Tax the Terminator

Should machines that do human work contribute to national revenue?

SOME YEARS AGO, fretting about the future of the Canadian welfare state, I became interested in the idea of a guaranteed annual income. After a lot of investigating, I became convinced that providing every adult citizen with the minimum amount required to ensure they had adequate food, clothing, shelter and spending money was an idea worth considering.

After all, current signs point to the steady increase of the unemployed and unemployable in our society, people who will never be able to contribute enough to the economy to support themselves in return. As history shows, such a large, unemployable underclass is a breeding ground for social unrest.

Like all income-redistribution schemes, our current social welfare system depends on the ­willingness of working people to elect politicians who will take their money and “share” it with people who don’t have work. Canadians are notable for their frequent preference for politicians pledged to do exactly that, even though it is not in the long-term best interests of those being taxed to support such programs, and questionable whether they do anything to genuinely help the recipients.

If governments don’t raise enough tax money to pay for such largesse, their only alternatives are to restrict benefits (anathema to the ever-watchful social justice warriors), crank up the printing presses to “create” more money that exists only in theory and fuels destructive inflation, or drive up the national debt by borrowing and further ­impoverishing the nation’s future as a result. Welcome to Canada in the new millennium.

Every job taken over by a machine fills some role in the economy, and generates increased profit by virtue of reducing production, delivery or service costs.

The ever-increasing automation of the means of production will consign many more people to a permanently unemployed section of society. Such economic ghettoization benefits nobody, especially the working people who are forced to provide the basics of life for the non-working, with no hope their contributions will ever lead to any real improvements.

As the world of automation and artificial intelligence continues to expand exponentially with no end in sight, fewer and fewer jobs will be created and the current levels of unemployment will continue to swell. But every job taken over by a machine fills some role in the economy, and generates increased profit by virtue of reducing production, delivery or service costs.

Instead of taxing people or corporations, why not tax the productivity of machines? The “robot tax” is a concept that first started to gain an audience about 18 months ago (Bill Gates, for instance, is a vocal proponent). If we had a method to tap into a portion of those profits specific to increased automation, we could then use it to fund a universal benefit for all—without picking the pockets of those who do work and without ­discouraging investment or seriously jeopardizing the viability of the companies who will still benefit from the higher productivity of automation.

I fully recognize how difficult it would be to ­convince the entrenched ruling classes of the ­benefits of such a program, and how even more complex it would be to implement it, but as a ­society we have never shied away from the ­difficult. Look, for example, at the commercial innovation and social improvements we have seen in the past 100 years alone.

Unless we find some way to deal with the ­problem of ever-increasing joblessness, and the social unrest it will bring, I fear we are doomed to watch our society unravel in ways that will almost certainly lead to its ultimate failure. We can, and must, do better.

“Make the rich pay” is an empty slogan, bereft of economic reality and indicative of a lack of ­understanding of human nature. On the other hand, “make the machines pay” not only helps define the problem, but offers a solution that just might work, notwithstanding the long journey ahead to see it realized.  Jim Chapman

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