The narrative of automation replacing jobs is a persistent one. The story varies depending on the narrator, but the general thrust cites multiple studies that show anywhere from 14 percent to 47 percent of jobs are at high risk of being automated. While this provides good soundbites for television, it doesn’t tell the whole story, or even an accurate one.
Lately, however, politicians and the private sector alike are exploring a new stand on automation: Robots don’t take jobs; corporations do.
During a recent talk at SXSW, for example, Congressional representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez said we should be excited about automation because it frees up time for greater pursuits like invention and science investigation. The problem for human workers, she suggests, is economics and corporate culture, not automation. Ocasio-Cortez referenced the idea of a tax on robots, which has also been floated by Bill Gates and the French politician Benoit Hamon.
Meanwhile, the California Democratic Party has added to its platform Universal Basic Income, a policy that proposes workers should receive money from the government to offset jobs taken by automation. It’s a proposal supported by Elon Musk, too.
Not everyone is on board with the idea of a robot tax. In 2017, the European Parliament rejected a tax on robot owners that would fund retraining in employees displaced by automation. In the U.S., the idea of a robot tax faces similar headwinds: Businesses invest in robotics here not only because it improves production, but because the tax code encourages it by increasing tax subsidies on capital investments.
The MIT economist Daron Acemoglu frames this notion slightly differently. He says that spending money on technologies designed to replace workers has come at the expense of investments in productive uses for human labor.
If history is a guide, resistance to these taxation initiatives will be considerable. Case in point: livery/stable workers weren’t compensated when they were displaced by the automobile. Farm workers weren’t compensated after the advent of the harvester.
Like replacing human workers with automation, the merits and drawbacks of robot taxation are not easily packaged into a soundbite. But at the very least, it could become another facet in the debate that manufacturers will need to weigh when considering how and where they deploy their robots.