ASEE PRISM - September 2000
Campaign 2000
Tussle Over Technology

By Kenneth T. Walsh

Kenneth T. WalshIf there's anything that George W. Bush and Al Gore share, it's the desire to use their oft-stated support for technology to prove their bona fides as futurists.

Gore is better versed in the high-tech world than Bush: He has spent many years dealing with such issues in Congress and as vice president, and his advocacy of science and technology has been well documented throughout the nearly eight years of the Clinton administration. But the Texas governor isn't leaving the field open to his opponent. He has announced a variety of his own initiatives to flesh out his views and to show he is not locked into the old economic order symbolized by his background as a Texas oilman.

Both men find themselves today competing to prove they are High Tech's best friend, and it's not just a gambit to bring in millions of dollars in contributions from high-tech entrepreneurs. That's certainly part of their motivation, but let's give them some credit for being on the right side of history this time.

Illustration by Tim RickardTrue to their rhetoric, Gore and Bush genuinely want to encourage the high-tech industry as one of the main engines of prosperity, and their overall philosophies in that regard are quite similar. Each wants the federal government to keep hands off the high-tech industry as much as possible, so Uncle Sam doesn't kill the goose that's been laying the golden eggs.

Gore told The Wall Street Journal that his philosophy about government's role is, "First of all, do no harm.'' He added that "If the government is going to finance the research, it needs to finance a focused effort to explore the ethical and legal and social implications,'' but he has said repeatedly that, as a New Democrat, he opposes heavy-handed regulation.

Similarly, Bush argued that "The overall guide ought to be to recognize that entrepreneurship happens without government. The government ought to be trying to create an environment that creates the flow of capital. The role of government is not to interfere. The role of government is to lay the groundwork.'' As president, each man says he would use government to protect personal privacy on the Internet, and each wants to reduce the "digital divide'' between those who have access to new information technology and those who don't. Both also favor federal tax credits for research and development.

But there are important differences between the two candidates. Republican Bush argues that government shouldn't be too hasty in attempting to close the digital divide, because technology could change so rapidly in the next few years that current problems might be solved by technology itself. Wireless technology, he suggests, could automatically improve access for the poor or for those in remote geographic areas.

Democrat Gore is more aggressive in looking for government solutions to reduce digital inequality. Gore, for example, supports an "E-rate'' charge on telephone bills to collect an estimated $2.25 billion a year so schools and libraries can buy Internet technology. In general, Gore is willing to use government millions to promote high-tech research and create information-age jobs.

Another divergence is how they approach the New Economy. Bush favors extending the moratorium on Internet sales taxation "at least through 2004,'' to give the market time to evolve and let policymakers evaluate the new dynamic. Gore favors a moratorium of only two years, which, he argues, would increase pressure on Congress, the states, and Internet entrepreneurs to figure out whether or how best to collect sales or other taxes on Internet transactions.

On genetics research, Bush would continue current bans on federal funding for embryonic stem-cell research, arguing that human embryos must be killed to obtain the cells--which could be considered a form of abortion. Gore would pursue Clinton administration attempts to lift the prohibition imposed by Congress and let federal researchers use stem cells obtained by privately funded researchers. He says the health benefits outweigh other factors because such genetic research could lead to ways of curing diabetes, Alzheimer's disease, replacing damaged cells, and healing spinal cord injuries. And Gore thinks government should play a special role in setting ethical standards for using new technology, which Bush is leery of.

Bush, however, wants to create an information czar of sorts to prod federal bureaucrats to update their technology as a matter of routine. Gore wouldn't go that far, in deference to public-employee unions that fear worker rights might be trampled by Bush's arrangement.

What's clear from all this is that the old cliches about the two parties no longer apply when it comes to the digital world. Bush is a conservative but not a laissez-faire right-winger, and Gore is a progressive but hardly an over-regulating, meddlesome lefty. Their views defy orthodoxy--and that, after all, is what high-tech entrepreneurship is all about.

    Kenneth T. Walsh is senior White House
    correspondent for U.S. News & World Report.