Robots May Be Taxed in San Francisco

October 14, 2017

Human labor is increasingly being replaced by robots. Robots are cheaper to maintain, and can provide maximum efficiency. Yearly the public sees regular changes to every day experiences, like using a self-checkout line in a grocery store or automated coffee machines that use precise technology to make delicious lattés. When workers inevitably lose their jobs to robots, how does the government obtain the revenue that was formerly generated by the human workers’ taxes? This is where the concept of a “robot tax” is introduced. Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates stated that he thinks that governments should have the right to tax robots. Jane Kim, a member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, agrees. She thinks that “automation is a good thing.” However, she warns that “there will be a downside to this technological progress and workers will be left behind.” In an effort to fight against this, Kim has begun a committee called the “Jobs of the Future Fund.” She emphasizes that the committee is “exploring continuing the payroll tax and extending it to robots that perform jobs humans currently do.” The idea is that companies would input funds the same way that they did for payroll tax and social security for human workers. The ultimate objective, Kim states, “is to help smooth this transition, help workers that are displaced by their jobs re-educate and retrain.” She elaborated that the revenue generated from this could be used to help educate workers in their vocations, provide community college for free, and “invest in creating meaningful and high wage jobs in industries that are currently hard to automate like child care workers, which is currently a poverty profession.” The national discourse about automation is gaining traction. Recently, two researchers at MIT conducted a study in which they determined that adding one robot for every thousand human workers adversely affected both wages and employment. However, advocates for automation contend that there is no problem with unemployment. Jeff Burnstein, the president of the Association for Advancing Automation stated that “[w]e don’t have a problem with robots causing unemployment.” He is the leader of an industry group that works with over 1100 robotics and technology companies. He fiercely argued that the robot tax is “a really big mistake, not only for California, but for the country. Robots are actually helping save and create jobs right now.”

Burnstein stated that the data “over twenty years shows whenever [industrial] robot sales rise, unemployment falls. The real problem we have is we have so many unfulfilled jobs that people don’t have the skills for. The real threat to jobs in America is when we can’t compete.”

He argues that these taxes would not help innovation, but do just the opposite. “Why would we want to put disincentives on companies using the best technology available?” Despite backlash, Kim still advises against the “increased uptick in automation of jobs.” She said that this automation would be far-reaching, pervading fields such as “retail, trucking, accounting, even stock broker jobs.” Many are apprehensive about job takeover by automation. 72 percent of Americans are worried that machines will steal their jobs, and 25 percent of those are “very worried.” Burnstein is not sympathetic. “All the hysteria about job losses, this is nothing new. We’ve been hearing these threats forever. But we’re really good at creating new jobs. We can’t always define them.” Burnstein justifies his beliefs by alluding to “search engine optimization specialist[s]” and “app developer[s],” people who would not have been able to have those jobs a quarter of a century ago. “Automation has been changing the nature of jobs forever.”