Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates, still the richest man on planet earth, has a great idea. Put a tax on robots. Is it not enough that the government taxes citizens, should we allow them to tax machines, too? Yes.
Here’s the argument. Machines– robots– are taking away jobs. Jobs provide economic benefits to a government and its citizens. Take away jobs and there will be a revolt. We saw a similar effect in the last U.S. general election. Jobs are important. So are robots. Can they co-exits peacefully? Can robots help to carry the economic burden when they take away jobs once reserved for humans?
iThink, Because iRobot?
Bill Gates basic idea seems plausible. As more jobs once held by humans are relegated to robots, ostensibly more efficient, that job displacement can be mitigated by taxing the robots. That action also sets the stage for a run down the universal basic income highway, but let stay off that for now and stick to robot taxes.
One of the reasons for employing robots in manufacturing is to reduce costs and increase quality. Taxes on robots that takeover human jobs will increase costs. But if humans don’t have jobs, how will they pay for goods and services manufactured and provided by robots? That brings up universal basic income again.
This is a circular argument with many issues that are not easily solved by a simple tax on robots. How much tax? Which robots count as taxable (not all robots are created equal)? What impact will such taxes have on the manufacture and price of my Apple gadgets? If the price tag on iPhones, iPads, Mac, and Apple gear goes any higher, and fewer of us have jobs to pay for such devices, what happens?
I’m all in favor of anybody else but me paying more taxes, but I understand the sentiment to tax the rich because they have more money to tax, and about half the people in the U.S. don’t earn enough to be taxed anyway. I also understand the sentiment to tax machines that take away jobs once held by humans. That seems just.
What I’m afraid of is the obvious; fewer of us will have sufficient economic value to buy Apple’s products because their prices go up based on the robot tax.
Such actions could leave humankind with a more fractured society than it is now.
The 1-Percent – these would be the few people who control most of a country’s wealth; much as it does now, but perhaps more so.
Government workers – these are government agents and agencies, police, military, and others which protect the rights of the 1-percenters; much as it does now. The rest of us live on the universal basic income, but cannot afford the goods manufactured for the 1-percenters.
Essential workers – these are the non-1-percenters who are required to handle jobs and functions the 1-percents will not engage in, but for which robots have not yet taken over; hospitals, construction, etc.
Soylent people – these are the great unwashed masses of humanity which are provided a basic subsistence and have lives, but whose economic stature has become relegated to handling the mundane tasks in society, and who exist on the government dole (soylent green is the reference to the future) with a universal basic income.
Utopia this ain’t. One should fear such massive upheavals in society, even if gradual. Apple already makes expensive products which appeal less to the masses, and more to the elite, and certainly to many of those whose jobs may be lost in the future to automation; how will those people, let alone the masses of Android and Windows users, be able to afford what robots make?
Even as romantic as a robot tax might sound, there are many unanswered questions, and no clear direction other than it seems that society is heading down a slipper slope toward who knows what.