Who would make the better President for tech consumers and investors -- George W. Bush or Al Gore? As the candidates prepare to debate again this week, it's a good time to ask this question. My hope is that moderator Jim Lehrer tries to work in some questions about technology policy this time. But in case technology gets the shaft again, here's what we know so far:
A man who has spent most of his life in Washington, DC, and almost his entire adult life in government, the Vice President really seems to believe that congressional appropriators, and not entrepreneurs, were the key ingredients in our Internet economy. Gore has backed off from his infamous Internet boast, but still claims undue credit for various funding votes. This should concern all of us who love free markets and technology.
George W. Bush doesn't share Gore's belief in the power of positive government. Says Bush: "Governments don't create wealth. Wealth is created by Americans - by creativity and enterprise and risk-taking." So the two men have very different views on the role of government in tech markets, and we have to give Bush the free-market edge on philosophy.
Now let's talk specifics. Bush advocates a five-year extension of the Internet tax moratorium, which is due to expire next year. Allowing the moratorium to lapse could bring a blizzard of new taxes as state and local governments try to do what many of them were considering before the moratorium - collect tolls whenever online transactions bounce through their jurisdictions. The end of the moratorium would bring higher taxes on consumers and huge regulatory burdens for web companies - in short, a disaster for the new economy. Where does Gore stand on extending the moratorium? He has studiously avoided answering that question. Score another one for Bush.
I'm sorry to report that both men would likely sign online privacy legislation. I'm sorry because whether and how I choose to do business with Amazon.com should be none of the government's business. And I don't think anyone has fully appreciated the implications of regulating the flow of information. Think of your own business life - have you gotten permission from every person about whom you made a note, for every datum sitting in your files? This seemingly well-intentioned legislation would probably happen much sooner under Gore, who already has a comprehensive regulatory scheme in mind. But Bush has also expressed sympathy for government's role in protecting consumers, so it will likely fall to tech companies and consumers to make the case for freedom.
On free trade, both men have very good records. Al Gore has effectively supported Bill Clinton in continuing the global free-trade movement begun under President Reagan and energetically promoted by W.'s father. Give Clinton-Gore and Congressional Republicans the credit for expanded trade with China. Looking ahead, W. wants to expand NAFTA south - making it a Free Trade Agreement of the Americas. Given his history, Al Gore would likely do the same.
Probably the most aggressive regulation of tech markets during the Clinton-Gore Administration has been in the area of anti-trust. Gore has publicly defended the Justice Department's disgraceful attack on Microsoft, and didn't offer a discouraging word about the FTC's attack on Intel or the latest FTC/FCC roadblocks to the AOL-Time Warner merger. Bush has said that he will enforce the laws, but it's highly unlikely that his Administration would conduct similar assaults on America's high-tech leaders.
Bush also has a clear edge on two other issues that aren't specific to high-tech, but will have a profound impact on the future of American technology - education and taxes. On education, Bush wants to inject competition into the failing public school system. Gore, a beneficiary of generous support from teachers unions, wants to defend the existing monopoly.
And when it comes to taxes and budgets, the differences between the candidates are very clear. Gore favors boosting government spending beyond currently expected increases. Meanwhile, Bush favors cutting taxes. The fundamental lesson of the "Silicon Valley miracle" is that freedom delivers prosperity and innovation. The more resources that are pulled out of the private economy and sent to Washington, the less prosperous we'll be -- including those of us who work in technology.