Taxing Automation: Are “Robot Taxes” Coming to Canada?

A levy against self-driving commercial vehicles could be sooner than you think, as young Albertan students will be debating the prospect next month through Mr. Speaker’s MLA for a Day program.

Within this program, 87 high school students — one for each constituency of the Legislative Assembly of Alberta — spend three days in Edmonton gaining “an awareness of the roles and responsibilities of an MLA, both as a legislator and a constituency representative.” All of this is organized by the Office of the Speaker and Visitor Services. On the third and final day, students gather in the Assembly Chamber to debate a hypothetical bill, centered around an issue that is relevant to the provincial government and Alberta constituents.

This year, coordinators have chosen for the students to discuss a proposed levy, aimed to “preserve jobs by making employing human beings in the transport industry a more viable option compared to replacing them with automation features”. So far, students have been asked to consider how both the legislation and technology will impact them, how automation impacts jobs, and how various generations view technological unemployment.

Is the government planning on advancing a similar bill to its actual legislators? If so, what will the impact be?

The Government of Alberta, as supported by an article from the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER), believes that increased automation is a serious concern that must be addressed. The NBER’s article Robots and Jobs in the U.S. Labor Market explains that “on average, the arrival of one new industrial robot in a local labour market coincides with an employment drop of 5.6 workers.” They also estimate “one more robot per thousand workers … is associated with a wage decline of between 0.25 and 0.5 percent”. The NBER also confirmed that “blue collar” workers, assembly labourers, and employees without a post secondary degree are at the highest risk, with men having a higher risk than women.

But is an automation levy the solution?

Bill Gates seems to think so. As he said in an interview with Quartz, “You can’t just give up that income tax [from the worker replaced by the robot] … some of it can come on the profits that are generated by the labour-saving efficiency there, some of it can come directly in some type of robot tax. I don’t think the robot companies are going to be outraged that there might be a tax.” He proposes that the robot-generated revenues, combined with the freed up labour can be used to put more work into care for children and the elderly.

An article by The Economist, however, says the idea is “intriguing if impractical”. The article advises that the general consensus amongst economists is that taxation of investments is a poor decision because it will discourage individuals from investing. An automation robot is not just going to replace workers; it can also create new industries, help increase an individual worker’s productivity, and the overall labour costs saved could mean reduced pricing. As a result “workers as a whole might be better off because prices fall” and the cost of living will decrease. The Economist also proposes that another way to share the benefits of automation — instead of taxing it — could be “expanding capital ownership” so that more individuals and small businesses can own their own automation machines, and each collect their own profit, without the need for economic redistribution. For example “people could own driverless vehicles that operate as taxis … and rely on the flow for fares for part of their income.”

Navigating a world of labour redundancy may be far more complicated that a tax incentive to delay the inevitable, but for now the world is left waiting if any governments are planning to try.

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