California lawmaker pushes robot tax

Credit: Flickr/Steve Jurvetson

A California lawmaker wants to use a tax to reduce the possible consequences of robots sucking up jobs as automation becomes more widespread.

San Francisco city supervisor Jane Kim launched a campaign in August called Jobs of the Future Fund to study how a statewide tax, essentially an income tax, on robots that displace employees could help the state and protect its workers. Revenue from the proposed tax could fund job retraining programs or act as a wage supplement for low-earning workers.

“We are exploring ways of implementing a payroll tax, which already exists on jobs operated by humans, and continuing that if those jobs are then displaced by robots, or algorithms or automation,” Kim told ABC10. “Whether it is truck drivers, clerks, assistants, even lawyers and accountants, we are seeing that there are a great number of tasks and jobs that could potentially be displaced by automation over the next 10 to 15 years and as policy makers it’s incumbent on us to be prepared for this future.”

Her campaign website claims that about 50% of American jobs could be lost to automation, which would then have a greater effect than the Great Depression and Great Recession combined. Kim’s effort brings together organizations, thought leaders, policy makers and unions to discuss the benefits of such a tax and other solutions for preventing job loss.

“I really do think automation is going to be one of the biggest issues around income inequality,” she told CBS News. “It’s not inherently a bad thing, but it will concentrate wealth, and it’s going to drive further inequity if you don’t prepare for it now.”

The European Union considered and rejected a proposed tax on robots that took jobs in February, but the idea of an American robot tax originated from a Quartz interview with Bill Gates that same month. Gates argued that a robot tax would slow automation so that companies could better prepare themselves and their workers for the transition.

“At a time when people are saying that the arrival of that robot is a net loss because of displacement, you ought to be willing to raise the tax level and even slow down the speed of that adoption somewhat to figure out, ‘OK, what about the communities where this has a particularly big impact? Which transition programs have worked and what type of funding do those require?’” he asked.

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