The land of opportunity
By Lou Dobbs
(CNN) -- President Bush and Sen. Kerry both campaigned in West Virginia over the long holiday weekend, taking advantage of Labor Day to talk about American workers.
Bush touted the state's lower than average unemployment rate, while Kerry cited the state's loss of 11,000 manufacturing jobs over the past three years. The president trumpeted the nearly 1.7 million new U.S. jobs added since the end of last summer, while his opponent reminded the crowd that many of those new jobs are paying less than the ones outsourced to cheap foreign labor markets, or lost altogether.
With all the talk recently about labor from Bush and Kerry on the campaign trail, you'd think the American worker is the number one priority for each candidate. Sadly, that's not the case.
And in what can only be described as election-year politics, President Bush has proposed the creation of 40 "opportunity zones" across the country. Described as urban and rural communities that have lost manufacturing, textile and other jobs, these opportunity zones would qualify for tax and regulatory relief, investment incentives, education and job training designed to attract new businesses and create new jobs.
Economic development incentives aren't necessarily a bad idea. There are plenty of impoverished and distressed communities that need help, and lots of it. But shouldn't our nation's trade and economic policies ensure that this entire country is an opportunity zone? Isn't this still the Land of Opportunity?
While the Bush administration is proposing to improve the plight of just a handful of American communities, it's furthering the deterioration of thousands more with harmful trade and economic policies. Our trade deficit is nearing $600 billion annually, and we've now run a trade deficit for 28 straight years.
Instead of expanding our nation's manufacturing and textile base by opening new markets for products and services, all this administration and its predecessors have accomplished over the past decade is a series of outsourcing agreements. The principal beneficiaries of NAFTA and the World Trade Organization are U.S. multinationals that are exporting American jobs to cheaper labor markets overseas.
These opportunity zones are an admission that our nation's trade and economic policies aren't working. Zones are hardly a new idea; they're just an extension of the concept of empowerment zones and enterprise communities. The only real difference: Instead of just poverty levels as a qualification, communities will be eligible if they've lost manufacturing jobs or plants or retail sales. The president says the zones are needed because of changing times. I say they're needed because of broken policies.
Alan Peters, professor of Urban and Regional Planning at the University of Iowa, who has studied the effectiveness of such zones, says economic development incentives on the whole haven't even had much success, either in revitalizing cities or promoting growth in rural areas.
"If there had been massive evidence that either enterprise communities or empowerment zones had been hugely successful," he said, "then maybe we should get excited. But there hasn't been."
The affected areas usually have poor infrastructure, high crime, and may be far from a main transportation network, Peters noted. "The idea that a federal subsidy is going to really change that is just mistaken."
It's time for President Bush, Sen. Kerry and our elected officials in Congress to start talking straight about the very real crisis we face as a result of our mindless free trade policies. And please, no more zones.