There is a social phenomena called Pulling up the ladder. The basic idea is that when a person or group has success in a certain way, they advance policies that prevent people from having the opportunity to succeed in a similar manner.
Pulling up the ladder is seen in NIMBYism. Established residents who built their houses in a neighborhood pull up the ladder when they decide that extra rules and permits are needed and that no one else should be allowed to build a home in their neighborhood as easily or as cheaply as they did. Pulling up the ladder is seen when practitioners promote occupational licensing that forces new entrants to go through thousands of hours of training and low paid apprenticeships, but grandfather in current practitioners who do not have to follow these burdensome rules.
Bill Gates provides us with an egregious example of pulling up the ladder in a recent interview with QZ.com when he advocates for the taxation of any robots that replace human jobs.
Certainly there will be taxes that relate to automation. Right now, the human worker who does, say, $50,000 worth of work in a factory, that income is taxed and you get income tax, social security tax, all those things. If a robot comes in to do the same thing, you’d think that we’d tax the robot at a similar level.
There are many ways to take that extra productivity and generate more taxes. Exactly how you’d do it, measure it, you know, it’s interesting for people to start talking about now. Some of it can come on the profits that are generated by the labor-saving efficiency there. Some of it can come directly in some type of robot tax. I don’t think the robot companies are going to be outraged that there might be a tax. It’s OK.
First, anyway you cut it, this is just really bad policy. Companies utilizing robots should be taxed with the same rules as every other company. Tax theory is not something that can be covered in a short blog post, but there are two frameworks that make it easy to see why this is a bad idea.
One framework favored by some economists is that taxes should be designed to force people and organizations to internalize negative externalities. This is called a Pigouvian tax. If a certain behavior is not good for society, then raising its price will reduce the harms to society while generating revenue. This type of approach is exemplified by those pushing for a carbon tax. Carbon is identified as harmful, and raising the price of release carbon into the atmosphere will likely result in less carbon released into the atmosphere (improperly implemented, it also incentivizes more manufacturing in countries that do not have carbon taxes). Cigarette, alcohol and sugary drink taxes are often justified under a similar approach, as consumption of unhealthy goods can create significant costs for the healthcare system*. The flipside to this logic is obvious. Taxes should also encourage, not discourage, desirable behavior. A tax designed to explicitly raise the cost of research and investment relative to other activities would be a very bad idea.
Another framework is that taxes should avoid unnecessarily distorting economic behavior. Even economists who promote Pigouvian taxes would agree that a tax that changes behavior without purposefully targeting a desired externality is a poorly designed tax. Taxes that can be avoided with additional work from lawyers and accountants are particularly inefficient. Resources devoted to getting around the tax may make sense for individuals and companies, but are a deadweight loss to society. The value-added tax, other than encouraging exports to countries without value-added taxes, is both easy to enforce and does not skew behavioral incentives significantly. It is therefore widely used across the developed world outside of the United States.
So it’s pretty obvious why trying to apply an additional robot tax on companies would be a bad idea. Measuring whether a robot is taking a job is not a simple task, and companies will be incentivized to make the use of automation unrelated to any losses of jobs. The tax would cause significant amounts of new inefficiency as companies on the verge of automating significant tasks would spend lots of money trying to figure out how to minimize or avoid the robot tax.
But even worse, taxing the implementation of robots in existing companies would slow down the adoption of new technology. If implemented only in the United States, the robot tax would also cause U.S. companies to fall behind places in the world where the implementation of robots was not discouraged by taxation. If the United States wanted to permanently relinquish its status as the country at the forefront of the production-possibility frontier, this tax would be a great way to start.
What makes Bill Gate's suggestion particularly egregious is that the source of his wealth came from the widespread distribution of labor saving technology, software! The following is from the BLS summary of Occupational changes during the 20th century.
The growing use of computers and other electronic devices, which simplified or eliminated many clerical activities, caused the post-1980 decline. Automated switching and voice messaging affected telephone operators; personal computers, word-processing software, optical scanners, electronic mail, and voice messaging, secretaries and typists; accounting and database software, bookkeepers; ATM’s and telephone and online banking, tellers; and computerized checkout terminals, cashiers.
Imagine what would have happened to Microsoft if every time it sold a spreadsheet tool it had to pay a tax for the number of bookkeepers it replaced. Or if all users of Microsoft Office were taxed for the secretaries and typists that were no longer needed. If the United States applied the policies Bill Gates now suggests now to software in the 1980's, the digital revolution would have been strangled in its infancy and Bill Gate would not be in the position he is in today. Specifically taxing companies that implement cutting edge labor saving technology is silly. It wouldn't have been a good idea then and it's not a good idea now.
Bill Gates has led a unique life over the past few decades so he might not realize this, but our society could still be a whole lot richer. It is still far from wealthy enough to implement any reasonably sized universal basic income. Safety nets, retraining and regulatory reform have important roles to help workers displaced by our fast evolving economy. But the last thing we want to do is implement taxes that slow down innovation or encourage innovative companies to locate its business outside our borders.
So please ignore Bill Gates when he blithely suggests that anyone using robots to replace labor should have to pay extra taxes. Not only is he advocating for pulling up the ladder behind him, listening to him would impoverish our future. Our society cannot afford to treat labor saving innovation like a negative externality to be taxed.
*Somewhat morbidly, unhealthy behaviors that shorten life expectancies actually seem to reduce total costs on the healthcare system.