Poll: Americans Divided on Tax Money for Tech-Replaced Workers

Published May 15, 2018

Nearly half of Americans surveyed in a new poll say the government should give financial assistance to individuals put out of work by artificial intelligence (AI) or other technological advances.

In the poll conducted by Gallup, Inc. and Northeastern University and released in February, 48 percent of respondents said they would support new government payments to people forced out of jobs by technological advances.

Researchers from the polling firm and the public university interviewed a random nationwide sample of 3,297 U.S. adults, contacted via mail between September 15 and October 10, 2017. The survey’s results had a margin of error of two percentage points.

Tech ‘Trade Adjustment’

Edward Hudgins, research director for The Heartland Institute, which publishes Budget & Tax News, says providing entitlements for workers temporarily displaced by technology is not a new policy idea, nor a good one.

“There are a lot of issues here that go back centuries,” Hudgins said. “It’s very similar to trade adjustment assistance, a big thing back in the 1980s: the idea that free trade will throw people out of work and they need time to adjust to the fact that Japanese are selling more cars in the United States. It’s potentially a legislative prize to get support for free trade.”

Hudgins says the policy would be both unnecessary and unfair.

“There are a lot of objections to that sort of an arrangement,” Hudgins said. “It’s preferential: Why should people get some sort of assistance because they lose to their job to trade, as opposed to losing the job due to the business being mismanaged or that supply and demand changed? How do you know that someone really lost their job because of free trade or robots and AI?

“We already have a welfare system that supposedly targets people who lose their health care and jobs,” Hudgins said. “We already have systems in place that spend billions and billions of dollars.”

Politics of Progress

Charles Duan, senior fellow and associate director of technology and innovation at R Street Institute, says human history shows robots are unlikely to displace humans from the workplace.

“The fear of AI that relates to politics is that AI will automate jobs and therefore people will be put out of work and it’ll be the end of work,” Duan said. “Actually, according to history, that doesn’t happen. Originally, there were people knitting socks, and then people built machines that did the socks. There was a serious fear that these people knitting the socks would be out of work.”

Duan says technological progress didn’t destroy jobs but instead changed the kind of work people do.

“In fact, Queen Elizabeth I denied a patent on the sock-knitting machine because she was worried that if the work of sock machines was encouraged, people would be out of work,” Duan said. “People were very worried about this issue, but it turned out that the machines needed a lot of maintenance, metal casters, and engineering. There was a shift of jobs.”

‘A Fundamental Error’

Conservatives and liberals alike today are vulnerable to the same mistake in developing labor policy, Hudgins says.

“There is a fundamental error that goes back to Karl Marx that people left and right are still making today,” Hudgins said. “Two hundred years ago, there were Luddites that believed machines would put people out of work and instead of having people working at handlooms, there would be machines in a factory making 1,000 shirts a day. All the people sewing clothes would be thrown out of work.

“Marx had the notion machines would be efficient and make the rich owners richer, and then the rich owners would fire half their workers and cut the wages of the others due to machines, thus justifying a move to communism,” Hudgins said. “Marx was fundamentally wrong. Who is going to buy all the products and services the robots produce if everyone is out of work?

“What happened historically was as machines were introduced in factories, you didn’t need as many workers, but the shirts were far less expensive, so people could afford more shirts or other items,” Hudgins said. “Then, the capitalists produced furniture or steel or automobiles or airplanes, once the factories were producing enough shirts.”

Sees Bright Future

Instead of putting people out of work, AI will help humans work better and do more, Duan says.

“One can imagine a computer with a vast database of knowledge providing better information that answers questions for people,” Duan said. “Doctors can also work with automated system like diagnoses. There will be a lot of research in that field. There won’t be automated systems replacing doctors, but they will help doctors be more accurate.

“I don’t think computers can replace humans, because robots can’t judge on a human level,” Duan said. “Robots probably will be a supplement to a lot of industries.”