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Bush vs. Kerry on tech

CNET's Declan McCullagh's been listening to what the presidential contenders say about technology. Is there any difference between these two? Read on.

Neither George W. Bush nor John Kerry tends to talk much about technology, but both broke their customary silence last week in speeches the same day.

The presidential hopefuls simultaneously said how much they admired innovation, broadband and America's high-tech future. Which invites the obvious questions: Who doesn't? Are there any real differences between these guys?

In Washington, Bush called for universal broadband for all Americans by 2007, touted Wi-Fi wireless links, and recommended that portions of the spectrum be auctioned to the highest bidder.

And Kerry? Speaking in Palo Alto, Calif., the Massachusetts Democrat sounded similar--and equally safe--themes. Kerry also wants "universal broadband," accelerated by corporate tax credits and, like Bush, would free up spectrum space through auctions. He likes Wi-Fi too.

Bush wants to make the R&D tax credit permanent. Kerry would extend it, with a "goal of making it permanent." Both offer the expected nods to alternative energy: Bush likes hydrogen fuel cells, while Kerry prefers photovoltaics or bioenergy. Kerry promises he can "cut the budget deficit in half," as does Bush.

Expressing eerily similar sentiments, the politicos stressed that technological development should be led by the private sector. To Bush, government should "create the environment so that the entrepreneurial spirit is strong and vibrant." Kerry's principles say the government should "create an environment that will foster private sector investment." No skin off anyone's nose there.

Both offered equally unremarkable predictions about technology lending itself to better medical care. Kerry says information technology can "dramatically improve America's health care system." Bush talks about "the use of information technology to improve medicine." Close enough.

Corporate welfare for tech companies?
Still, they're not quite a pair of Republicrats singing in two-party harmony: A closer read of the two tech platforms reveals some telling differences. Kerry's suggestions are more detailed and include timely ideas such as rethinking the antediluvian U.S. export control system. They also hew toward typical Democratic themes, such as trade restrictions and more government spending.

While the Bush administration has rejected requests from labor unions to pursue unfair trade cases against China, Kerry stressed last week that he won't "sit idly by" if the current state of affairs continues.

Kerry also wants more spending on federal programs of dubious value. He'd double the budget for the Manufacturing Extension Partnership (MEP), restore funding for the Advanced Technology Program (ATP) and spend more on the Technology Opportunities Program (TOP).

A closer read of the two tech platforms reveals some telling differences.
These are corporate welfare programs, plain and simple. All are part of the Commerce Department, and Bush would dramatically reduce their size. ATP's budget would fall from $171 million to zero next year, while MEP has already been sliced from $106 million to $13 million. Eliminating these boondoggles is the rare topic on which the Heritage Foundation and the Ralph Nader-founded Public Citizen can agree.

The ostensible purpose of ATP is to help successful corporations make better use of new technologies. In reality, it's become a welfare trough where well-connected oinkers like Dupont, General Electric and Xerox dine. A 2001 government report concluded that the majority of ATP grants analyzed "showed little or no further direct progress toward commercialization."

The other two programs are no better. MEP gives handouts to manufacturing companies, and TOP gives networking-related cash to both nonprofits and corporations. How can $578,000 to Lingo Corp. to help it provide "cost-effective translation services" be anything other than corporate welfare? How about handing $148,788 to MBS Media to decrease its "time to value ratio" of network security products?

Beyond political influence-peddling by corporate porkers, a second problem with tech-related corporate welfare is that it places the Feds in the position of choosing between winners and losers. Sure, sometimes the government picks a winner. But there are far more losers, such as Japan's government-sponsored Fifth Generation computer project--an idea that seemed enticing at the time but completely missed the Internet. TRON, the Japanese government's attempt to leapfrog Motorola and Intel in microprocessors, is another example of an embarrassing debacle.

Kerry's affection for tech-related corporate welfare shouldn't be overstated. True, Bush may not care for three Commerce Department programs, but the president has hardly taken a meat ax to the remaining $93 billion of corporate welfare in the federal budget. If either presidential candidate had the gumption to slice that out, each U.S. household could receive $860 a year back in taxes. But that might mean offending campaign contributors from both major parties.

It's much safer to give speeches about how much you truly appreciate broadband technology.