Picking on robots won’t deal with job destruction

Larry Summers

Opinion -- Wall Street Journal

I usually agree with Bill Gates on matters of public policy and admire his emphasis on the combined power of markets and technology. But I think he went seriously astray in a recent interview when he proposed, without apparent irony, a tax on robots to cushion worker dislocation and limit inequality. The Microsoft co-founder is right about the gravity of the problem and need for action, but he’s profoundly misguided in his proposed solution — and in ways that point up problems with the current public debate.

First, I cannot see any logic to singling out robots as job destroyers. What about kiosks that dispense airplane boarding passes? Word-processing programs that accelerate the production of documents? Mobile banking technologies? Autonomous vehicles? Vaccines that, by preventing disease, destroy jobs in medicine? There are many kinds of innovation that allow the production of more or better output with less labor input. Why pick on robots? Does Gates think anyone, let alone Congress, the Trump administration or a commission composed of his fellow technocrats, can distinguish labor-saving activities from labor-enhancing ones? Surely even if experts could draw such distinctions, the ability of the Internal Revenue Service to administer them is in doubt.

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