Robots better watch their backs — soon, they could be paying taxes, too.
In recent years, researchers have prognosticated that as many as 47% of American jobs could be in jeopardy of being replaced by automation. One widely-cited Oxford University study claimed that transportation, logistics, and administrative workers are in the greatest peril.
The study enumerated that other jobs at risk include taxi and truck drivers, paralegals, retail salespeople, and security guards. Indeed, Domino’s Pizza already began rolling out automated delivery vehicles earlier this year — no delivery person necessary.
But now, one San Francisco official says she has a solution: If you’re an employer who replaces a human worker with a robot, you should have to pay a tax.
In an interview with Moneyish, Jane Kim, a member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, said that she’s “very concerned” about the relentless shift toward automation. “This appears to be one of the biggest issues over the next decade, but not enough people in government are talking about it.”
That’s why Kim is launching her “Jobs of the Future” campaign — a “statewide effort… to provide a forum for labor leaders, businesses, non-profit and civic organizations to focus on solutions.” Kim wants to help displaced workers get back on their feet.
In simple terms, the proposed robot tax would charge companies the same payroll tax they’d pay on human workers, and recycle the revenue generated by it into programs to retrain laid-off workers. Payroll tax rates vary from state to state, but there are some federal numbers across the board — 6.2% for Social Security and Medicare is one.
Some experts counteract the proposal, though. “How do you measure one robot?” asked Douglas Holtz-Eakin, a conservative economist who formerly headed up the Congressional Budget Office, and was Senator John McCain’s top tax man during his 2008 Presidential campaign. “To have a tax, you have to have a measurable tax base… I want to know what one robot is, and if you can tell me that, then we can tax it… This is completely bonzo,” Holtz-Eakin said, not mincing words.
Columbia Business School professor Rita McGrath has other concerns — she says a robot tax could impede customer service in some industries, and encourage employers to ship jobs overseas. “If you look at customer service centers right now… [sometimes a] chatbot can deliver better service than a person. [With humans], there’s always a lot of variability, and many are outsourced, poorly trained, or don’t have [relevant] information,” McGrath observed.
Despite criticisms like these, the robot tax plan has its defenders — billionaire Microsoft founder Bill Gates is among them.
“[At] a time when people are saying that the arrival of [robots] is a net loss because of displacement, you ought to be willing to raise the tax level… to figure out, ‘OK, what about the communities where this has a particularly big impact?” Gates told Quartz in an interview earlier this year.
Kim conceded that there is “going to be a criticism that we’re stifling innovation,” through her tax proposal. But, she noted, “I actually think that automation is a good thing. It’s going to save lives, it’s going to make us safer, it’s going to help us fight climate change — but there will be negative consequences.”
“Ultimately,” she concluded, “businesses are going to have to shoulder that cost when it comes to support.”
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