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Why robots should pay tax

Kate Ferguson
January 25, 2019

As she prepares to hand her job over to a robot, DW's Kate Ferguson makes the case for reforming Germany's social security system to better suit the new recruit.

DW Kolumne Ger-money Kate Ferguson

In Germany, the chances of your job being taken by a robot are higher than in other advanced economies. Researchers attribute this to the dominance of industries like car manufacturing and mechanical engineering, which don't require much of a human touch.

But I think the real explanation lies elsewhere. I think the robots are choosing to come here. In fact, I think what they really want is to avail of the country's excellent social security system.

It's no wonder really. Since the time of Otto von Bismarck in the late 19 century, Germany has been fine-tuning an insurance system designed to protect workers from ill health, old age and, yes, thankfully for me — even redundancy.

DW Kommentarbild Kate Ferguson
DW columnist Kate Ferguson

The proof is printed on my pay slip. Health insurance? Check. Unemployment insurance? Check. Long-term care insurance? Check. Statutory pension insurance? Check.

No worries

This is why, even as I face redundancy, I can maintain this bright and breezy tone.

Next year, as my robot successor gets up at the crack of dawn for the early shift at the business desk, I'll be rolling over in bed, safe in the knowledge that I'll continue to receive 60 percent of my current salary without having to write a single column about the German economy.

Robots know about these protections, so it's only natural that they're choosing to offer their skills to a country with a track record of enforcing those protections.

The problem is that the system as it currently stands doesn't entirely meet their needs. If my robot replacement is to enjoy the peace of mind that I have had in the past, a number of reforms will be required.

Health awareness

The first tweak will be to health insurance. In the past, a sick human simply stayed at home watching Netflix and feeling sorry for themselves for a few days before returning to work. Sure, it made the company less productive for a while.

But it wasn't a catastrophe. A robot infected by a virus, on the other hand, can destroy entire systems and potentially even bring down a firm. To guard against this threat, I propose the introduction of a so-called Anti-viral Insurance (AI) to be deducted at a rate of 20 percent from the robot's salary.

The second major deduction will be for a beefed-up retirement insurance scheme. At present, humans who retire do so in the knowledge that their golden years in Portugal will be funded by their hardworking millennial grandchildren.

Green energy compensation tax

Sadly, the same cannot be said of robots. Over the years, human reproduction has been sustained with very little or no intervention from the state. The process is remarkably cheap and doesn't require any electricity.

To generate new robots, on the other hand, requires a huge amount of power, not all of which will be able to be provided by renewables. As Germany seeks to meet its climate change goals, it will be up to robots to foot the energy bill for their own reproduction. Based on my own estimates, I am proposing the green energy compensation tax to be set at 30 percent.

Integrating millions of new robots into the German labor market presents further challenges. During the transition period, when people and robots work alongside each other, human interpreters will be needed to translate between German and the robots' native binary code.

Lost in translation?

At present, even much-lauded software like DeepL requires significant human intervention in order to meet workplace standards. To offset these additional personnel costs, a language tax of 15 percent will need to be imposed.

Another challenge will be maintaining workplace harmony. Unfortunately, unlike most humans, robots don't come with a programmed ability to sense, understand and respond to the mood of their colleagues.

While efforts to capture social intelligence in an algorithm continue, it will be necessary to guard against the possibility of embarrassing misunderstandings in the workplace. This so-called Faux Pas Insurance will follow the French model and be taxed at 35 percent.

As you can see from my proposals, the new social security system will offer the next generation of robot workers absolute peace of mind. It will, of course, also leave them with no take-home pay.

Not to worry! The scramble to sustain an entertaining yet informative column about the German economy offers more of a thrill than any amount of cash ever could.