Seattle voters: no head tax? Time for a robot tax

Seattle… the Robots Have Come

Last month, the Seattle City Council voted 9-0 to levy a $275 per head tax on employees for big companies. We’ve got a massive homelessness crisis here, which the funding was meant to address. This week, though, the Council bent to pressure from the business community and repealed the tax, 7-2.

With the most regressive tax code in the country, though, we still need the money. It’s time to consider a tax on robots that automate away human jobs. Bill Gates raised the idea in a 2017 interview, and the European Union considered the idea earlier this year. 

It sounds like sci-fi, but if we want to slow the pace of automation that’s destroying working-class jobs; if we want to start considering how to fund a universal basic income or invest in meaningful re-training, or in jobs that can’t be automated, we’ll need to find innovative revenue streams. This is the future; it’s just a question of when we get started. Please check out my piece in Crosscut, Seattle’s Corporation for Public Broadcasting partner:

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In Pasadena, a burger-flipping robot named Flippy hopes to eliminate the short-order-cook profession. Though not-quite-ready for mass production, Flippy marks one more milestone for an economy moving faster than most people can adjust.

After the Seattle City Council repealed its controversial $275 per-employee head tax on large companies, council members would be well-served to consider Flippy — and to consider an alternate option to the head tax: a levy on robots that replace human employees.

“Job-stealing robots” sounds silly, a sci-fi headline a generation away. But job-replacing robots — another term for automation — have laid waste to America’s working class for a generation, responsible for 85 percent of lost manufacturing jobs between 2000 and 2010, according to Ball State University’s Center for Business and Research. As robots — or rather, the executives deploying them — take aim at the service sector, Americans should brace for similarly catastrophic losses in professions ranging from bank-telling to trucking.

Working people are not destined to lose this battle; our elected representatives on the Council can tax companies for each robot that replaces human labor. This levy, proposed by Microsoft-founder Bill Gates, would raise much-needed revenue for the city, while slowing the rate of innovation just enough to give workers a fighting chance to catch up.

The rest here… crosscut.com/…

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