The larger question of California’s AB 5

Noam Cohen begins[1] to get to the crux of the issue over California’s AB 5, in which Uber and Lyft would, and apparently will, be required to classify their drivers as employees, not as independent contractors.[2] The companies are attempting to deny that the law even applies to them[3] and, beginning to acknowledge a widespread social recognition of their immorality toward drivers, propose a limited amelioration.[4]

There is a reason that some people call Silicon Valley a font of cruelty. The platform defense seems like an easy justification for turning your eyes away from social destruction. But even more insidious is the trashing of basic, time-tested standards for relationships, whether between news tellers or storytellers and their audience, between hosts and their guests, between employers and their employees.[5]

And of course we understand the motivation: profit. Or, in Uber and Lyft’s case, the minimization of losses in the face of increasing skepticism that the companies can ever be profitable.[6]

Even capitalist libertarianism, which imagines that human wants and needs can (and must) all, or nearly all, be satisfied by the market, and defines ‘freedom’ accordingly,[7] does not quite do what neoliberalism does, which is to individualize and particularize each of us as mere economic units of production. Neoliberalism totalizes our entire value as human beings as the difference between the revenue we generate for the rich and the cost we impose upon them. In a neoliberal regime, that difference must be maximized at any cost and we valorize those who do so most egregiously.[8]

Which is to say that neoliberalism reduces the value of human wants and needs not merely to market value, but rather to their value for the rich, and this is the utility that functionalist conservatives, who are focused on preserving their privileges and positions relative to the rest of us, find in neoliberalism. Cynics might accordingly suggest that a reason Uber and Lyft are vulnerable is precisely that they are losing money spectacularly, and that they show little promise of ever being profitable,[9] which is to say that they are failing to offer that value, and therefore, in neoliberal thinking, the companies are little better than that homeless person panhandling at a gas station: Perhaps we will allow them a $1 bill for washing our windshield.

Basic decency and respect in our relationships, indeed, is an indispensable social lubricant. They just come with being human. And ride-hailing drivers are human. We look away from each other at our collective peril.[10]

The larger question for the rest of us, the question that Cohen barely begins to address, is whether we will recognize the immorality in this entire attitude toward human beings beyond Silicon Valley’s “platforms,” especially the ones that happen to be losing money.

  1. [1]Noam Cohen, “How Tech Firms Like Uber Hide Behind the ‘Platform Defense,’” Wired, September 13, 2019, https://www.wired.com/story/how-tech-firms-like-uber-hide-behind-the-platform-defense/
  2. [2]Sophia Bollag, “California Uber, Lyft drivers to become employees under measure Gov. Gavin Newsom says he’ll sign,” Sacramento Bee, September 11, 2019, https://www.sacbee.com/news/politics-government/capitol-alert/article234973107.html; Alexia Fernández Campbell, “California is cracking down on the gig economy,” Vox, May 30, 2019, https://www.vox.com/policy-and-politics/2019/5/30/18642535/california-ab5-misclassify-employees-contractors; Aaron Gordon, “Uber And Lyft Don’t Have A Right To Exist,” Jalopnik, August 30, 2019, https://jalopnik.com/uber-and-lyft-dont-have-a-right-to-exist-1837680434; Aaron Gordon, “The Bill That Would Make Uber And Lyft Drivers Employees Isn’t Just Making Uber And Lyft Nervous,” Jalopnik, September 6, 2019, https://jalopnik.com/the-bill-that-would-make-uber-and-lyft-drivers-employee-1837909962; Andrew J. Hawkins, “California just dropped a bomb on the gig economy — what’s next?” Verge, September 11, 2019, https://www.theverge.com/2019/9/11/20860578/california-ab5-bill-passage-uber-lyft-drivers-union-techlash; Sarah Holder, “Uber and Lyft Really Don’t Want California to Pass This Worker Rights Bill,” CityLab, June 13, 2019, https://www.citylab.com/transportation/2019/06/gig-economy-employment-law-california-bill-ab-5-uber-lyft/591565/; Alejandro Lazo, “California Passes Landmark Bill Requiring Contract Workers to Be Labeled as Employees,” Wall Street Journal, September 11, 2019, https://www.wsj.com/articles/california-governor-still-in-talks-with-uber-lyft-over-gig-workers-law-11568212014; Alejandro Lazo and Eliot Brown, “Uber, Lyft, DoorDash Threaten Ballot Fight Over California Gig-Worker Law,” Wall Street Journal, August 29, 2019, https://www.wsj.com/articles/uber-lyft-doordash-threaten-ballot-fight-over-california-gig-worker-law-11567126445
  3. [3]Kate Conger, “Uber Says It Will Not Change Driver Status Under California Gig-Worker Law,” New York Times, September 11, 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/09/11/business/economy/uber-california-bill.html; Shirin Ghaffary, “Uber and Lyft say they don’t plan to reclassify their drivers as employees,” Vox, September 11, 2019, https://www.vox.com/2019/9/11/20861599/ab-5-uber-lyft-drivers-contractors-reclassify-employees; Aaron Gordon, “Uber To California: Make Us,” Jalopnik, September 11, 2019, https://jalopnik.com/uber-and-lyft-drivers-shouldnt-expect-to-be-employees-a-1838048966
  4. [4]Angela Chen, “This is one way Uber and Lyft want to get around making drivers employees,” MIT Technology Review, September 13, 2019, https://www.technologyreview.com/s/614308/uber-lyft-ab5-gig-workers-labor-classification-third-category-tech-policy/
  5. [5]Noam Cohen, “How Tech Firms Like Uber Hide Behind the ‘Platform Defense,’” Wired, September 13, 2019, https://www.wired.com/story/how-tech-firms-like-uber-hide-behind-the-platform-defense/
  6. [6]Rich Alton, “Basic economics means Uber and Lyft can’t rely on driverless cars to become profitable,” MarketWatch, August 12, 2019, https://www.marketwatch.com/story/basic-economics-means-uber-and-lyft-cant-rely-on-driverless-cars-to-become-profitable-2019-08-12; Eliot Brown, “Uber Wants to Be the Uber of Everything—But Can It Make a Profit?” Wall Street Journal, May 4, 2019, https://www.wsj.com/articles/uber-wants-to-be-the-uber-of-everything-11556909866; Richard Durant, “Uber’s Profitability Problem Is Structural,” Seeking Alpha, August 21, 2019, https://seekingalpha.com/article/4287055-ubers-profitability-problem-structural; Ryan Felton, “Uber Is Doomed,” Jalopnik, February 24, 2017, https://jalopnik.com/uber-is-doomed-1792634203; Yves Smith, “Uber Is Headed for a Crash,” New York, December 4, 2018, http://nymag.com/intelligencer/2018/12/will-uber-survive-the-next-decade.html; Stephen Wilmot, “Uber’s Long Road to Profits,” Wall Street Journal, August 22, 2019, https://www.wsj.com/articles/ubers-long-road-to-profits-11566471068; Julia Carrie Wong, “Disgruntled drivers and ‘cultural challenges’: Uber admits to its biggest risk factors,” Guardian, April 12, 2019, https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2019/apr/11/uber-ipo-risk-factors
  7. [7]F. A. Hayek, The Collected Works of F. A. Hayek, ed. Bruce Caldwell, vol. 2, The Road to Serfdom: Text and Documents; The Definitive Edition (1944; repr., Chicago: University of Chicago, 2007).
  8. [8]Jacob S. Hacker and Paul Pierson, Winner-Take-All Politics: How Washington Made the Rich Richer—And Turned Its Back on the Middle Class (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2010).
  9. [9]Rich Alton, “Basic economics means Uber and Lyft can’t rely on driverless cars to become profitable,” MarketWatch, August 12, 2019, https://www.marketwatch.com/story/basic-economics-means-uber-and-lyft-cant-rely-on-driverless-cars-to-become-profitable-2019-08-12; Eliot Brown, “Uber Wants to Be the Uber of Everything—But Can It Make a Profit?” Wall Street Journal, May 4, 2019, https://www.wsj.com/articles/uber-wants-to-be-the-uber-of-everything-11556909866; Richard Durant, “Uber’s Profitability Problem Is Structural,” Seeking Alpha, August 21, 2019, https://seekingalpha.com/article/4287055-ubers-profitability-problem-structural; Ryan Felton, “Uber Is Doomed,” Jalopnik, February 24, 2017, https://jalopnik.com/uber-is-doomed-1792634203; Yves Smith, “Uber Is Headed for a Crash,” New York, December 4, 2018, http://nymag.com/intelligencer/2018/12/will-uber-survive-the-next-decade.html; Stephen Wilmot, “Uber’s Long Road to Profits,” Wall Street Journal, August 22, 2019, https://www.wsj.com/articles/ubers-long-road-to-profits-11566471068; Julia Carrie Wong, “Disgruntled drivers and ‘cultural challenges’: Uber admits to its biggest risk factors,” Guardian, April 12, 2019, https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2019/apr/11/uber-ipo-risk-factors
  10. [10]Noam Cohen, “How Tech Firms Like Uber Hide Behind the ‘Platform Defense,’” Wired, September 13, 2019, https://www.wired.com/story/how-tech-firms-like-uber-hide-behind-the-platform-defense/

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