Automation disruption threatens the tax collection system, says Arie Halpern

In an interview to the website Quartz, Bill Gates defended the idea that robots should have to pay taxes, just like the workers they replace. The statement has provoked an earthquake in the world of technology and certainly angered the ultra-liberals that, ideologically, are always opposed to paying taxes. Emotions aside, the question raised by Gates touches a sensitive point, which concerns the public funding of the State and its actions. “At the same time it generates technological unemployment, automation causes a decrease in the tax collection base of the State,” says Arie Halpern, economist, and entrepreneur with a focus on innovation and disruptive technologies. According to him, as the use of robots spreads, a chain reaction builds up. “There is a real threat of disruption in the accounts of the State with huge negative impact on public policy.

The robotization process is advancing at a fast rate, which makes this an urgent matter. It is estimated that in the near future the machines will have replaced more than a third of the workforce in the United States. The question posed by Gates is simple. The human workers now in factories pay income taxes and contribute to social security, among other things. “If a robot does the same things, we should think about taxing it at the same level.” The first attempt in this direction was made with a project which provided for taxing the use of robots to finance the training of workers threatened with losing their jobs to automation. The proposal was rejected earlier this year by the U.S. Congress, which shows that this discussion will be arduous.

The matter is complex and the difficulties begin with defining, after all, what robots are. In a recent article for Wired magazine, Matt Simon stressed that depending on the definition adopted tax collection can be fairly broadened. For example, should we include autonomous vehicles in the category of robots? What about the autopilot of an aircraft? Moreover, the constant innovation is bound to create new situations for which the legislation will have to arbitrate. Dean Baker, from the Center for Economic and Policy Research, interviewed by Wired, mentions a curious and predictable situation: the company, to reduce spending on taxes, can replace a team of four or five robots for a more modern, single one capable of performing the work. How would then be the taxing?

There’s a lot to discuss in relation to the changes arising from automation, and this is undoubtedly not the least important. Especially because one of its most harmful consequences could be the aggravation of social inequality. The rising unemployment caused by automation will increase the demand for public assistance policies. If on the other hand, the State resources become scarcer, we will have a perverse combination. When defending his idea of taxing the robots, Bill Gates alerts to the fact that technological innovation should be associated with the expectation of social welfare improvement and not the other way around. “The biggest challenge facing society in the current stage of our development is to prevent technology from widening the inequalities. Once this is overcome, our next challenge is to ensure that technology will contribute to reducing inequalities”, says Halpern.

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