"When should a public company take a position on a broader social issue, and when should it not?"
That's the question Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer asked himself this week after reports surfaced that a proposed Christian boycott prompted the company's refusal to support a statewide bill in Washington barring discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.
Long a champion of the homosexual agenda, Redmond, Wash.-based Microsoft was criticized by gay-rights advocates for dropping its support for a statewide measure that ultimately failed by one vote.
The issue gained national prominence when The New York Times quoted Ken Hutcherson of nearby Antioch Bible Church saying Microsoft "backed off" after the pastor threatened to organize a national boycott of Microsoft products at a meeting in February.
"If you don't think the moral issue is not a big issue, just count the amount of votes that were cast on moral issues in the last election," Mr. Hutcherson said he told company officials at the time. "A lot of Christians would have joined me, but it would have been a lot more people, too."
The L.A. Gay and Lesbian Center was so outraged by the idea that Microsoft bowed to conservatives that it asked for a civil-rights award presented to the company four years ago to be returned.
In an e-mail response to employees, Mr. Ballmer said he and Microsoft founder Bill Gates personally supported the legislation, but didn't believe the company had the right to offend shareholders and employees who did not agree with their position.
"We are a public corporation with a duty first and foremost to a broad group of shareholders," he said. "I don't want the company to be in the position of appearing to dismiss the deeply-held beliefs of any employee, by picking sides on social policy issues."
Deciphering the code
The Internal Revenue Service estimates that Americans spent 6.6 billion hours preparing their taxes this year. Does that mean current tax laws are a bit too complex? A presidential commission thinks so.
Instead of simply raising revenues to fund government, the tax code also uses numerous deductions and credits to affect behavior, argues President Bush's Advisory Panel on Federal Tax Reform.
"It wasn't until we really had the opportunity to listen to so many different people talk about so many different aspects of the code that it really sunk in about how much and how often the code is being used these days to either create incentives or disincentives for either investment or behavior," said former U.S. Sen. Connie Mack (R-Fla.), who chairs the nine-member commission.
In addition to large tax breaks for homeowners, parents of college students, and businesses that provide health insurance to their employees, there are also smaller credits for encouraging the use of biodiesel fuel, helping the elderly and disabled, and allowing teachers to deduct the cost of school supplies.
The problem comes when taxpayers try to decipher the rules. Tax breaks often overlap and typically come with pages of instructions and qualifications.
This summer, the panel plans to recommend ways to make the tax laws simpler and fairer. But Mr. Mack isn't sure taxpayers will accept any changes. "Anytime you've got a benefit, wherever it happens to be, whether it's spending or taxes, people don't want to give them up," he said.
· ManiaTV.com, a 24-hour online version of MTV aimed at college students and 20-somethings, topped 1 million viewers earlier this year, and 35-year-old founder Drew Massey said he expects the company to turn a profit in 12 months. "The whole mission is to do with internet TV what Ted Turner did with cable," said Mr. Massey.
· General Motors is recalling nearly 1.5 million SUVs and pickup trucks because of seat-belt design flaws. Among the vehicles affected are the Chevrolet Silverado Crew Cab, Suburban, Tahoe, Cadillac Escalade, GMC Sierra Crew Cab, Yukon, and the Hummer H2.
· While the sales of existing homes and condominiums rose 1 percent in March, the median sales price for a home is up 11.4 percent from a year ago to $195,000. That represents the biggest year-over-year gain since December 1980 when surging inflation pushed home prices upward.
· Boeing received a boost when Air Canada announced plans to purchase as many as 96 of the company's 777 and 787 planes. Included in the deal are as many as 60 of Boeing's new fuel-efficient Dreamliner model, which is set to debut in 2008.