New York City mayor and 2020 Democratic presidential candidate Bill de Blasio has endorsed a “robot tax” and the foundation of a new government agency to oversee automation. De Blasio laid out his plan late last week in an opinion article for Wired, describing it as an alternative to the universal basic income (UBI) supported by his rival Andrew Yang.
De Blasio’s plan would create a new agency called the Federal Automation and Worker Protection Agency (FAWPA), which would govern how companies could automate jobs. This would include removing tax incentives for automation and adding a “permitting process” for any company that wants to “increase automation that would displace workers.” (Companies would need to offer severance packages or new jobs that pay as much as the old ones.)
The “robot tax,” meanwhile, would apply to “large companies” that eliminate jobs through automation without offering employees new jobs. These companies would have to pay five years of payroll taxes into a special fund. This fund would be used to create a “new generation of labor-intensive, high-employment infrastructure projects and new jobs in areas such as health care and green energy.” The displaced workers would be guaranteed new jobs in these fields “at comparable salaries.”
De Blasio says this plan would fix problems with the “woefully inadequate” UBI system. (Yang’s version would guarantee Americans $12,000 a year.) Various people have criticized UBI for many reasons, including fears that it will displace existing social programs or fail to solve larger employment problems. De Blasio says UBI will “overlooks the intrinsic value of a job, believing the financial life support of a monthly check can substitute for meaningful employment.” He assures voters that his “plan wouldn’t accept a post-work future. Instead, it would hasten a work-filled future.”
Robot taxes have been on the table for a few years now. Bill Gates famously discussed the idea in 2017, and European lawmakers have considered but rejected it. Other presidential candidates have also promised to help protect workers from automation, just not through a robot tax. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and other Democratic candidates have supported a jobs guarantee for Americans. Sanders has criticized the UBI in similar terms as de Blasio, saying that “people want to work.” In any case, de Blasio has said he may drop out of the race if he doesn’t qualify for next month’s Democratic debates, so his robot tax remains firmly hypothetical for now.