Judging simply from their public profiles, you wouldn't think Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Bill Gates would agree on much. A self-proclaimed democratic socialist, Ocasio-Cortez has advocated taxing income over $10 million at 70 percent, for instance. Gates is among the sliver of Americans who would feel the pain of that proposal.
But at SXSW, the Democratic wunderkind revealed she and the sometimes world's richest man actually agree on tax in at least one big way. Both have now come out in favor of taxing job-stealing robots.
Robots are coming for our jobs? Great!
Asked by an audience member if she was worried about AI replacing workers (one recent Oxford report predicted half of all current jobs would be replaced within the next 25 years), Ocasio-Cortex responded:
"We should not be haunted by the specter of being automated out of work. We should not feel nervous about the toll booth collector not having to collect tolls anymore. We should be excited by that. But the reason we're not excited by it is because we live in a society where if you don't have a job, you are left to die. And that is, at its core, our problem."
Done right, automation would be exciting, she went on to say: "What it could potentially mean is more time educating ourselves, more time creating art, more time investing in and investigating the sciences, more time focused on invention, more time going to space, more time enjoying the world that we live in. Because not all creativity needs to be bonded by wage."
You can see her full answer starting about at minute 55, including more details of the ways such a tax might play out:
Automated luxury communism, or the preferred policy of billionaires?
Ocasio-Cortez isn't the first to dream of a world with way less work. Back in 1930, economist John Maynard Keynes predicted technology and rising productivity would allow us to work just 15 hours a week by the 21st century. We would while away the rest of our time enjoying leisure, community, and education.
We all know that's not quite how it has worked out. Which has led many to be skeptical of dreams of an economy where robots do all the work and humans relax (the dystopian version of this is the useless, obese, screen-addicted humans of Pixar's WALL-E). In fact, wits have dubbed Ocasio-Cortez's vision "fully automated luxury communism."
But while history makes it easy to mock socialists with visions for a glorious new society, the truth is Ocasio-Cortez's proposal isn't just a beautiful but impractical dream. Bill Gates, whom no one has ever accused of being impractical or dreamy, has advocated for exactly the same thing.
In a 2017 interview, Gates noted "the human worker who does, say, $50,000 worth of work in a factory, that income is taxed and you get income tax, social security tax, all those things. If a robot comes in to do the same thing, you'd think that we'd tax the robot at a similar level." But we don't. We should, for exactly the same reasons Ocasio-Cortez cites.
"What the world wants is to take this opportunity to make all the goods and services we have today, and free up labor, let us do a better job of reaching out to the elderly, having smaller class sizes, helping kids with special needs... all of those are things where human empathy and understanding are still very, very unique," Gates went on to say.
Gates' comments set off a spirited and extremely wonky debate among economists. Some worried about implementation. Some suggested other ideas, but no one laughed at Gates' ludicrous pie-in-the-sky thinking. So perhaps we should think twice before we dismiss the young congresswoman from New York as a hopelessly deluded young dreamer.
What do you think of this proposal from Gates and Ocasio-Cortez?