What's the Big Idea?

If a new economy calls for new kinds of social responsibility -- for "civic entrepreneurship" -- then what would it do differently? Here are a few bright ideas volunteered by observers of the local tech community:

Brigid Shea:

Tax Yourselves

"I would propose to the high-tech community that they find an equitable way to tax their Internet transactions, and then devote a significant portion of that revenue to the public schools in Texas, so we can have better-educated children. They directly benefit on their No. 1 need -- a skilled workforce -- and tackle head-on an incredibly thorny equity question.

"I can guarantee you that people like Wal-Mart and the other retailers who do pay sales tax will be on the warpath against the tech folks, insisting they pay their fair share. My advice would be: 'You guys are smart. Figure out an equitable mechanism for taxing yourself, so it's not fragmented and double-dipped by numerous jurisdictions, and make sure that a big part of it goes straight into education.' What a boom for the country and for these companies! It would be the most substantial investment in public education since the creation of the public schools."

Gary Chapman:

Build a Training Center

"The tech industry should be exploring ways to develop local talent, especially outside the conventional educational system, or through parallel kinds of programs -- "skunkworks" that can be independent of the educational bureaucracy. I think it would be great for all the tech companies to get together and fund and build a training facility for Linux system administrators and programmers in East Austin. Make it accessible, cheap or free, state-of-the-art, and like the workplace of a hot tech company.

"It would be a showcase for the city and the region, and a fun and possibly revolutionary experiment. What if Austin were to become the leading producer of young African-American and Hispanic Linux geeks? We'd be the envy of the nation, of the world, and the high-tech industry would be getting the kind of people it needs to run its computers. This is something we should start tomorrow."

Steve Tomlinson:

Allocate Resources

"Information technology is serving the forces of social responsibility by rendering more and more transparent the connections among the different objectives people have with respect to business. It's becoming easier to see that high profit from investment ventures comes with external costs -- pollution, traffic congestion, and such -- that are dumped on us at large. Technology makes it easier to not only assess but price those costs.

"As an economist, I'm horrified by the way we allocate something as important as transportation mobility in Austin. If we allocated ice cream the way we allocate transportation capacity, we'd never have any ice cream. And information technology can make it possible to allocate those resources more efficiently. I can see the tech community sponsoring the pricing of MoPac, developing the technology, running an experiment." [What Tomlinson is talking about is "congestion pricing" -- where you pay, or pay more, to drive on roads during peak hours.] "The more we get technology-driven markets for things like road capacity, the more we'll be creating tremendous social value. And once MoPac is priced and our roads work again, we can decide how to share that benefit, by investing the money we collect elsewhere. But our politicians don't understand this is possible. The tech community does.

"And I hope that technology can show us the faces of the people who are affected by the decisions we make." [This was a central point in Tomlinson's hit monologue Millennium Bug.] "Money connects people without community, and technology has the capacity to show us your neighbor's face in a way that catalyzes some conscience."

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