Slate and the Industry Standard join forces to examine the effect of the Internet on Campaign 2000.
This week, the Bush campaign might have hit a key Net Election milestone without realizing it. Instead of putting up a Web site to promote a candidate, Bush actually went out on the campaign trail to promote a specific page on his Web site. And within hours, the Democratic National Committee posted a separate Web site designed to refute Bush's.
Campaigning on Internet time has finally arrived.
Capitalizing on the bottomless frustration with taxes that Americans feel in mid-April, Bush appeared at campaign stops in Arkansas and Michigan with a computer featuring his Web site's "tax calculator." The calculator (which is available in English and Spanish) purports to show how Bush's proposed tax plan "helps working Americans." Users enter their annual income, filing status, and percentage of income from a second earner, and then a database calculator spits out a tax-cut number. A married couple that makes $80,000 a year (25 percent from a "second earner") and that has two children would, the calculator claims, save $2,662 under Bush's plan.
The notion of an online tax calculator is not new. House Majority Leader Dick Armey has offered a flat-tax calculator since at least 1998, and it was also a staple of Steve Forbes' now-defunct Web site.
What is new, however, is that the Web-based tax calculator has grabbed center stage in a presidential debate. In some of this campaign's first intensive use of mass-used Internet advertising, the Bush camp last week bought banner ads on Yahoo! that read, "How much will the Bush tax cut save you?" And the campaign also sent out a widespread e-mail, promoting both the calculator and a series of charts displaying the supposed virtues of Bush's tax plan.
Indeed, given the lull in presidential coverage in the traditional media, the current "debate" over tax policy is taking place almost exclusively online. The online tax calculator is not just a reference to a debate between candidates—for the moment, it is the debate.
Consider the Democrats' response. On Monday afternoon, they launched a site called MillionairesforBush.com, featuring a chubby, cigar-puffing feline in a three-piece suit. "Let's say you're a millionaire who has raised megabucks for George W. Bush's presidential campaign," the satirical site says. "Like everyone else, you want to know, 'What's in it for me?' "
But, the site points out, the calculator on Bush's site only goes up to $100,000 a year. How is a family on the very top rungs of the income ladder to know how much they would save?
Not to worry: The Millionaires for Bush site begins with salaries of $1 million and then goes up. A married couple making $2 million in household income would, according to the Democrats, keep an extra $109,550 under Bush's tax plan. (The DNC said it was unable to provide a specific traffic figure for the parody site; however, it said that about a third of visitors to the DNC main site had clicked on it.)
The online tax "debate" has some peculiar qualities. The ability of voters to "create" their own tax cut online is, potentially, quite potent. And the use of e-mailed charts and online databases allows for more detailed numerical arguments than are usually possible, say, in a televised debate.
At the same time, because televised debates happen in real time, supporters of both candidates are likely to tune in. At least for now, the people who visit Bush's Web site are unlikely to go to Millionaires for Bush, and vice versa. This means that the sites might energize supporters, but they won't make many converts.
And even if millions of people eventually log on, enlightenment might not follow. As with any form of advertising or marketing that eliminates the middleman between pitch and consumer, this development is something of a mixed blessing. Tax policy is a classic hot-button issue that lends itself to exaggeration: positive, negative, large, and small. One of the charts e-mailed by the Bush campaign, for example, purports to show "Income Tax as a Percent of GDP" under a hypothetical Bush or Gore administration. The figures extend into 2006, which should make any knowledgeable person laugh: Economists have had difficulty predicting the size of GDP even one year in advance.
Similarly, the Millionaires for Bush site has a "salary/wages" list that starts at $1 million, goes through $25 million, through $100 million, and ends up at $1 billion a year. (According to the site, that family would save $59,390,750.)
Sure, the site is satire, but there's something wrong. More and more billionaires are being created, but absolutely no one in the United States makes $1 billion a year in salary. It's doubtful that anyone, anywhere, makes $100 million a year in salary. According to Forbes' list of the most highly compensated CEOs, only one American CEO—Jack Welch of General Electric—makes even $10 million a year in salary.
This doesn't mean the cats aren't fat: CEOs and others can indeed make tens of millions or sometimes even billions in a single year, but that's almost exclusively through stock transactions, not salary. Those transactions are taxed in ways that are far too complicated to include in such a crude calculator.
This flaw in the Democrats' countercalculator actually underscores a profound economic truth: The American tax structure could arguably be far more equitable if it found a way to tax wealth rather than income. The reality, though, is that neither major political party is likely to put a wealth tax on its platform any time soon. Even the most radical Democratic presidential candidate to gain any traction in the past decade—Jerry Brown—advocated a flat-rate income tax, not a wealth tax.
It's certainly not the Internet's fault that such online numbers distort more than they inform: Democrats and Republicans have been twisting tax numbers for decades. But the unique alchemy of partisan politics and technology raises an important question. As more and more Americans inform themselves through such unmediated online "debates," who are they going to believe? Some tax dweeb on television—or the Web site where they can make the figures for themselves?