Taxing R2-D2? ABA Tax Section Panel on Automation and AI

Kerry Ryan
Associate Professor
St. Louis University School of Law

I had the pleasure of attending the midyear meeting of the ABA Tax Section this past weekend in San Diego. The Tax Policy & Simplification committee organized an interesting panel entitled: “Taxing R2-D2: How Should We Think About the Taxation of Robots and AI.” The panel was organized and moderated by Surly’s own Leandra Lederman, and panelists included Shu-Yi Oei (Boston College), Roberta Mann (Oregon Law), and Robert Kovacev (Steptoe & Johnson LLP).

For those of you who read Shu-Yi’s post, you know that she is “deeply skeptical” of the “robot tax” frame. At best, it is misleading—no one is attempting to impose a tax on a “robot” (whatever that is?) per se. As Robert Kovacev succinctly put it: “robots don’t pay taxes, people pay taxes.” The key question is which people: owners, workers, and/or consumers? Roberta linked this question to the long-standing debate about who ultimately bears the burden of the corporate income tax.

At worst, the “robot tax” terminology captures (and perhaps amplifies) the fear (“the robots are coming!”) and angst driving much of this discussion. The underlying concern relates to the potential negative impact on labor of increased utilization of technology/artificial intelligence (AI)/automation in the production process. Experts disagree about whether, over the longer term, automation will reduce the number, or merely the type, of human workers. The unanswered question is whether this is just the next in a long line of technological shifts in the economy dating as far back as the Industrial Revolution, or whether AI/machine learning truly represents a technological tipping point.

What is clear is that the transition to this new automated workplace may lead to worker displacement (particularly for those in manual/routine jobs). Mass unemployment could negatively impact the tax base—fewer workers mean fewer taxpayers. Notice that any revenue loss would hit at the same time as funding demands increased for re-training and/or social protection programs (existing and/or proposed universal basic income) for displaced workers.

Assuming you believe there is a problem(s), what is the policy prescription? While most of the panelists agreed that tax has a role to play here, they disagreed as to the contours of that role. Should we plug the hole in the income tax base by shifting more of the tax burden onto capital, as opposed to labor? Do we attempt to tax work completed by robots in the same manner as comparable work by employees (see Bill Gates proposal)? Should we raise the overall level of taxation (under existing or new tax structures)? Do we view automation as imposing negative externalities on the labor market and impose some type of Pigouvian tax? Should we attempt to slow the pace of technological development, rather than workplace implementation, by reducing either direct funding or tax incentives for R&D and innovation (see South Korea)?

Many interesting questions with no easy answers. At the very least, we must resist allowing zeitgeist to drive the policy response, while at the same time affirming the legitimacy of the underlying concerns and working to minimize their negative consequences on workers and their families.

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