All posts by Joel Schlosberg

The Race is On: Uber versus the Real Sharing Economy

RGBStock traffic tunnel

A new kind of ride has arrived just in time.

Early in February, hundreds of Uber drivers converged on the company’s office in Long Island City, Queens to object to sweeping fare reductions.  Drivers must charge 15 percent less — while still paying Uber the same percentage, plus the ongoing vehicular expenses.  All with no tips allowed.

Uber justifies the fare cuts as a response to a slow season, and asserts that drivers make up the difference from shortened waiting times between gigs.  It remains unclear why there should be a better view of such conditions from the boardroom than from the street.

For that matter, why can’t such a service be street level through and through?  Mere weeks after the Uber strike, Christopher David is launching the Arcade City platform, which he describes to CoinTelegraph as “a decentralized Uber” whose earnings “won’t go to line the pockets of investors or sustain a corporate hierarchy” but “will be reinvested in our drivers, and in improving the customer experience. … Arcade City will decentralize [fare pricing] decisions to the level of the driver and their customers.”

Worker ownership models don’t depend on unproven technology.  Creator-owned comics publishers have been viable since the brick-and-mortar early 1990s.  An era of apps and Internet ubiquity enables similar enterprises in a variety of fields that will only increase.

So why is the ridesharing field dominated by a handful of big for-profit companies like Uber and Lyft?

Maybe it’s because, for all their clashes with the existing municipal regulatory infrastructure, they’re not all that different from it.  As David notes, “Uber’s approach is to push governments to regulate ridesharing in a manner favorable to their particular business model, stacking the deck against smaller competitors.”

Thus, while the number of traditional cab drivers is strictly limited, the Uber model merely shifts such restrictions to more subtle forms.  If repealing such regulations altogether seems too drastic — the medallion system was seen as a way to prevent a race to the bottom in fares — the ones that most directly suppress worker organizing and wages would be a good start.  And with drivers taking advantage of local knowledge of demand of what riders are willing to pay, it might be the intermediaries who see their earnings race to the bottom.

Only time will tell if Arcade City will succeed.  But the smart money’s on something more like it than Uber — if given the chance.

New Yorker Joel Schlosberg is a contributing editor at The William Lloyd Garrison Center for Libertarian Advocacy Journalism (thegarrisoncenter.org).

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The Ziegfeld’s Last Picture Show

emilydickinsonridesabmx (click photo to see source site). License: <a href="https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/" target="_blank">Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic</a>.
Premier of “The Soprano State” at the Ziegfield Theatre. Photo by
emilydickinsonridesabmx (click photo to see source site). License: Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic.

The Ziegfeld, New York City’s most elaborate movie theater, shut its doors after final screenings of Star Wars: The Force Awakens on January 28. Its sumptuous decor in the tradition of early-1900s movie palaces made it the go-to place for premieres. A throwback even when it opened in 1969, let alone in an on-demand era, is its last bow a sign that the culture of moviegoing as a special event belongs just as much in the past?

More foreboding is the site’s planned transformation into a ballroom for “society galas and corporate events” (The New York Post, January 20). As a luxury experience available to a mass audience and iconic beyond its immediate function as a commercial space, it was perhaps rivaled in New York only by toy store FAO Schwarz (which folded last year). The venue that had offered a royal occasion for the price of a movie ticket will be reserved exclusively for the bona fide economic elite. Two years into Bill de Blasio’s mayoralty, the rich and poor “two cities” identified by his campaign are growing even farther apart.

Florenz Ziegfeld was skilled at foreseeing popular taste, discovering such talent as W.C. Fields, Will Rogers and Barbara Stanwyck for his stage shows. Yet his namesake, absorbed by the Clearview and Bow Tie chains, served up for its distinctive single screen the same movies — and the same popcorn — as the multiplexes. Meanwhile, innovative upstarts like Alamo Drafthouse have thrived with upscale menus and eclectic programming. And the popularity of their revival and special screenings demonstrates consumer demand for “going to the movies” as a communal activity, not only for convenience of access above all. Institutions of film culture are vanishing from the city of Woody Allen and Martin Scorsese not because they are unwanted, but because they are unaffordable. The Ziegfeld’s midtown Manhattan is the epicenter of a real estate bubble that has driven its clientele farther and farther away. The entrepreneurial spirit can tackle the economic gap as well.

A closer look at de Blasio’s programs for making the city affordable confirms what Samuel Stein (“De Blasio’s Doomed Housing Plan,” Jacobin, Fall 2014) observes: They operate “without fundamentally challenging the dynamics between developers and communities, landlords and tenants, or housing and the market.” De Blasio’s modus operandi is cutting deals with developers, offering preferential regulations and outright subsidies in exchange for construction including some rent-controlled units.

Politicians in any city can be more effective by getting out of the way.  Instead of granting preferential exemption from zoning restrictions in ways friendly to big business (and which accelerate gentrification), said restrictions could be repealed altogether, starting with those most burdensome to the neediest. Shifting tax revenue onto land value would make productive use of real estate more gainful than withholding. And corporate welfare handouts could be cut from nine and ten figures to zero.

The curtain has closed on the Ziegfeld, but the show can go on elsewhere — and tickets don’t have to cost a king’s ransom.

New Yorker Joel Schlosberg is a contributing editor at The William Lloyd Garrison Center for Libertarian Advocacy Journalism (thegarrisoncenter.org).

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The GOP, the Boxes, and the Uber

English: Chinatown, Manhattan, New York City 2...
Chinatown, Manhattan, New York City 2009 on Pell Street, looking west towards Bayard and Mott. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 

On August 4, Vikas Bajaj devoted a New York Times op-ed to the politics of Uber. The headline contends that “Republicans Are Trying to Turn Uber Into a Partisan Issue,” and that companies like Uber and Airbnb based in the “gig economy” rather than the 9-to-5 realm “hardly fit into the kind of neat ideological boxes in which Republicans would like to put them.”

Bajaj then attempts to turn Uber into a partisan issue, fitting it into the Democrats’ neat ideological boxes. Republicans spotlighting startups with hi-tech cool and youth appeal is exposed as a ploy to distract from their reactionary stands on issues like same-sex marriage. This is in no way like Bill Clinton playing the sax on TV while rubber-stamping the Defense of Marriage Act away from the cameras.

To Bajaj, Uber’s “aggressively challenging or flouting taxi regulations” appeals to Republicans’ hostility toward the regulatory state (ignoring the key role of Democratic stalwarts like Ted Kennedy and Jimmy Carter in trucking deregulation misses an opportunity to score partisan points.)

Bajaj’s model is the detente between New York City mayor Bill de Blasio and Uber, two brash upstarts whose confrontational image is rapidly yielding to accommodation with the status quo. Not that de Blasio’s radical imagination ever approached that of true mavericks like Paul and Percival Goodman, whose 1961 remedy for Manhattan’s traffic congestion featured specialized half-length, electric-powered, 40-MPH cabs.

Bajaj notes that conservatives have backed municipal restraints on Uber, showing how “the political influence of established local businesses and labor groups” trumps professed ideology. Indeed. Bajaj points out support in Uber’s management for Obamacare “which Republicans love to hate” (but the templates of which Republicans like Mitt Romney designed to offload labor costs).

Professionals benefit in obvious ways from prohibitions on less skilled and informal competition. But contra the mythology of overpaid, underworked employees running the asylum, labor has always been a subsidiary partner in the corporate liberal coalition, in capital-intensive industries where it accounts for a relatively small proportion of operating costs. The same grassroots pressure that compelled General Motors to accede to United Automobile Workers can be applied to Uber.

Bajaj concludes that if economics doesn’t do the job, demographics will, with diverse millennials a captive constituency of the Democrats. Thus, as the Goodmans observed, voting is “according to ethnic and party groupings. The rival programs are both vague and identical.” In the 1970s, the Times was so charitable to the nascent libertarian movement (whose political party already officially supported same-sex marriage) that two of its young voices were given space in The New York Times Magazine to call JFK “one of the leading reactionaries of the sixties.” Mentioning that Uber’s CEO “holds libertarian views” only to lump them into the red-state side of the aisle, Bajaj is four decades behind the times. Where we’re riding, we need neither Republicans nor Democrats to build roads.

New Yorker Joel Schlosberg is a contributing editor at The William Lloyd Garrison Center for Libertarian Advocacy Journalism (thegarrisoncenter.org).

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