Though McCain supports many of the same goals as Obama, his technology platform is less detailed, and the remedies he proposes often amount to offering encouragement rather than direct government action.
Innovation: McCain offers his general tax policy, including first-year expensing for equipment purchases and a tax credit equal to ten percent of R&D wages, as well as his nearly unconditional support for free trade as the chief ways to drive innovation. He'd protect innovators by bulking up the Patent and Trademark Office and providing alternative resolutions for patent challenges at home while pressing for international agreements that enforce intellectual property rights. McCain warns, however, that "too much protection can stifle the proliferation of important ideas and can impair legitimate commerce in new products." McCain supports funding for math and science education and increasing the number of H-1B visas available for immigrants with specialized skills.
Broadband Access: McCain would offer incentives for private companies or public-private partnerships to deliver broadband technology to areas of the country that don't have it, including tax credits to subsidize service to low-income customers. Failing that, "local governments should be able to invest in their own future by building out infrastructure to provide high-speed Internet services."
The Internet, privacy, and security: McCain opposes taxes on e-commerce and wireless communications. He has said he doesn't "want to see the wealthiest and most powerful entrant into the Internet crowd out the independents" responsible for the Web's "strength and vitality." But he also believes, as PCmag.com reports, that "when you control the pipe, you should be able to get profit from your investment," and the technology position paper the campaign published in August opposes net neutrality. He does support laws to punish fraud, reduce spam, and protect children from harmful content. He would protect online privacy and security by "vigilantly enforcing" existing laws, as well as by favoring education initiatives and incentives for companies developing secure technologies. He has not offered any proposals to check the government's use of data collection.
Open government: McCain supports making government services and information available online.
The McCain record: McCain has a long record of sponsoring or co-sponsoring legislation to protect children from harmful content and consumers from fraud and intrusion. On the other hand, his record for actually using technology is much more limited. McCain has acknowledged his discomfort, or at least ambivalence, with the gadgets that most Americans take for granted, and his campaign has been far less ambitious than his rival's in harnessing the power of the Internet and wireless communication to raise money and mobilize supporters. Nor has the candidate been particularly rigorous in upholding the intellectual property standards he might demand of, say, China: Just hours after publishing its technology platform, the McCain campaign was sued by pop singer Jackson Browne, who claimed the Republican had used his song "Running On Empty" in an ad without permission. It was at least the fourth time the McCain campaign has been accused of using copyrighted material without consent.
Trolling the Internet, it seems that a preponderance of thoughtful spokespeople for the tech revolution support Obama. That should come as no surprise, according to Rob Atkinson, president of the scrupulously nonpartisan Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, a Washington-based think-tank. Conservatives traditionally have placed less importance on technology than liberals, says Atkinson. Then, too, "Obama has actually said more about it, and devoted more time to it."
But Atkinson believes the choice is not so clear-cut. For one thing, he argues that net neutrality is way overblown, even when it comes to tiered pricing arrangements that give some websites faster speeds than others. "It's possible that small businesses could be a little worse off, but I don't think it's as dire as some people make it out to be," says Atkinson. "And broadband speeds are getting faster now, so it will become a moot issue pretty soon." McCain, too, has good ideas for spurring innovation -- his R&D tax credit, says Atkinson, is about 50 percent more generous than the current version that Obama would extend, while his one-year expensing policy will encourage firms to make the big leaps. "The major way that companies adopt new technologies and innovations is through equipment purchases. When they modernize, they're becoming more innovative."
Yet Obama's proposal to double federal science funding is just as critical, according to Atkinson. "Seventy-seven out of 88 important innovations in 2006 had some federal involvement," he says. "That does suggest that having a robust federal research enterprise is important to small business innovation." However, while total R&D investment as a share of GDP has increased in other countries since at least 1991, it has remained flat in the U.S., and the government's share has fallen.
Expanding broadband access to rural areas and providing service to low-income households is crucial to developing our economy, according to Atkinson. It empowers consumers, improves productivity for businesses, and fosters stronger economic growth -- including more start-ups -- for the communities that have it. However, we lag behind other developed nations in broadband penetration: the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development ranks the U.S. 19th, while the ITIF puts us 15th. Atkinson believes that the market McCain would rely on to expand broadband has failed, and despite the Republican's proposed initiatives, "I think Obama is probably more committed to serving low income and rural people with broadband."
Most experts believe that on balance trade has delivered much more good than harm to the U.S. and thus favor McCain's stance on trade. Still, some question the free trade agreements that have proliferated in recent years. Writing in the World Policy Journal, journalist Paul Blustein claims the bilateral deals are usually oversold: Their benefits are likely to be modest, because trade barriers are for the most part already pretty low, and, more importantly, the extensive rules of origin add needless complexity. "Partly for this reason," he writes, "only about five percent of the goods Singapore ships to the United States come in under the terms of the U.S.-Singapore Free Trade Agreement." In the case of Colombia, even if U.S. exports to the South American nation somehow were to double in the year after a trade agreement was approved, he notes, it still "would add less than .07 of 1 percent to the U.S. gross domestic product." Worse, he concludes, these pacts undermine the World Trade Organization, which is a better and fairer avenue for trade.
On the other hand, it's much easier in bilateral talks to negotiate a meaningful agreement on corollary issues like intellectual property rules and food safety standards -- or labor and environmental protections. According to Lael Brainard, a vice president at the independent Brookings Institution (where Blustein is a journalist in residence), the provisions that Barack Obama wants to strengthen are a "natural fit" in modern trade deals. Trade pacts "are not just about tariffs any more," she says. "They have come to encompass deep reforms of economic integration." Still, Brainard says trade agreements can only do so much. "We have to think more broadly about how we engage with developing countries on economic integration. Our primary instrument can't be a trade agreement."
Both McCain and, with a little more specificity, Obama promise vigilance when it comes to protecting U.S. trading interests. Brainard says that's a shift from current policy. "It was a big priority in the Bush Administration to get new agreements, but it was just not a priority to enforce -- there was a big diminution in the enforcement." The Bush Administration typically brings three cases to the WTO annually, she says, far fewer than the 11 cases the Clinton Administration normally pursued each year. (Given the growth in trade, and trading partners, Brainard estimates that Clintonian aggressiveness today would result in 17 complaints a year.)
Dislocated workers. Though McCain has not detailed his unemployment insurance and retraining reforms, what little he has said suggests that they would be much less generous than the present Trade Adjustment Assistance program. Trade Adjustment Assistance offers up to two-and-a-half years of training, and income support while workers are enrolled.
On the other hand, the efforts to blunt trade's sharp edge have a mixed record. The Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress, has concluded, in a string of reports dating back to the 1970s, that Trade Adjustment Assistance has often failed to deliver training to dislocated workers, for a variety of reasons. Even today, says Brainard, it's administered with indifference: a large number of workers are disqualified from participation, while only a small portion of those eligible actually obtain services. (In 2007, for instance, 77 percent of the workers who petitioned received certification; of these, only about a third entered training, and slightly fewer collected income support.) Often, they say, states lack the resources to provide training to everyone who wants it.
Obama's reforms would address some of these concerns, but as conservative critics point out, a larger question still looms: Does trade adjustment training help workers find higher-paying new jobs? There's no way to know -- this specific program has never been studied. The most Brainard can say is that there are "broader studies that show that training programs under certain circumstances are associated with modest improvements in earnings." And Brainard argues that worker retraining is only part of solution. The current program has a community assistance component, she says, but it's very small. Yet "the community or the regional affect is hugely important. You need to have leaders of the community come together and figure out how to reorient themselves in the global landscape, which needs special help at these critical junctures."