Bill Gates, meet Ned Ludd. Ned, meet Bill.
Ludd was the 18th-century folk hero of anti-industrialists. As the possibly apocryphal story goes, in the 1770s he busted up a few stocking frames—knitting machines used to make socks and other clothing—to protest the labor-saving devices. Taking up his cause a few decades later, a band of self-described “Luddites” rebelled by smashing some of the machines that powered the Industrial Revolution.
Apparently this is the sort of behavior that would make Mr. Gates proud. Last month in an interview with the website Quartz, the Microsoft founder and richest man alive said it would be OK to tax job-killing robots. If a $50,000 worker was replaced by a robot, the government would lose income-tax revenue. Therefore, Mr. Gates suggested, the feds can make up their loss with “some type of robot tax.”
This is the dumbest idea since Messrs. Smoot and Hawley rampaged through the U.S. Capitol in 1930. It’s a shame, especially since Bill Gates is one of my heroes.
When I started working on Wall Street, I was taken into rooms with giant sheets of paper spread across huge tables. People milled about armed with rulers, pencils and X-Acto Knives, creating financial models and earnings estimates.
Spreadsheets, get it? This all disappeared quickly when VisiCalc, Lotus 1-2-3 and eventually Microsoft Excel automated the calculations. Some fine motor-skill workers and maybe a few math majors lost jobs, but hundreds of thousands more were hired to model the world. Should we have taxed software because it killed jobs? Put levies on spell checkers because copy editors are out of work?
Mr. Gates killed as many jobs as anyone: secretaries, typesetters, tax accountants—the list doesn’t end. It’s almost indiscriminate destruction. But he’s my hero because he made the world productive, rolling over mundane and often grueling jobs with automation. The American Dream is not sorting airline tickets, setting type or counting $20 bills. Better jobs emerged.
Mr. Gates may be worth $86 billion—who’s counting?—but the rest of the world made multiples of his fortune using his tools. Society as a whole is better off. In August 1981, when Microsoft’s operating system first began to ship, U.S. employment stood at 91 million jobs. The economy has since added 53 million jobs, outpacing the rate of population growth.