Can robots pay taxes?

Bill Gates thinks robots should pay taxes. My first reaction was: Mr Gates obviously doesn’t know much economics. If he did, he would know that things do not pay taxes. Only people do.

Robots, so I thought, are machines. They don’t have an income of their own, they don’t consume stuff. The income they help produce goes to whoever owns the robot. If I own a robot, my willingness to let it (him? her?) work for a firm increases with the robot wage rate, the amount of money I receive per hour of work done by my robot. A tax on robot wages would shift the supply curve of robot labor up (or, if you prefer, to the left), increasing for each given amount of robot labor the wage rate employers must pay to get it. The gross robot wage increases, although probably by less than the tax rate, depending on how elastic the demand for robot labor is. Assuming that the demand elasticity is not infinite, the tax burden will be split between the robot owners and the employers of robots. So the robot tax would just be another form of a capital tax, which would partly be shifted to other factors of production, including human labor. In no real sense would it „tax robots“.

Now there are good reasons to believe that we are approaching the “technological singularity“, a scenario in which robots become smarter than humans. Some experts on artificial intelligence reckon we might be only 30 years away from that. I have exactly zero qualifications to judge the plausibility of that claim, but I don’t see any obvious reason why it couldn’t happen.

Suppose the singularity does happen. Then it seems quite ridiculous to assume that humans own robots. More likely, it would be the robots who own humans. Indeed, we can only hope the super-intelligent robots would treat us a little better than we are treating less intelligent life-forms now. Let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that humans will co-exist with the super robots as equals, at least for a while. Then robots would effectively become another class of people competing with us in the market place for jobs and goods. In such a world, robots are capable of bearing a tax in the sense that they would have to cut back on their consumption (whatever it is robots consume) when faced with a tax. But even in this, admittedly unlikely, scenario, it would be the case that humans feel some of the burden of the robot tax. This is because even super-intelligent robots will react to incentives. Why, given that they are super intelligent, they should react much better to incentives than homo sapiens with all its cognitive biases. If we tax their labor, they will supply less of it, which hurts humans.

So yes, robots could pay taxes. But only if they are intelligent and powerful enough to resist being held as slaves by humans, and not as intelligent and powerful as would allow them to enslave humans. Not a very likely scenario I guess.

PS: If you are curious what AI is currently capable of doing, here is some AI-produced poetry.


In praise of internet ads

On my recent trip to the United States my flight got canceled. The airline didn’t give any reason for the cancelation, offered no compensation for the resulting delay. Plus, my baggage was lost on the way, probably due to the fact that I was rebooked on a different flight involving two other airlines.

A week after the incident I noticed that a particular ad appeared again and again on my Facebook feed. It simply said “Flight delayed or canceled? Find out if you are entitled to compensation. We can help you start your claim for free.” So I clicked on it, even though I’m usually very skeptical of internet ads. The site behind the link looked reputable to me. I quickly googled “AirHelp fraud” or some similar phrase to see if there are any warnings or complaints about the company, but couldn’t find any.

So I decided to trust the site, filled out a simple online form asking me some details about my flight and uploaded a copy of my ticket. Within a week, I received a message that the airline had agreed to pay me 163 dollars in compensation. AirHelp charged 40 dollars in service fees. The whole thing cost me no more than 30 minutes of my time.

Two things I took away from this story: 1) Annoying as internet ads may be, they sometimes are really useful. Had I not seen the ad, I probably wouldn’t have bothered to contact the airline at all, and if I did, I would have spent hours on the phone talking to some customer service agent in India or, worse, some lawyer. Take this as an example that advertisement can create value for consumers. 2) The internet really does change the service industry profoundly. It’s evident that companies like AirHelp increase competition for service providers, especially highly regulated ones such as lawyering. We (or I, at least) used to think such services require a lot of local, personal interaction which the internet can never substitute for. It turns out more and more that this is wrong, which is probably bad news for lawyers and other service providers. More competition is always harmful for suppliers, hence the fierce resistance against Uber and Airbnb.

PS: I did spend hours on the phone talking to some customer service agent in India about my bag – but that’s a different story.

Are we being stupid? – Part 3: Ideas on how to be less stupid.

In the previous parts of this blog I have talked about two things: firstly, about how most advanced economies are heavily dependent on innovation for sustained growth and, secondly, I’ve presented some macroeconomic figures and anecdotal evidence regarding the importance of innovation in Europe. In case I was not explicit enough throughout this series: I don’t believe Europe is doing enough to be and become the dynamic and innovative economic zone we could be. What do I think needs to change?

I think public and private expenditure on R&D and higher education is important, but I also believe that how much good it does depends a lot on what we use this money for and that some of our problems are structural: There are two points I want to stress in particular:

  1. Reforming our educational system

I believe that we need new concepts for education. Our education system plays a fundamental role in shaping the citizens that determine the (political) future of our nations and in forming the work force that ensures that our economies and societies remain dynamic and innovative and create the employment needed. However, this is the 21st century and yet, we are relying on a schooling system that largely stems from the industrialization era! We want people to generate innovation, to think out of the box and to tackle economic and social issues? We want them to learn, because they want to and not because we are legally forcing them to sit in school until they turn 15? Well, then maybe it is time we adapt the way we teach and also what we teach in our schools to modern life, families and children! (sounds radical rather than pragmatic, but sometimes incremental is just not enough)

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Recreational econometrics with GERD

In her last post, Katharina pointed to a great data source on R&D expenditure, GERD. In the comment section of that post we discussed the issue of cuts in government R&D expenditures. An interesting question in this context is whether public R&D expenditure is a complement to private R&D expenditure or a substitute. If it is a complement, cuts in the public R&D budget are very bad, because they can be expected to be followed by cuts in private research budgets. If it is a substitute, public R&D ‘crowds out’ private R&D, so that public cuts are not that bad because they can be expected to be replaced by private R&D.

There is an extensive literature on this question, yielding mixed results. So I asked myself what does GERD say? The figure below shows a scatterplot of government and private expenditure on R&D as a share in GDP for 36 countries in 2008. You can see that the data points are pretty much all over the place (Austria is marked red). It turns out that if you regress private on public R&D expenditure, you get a positive coefficient indicating complementarity. However, the coefficient is not statistically significant (t-ratio of 1.63) and the R-squared is very low. So we have no strong evidence for complementarity, but also no evidence for substitutability. Instead, what my recreational econometrics exercise suggests is that private R&D expenditure is pretty much independent from government research budgets.


Are we being stupid? – Part 2: Strategic Foresight

In part 1 we have established that growth in the West relies on innovation and technology much more than growth in developing countries. We are the ones at the technology frontier, so if we want to grow, we need to be more innovative. In this blog I’ll mainly cover government policies regarding R&D and higher education, focusing a lot on expenditure (1). If you’re interested in broader measures, you could start here, with the Innovation Union Scoreboard 2014.

For those of you who like the big numbers, let me introduce you to GERD. GERD is the Gross Domestic Expenditure on R&D, which includes expenditure by business enterprises, governments and foreigners. In 2010 GERD stood at 245 673 million in absolute terms in the EU-27. Given that this does not really tell us much, GERD is normally calculated relative to GDP. Between 2000 and 2010 the ratio has roughly been flat at around 1.80-2% of GDP. This means that internationally the EU-27 figures are below those in other countries: Japan (3.45%), US (2.80%).2 There are also substantial differences within the EU. The highest expenditures in 2010 were reported from (how could it be different) Finland (3.87 %), Sweden (3.42 %) and Denmark (3.06 %).

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Are we being stupid? – Part 1: Growth Economics 101

Over the past couple of months a number of things have been happening, which made me want to start writing a blog. So, when I finally sat down and started writing on one of them I realised that the topics are all linked and can be wonderfully put together under one question: „Are we being stupid?“ If I had to give this series a more technical title then it would be something along the lines of „Are Europe’s efforts to stay competitive appropriate to ensure the future growth of the region“, but, let’s face it, „are we being stupid?“ is a much more catchy title and regarding some of the things I’ll be talking about also way more appropriate. I wanted to jump right in, but some of you may have very little background in economics or economic growth, so I’ll use part I to put the whole debate into context (by heavily oversimplifying things!!!). By the end of this blog you should know why Western economies are innovation-driven and why that matters. In part 2 we’re getting more to the core of the issue about how innovative Europe is in comparison to other developed countries. Part 3 is a proposal for the changes I consider necessary. Let’s get started…

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