Would taxing robots prevent the looming disaster?

 

You can sense something serious is afoot when Bill Gates suggests taxing robots and even slowing down automation. Gates, easily one of the ten names from our technological era that history will remember, should be taken seriously. Notwithstanding his disinclination to brag about himself, his is a great mind and has shown it abundantly (for all his critics say).

There are surely problems with the proposal. As automation is proceeding incrementally and freely—there is no central body coordinating it or setting its pace—it would be hard to identify the taxable activity or subject (if robots were to become “subjects” under the law). Surely, you could tax that robotic vacuum cleaner that left the maid unemployed. And would that tax cover for the loss of a job? And, however you phrase it, in the end you would be taxing humans. So, perhaps even someone as cerebral as Gates is casting, in rational terms, the equivalent of throwing the tables and chairs at the marching robots.

From the 2014 peak, the oil industry in the United States shed about 163,000 jobs, or about 30 percent of the total, while oil prices plummeted as much as 70 percent. Yet even with a reduced workforce, the United States oil production is surging, to nine million barrels a day from 8.6 million in September.

The explanation, as you guessed, is robots taking over. The displaced workers, in the meantime, are being pushed further down the food chain. In an analogy with the main character in Heart of Darkness, they have to move on before the future—rather than the past—catches up with them.

Finland is proposing a Universal Basic Income, guaranteed for every citizen. It would be a modest amount that would cover basic necessities or fill gaps in an increasingly precarious labor world. For starters, that is only practicable in wealthy countries. It is the equivalent of the limited and ideal democracy of the Greek polis.

Eventually things will settle down in manners we cannot still predict with accuracy. If predictable, history would probably be different. Perhaps a way to mitigate a world of chronic unemployment would be to educate citizens about saving and investing to create an “ownership society” of some sort. Still, we can predict this: the change will be traumatic, more for some than others; real income will shrink and with that, mobility may take a hit; and governments will have to step up regulation, quite a bit. That’s why we still have, and need governments, as even Gates—in many senses the arch-capitalist–suggests. The alternative would be an unruly market economy and, with that, anarchy.

But Gates has a larger point, about slowing down automation. For the time has come to ask ourselves what the point is of having robots working for us, if fewer of us will be able to afford what these machines make. It’s time for the hard questions and the harder answers.

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