Monday, September 22, 2014

Of Cabs and Capital: What are we liberating again?

In a recent piece making the twitter rounds, Reihan Salam of the National Review, argues for the re-scaling of certain regulating bodies from cities to the states for the sake of greater urban economic growth. He uses the example of Uber in Los Angeles, regulated by California's Public Utility Commission, as opposed to the city Taxi Commission, as a sterling example of how de-regulation and the embrace of "disruptive" technologies and practices can improve the experiences of city residents and help grow the local economy.

Salam continues down this track by arguing that zoning, traditionally the domain of local powers in the US, should likewise be re-scaled to the state level. Just as Taxi Commissions have captured local political interests and have artificially restricted the supply of available cabs, local governments, captured by local homeowner and developer interests, artificially cap the supply of available housing in many urban and suburban communities. This, of course, exacerbates the ever-increasing housing costs we see in the country's hottest urban real-estate markets. Shifting zoning responsibilities to the state level, or even the federal level like in Japan as Salam mentions, would free cities of the parochial interests of its residents and open up our cities for greater economic growth.

What Salam is describing is not particularly new, but his approach is novel in explicitly connecting the "disruptive" actions of firms like Uber with that of liberalizing zoning in order to disrupt "dysfunctional" housing markets for the sake of greater economic growth. The under-current of both arguments is that of the emancipatory potential of de-regulation or, more appropriately, re-regulation at different scales, assuming a lack of capture will rationalize local markets. But Salam and many de-regulation proponents are never quite explicit about who exactly is liberated or what this new liberation looks like.

In the case of Uber, Lyft and other contract-worker providers, we are witnessing the rise of an entirely new sector of labor market intermediaries who claim that their services are not only convenient for their customers, but are, in fact, liberating, and even fun for their employees. But what we see is a much more complicated picture that shows Uber, and its ilk, not as agents of an emancipatory urban life or even workplace, but simply the latest in a long line of exploitative employers that are leading in our continued turn towards greater contingent work relations and the return of piecework. But unlike capitalists of the past these new firms want their workers, and more importantly their customers, to love them and to believe they offer true liberation through disruption.

Susie Cagle (@susie_c), writing in Al-Jazeera, covered the growing movement of Uber drivers seeking better pay and representation through organizing themselves in a union-like structure. I say union-like because as independent contractors, Uber drivers in many states are not allowed to collectively bargain, and Cagle highlights how Uber drivers are making something entirely new that isn't necessarily seeking to revisit the trade unions of the past. These driver associations are demanding better treatment from Uber and for the radical privilege of simply being labeled as "employees" that do no have every single expense and risk, such as added vehicle insurance, uncertain shifts, and commission fees, outsourced onto them.

Such responses and organizing tactics are increasingly necessary, and will continue to be so, for as long as we continue to extol the virtues of the "gig/peer2peer/sharing/new economy" from the viewpoints of firms and an incredibly well-off minority of staff engineers and business owners that make their money off of being middle-men between well-off customers and an ever-growing precariat. It should be noted that this is a feature and not a bug of the kind of economy that these "new" economy boosters are constantly pushing. By definition, these firms push for greater flexibility and the disruption of traditional industries, and their attendant social and political relations, and quite often the easiest way to do that is to simply sever the connection between the employer and employed.

Whether these firms "employ" homeless individuals to clean houses or champion the freedom to make your own work by stringing together different tasks, all while they take their cut of course, much of the peer-to-peer economy is based on the time-honored practice of contracting out, shifting expenses on to workers themselves, and disavowing any and all substantive relationship with those that work for you. Ironically, such practices are not limited to those of us unable, or too stubborn, to learn how to code but to theivery workers Silicon Valley needs to function. Recently, Judge Lucy Koh rejected a settlement proposed by Apple, Intel, Google, and Adobe to the tune of $350 million dollars for engaging in a wide-ranging conspiracy to rob tens of thousands of current and former employees of their wages in an infamously competitive labor market. And these are the people that these companies feel important enough to hire on and claim as their own! This does not include the thousands of contracted security workers at Apple and Google and other lesser-skilled employees, now organizing protesting their working conditions, that are necessary to keep these companies, and their recognized employees, happy and safe.

Nothing about such practices are particularly new or egregious in comparison to how poorly corporations have always treated their employees. But it is precisely the fact that these companies that base so much of their identity on breaking the mold of past practices, and assiduously cultivating explicitly progressive-seeming missions or goals, play the same old games and engage in the same disenfranchising tactics as the robber barons of old that should give us pause as to why we decide to to de- or re-regulate different areas of our lives.

This is not a defense of the status quo in our workplaces or our cities. The status quo, after all, exists in the midst of a massive contingent turn in work relations that sees the rise of temporary and contract work as not only smart business but intrinsically virtuous. Our most popular cities, and suburbs, are in many ways captured by parochial interests that are served by high housing costs either for their own personal enrichment, as is the case for local home builder interests, or as a means to protect the "character" of exclusive neighborhoods. These relations, by all accounts, should be disrupted, but they should not be disrupted purely because we wish to unlock economic growth that is built upon the further degradation of workers and that is deaf to the needs of low-income households desperately seeking affordable housing in good neighborhoods. So, yes, let's look at moving zoning to the state level and even breaking up the cartels of local taxi commissions, but let us replace them not with the nastier forms of contemporary capitalism that places justice solely at the foot of economic growth, but with an ethic centered on just-relations built upon human dignity and democracy.