Uber, But For The Proletariat

by Will Wilkinson

Uber Graphic

There’s something about Uber, the popular ride-sharing service, that brings out the nutty in people. During the awful hostage situation yesterday in downtown Sydney, the volume of people trying to get out of Dodge by beckoning an Uber car kicked the app’s surge pricing into effect. This is most sensible. You see, the increase in demand (and no doubt the dangerous conditions) had reduced the supply of available drivers, leaving many of those desiring a car without one. Surge pricing sweetens the deal for drivers, drawing idle supply into action, helping to ensure that those who want service can get it. This does not amount to the exploitation of a dire situation. It is the best way to ameliorate it. The alternative to temporarily higher prices is a total lack of cars, not a bunch of open cars at normal non-surge pricing. This ought to be obvious, but apparently it is not, and there was an instant backlash to the implementation of surge pricing. Olivia Nuzzi of the Daily Beast gets it exactly right:

Uber’s surges are not price gouging, as some have erroneously claimed. Uber––which is actually not the only method of transportation on Earth, despite what it may seem like––warns passengers about the surge before it allows them to order a car, and if the surge is over two times the normal rate, the app forces users to type it in, just to make sure they really understand what they are getting themselves into.

As the Sydney hostage crisis unfolded, Uber customers and observers alike took to Twitter to complain about the sky-high fares, calling the policy “Marxian” and “downright predatory.”

Gawker sneered that Uber is “Ayn Rand’s favorite car service.”

Uber responded to the PR nightmare by reversing the surge, refunding those affected, and doling out free rides. They shouldn’t have. There is plenty to chastise Uber for––I am a frequent and enthusiastic critic of the company’s inadequate background check process––but price surging is not among its sins. […]

How does the world owe you a private car, priced as you deem acceptable, that didn’t exist five years ago? If you don’t like Uber’s surge pricing, you are still welcome to travel by subway, cab, bus, camel, horse and carriage, or you can just fucking walk. If none of those options appeal to you, you might consider meandering over to a country with a different economic system.

Or… Or… transform this country’s economic system and socialize Uber! That’s the entertaining proposal of Mike Konczal and Bryce Covert in The Nation:

[T]hink about what the capitalist managers at Uber are doing with their cut of the company’s money. They are fighting regulators and hiring lobbyists in order to bring down the incumbent taxi-medallion business. They are also spending money on advertising, in order to get customers interested in using a ride-sharing service. These are both expensive projects, and they open the door for competitors. Newer ride-share ventures can piggyback on Uber’s success and take advantage of these new terms, with Uber having already spent all that initial money. This is called the “second-mover advantage,” and it explains why Uber is such a vicious company.

But after this initial project, what exactly are the capitalists at Uber contributing to the company? Almost all of the actual capital is already owned by the workers, in the form of cars that they pay for and maintain themselves. And these workers labor individually, doing the same tasks, so there’s no need for a management class to control their daily operations. The capital owners maintain the phone app, but app technology isn’t the major cost, and it’s getting cheaper and easier by the day.

Given that the workers already own all the capital in the form of their cars, why aren’t they collecting all the profits? Worker cooperatives are difficult to start when there’s massive capital needed up front, or when it’s necessary to coordinate a lot of different types of workers. But, as we’ve already shown, that’s not the case with Uber. In fact, if any set of companies deserves to have its rentiers euthanized, it’s those of the “sharing economy,” in which management relies heavily on the individual ownership of capital, providing only coordination and branding.

There’s perhaps a problem or two with this proposal. “It takes an entrepreneur to start up ride-sharing,” Konczal and Covert write, “but not to run it as a firm. A worker collective is the obvious transition.” A system in which entrepreneurship is routinely rewarded with a forced “transition” to a worker collective is a system that is unlikely to continue to producing a valuable of entrepreneurial innovation.

But I really do like the idea of the drivers getting a bigger share of the profits. If it’s true, as they say, that “Newer ride-share ventures can piggyback on Uber’s success and take advantage of these new terms,” then it seems that Uber and Lyft drivers ought to be able to organize, finance the creation of a new app (no big deal, it would seem), and then dominate the market by charging less than those awful, useless, Silicon Valley tech-bro rentiers, all the while getting paid more. Why go through the tumult of trying to socialize Uber when a worker collective would so clearly out-compete Uber? Or maybe it’s not so clear that it would. Maybe organizing drivers, developing, maintaining, and continuously improving an app, doing all the necessary marketing, and managing the whole system isn’t really such a breeze, and by the time you take into account all those costs, which worker-collective drivers would have to cover, they’d end up keeping something in the neighborhood of 80% of their fares, just like Uber drivers. That’s my hunch.

Still, a more worker-centric Uber seems like a neat idea, and the prospect of developing one from the ground up, no matter how unlikely it may be, seems a lot less unlikely than simply stealing Uber – at least here in the mad-dog capitalist Amerikkka. Maybe the government of a country less in the grip of neoliberal market fundamentalism will gently force Uber to transition to a worker collective. Actually, I hope that happens. It would be interesting to see how it works out.

The Case For Jeb (Or Hillary)

by Will Wilkinson

Former US president George Bush (2nd-L), his wife

So it looks like Jeb Bush is running for president. The prospect of a Bush vs. Clinton race in 2014 does not warm the cockles of any of my internal organs, but I want to put in a speculative word for presidential dynasties, despite the repugnance of that idea to my small-“r” republican ideals.

The president is the head of the executive branch of government. You took social studies, right? But, really, what does that mean? It means that the president is nominally in charge of the entire, vast bureaucracy of the American state, including the military and the various spy shops. I think it helps to try to maintain a distinction between the government and the state. Let’s say the government is made up of a constantly churning set of elected officials – the president and congress. (Not sure whether to put the courts in here or not, but no matter; this is just a rough-and-ready division.) The state is the more-or-less permanent administrative apparatus – all the many thousands of clock-punchers at the EPA and the FBI and Homeland Security and Commerce and Labor and State and the Pentagon and the NSA, etc. It’s what the chief executive is executive of, how he (or she!) executes, the way the government governs. It’s also way more than the executive can possibly keep tabs on.

Each president has a handful of political appointees in each agency, but either they come from outside and don’t really understand how things work, in which case they’ll more than likely be manipulated by the senior agency hacks, or they come from inside, in which case their loyalty is more likely to align with the agency’s internal powers-that-be than with the president. The chief executive has a thousand strings he can pull, but a lot of them aren’t actually connected to the various agencies’ real mechanisms of influence and power.

What we have here is a classic principal/agent problem. If you want the president to have effective power to govern via the bureaucracy, you’ll want him to be able to overcome some of the problem of bringing the agencies to heel. A big part of the problem is that agents almost necessarily have information their principals need but don’t have, and can use these asymmetries in information – can dole it out or withhold it or misrepresent it – to manipulate the principal into wanting what the agents wanted all along. Just think about how brazenly the CIA lies to congressional oversight committees. There’s no reason to think they don’t do it to presidents, too.

The most effective presidents, in terms of overcoming agency problems, will be those with strong preexisting networks within the bureaucracies willing to circumvent the de facto power structure and independently transmit reliable information straight to the White House. One reason I thought in 2008, and still think today, that Hillary Clinton would have been a more effective chief executive than Barack Obama is that a senator and insider wife of a two-term president is much more likely to have useful allies and contacts within the bureaucracy than a green, freshman senator new to town. And what’s even better than that? The son of a former CIA director, vice-president and president, who is also the brother of a two-term president. If Jeb Bush is worried that somebody in the CIA or State Department is dicking him around, there’s a good chance he knows a guy who knows a guy who is owed a big favor and can get him the straight scoop. And that’s power – the power by which the government renders the far-flung and opaque permanent state governable.

It may well be that the insider power of dynastic presidents amounts to a form of corruption, as our populist, republican instincts suggest. But it may also be that, given the vast scope of the modern state, presidents without this sort of power can’t really be said to be in charge. And the enormous, deadly, often malign power of the sprawling American security state makes it worth asking whether a decent president who isn’t really in charge is better than an odious one who is.

(Photo: Former US president George Bush, his wife Barbara Bush, their son Jeb Bush, First Lady Hillary Clinton, and US President Bill Clinton look up to see the US Army Golden Knights parachute team at the conclusion of the dedication ceremony of the George Bush Library in College Station, TX on November 6, 1997. By Joyce Naltchayan/AFP/Getty Images)

Slow Down, You Move Too Fast

by Will Wilkinson


The “Intellectual Situation” column in the latest edition of N+1 contains a stimulating meditation on the sense that the pace of life is perpetually quickening, leaving us with ever less unharried time.

The centrality of this feeling to our age, and to the ages that preceded it, has received its most comprehensive treatment in the recent work of German theorist Hartmut Rosa and his concept of an “acceleration society.” For Rosa, the sense of speedup created by labor-saving is one of the major paradoxes of modernity, and one of the exemplary versions of this paradox is that “the dramatic rise in feelings of stress and lack of time” in our epoch has been “accompanied by an equally significant increase in free time.”

The paradox, in a nutshell, is that economic growth and technological progress actually does free up time, but also produces a profusion of diversions clamoring for limited attention. “The feeling comes about because the variety of social experiences available is ceaselessly proliferating: the number of things you might be able to do becomes impossibly large, and expands every day with implacable speed,” say the N+1 editors.

I certainly know the feeling. But I would suggest that this doesn’t really amount to real problem for people who have no aspiration to live on the bleeding edge, or to, to say the same thing, to live in reaction against the bleeding edge. The N+1 editors may not encounter many placidly unhurried folks in Brooklyn, where “artisanal” slow-living presents itself as one among many enticing lifestyle choices, attractive precisely due to the sort of depletion they describe.

Here in Chattanooga, though, I cannot say that I see people breathless from the proliferating options of modern life.

Chattanoogans do have smart phones, but are oddly disinclined to make use of their mapping functions. When, new to town, we purchased a patio furniture set at the Home Depot, the clerk responsible for setting up delivery asked us for detailed directions to our house, which she wrote down on a pad of paper. “Don’t the drivers have GPS?” I asked. The question was met with a quizzical look, perhaps because, unbeknownst to me at the time, GPS in Chattanooga refers to Girls Preparatory School. “Can’t they just get directions on their phone?” She conceded that this might be possible, but would not let the matter rest until she had affirmed, by means of an exceedingly drawn-out exchange, that we indeed lived off the “S-curve” on Hixson Pike, as she had suspected. We may have been a little annoyed by the imposition on our very precious time, but that’s because we were the odd ones, the outsiders, the people who live, for no good reason, in a hurry.

Since moving to the South, I have had I don’t know how many leisurely conversations about the breed of my dog or the age and weight of my baby, as if I had appeared in the supermarket parking lot, or headed up my street in unsociable headphones, specifically to burn my minutes in vacuous neighborly chit chat. I try not to look like I’m itching to get away because, really, what’s the hurry? Anyway, people here go to work, where they do not hurry, go home to their kids and maybe watch a little TV, maybe “like” a few baby pictures on Facebook, on Sundays go to a lot of church, and it’s all slower than it was when I was a kid up in Iowa, sedate Iowa. (The Chamber of Commerce would have you know, however, that Chattanooga has the fastest broadband in the United States.) I may make myself frantic trawling the infinite internet, reading “year’s best” lists full of things I will never ever have time to get around to. I may sit in front of my Roku’s menu screen feeling stymied by the profusion of choices. But I could just relax and live like a regular person.

I’d meant to comment on the N+1 editors’ extraordinary ability to connect the putative problem of feeling like we have no time, like all putative problems, to “neoliberalism.”  (“An era of social acceleration has its political consequences too, in which neoliberalism, the pensée unique, monopolizes the language of inevitability, obligation, fidelity to the one best way.”) But, really, who has the time? Pensée unique? I’ll say. Get another idea.

(Photo from a reader: “Walden, TN overlooking Chattanooga, 7.20 am”)

Abolish Police Unions

by Will Wilkinson

There’s a solid leader in this week’s issue of The Economist on the need for reform in American law enforcement. The Economist endorses rolling back police militarization, more fastidious record-keeping about police killings, and the deployment of body cameras. There’s also this, under the heading of accountability:

[I]t must be easier to sack bad cops. Many of America’s 12,500 local police departments are tiny and internal disciplinary panels may consist of three fellow officers, one of whom is named by the officer under investigation. If an officer is accused of a crime, the decision as to whether to indict him may rest with a local prosecutor who works closely with the local police, attends barbecues with them and depends on the support of the police union if he or she wants to be re-elected. Or it may rest with a local “grand jury” of civilians, who hear only what the prosecutor wants them to hear. To improve accountability, complaints should be heard by independent arbiters, brought in from outside.

I agree with every bit of this, but none of it’s going to happen as long as police unions are allowed to exist. Just as teachers’ unions block almost every conceivable democratic reform to the public school system, police unions continually stymie attempts to resist the corrupt, praetorian tendencies of American law enforcement. Nationwide, police unions fight tooth-and-nail to keep even the most abusive cops on the streets. So good luck “sacking bad cops” with police unions in the way.

Other reforms face similar resistance. In Miami, the police union has opposed, and continues to oppose, a popular initiative to equip the police with body cameras. Or how about the ex-cop private investigators, working for a law firm representing more than 120 California police-officers’ unions, who tried to frame a Costa Mesa city councilman for drunk driving. Why? Because he tried to mess with police pensions. Steven Greenhut of the San Diego Union-Tribune asks:

This raises an important question: How widespread is this kind of behavior? At a Costa Mesa press conference last year, elected officials from other cities made allegations of police using disturbing tactics to achieve their political goals.

“What kind of world do we live in when the people we give guns and badges to hire private investigators to surveil public officials?” asked Righeimer. Calling it “unseemly,” OC prosecutor Robert Mestman said this case is significant because the victims “are democratically elected city council members.” Mensinger said it seemed Orwellian: “Public officials should not be extorted over public benefits.”

The Costa Mesa story may be about pensions rather than the conduct of routine police work, but it is indicative of the gangsterish anti-democratic pressure police unions routinely exert within the political system. In New York City, the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association is currently sending a not-so-subtle “nice place you got here” message to Mayor Bill de Blasio in response to his failure to signal complete obsequious deference to the union after a grand jury declined to indict the police officer who was filmed killing the unarmed and submissive Eric Garner with a chokehold. The union has asked its members to fill out a form requesting that the mayor stay away from his or her funeral should he or she be killed in the line of duty. “Due to Mayor de Blasio and Speaker Mark-Viverito’s consistent refusal to show police officers the support and respect they deserve, I believe that their attendance at the funeral of a fallen New York City police officer is an insult to that officer’s memory and sacrifice,” the form reads.

Such drama! Such entitlement! All because the mayor publicly demonstrated some modest, measured sympathy for those protesting the crookedness of a system in which police are able to kill with impunity. Such disrespect for the uniform! The message the union is sending to the man duly elected to, among other things, oversee the city’s police is clear: fall in line or get out of the way.

I have long argued that government employees ought not be allowed to unionize. When public employees collectively bargain, who are they bargaining against? Their public employers, which is to say, the democratic public, which is to say, us. The point of a democratic government is to govern in a way that more or less tracks the public interest. The point of a government employee union is to organize against the public interest, to get in the way when the democratic public’s notions about its interests conflict with the interests of the union’s members. When a public-sector union is strong, government of the union’s domain is effectively ceded to the union itself. When that domain is the armed, business end of the law’s coercive authority, that’s a giant problem. It shouldn’t be allowed.

The political problem with abolishing police unions is obvious enough. Democrats reflexively defend unions, and Republican antipathy to public-sector unions disappears when it comes to cops and firefighters. Heroes, you know, every one. This rare bit of bipartisan concord leaves police unions spectacularly well-defended against reform. Until one party or the other begins to see the damage unions do, and becomes willing to fight it, anything more than superficial change is impossible.

Police Discretion Just Got Worse

by Will Wilkinson

The Supreme Court ruled today, in a 8-1 decision, that a police stop based on a officer’s false beliefs about the law can lead to a legally valid search.

Nicholas Heien was stopped in his car by a Surry County, North Carolina cop for having only one working brake light, which is not against the law in North Carolina. Heien then stupidly consented to a search of his car, which turned up a bag of cocaine. Heien subsequently argued that the search ought not to valid, and the drug charge dropped, since the traffic stop was based on the officer’s mistaken understanding of the law. The crux of the issue, legally, is whether a police officer can have a “reasonable suspicion” that a law has been broken – that’s the prevailing  standard for a valid stop – when that suspicion is grounded in ignorance of the law. The court says “reasonable mistakes of the law,” like the erroneous belief that two working brake lights is legally mandatory, may make the officer’s suspicion wrong, but not unreasonable.

This is too much. We’ve somehow arrived at a place where police can do pretty well whatever they like. Cops already have immense discretion to detain us. There’s a good deal of talk these days, and rightly so, about the “criminalization of poverty,” which is part of broader trend toward the criminalization of life through the proliferation of regulation. We are, all of us, breaking some law pretty much all of the time. Even if the cop is wrong about which law we happen to be breaking, he’s apparently not wrong to prevent us from going about our lawful business. When we’re all criminals, all suspicion, even ignorant suspicion, is “reasonable.”

Who gets the raw end of this deal? The most “suspicious” among us, of course. Michael Munger, a Duke University political scientist, gets to the heart of the issue of overcriminalization, and the dilemma it creates for those of us who want a state that is both active and just:

We have criminalized so many behaviors (in the Staten Island case, selling packs of cigarettes!) that we have given the police enormous pressure to perform — and gigantic latitude to act on prejudice, bigotry, and simple anger. The police, in their defense, have an impossible job. They have come to see almost everyone around them, every day, as a lawbreaker and a danger to society. Harvey Silverglate has famously estimated that most of us commit at least three felonies per day. The only thing that prevents us from being jailed is the discretion and public spiritedness of the prosecutor. …

As long as overreaching laws effectively criminalize being black or poor, it’s not surprising that the police will continue to treat black people and poor people as criminals. This kind of race-based law enforcement is given the stink eye by our friends on the left, but they can’t seem to draw the obvious inference: the answer is not better police or more enlightened officials. The answer is fewer laws. That’s the long division in our society, the most important difference that arises from class and social status. Decriminalize normal nonviolent daily activity, and the police will have fewer excuses to harass people they don’t like — people who often can’t fight back.

Now, I don’t think decriminalizing nonviolent daily activity is any sort of panacea. There’s a great deal more than needs to be done to rein in America’s lawless police, and I’ll be discussing some ideas for doing that over the next few days. But simplifying the law and decriminalizing peaceful daily life promises to somewhat reduce the exercise of the sort of police discretion which, when combined with our culture’s lingering ethos of white supremacy, amounts to systematic racial oppression. That’s worth doing. Moreover, simplifying the law reduces the chance that police will act on “reasonable mistakes” about what it says.

That said, I do disagree to some extent with Munger. Fewer laws isn’t the only obvious inference. Better police and more enlightened officials have got to be part of the answer, or reform is doomed before it begins. Like Munger, I think it’s idiotic to expect public officials to act like angels, and I believe we ought to design our institutions from unabashedly cynical assumptions about human motivation. But it is possible to demand a minimum standard of decent behavior without succumbing to what Munger calls the fantasy of “unicorn governance.” Other countries have secret agents that don’t torture people and police that don’t behave like lawless thugs, and that’s not too much to ask.

Blogging As Being

by Will Wilkinson

Greetings Dishlickers! I’m just thrilled to have the chance to share this space with Michelle Dean whilst Andrew is away Andrewing. I’ve been a fan of the Dish since its earlyWill Wilkinson days, if not its inception. My personal blog, The Fly Bottle, goes back to November 2001, and I keep the whole thing online as a matter of principle, despite its damning evidence of a once-serious interest in Ayn Rand, because it is, in its still-evolving totality, a record of my intellectual and moral identity, and I fear that if I did not maintain its public existence I would begin to shade the truth about myself to myself, the better to conform to whatever idea about myself I am currently in the grip of, and would start to believe I had always been the way I’d prefer to imagine I had always been. And we don’t want that.

Anyway, when I began blogging, I was a doctoral student in philosophy at the University of Maryland, and if not for the diversion of blogging, there is a decent chance I would now be an associate professor of philosophy at South Tulsa State Polytechnic or some other similarly esteemed institution. As it happens, I bailed on the dissertation and blogged my way into a job at the Cato Institute, where for six years I did think tanks things and pursued an agenda of making libertarianism palatable to liberals, which I guess didn’t go over well with absolutely everyone, and in 2010 I left Cato. By this time, I was telecommuting from Iowa City, where my now-wife, Kerry Howley, was working on her MFA at the University of Iowa’s amazing Nonfiction Writing Program. It looked to me that Kerry’s transition from political journalism to a more satisfying literary mode of writing was going well (it went very well), and I decided I wanted an MFA in creative writing, too.

So now I’m in my last year at the University of Houston’s illustrious creative writing program, working on a tricky novel about love and betrayal among political bloggers and free-market think tank wonks in the golden age of mid-Oughts D.C.

Between MFA-ing, keeping our 7-month-old son from tipping over, and teaching humanities at the University of Tennessee, Chattanooga, where Kerry is an assistant professor of English, I haven’t had much time for blogging, though I do post occasionally at the Economist‘s Democracy in America blog. Yet I miss blogging terribly—about as much as I hate the word “blogging.” Blogging has been so much a part of my life that when I am not doing it, or doing something like it, I feel a little diminished, even slightly spectral, as if impersonal but immediate dialectical engagement were the vital principle of authentic human existence. I could hardly be happier, then, to have this chance to slip out of the vague unreality of my blessed unvirtual life and experience for a few days the spurious sense of solidity that I know will come from opining irresponsibly from Andrew’s towering soapbox.

I’ll start here. Michelle’s cat is, I agree, very attractive. But not as attractive as my dog.