Kausfiles Special

Special XP-ation Edition!

Who fact-checked the checks? The phrase “Tax relief for America’s workers” is printed on the face of 91 million rebate checks currently being mailed out by the IRS. When Democrats criticized this as political sloganeering, a Treasury spokesman defended it in the New York Times on informational grounds–it was, he said, “an appropriate explanation of the checks’ purpose so recipients can distinguish this from other federal payments” such as Social Security checks and individual refunds.

Put aside for a moment the question of whether the checks could have been identified without using focus-grouped hot-words like “America’s workers.” (The words “tax relief” alone sufficiently explain the checks–the others are cheerleaders.) Put aside whether the Bush administration has broken new ground in cheapening formerly dignified communications between the IRS and taxpayers.

There’s a simpler point: The slogan is not informative; it’s false. The rebate checks don’t go to “workers,” as that term is commonly understood (i.e., people who get their income through their labor). The checks go to anyone who paid sufficient taxes on income, whether that income was payment for long hours of hard work or interest on a passive investment inherited from a distant uncle.

I’m not being petty or radically left here. The distinction between work and non-work–and between work and mere coupon-clipping–is at the heart of one of those other check-mailing programs, Social Security. Social Security taxes are explicitly levied on earnings from work, but not on investment income. If you don’t work and instead clip coupons all your life, you don’t get Social Security–just as if you don’t work and collect welfare all your life, you don’t get Social Security. That’s one reason Social Security is so popular–it really is a program “for America’s workers.”

That phrase– “for America’s workers”–on the current tax rebate checks doesn’t distinguish the rebate from Social Security–it confuses the rebate with Social Security. It adds nothing except a deception.

Bangers and trash: An alert kausfiles reader, H.L., emails with a thought about what caused the mysterious and potentially lucrative blocking of the kausfiles.com home page by America Online’s anti-pornography filter. Her theory: It’s all the exclamation points! … Excellent hypothesis! It seems so obvious! I haven’t been to many porn sites, but I bet they’ve got a lot of those things! …

Tentative, hypothetical, merely suggestive update: I think I failed to draw out all the implications of a previous item suggesting that the October release of Microsoft’s Windows XP, by triggering demand for computers and associated tech gadgetry, will shift the economy from stagnation into growth. If this is true, it implies that Microsoft (which owns Slate) has a special, and perhaps unprecedented, sort of economic power–and may require a special sort of antitrust oversight.

The current government lawsuit against Microsoft, as I understand it, focuses (like most antitrust suits) on whether the company has a monopoly in a specific market–or in Microsoft’s case, whether it is trying to use a monopoly in one market to dominate another market. But if releasing a new version of Windows can make the difference between growth and recession, Microsoft has more than power in one market. It has power over the entire economy, by virtue of its control of a key new technology–a technology so key that its deployment, or non-deployment, has a major effect on the country’s overall demand for goods and services.

This is less ominous than it sounds, since it’s not clear–especially in the current situation–that Microsoft has an interest in doing anything, with respect to the overall economy, that the government shouldn’t want it to do. (In the current case, it has an interest in getting a bug-free version of Windows XP to market as soon as it can, which is what those interested in renewed economic growth also should want.) And I’m not saying the government should run big computer companies.

Still. … Doesn’t Microsoft’s unusual position call for at least some government oversight? I don’t think even General Motors at its peak had this sort of power. If, in 1950, GM had decided to delay the introduction of a new model, customers would have still bought the old model, which would still get them where they needed to go. Consumer demand would have weakened, but persisted. There would still have been cars and roads–and other firms in other industries could have confidently designed products to run on those cars and roads. But Windows XP may change the whole structure of the Internet (the highway system of cyberspace, we’re told) and the products and services people design to use it. It may make the old version of Windows obsolete (and collapse demand for it) in a way the 1951 Chevy didn’t make the 1950 Chevy obsolete.

Microsoft’s self-interest is not necessarily congruent with the interests of everyone affected by the health of the economy. It’s at least possible that one day the firm may use its monopoly position in ways the government might be well-advised to resist in the name of overall growth (rather than in the name of the traditional antitrust goal of lowering prices in one market). Suppose, for example, that Windows XP was ready to go, but Microsoft decided to delay it for 6 months so it could somehow package it with some new office productivity software. And suppose that delay meant 6 more months of recession, and budget deficits, and high unemployment, etc. At some point, even discounting for the general inability of governments to predict the economic future, there would be grounds for some sort of federal intervention, no? Not to preserve competition for consumers in the office software market, but to preserve the rising tide of growth across all markets.

Just a thought!