Maybe a ‘Robot Tax’ Won’t Save Jobs

Maybe a “robot tax” is a bad idea.

In a video interview with Quartz in late February, Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates suggested a tax on any robots that replace humans in the workplace. That tariff, in turn, could help offset the human costs of a societal transition to automation. “If a robot comes in to do the same thing, you’d think that we’d tax the robot at a similar level,” he said.

But others disagree with this idea. In a recent op-ed in The Washington Post, former U.S. Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers (who also served as an economic advisor to President Obama) suggested that robotics aren’t the right target for such a tax.

“Does Gates think anyone, let alone Congress, the Trump administration or a commission composed of his fellow technocrats, can distinguish labor-saving activities from labor-enhancing ones?” Summers wrote. “Surely even if experts could draw such distinctions, the ability of the Internal Revenue Service to administer them is in doubt.”

Automation has changed the world for decades, Summers went on to argue; much of it has resulted in gains in productivity and safety. A tax might risk choking off innovation, essentially becoming “protectionism against progress.”

Automation and robotics have been systematically replacing human workers for years. One recent analysis by Ball State University’s Center for Business and Economic Research (PDF) found that 88 percent of job losses in manufacturing “can be attributable to productivity growth, and the long-term changes to manufacturing employment are mostly linked to the productivity of American factories.” That productivity is driven by machines stronger, faster, and more precise than human beings.

But as machine learning and artificial intelligence grow more sophisticated, a growing number of professions are potentially in automation’s sights. Trucker drivers, for example, may find themselves in the midst of an existential crisis over the next few years, should autonomous vehicles begin taking over long-haul shipping. The healthcare industry already has A.I. and robots performing tasks ranging from surgery to diagnostics. Even tech pros aren’t immune: pundits have predicted for years that software will eventually take over software coding from humans.

The next few years, in other words, may see an intensifying debate over the impact of automation on all levels of the professional world. Will a “robot” tax be part of that discussion?

11 Responses to “Maybe a ‘Robot Tax’ Won’t Save Jobs”

  1. “Easy” is a relative notion when considering wether or not there are easy reconciliations to automating our workforce… our world….

    Afterall, this movement is the realization of the utopia once sold to us as students – that one day our lives would look less like hopeless insipid plight of indentured servitude, and more like a flourishing cultural endeavor where everyone would be nutured to full potential of their own making and desire… costs of goods and living would go down, the burden of mundane, unsafe, unhealthy work would be shifted to automation, and we as a populace would be able to educate, optimize our health, and pusue loftier humane challenges while being further nurished, along with our environement protected, and more happiness and success manifested.

    That is, if you are not inclined to practice schadenfreude… because largely we were suckered on such a dream, but not becuase it’s not possible, but greed and apapthy of a few among us keep us from even attempting to move in a better direction. Perfection is not the end game, ever, but it is a direction to pursue, always.

    So isn’t this really an ethics question? Are we willing to accept our future for the masses, reaping the benefits of machines to beneift all people, or will we continue to regress to robber-baron-like fascism, allowing a few to gorge on absurd amounts of wealth, while the majority of humanity rots in the streets suffering in squalor? Questions of population can be entertained in a better, more ethical manner then letting poverty exact it’s toll with such indifference… plenty of evidence suggests a more affluent society reproduces less and equalizes with balance versus resources, let alone, we can plan to make this a reality, ethically.

    It’s easy to imagine the posbilitis, as it was seditiousky sold to us so easily in much the same manner, not too long ago… it’s easy to have the conversation, to brainstorm on all the potential machines could bring to our lives… from Disney’s Epcot 80’s style, to World’s Fair-like Tomorrowland exhibits, we have been deluding ouselves on this dream for over a century – industrial age opiates inebriating the populace on the potentials of a better life for everyone – all life – our planet.

    It’s been nothng but exploited as One. Big. Con. After another….

    …pepretrated by a few that would rather subjugate others instead of nurture all.

    It’s easy until we manifest the political will to get beyond petulant notions superior classes of people, righteouness of particular religions, values of levels of intellect… or whatever arbitrary line of measurement one would levy to excuse themselves from caring for and nuturing someone, or something else.

    Quibliing about a tax misses the point entirely.

  2. It is so easy to call an idea to be a bad one without offering any solution to the problem that idea is trying to address. No point criticizing if you having nothing to offer.

  3. Tom Pick

    The basic rule of economics and taxation is: tax what you want less of, subsidize what you want more of. That is, for example, why education is subsidized while tobacco use is heavily taxed.

    Robots and other forms of automation increase productivity. Increased productivity is the foundation of increasing total societal wealth. Taxing robots is therefore one of the stupidest ideas imaginable.

    Encourage automation. In the short term, provide relocation and retraining assistance for displaced workers. In the longer term, our society may have to face bigger decisions about wealth redistribution. But if that’s going to be the case, then let’s at least maximize the amount of wealth available to redistribute. That means more robots–not a wealth-reducing robot tax.

  4. Cue Bob Dylan, “Oh the times, they are a changinnn”

    I’m sorry your job can be done better by a computer program. Eventually more of them will, too. Only changes that embrace this new technology make sense. Trying to solve this using capitalist solutions is kind of like trying to pull screws out with a claw hammer. It’s a clumsy and potentially harmful interaction, and maybe you should embrace the usefulness of screws and not try and treat them like nails.

    And by all means, if a main aspect of your job is doing simple mental tasks, you should learn a trade or a hard science or an art and do it quick. Your factory/desk job will be done more efficiently by a machine that won’t call in sick, doesn’t need pay, doesn’t take lunch and doesn’t need to sleep, with the exception of a 2 minute reboot for maintenance every week or two. Also, your boss will be replaced by a programmer.

  5. Don Joe

    Well isn’t that rich: Bill Gates, of all people, wants onerous luddite taxes to hamstring the evolution of the industry he helped create. He made his billions, and is happy to pull up the ladder behind him away from the tycoons of the future.

    Want to do something about massive job loss due to automation? Start having serious conversations about Universal Basic Income. There is no fundamental law of nature for the majority of mankind of be engaged in year-round full week labor in order to live. We have an opportunity to usher in great abundance and human happiness through our ingenuity.

  6. Eric in Sacramento

    Should we have paid manual laborers for NOT working when tractors, threshers, etc. were invented? I don’t want to pay somebody a full-time salary, benefits, and retirement if all they do is empty out my garbage can–I’d rather a robot do it. I don’t want to pay a “living wage” to somebody who mindlessly executes some position for years. Those positions shouldn’t exist. I want a robot to empty my garbage can, cut my hair, clean my teeth, and, one day, replace my burst appendix. None of these robots eliminate the need for human intelligence, they just remove the “mindless execution.” I don’t want Americans mindlessly executing anything, in fact! I have no degree but have come a long way, and I resent that even now, on the downhill slide to 50, that I still study like a college student while many others earn half what I do while producing considerably less than half what I do. I don’t expect everybody to be like me, but the whole concept of the individual seems to be lost in this conversation. We all take responsibility for living in society–American society, a tought one!–and that means learning some valuable skill and learning to apply it. Truck drivers are not immune to change, just like I’m not immune in my position as a software developer. Imminent oncoming change is what has propelled America forward all these years and you won’t hear me complain one bit. America is not a welfare state and I hope it never becomes one.

  7. In the long run, a robot tax will not save many jobs. But, in the short term, applying some form of limited financial penalty to companies that replace their employees with automation may have some benefits. First, it would serve to moderate the pace of automation adaptation, so we wouldn’t have everyone in a given industry displaced all at once. Second, it would provide a source of funding for the re-training/re-direction of workers displaced by automation. In short, yes, robots are going to replace many mid-level knowledge worker jobs, that can’t be stopped. The real question is how we will manage this transition — should it be abrupt and uncontrolled, throwing millions of people out of work all at once, or should we use controls, like a “robot tax” to smooth out the process and give people time to adjust?

  8. Alberto Villacorta

    The proposed robot taxes aren’t meant to save jobs. Robots are coming to almost every major industry. So how will we take care of the citizens that are left jobless by these robots while society figures out how to retool/educate the workforce to jobs that are still needed? The tax would seek to provide education/health and living services, and THAT is why Bill Gates of all people supports a Robot tax.

  9. I’ve always viewed technology as what it is: inanimate (although A.I. can make it look awfully close..). Technology, not only can be ‘disruptive’ – good in the near term for those serving up the disruption.. not so much for those disrupted, but it can sometimes be unsettling to say the least. It’s capability is forcing us all in corners where we have to make bigger and vastly more wide ranging moral decisions than we’ve ever faced before. I think the nuclear weapon is one glaring example. All of the sudden we’ve taken the capability of war to a place where we’re faced with a question we never had to answer before.. we actually could annihilate all of civilization, God Forbid. I’d like to think, hard to say, that in that instance, it’s had more good effect than bad.. forcing us to the negotiating table, to really figure out what makes for lasting peace, and how to proactively work towards that.. because now we have to – more than ever. I think that same concept can be applied to robots and artificial intelligence etc. We’re being forced to the brink of large scale disruption of the workforce that might actually not be good.. new ‘robot repairing’ jobs don’t appear to be outpacing the staggering real unemployment that doesn’t count those that stopped looking, or counts those as employed that received a $20.00 ‘paycheck’ that week. Socialism is no solution either, with Big Brother being your lifeline for everything.. including, and eventually all the decisions you make 24X7. The free market is the best system the world has ever devised, but being free doesn’t mean that the people in the system are going to make the right decisions – supply and demand can only self-regulate so much. Needed checks and balances in place like the Sherman Anti-Trust Act help to stabilize the economy by sustaining competition. Without laws like this, totally unregulated industry (basically anarchy) would still have children working in factories and 18 hour work days, or with today’s challenges: full on replacement of every able bodied and able minded individual with zero displaced worker programs. The other extreme (arguably what we have today in some ways), stagnates corporations, or forces them oversees – also not good.
    I believe firmly that, like every other human endeavor, there’s going to be good and evil duking it out in the ring, and Robotics and high tech vs. humans are definitely heavy weights. Technology is like a Giant Amplifier – good in, good out, and the inverse. I believe the most glaring evidence that technology itself is not a panacea, is that we’ve obtained staggering efficiency and advances – which actually did create staggering wealth – and yet the once thriving middle class is ground down to the bone now, causing serious instability. I think it there was a study in the early nineties by Harvard University pointing out how some of this has come about. The study, across several industries, quantified the impact of computers. The results were an increase in worker efficiency by 20%, but an associated increase in workload by 30%.

    The ideal solution is a constantly self-regulating government, minimizing its influence on individuals in the free market, coupled with those individuals making right decisions. If either of those go awry, it’s going to fall apart.
    Personally I would agree with Bill Gates proposal to tax robots with funds going directly into a pool for displaced workers, and to promote jobs caring for the elderly and special needs etc.

    “Freedom consists not in doing what we like, but in having the right to do what we ought.” – Pope John Paul II

  10. “protectionism against progress.”

    It kind of makes you wonder what real “progress” is. Every child is taught that money isn’t supposed to be everything, but it clearly is in the eyes of policy.

  11. I gotta agree with some of the other comments. The link in the email was “why robot tax wont work” then it was “maybe robot tax isnt good idea”, and finally it was one source saying maybe it wont work without presenting any other ideas. Crap article and clickbait on top of that,

    Get a real job Nick.