Presidential campaigns are usually long on sloganeering and short on substance. The first Republican candidate out of the gate for 2016, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, gave an announcement speech asking listeners to “imagine” Cruz’s America -- the word appears nearly 40 times in the address -- which is actually great advice, because he sure as hell wasn’t describing his plans in any detail.
Unlike Cruz, and many of his eventual contenders for the nomination, Sen. Rand Paul, who announced his candidacy on Tuesday, has offered up a detailed vision for how to change America: his “Economic Freedom Zones” plan, an exhaustive 50-page blueprint for giving the country a radical free-market face lift. The plan, which was originally introduced as legislation in 2013, was championed by Paul’s wife Kelley during his campaign announcement today, while the senator himself alluded to the bill as a centerpiece of his economic vision.
Paul also roused the crowd with mention of his “Read the Bill” resolution, which would mandate that members of Congress be permitted sufficient time to read each piece of legislation. Paul is a details guy, after all. His campaign is already distinct in his willingness -- or eagerness, even -- to discuss the details of his vision. And, heck, the “Read the Bill” idea is not a bad one. So, why not take a closer look at those “Economic Freedom Zones” Paul is so high on.
Paul’s big idea is to take the country’s most economically distressed places and use them as a laboratory for experiments in removing government and allowing hyper-capitalism to govern. Detroit is the candidate that leaps to mind, especially since Paul chose the old Motor City as the backdrop for his public introduction of the bill.
But while Detroit is the standout candidate for the “bankrupt or economically distressed areas” Paul’s bill aims to radically change, the criteria are written loosely enough to make vast amounts of the country eligible for so-called “economic freedom.” In the end, selection can be at the discretion of the Treasury Secretary, a presidential appointment. Cities, counties and municipalities don’t have to be in bankruptcy like Detroit but simply be “at risk of insolvency.” But who isn’t at risk of insolvency these days? Then the bill’s criteria widen even further: “An eligible entity shall be designated as a low economic or high poverty zone if...the entity is located within one of the 10 most impoverished States.”
This is not a carefully targeted experiment. Vast sections of the country could be targeted and made into these zones. I guess if you’re in the business of bestowing freedom, why not try to give to as many people as possible, right?
So what happens in these zones?
Well, for one, taxes for the rich are slashed to an insane rate of 5 percent. That goes for corporations, too: 5 percent. It’s 5 percent for everybody, basically, far lower than the already ambitious 17% flat tax he proposes for everyone else. Capital gains taxes are essentially nonexistent in the zones, and even payroll taxes are reduced substantially to 4.2% for both employer and employee. You might ask, “But isn’t that how Social Security is funded, through payroll taxes?” Yes, but the revenue lost by slashing social security inputs in the zones is made up by the rest of us, according to the bill. Because freedom.
Of course, if taxes just aren’t your thing at all, zone inhabitants of means can have their charitable contributions counted as tax credits, not deductions. Give a few thousand to American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) this year? Consider that amount taxes paid!
You’ve never really been free until you cool off from a sweltering day under a smog-choked sky by hopping in the nearest polluted waterway. The Clean Air and Clean Water Acts are effectively made toothless and null in “Freedom Zones,” with crucial regulatory linchpins expertly eliminated in the bill. The Wild and Scenic Rivers Act looks to be toast as well. Also, any National Heritage Area, which includes our many Native American sites, lose any protection in a zone designated for “freedom”; they are now simply real estate.
Paul’s bill embarks on an ambitious school privatization plan in the zones, because freedom for children is exposing them to the cold and indifferent winds of the capitalist market in their schooling. Nothing says freedom like showing up to your school bright and early to find it shuttered because the hedge fund that owns it made some bad bets. But Paul goes all in, priming the privatization pump by mandating that local school money--tax dollars--be funneled to for-profit schools if students choose to exit the public system. And predictably, up to $5,000 of tuition paid to a for-profit school is a tax credit, not a deduction, in the zone.
So what if all this "freedom" doesn’t work? What if taking insolvent governments and the nation’s most desperate populations and using them as insane laboratories ends up blowing up? Paul’s bill takes care of that in its very first substantive section: No bailouts, guaranteed or discount loans, or any sort of financial assistance from the federal government are permitted once a place is made into a freedom zone.
The neoliberal experiment in hyper-capitalism and the erosion of the state, which used to be run in places like Chile, after Washington helped install a dictator, has now come home. The vision outlined in Paul’s bill is nothing less than an upending of the American ideal--a republic of citizens--and the creation of a republic of property, with the state receding into inconsequentiality.
There’s no such thing as a 50-page gaffe: This is Paul’s vision. Senator Paul was serious about the bill. He enlisted Majority Leader Mitch McConnell as his cosponsor on the bill and noisily buddied up with President Obama--a risky move for a Republican hopeful--to lend credence to his zones idea. Paul’s pre-campaign has already been a cringeworthy series of clumsy rhetorical reversals on his more extreme views. But no amount of focus-grouped campaign rhetoric can erase a 50-page, detailed outline of his economic vision.