Obama v Romney: which candidate would be better for tech start-ups?

By Alexander Hotz | The Guardian

The request of New York's tech community, both presidential candidates explained how their policies would help start-up firms

THE GUARDIAN - Mitt Romney and Barack Obama explained how their policies would help the nation's tech start-ups in separate letters published Tuesday. The missives were sent to New York Tech Meetup (NYTM), the city's biggest tech start-up trade association, in response to the group's requests for clarification on the candidates' positions.

While NYTM asked the candidates how their policies would help New York City's burgeoning start-up sector, the two responses are hardly city or region specific, and could be seen as blueprints for how Obama and Romney might treat tech start-ups nationally.

The Republican candidate argued for deregulation, improving education and increasing research, though he declined to give any specifics. Where he did provide details was in his immigration, intellectual property and tax policies.

Romney said he would raise visa caps for highly skilled workers and offer permanent residence to foreign students graduating with "advanced degrees in relevant fields". He also said he would aggressively target intellectual property theft abroad and create a "Reagan Economic Zone encompassing nations committed to the principles of free enterprise". Finally, he pledged to lower the corporate taxes rate to 25%.

Romney also attacked the president for what he sees as Obama's use of federal funds.

"President Obama's misguided attempts to play the role of venture capitalist, pick winners and losers, and spend tens of billions of dollars on politically-prioritized investments have been a disaster for the American taxpayer," Romney wrote.

Some critics said Romney's response seemed generic and not necessarily targeted at tech start-ups, but businesses in general. The former Massachusetts governor notably avoided net neutrality, an issue of fundamental importance to many techies. Romney previously stated that he was not in favor of net neutrality or internet regulation that curtails network owners from interfering with users' internet content and services.

"Romney seems to be against all regulation except of the sort that he likes," said David Weinberger, the co-director of Harvard's Library Innovation Laboratory. "The internet is the fuel of innovation and start-ups do far better when there's broad access to the internet."

Obama, on the other hand, seemed to better understand his audience. The president's letter reaffirmed his position in favor of an open internet (pro-net neutrality) and reviewed his accomplishments of the past four years.

In addition to creating the nation's Chief Technology Officer position (the first CTO, Todd Park spoke at NYTM's most recent meetup), Obama listed several of his initiatives to spur start-up growth like the Presidential Innovation Fellowship and Start-up America Partnership. In his letter he also stressed that his patent and healthcare reforms will be a boon to tech start-ups.

The fact that both Romney and Obama even returned the letters perhaps says more than the content. New York City's Silicon Alley has expanded rapidly in the past few years thanks to an influx of entrepreneurs and venture capital investment. According to NYTM's Chairman Andrew Rasiej, the organization currently has about 28,000 members and is growing rapidly with about 250 new members every week. Despite this new attention Rasiej said that the group would not be endorsing either candidate or take positions on election issues.

That's not to say that NYTM doesn't have an agenda. "We have one of the largest problems getting developer talent," said Rasiej."There's like zero percent unemployment in that industry in New York so we're focused on education, teaching science and math in schools."

Both candidates mentioned education in their letters. Romney said he was concerned with the increasing cost of K-12 and university education, while the president wrote he wanted to hire more educators.

New York also suffers from a lack of bandwidth, so for many entrepreneurs issues of infrastructure are important. While president Obama mentioned improving broadband and IT infrastructure, governor Romney did not.

Like other issues in this election, the two candidates' perspectives on how to help tech start-ups seem to boil down to how they view government. Obama wants to use the government to spur private-sector growth, but Romney would rather leave the market to itself.

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