Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Marginal Tax Rates Will Get Much Higher As Our Tech Advances

As you may have noticed from my last few posts, I have tech on the brain - so in this post, I'm going to put on my futurist hat and think about the intersection between technological advancement and tax policy.

First the futurist part: I don't think we're quite there yet, but I think we're standing shortly before the advent of the next great phase in humanity's technological advancement - what I expect historians will call "the robot age," though it could also be called "the age of artificial intelligence" or something like that. Regardless of what it's called, the point is that I think we're about to get to the point where robots are going to take over far more jobs now done by people than robots currently do.

Robots have been used in advanced manufacturing for a long time already - but we are now getting to the point of being able to build robots that can:
Many blue-collar and white-collar jobs have been eliminated by technology (and robots) already, and it's not hard to imagine a future where most (if not all) even semi-menial work is done by robots - personally, I can't wait for my very affordable robot maid (a la the Jetsons), who will take care of all the work around the house for me, and I can't wait for my self-driving car that takes me wherever I want to go while I'm able to work, sleep, or play while I ride along.

However, this robot revolution has serious implications, obviously - if much (most?) of what we currently consider to be "work" is done by robots, we humans in general will have to work much less than we do now, even to maintain a much higher standard of living. Sure, there will be work available in designing, building, and servicing our ever-growing army of robot workers, managing companies and society in general, etc., but there will be limits to the amount of work available for that - what should everyone else do?

Furthermore, it's not hard to see that, under the current capitalist system, HUGE, UNFATHOMABLE RICHES will accrue to whoever owns the robots, since the robots will have both large intrinsic value as tools and perform most of the valuable work there is to be done.

Therefore, I can envision two futures - one in which wealth equality grows ever-greater, with a very tiny, super-wealthy elite who own most of the robots and the means of robot production, while the rest of humanity, left with no work to perform, is mired in poverty.

An alternative future (one that I think is more likely to come to pass) is a future in which, as technology advances, marginal tax rates on the tiny, super-wealthy elite continue to increase - probably well above 90% for the top tax rates. I am guessing that, in this future in which few people need to work (indeed, in which there only IS work for a relatively small number of people), the government will simply guarantee a minimum (but probably relatively high) standard of living - certainly higher than the average standard of living today. The people who are capable of advancing human technology will work (some, but probably not as many hours as they currently work) and will therefore be quite wealthy, certainly substantially more wealthy than the minimum standard of living guaranteed by the government. Obviously, humanity on the whole would enjoy a lot more leisure time. I'm sure some people would/will recoil at the thought of this level of government redistribution, but I don't see how someone could instead desire a dystopian future in which most of humanity is (completely unnecessarily) mired in poverty.

I hope I live to see this future, and I hope it's the second future - I would be quite happy to work less and enjoy a higher standard of living, thanks to robots. So, bring it on, future robot overlords!


  1. I used to have a simple rule: If there's not enough money in the world to hire me to do a job, then that job sucks and it should be done by robots.

    But recently I realized that category includes "President of the United States", so I need to refine the rule a bit.

    1. Joe: I know where you're coming from - I used to fantasize when I was younger (like, 12 or so) about being the benevolent dictator of the world - but now that I'm older and wiser, I can't imagine what a ridiculous pain in the ass that would be.

      I'm pondering a blog post along those lines currently - stay tuned and it will probably appear in a few days.

      -The Angry Bureaucrat