A warning from Bill Gates, Elon Musk, and Stephen Hawking
Quincy Larson

Taxing the automation ‘era’: please be specific to not miss the point.

Taxing robots to ensure that the automated society do not left anyone behind: the issue has to be raised, but the answer should not be short. We are fuelled with images of humanoid robots operating in warehouses or bars, and we imagine an era when each workers is replaced by its robotic counterpart: ‘he’ should contribute as much. Robots are not individuals. A human individual is easy to consider: DNA, rights, free will, uniqueness, soul/consciousness. One robot is much harder to define. What we are dealing with are machines with a new generation of software. These machines may operate as part of swarms, they can be modular, have shared software intelligence, often on the cloud. How can you differentiate them from the rest of the productive assets of a company ? From which level of complexity do we tax them ? Tractor are low-tech robot which already took many jobs in agriculture. Robotic painters in automobile production line also did. Should we tax them also ?

Let’s be clear: I do not reject the idea: I challenge it. Promoting a not applicable idea is a waste of time we can not afford: the effects of this social and economic paradigm shift that is increased automation represents are just too quickly disrupting.

Robots produce wealth: we could consider that this wealth is to circulate freely for ever with no picking from the community of citizens, at any time: this is the extreme free market dogma. Common sense however realize that we have to redistribute a share of this wealth at some point to ensure that society keep balanced and do not rush in to the next social disaster like great depression, or war (many examples).

Fine, but when do the taxation should occur ? When the investment is made (really ?), when the company declares revenue ? When it pay wages ? When it make profits ? When these benefits are distributed as dividends ? When the personal incomes are received ? Spent ? In what ? Luxury goods ? Speculative assets ? What is a speculative asset ?

Every time you tax wealth during its lifecycle, it has side effects. Always wrong, will say the free market extremists. Maybe, yet taxes remain utterly essential.

Fiscal policy is a complicated topic. And a policy mix. I won’t treat it extensively in that story. I just want to push forward this critical debate. One direction among other: social VAT may be a good candidate, more applicable than a ‘robot tax’.

Anyway, it reminds me some debates concerning algorithmic trading and its threats to sustainable wealth distribution. The problem of where the automatically created wealth should go cannot be solved without first solving the biggest threat to our democracies in this early XXIth century: massive corporate and 1% global tax avoidance. Let’s do not forget that.

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