Bet you George and Jane Jetson are wishing they hired an undocumented immigrant as a housekeeper instead of hiring Rosie the robot maid.
The Jetsons — the space age cartoon family Hanna Barbera created that lives in the year 2154 — may have to cut back on some luxuries if San Francisco County Supervisor Jane Kim succeeds in imposing a tax on robots and automation.
Taking a cue from musings from Microsoft founder Bill Gates — who became one of the world’s wealthiest men through software programs that reduced labor needed to perform a wide array of office work — Kim last week called for a hearing on “an ongoing tax on every machine that replaces a human.”
To quote Kim: “We are finding that robots have begun to destroy millions of American job. The long-predicted era of robots and automation replacing human workers has arrived. We need to ensure that the massive new wealth created by automation is redirected to investing in education and training displaced workers for jobs of the future.”
Kim might want to hone up on history a tad given the Industrial Revolution in the 1800s started the trend of machines replacing humans and not the Silicon Valley wonder kids tinkering with self-driving trucks and ordering kiosks to replace those $15 an hour jobs at McDonald’s.
As for the government imposing a tax to educate displaced workers, how did the horse buggy whip workers manage to find employment after Henry Ford rolled out the assembly line?
Maybe the question Kim should be asking is why government isn’t doing what the private sector is doing and using automation and robots to make government bureaucracy more efficient, reduce overhead (better known as employee costs) and more innovative?
An argument can be made that automation has increased jobs. Fifty years ago, one would have washed your car in your driveway. Paying someone else to do it was a luxury of sorts for most people. Today there are more than a dozen car washes in most Valley towns with the busiest being the ones with workers assisting with the highly-automated car washing process.
Are they so-called head of household jobs meaning they can support a spouse or significant other and two or so kids on one salary? No. Are they helping people keep a roof over their heads, stomachs fed, bodies clothed and gas tanks filled? Yes.
Then there are the highly skilled — and better paying jobs — created to manufacturer and install automated car washes.
For argument’s sake, let’s say Kim is right that what will happen next with robots and automation will create a permanent downward slide of employment opportunities in America.
Is creating a tax on robots and automation the right move or is it giving employers tax credits?
Gates’ argument was not about jobs per se but the problem automation is creating for the government’s ability to raise money through taxes to pay for everything from safety net programs to schools. He noted a machine that does $50,000 worth or labor replaces a human doing $50,000 worth of labor doesn’t pay taxes as the human does.
Of course Kim and other politicians aren’t really worried about displaced workers. They are worried about being able to rake in the money they need for social engineering.
If Kim was really concerned about not losing minimum wage jobs in San Francisco that can be automated she might want to consider rolling back the city’s minimum wage law or give employers ongoing tax credits equal to half of what they pay anyone making $31,200 (40-hour, year-round employment at $15 an hour) that can be used against San Francisco taxes.
Whoa! Can’t do that since more and more of the minimum wage jobs in San Francisco are held by those who live elsewhere because they can’t afford to live in The City.
To borrow Kim’s own words, shouldn’t San Francisco tax that “massive new wealth” that is displacing citizens on the lower rung of the economic ladder to “redirect it” to subsidize affordable housing?
The taxing automation debate that replaces jobs misses one crucial point: Corporations can ill afford to eliminate their customer base.
Henry Ford in the 1920s got that when he noted automation increased manufacturing efficiencies enough that he could pay salaries that allowed workers to buy the cars they helped produce.
Then there’s the parable involving union brass Walter Reuther being shown through the Ford plant in Cleveland in the 1950s when a company official proudly pointed to some new automated machine and asked Reuther: “How are you going to collect union dues from these guys?”
Reuther shot back: “How are you going to get them to buy Fords?”
Perhaps Kim would address that problem by requiring equal pay for equal work for machines with artificial intelligence that might be smitten enough with the onboard computer of a Ford vehicle to buy one.
At the end of the day — as it has since the beginning of civilization — changes in marketplaces always work themselves out. History shows that when you interject government edicts into the mixture you are more likely to have disastrous results that prolong the pain.