Robot Tax in San Francisco Does Not Compute (Opinion)

San Francisco is a monumental hub for tech advancements in recent years, so why is the city considering anti-tech proposals?

by The Orange County Register / June 6, 2017

(TNS) -- The Bay Area is home to incredible technological innovation, so it is surprising that San Francisco has taken a decidedly anti-tech stance lately.

First, Supervisor Jane Kim announced that she was exploring the option of imposing a “robot tax” on firms that displace human workers with automation. Then, Supervisor Norman Yee proposed banning delivery robots from city sidewalks. This does not sound like the city that has benefitted so much from such technological advances.

Kim’s proposal would use the financial penalty of taxation to try to slow the adoption of certain kinds of automation, while directing revenue to subsidize education for displaced workers.

“We don’t want to become a Third World country where there’s a big divide between the very rich and the very poor,” Kim told Fast Company.

It seems that that ship has already set sail, though. The city’s Human Services Agency released a study in 2014 that put San Francisco’s income inequality on par with Third World nations like Rwanda and Guatemala.

Even so, income inequality alone is a poor measure of prosperity. After all, we should celebrate if the poor get richer, even if the rich get richer at a faster rate (thus increasing the income inequality gap), because everyone is better off than they were before.

And who is to determine the “proper” rate of automation, or which types are “harmful”? Why, hordes of government bureaucrats, of course.

But stifling innovation and increasing government welfare subsidies, thus providing less incentive for displaced workers to invest in developing new skills and finding new jobs, is certainly not a recipe for economic success — for entrepreneurs or for workers.

Yee’s solution to new technology is even more extreme. Just as new automated delivery services are being tested and improved, Yee wants to kill the efforts before they can get off the ground. He reportedly discovered that a pilot autonomous delivery program was being operated — gasp! — without permits or regulation.

Discussions with police and other agencies revealed that regulation would be nearly impossible to enforce, however. “So, for me, then, the regulation becomes: They shouldn’t be on the sidewalks,” Yee told Wired. In other words, we can’t micromanage it just the way we want, so we’re going to ban it for everyone.

“Our public spaces should not be commercialized,” Yee added in a separate interview with CBS San Francisco. This is a curious argument, given that human delivery services use public roads all the time. And, as a police spokesman told Wired, the threat is really no greater than a worker pushing a dolly down the sidewalk. There is no evidence of extraordinary safety issues, or that any issues could not be handled by existing laws.

New technologies certainly can disrupt job markets and our day-to-day experiences, but that has always been the case with progress. Is it better to prop up old technologies that stifle innovation and make businesses less competitive on a national, or international, scale?

It is not a coincidence that the tech industry has prospered so much while being one of the more lightly regulated industries in the state. San Francisco lawmakers should ask themselves what Silicon Valley would look like if we had adopted government restrictions like their proposals 10 or 20 or 30 years ago.

©2017 The Orange County Register (Santa Ana, Calif.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.