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Wednesday, September 11, 2019

Presidential Candidate Proposes Automation Agency to Save Jobs: Will It Work?

Automation makes our lives better.

Image by Office of Bill de Blasio via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0(

On September 5th, presidential candidate and New York City mayor Bill de Blasio published in tech magazine Wired that if elected president, he would “issue a robot tax for corporations displacing humans, and create a federal agency to oversee automation.”

De Blasio is a longshot for even the Democratic nomination—much less the presidency—polling at less than one percent. But his professed concerns about employment losses due to technological innovation and automation aren’t unusual, particularly among those younger than 25. But a new federal agency dedicated to “overseeing” automation practices will only cause more problems.

Permission-Slip Innovation

I can understand the discomfort with automation that so many people have, the fear that your job could be replaced by a robot. And with the anticipated advances in artificial intelligence, it sometimes seems like no industry sector is safe. The immediate result of lost jobs is easily foreseen. But it’s the unforeseen and unintended consequences of our actions that can have the biggest impact on the world.

Think about the popular, relatively inexpensive goods and services you enjoy the most: the lattes, the game consoles, the rideshares. How many of them do you think would have been possible if their initiators had needed to get permission from a federal bureaucracy first? Probably very few of them. Those daring entrepreneurs didn’t ask, “Mother, may I?” They just did. This is called permissionless innovation, and it’s a significant driver of our global economy.

De Blasio writes:

To start, my plan calls for a new federal agency, the Federal Automation and Worker Protection Agency (FAWPA), to oversee automation and safeguard jobs and communities.

FAWPA would create a permitting process for any company seeking to increase automation that would displace workers. Approval of those plans would be conditioned on protecting workers; if their jobs are eliminated through automation, the company would be required to offer their workers new jobs with equal pay, or a severance package in line with their tenure at the company.

This proposed requirement for a federal permission slip before making improvements to your own business might make sense to some when they only consider the immediate results. Perhaps some jobs would be “saved” by the requirement. But what they don’t take into account are the lower costs that never come and the new, more-numerous jobs that aren’t created because of the new restrictions. After all, technology always has and always will create more jobs than it displaces.

Automation Makes Life Better

Change can be scary, and there’s always been resistance to technological advances that threaten to “take our jobs.” But there is no progress without change.

Automation makes our lives better. It allows us to spend less time doing the things we don’t enjoy or aren’t good at or take a long time to do by hand. Dishwashers, washing machines, Roombas, bug zappers, calculators, “Siri, play my Road Trip Mix playlist!” These are all forms of automation, and they all free us up to do the things we’re best at and enjoy the most.

So maybe the factory worker loses their job on the assembly line, but what if they end up happier as an IT consultant or they write the next Great American Novel? Or wind up at one of the jobs that haven’t even been invented yet? If we artificially restrict progress, we’ll never know.