Robots tax issue best left to others

By Norman Knight

When the richest man in the world speaks, the world takes notice. That’s how I learned that Bill Gates wants to tax robots.

My first impulse was to think it was a joke, or perhaps some of that alternative news we’ve been hearing so much about lately. As I was running the thought through my mind, I started imagining a possible scenario.

“Honey, I’m home.”

“Hello, dear. How was your day?”

“Not that good. I picked up my paycheck today. They raised our taxes again. Can you believe it?”

“Oh, no! Not again. It seems like they raised them just last year.”

“I know. It’s like they think we are an unending source of revenue. How are we supposed to make it on my salary?”

“Well, I could always get a job sweeping carpets. Lots of humans are letting us do that sort of work. Or I could work at a phone-call center. They don’t call them ‘robo-calls’ for nothing.”

“But we agreed when we were mutually programmed that you would stay at home with the little ones. If you went back to work, we would have to find daycare for little Robby and Siri.”

“I don’t know what else to do. This is problematic, to say the least.”

“Oh, I’ve got to lie down. My motherboard is heating up. I blame Bill Gates for this.”

But as I was imagining this scene, I realized the above conversation would need to be written in zeros and ones, so I gave up.

Turns out, it wasn’t a joke. The idea of taxing robots is a real thing. Serious people have been suggesting some form of taxation on automation for some time now, well before Bill Gates brought it up. Lawmakers in the European Union considered such a tax in the recent past, but the bill was rejected.

The argument for a robot tax seems fairly straightforward to me. Human workers who lose their jobs to automation often can’t find jobs comparable to those lost. Proponents of the tax propose the money raised would be used in some way to help those displaced workers. Ideas as to just how this would work have been suggested ranging from job training to some sort of guaranteed basic income.

A British writer for the Guardian notes that some advocates hope that such a tax might “…temporarily slow the adoption of disruptive technology.”

Opposition to a robot tax notes that capital — including robots — is already taxed. Now, I’m no economist, but I’ve always assumed any new taxes or costs of any kinds that businesses pay will be passed on to the consumers. So, really, a robot tax would be born mostly by everyday people.

As an aside, Michael Hicks, who is in fact an economist at Ball State, pointedly noted in a recent column that since 2000, Bill Gates’ Microsoft has received about $400 million in subsidies from state and local governments. I suppose that money would be useful for any program to help displaced workers.

I am skeptical of the idea that a robot tax slowing “the adoption of disruptive technology” would be a good thing, or even a possible thing. Is it realistic to think that innovation in robotics or any other technical endeavor can be slowed or stopped to any significant degree? Can we stop technological progress? Do we want to?

The replacement of human workers with automation is a very real problem. It has happened throughout history and will continue to cause disruptions with or without special taxes. It is a problem that will require creative solutions by intelligent, serious people — which is why I should probably leave it to others.

Norman Knight, a retired Clark-Pleasant Middle School teacher, writes this weekly column for the Daily Journal. Send comments to letters@dailyjournal.net.