program – that sound consequential but will at best just nibble around the edges.

In the end, the president talks a good game and, for those of us who see inequality and the continued redistribution of wealth upwards as the main issues facing the United States (and the world), his words certainly do help by keeping the issues on the table.

But we have to remember that, as president, what Obama says sucks the air out of debate. Obama, as a Democrat, is assumed to occupy the left side of the political spectrum and his proposals are automatically viewed as the de facto liberal position. That has meant that real change – a needed reconfiguration of our economy that includes the re-empowerment of workers and communities, a minimum wage that provides a livable income, stronger federal and state regulations of corporations and markets, universal single-payer healthcare and a more vibrant safety net – is not part of the discussion.

Instead, we get proposals that, as Bartlett says, are “a way to appear to be doing something about (our problems) without really doing anything at all.”

Hank Kalet is a poet and journalist in New Jersey. He writes about economic and social justice issues for NJ Spotlight and other publications. Email; blog,; Twitter @newspoet41;

From The Progressive Populist, February 15, 2014

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