As It Happens

U.S. lawmaker proposes robot tax to help fight job loss

San Francisco politician Jane Kim thinks she has an idea that can offset job loss due to automation. She's pushing for a tax on robots.
A U.S. lawmaker is pushing for a tax on robots. (Shizuo Kambayashi/Associated Press)

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According to a recent study from PricewaterhouseCoopers, the United States could lose close to 40 per cent of its jobs to automation by 2030.

But one U.S. lawmaker thinks she has an idea to help the human workers affected by that technological transition. She's pushing for a tax on robots. 

San Francisco supervisor Jane Kim says a the tax could help re-train workers who lose their jobs to automation. (Paul Sakuma/Associated Press)

Jane Kim is a city supervisor in San Francisco. She spoke with As it Happens host Carol Off about her plan. Here is some of their conversation.

How do you tax robots?

What we are looking at is extending a payroll tax that we already have on jobs performed by humans, and extending [it] to jobs performed by robots, algorithms and automation.

I already represent a city with the largest income gap in the country. And leading experts are predicting that we are going to have an accelerated rate of robots and automation replacing humans that normally perform those jobs. 

So why do you think a tax on robots might slow that down?

Well, actually, I'm not trying to slow down automation or robots. And I'm not even sure we can. What I am trying to do is make sure that we are preparing workers for the future of work in this country by creating a revenue fund that can help re-educate and retrain; but also turn jobs that are frankly poverty jobs that are very difficult to automate — like child-care workers, health-care workers for seniors — and help make those real living-wage, middle-class jobs.

You work in a city that is home to Silicon Valley. The belief is that there are many jobs that are created because of manufacturing technology — anything that might slow that down might actually affect the jobs in that technology sector. What do you say to that? 
The proposed tax would affect 'jobs performed by robots, algorithms and automation.' (Fabian Bimmer/Associated Press)

As I said before, I'm not trying to slow down automation. I'm just trying to make sure that we are preparing our communities and our country for a future where work will be different.

Certain sectors of Americans are going to lose their jobs, and they're going to have a very difficult time adjusting into the new economy.- Jane Kim, San Francisco city supervisor 

It's true: automation will generate different kinds of jobs. But I think it would be a mistake to think that folks [who] currently perform jobs that are getting automated would suddenly become engineers and systems administrators.

San Francisco is certainly a beneficiary of the tech disruption and revolution that we are seeing today. And I think it makes sense for San Francisco to be leading in the policies that address this. 

There was once a time when a man delivered ice door-to-door, and now there's an industry manufacturing refrigerators that employs lots of people. So isn't that the way the job market works — it evolves?

Absolutely. I think, in fact, it's mostly a positive thing. Automation will take away menial tasks. It could save lives. It could help us fight climate change.

But there is going to be a negative impact from automation, which is that certain sectors of Americans are going to lose their jobs, and they're going to have a very difficult time adjusting into the new economy.

And that's why I think it's important for the very tech companies that are benefitting from automation to share some of this wealth with the workers that they are displacing, and help them get new jobs and retrain and re-educate.

What kind of reception has your idea had so far?

We think that this is one of the most important issues over the next 10 to 15 years, and not enough people are talking about it. And so this is to spark the discussion, and to put ideas out there.

The robot tax is only one of many ideas that we could utilize to help address job automation and displacement in the future. And I think it's really incumbent upon policy makers to really think about what it means to grow and strengthen our shrinking middle class. 


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