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The Gig Economy, Race, and Immigration

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The story of Nnamdi Uwazie, a Nigerian immigrant cab driver in Chicago, brings home a comparison rolling around in my head for a long time.

It’s 4 p.m. and Nnamdi Uwazie has taken in only $122, which means he has another five hours to drive to just cover his daily costs. Another 15-hour day in the cab and maybe nothing for him.

But this is how life has been lately for the 53-year-old taxi driver.

Since Uber and other ride-share businesses have crowded Chicago’s streets, his customers have become ghosts, and a livelihood that once sustained his family of five has virtually disappeared.

Two months behind on his rent, with unpaid light, gas and medical bills piling up, he struggles to stay positive.

Maybe he’ll get a customer going to O’Hare International Airport in the next few hours so he can earn some money today. Maybe Chicago officials, realizing the despair that has descended onto taxi drivers, will offer some help. Maybe the ride-share business will miraculously dry up.

Part of what Uber and other gig economy companies have done is to whiten traditionally immigrant jobs. And in doing so, it reminds me of how immigrants and non-immigrant people of color have been pushed out in the past when white people became economically desperate. The classic case of this is in California agriculture, where the good farmers of California had long sought the most exploitable workers, meaning people of color. But in the 1930s, when AAA policies led to farm consolidation and the eviction of tenant farmers led to waves of migration from the southern Plains and South to California (a much greater cause for more than the Dust Bowl, John Steinbeck’s excellent novels notwithstanding), Mexicans were forced out of those jobs and often deported across the border, along with U.S. citizens of Mexican descent. Those became white people’s jobs because the needs of whites always trumped people of color. The biggest weakness of Steinbeck’s work is he forgot who worked on those farms before 1930.

The rise of Uber is obviously not exactly analogous to California farmers in the Great Depression, but it’s a reasonable comparison nonetheless. We live in increasingly precarious economic times for the working and middle classes. It’s not only that people have started driving because they need a job, but often that they have taken it up a second job to make ends meet or send the children to camp or go on a little vacation in the summer. Fulfilling the promised American Dream of consumption requires that extra money that maybe used to come through your white collar job or through your union but does not anymore. And so here is Uber and Lyft and other companies, ranging from delivery to cleaning, providing these opportunities. But there are already people doing those jobs, some of which have invested heavily and sacrificed a great deal. Cab drivers are a prime example of this. The taxi medallion system is a pretty terrible one, largely because it places the burden of risk entirely on the driver, but limiting the number of drivers makes some sense if we expect people to earn a living at the job. It’s true as well that we need more drivers, but the sensible policy is thus raising the rates charged, creating rideshares from bars, etc. We need a taxi system that provides both good jobs for people and provides the necessary services required by the public.

But we also have to remember that there are stakeholders with very little power in these traditional economies that also need some level of protection. Moreover, when we decide “I will drive for Uber and make a little extra money,” it’s at least worth remembering that you are probably taking money out of someone else’s pocket. Of course, this sort of individual action that accomplishes very little is the opposite of what I think makes change. But it can help us devise policies that regulate the gig economy in a way that makes sure it doesn’t equate as a white economy.

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  • dfphil

    I haven’t read it in decades, but doesn’t Tortilla Flats give a little more representation to who does the physical work in central California than some of his other works?

    • He got better on it later. In Dubious Battle and especially The Grapes of Wrath really falls short on race though.

    • NicknotNick

      I’m reading it now, don’t really have an opinion — but ‘representation’, at least at the beginning, seems to be pointing out that Mexicans love getting drunk and will sleep anywhere. Maybe there’s more coming, certainly the fact that he won the Nobel Prize implies there should be?
      No spoilers, please . . .

      • dfphil

        I remember enjoying it, but I don’t remember any of the portraits being that flattering. I’d love to get myself to re-read Steinbeck even if he doesn’t hold up well in this era. I recently hunted down his line about how when there’s drought in CA, no one can remember the last time it rained and when it’s raining, people pray for blue skies. It’s as true today as it was 70 years ago.

      • Kipling also won a Nobel Prize in Literature, although earlier.

  • BiloSagdiyev

    “Moreover, when we decide “I will drive for Uber and make a little extra money,” it’s at least worth remembering that you are probably taking money out of someone else’s pocket.”

    How is this not most jobs?

    • kvs

      Most jobs don’t entail displacing another worker.

      • Judas Peckerwood

        For now, at least.

      • cpinva

        “Most jobs don’t entail displacing another worker.”

        not necessarily true. many years ago, i had a case involving a class action, age discrimination in employment suit. without divulging specifics (federal disclosure laws), a very large company had fired all of its older, much higher compensated regional managers, and replaced every single one of them with much younger, lesser compensated ones. the company settled out of court. my part of the deal was to determine how much of that settlement was taxable income. my supreme court case proved me right.

        all those new, younger managers displaced all those older ones.

        • randomworker

          We do that now. But a little more discreetly.

          • cpinva

            yeah, those guys were stupid/arrogant enough to do it en mass. however, as it turns out, there are always patterns, in both mathematics and employment. sure, you don’t dump all of your older, higher paid employees at once, that would be stupid, you do it over time. however, for it to have the desired affect, it still has to be a relatively short timeframe, and there’s your pattern.

        • kvs

          Notably, that’s illegal.

        • Mona Williams

          Most *decisions to work* don’t involve displacing another worker. We have laws, as kvs points out, to handle displacements of this sort that are initiated by the employer. This is something new.

          • It’s not that new. Almost everyone I know some kind of freelance work or side hustle in addition to their day job. This has been the case for a good long time.

            I do websites on the side. Am I taking away the work that rightfully belongs to some full-time web dev?

            • brewmn61

              If the main reason you are getting that side job is because you are free from certain obligations and regulations imposed by law on the full-time web developer, then yes, you are acting illegally and, one could claim, immorally.

              What makes Uber even worse is that they have the economic power to cow politicians in cities where Uber is displacing taxicabs, giving them the imprimatur of law.

            • Mona Williams

              You are right–not that new! I meant this whole ability to decide to independently do a kind of work that has formerly been done only–or mostly–in a formal employment setting. Because it represents a change in how we work, it may need to be looked at from a regulatory standpoint. I don’t think it’s up to those who work this way to hold themselves back out of some sense of fairness to others. That would not work.

    • applecor

      How is it not ALL jobs that more than one person wants?

      • BiloSagdiyev

        Well, yes. I was trying to be diplomatic. My first response, immediatley deleted, was “And that’s why I sit under a bridge and smoke Pall Malls.”

        All this and more available in my upcoming ebook, “Bilo’s Comments: SECRETS.” Of course, that takes money away from a real book publisher, so I guess I’m shelve it until I get a better idea for a book, like dinosaur porn…. Dangit!

    • twbb

      Also, unless someone is driving for Uber for fun and burning the money, what’s the problem? People tend to do things for extra money because they need the extra money.

      • Philip

        A bunch of people doing it part-time makes it much more difficult to earn a living, and even totally reasonable things (“I want to get my kid something nice for their birthday”) are secondary to “I need to make a living wage so I can make rent & feed my kid.”

        • MarciKiser

          That’s a hard model to defend. Kids should stop mowing lawns because professional yard services exist? Yard sales should disappear because consignment and pawn shops exist?

          • Philip

            I don’t think those are comparable because they don’t replace the fulltime version, really. Lyft/Uber directly replace cabs.

            • MarciKiser

              That’s not what you’re saying though. You’re saying that a bunch of part-timers doing gigs undermines people who do that work full-time, and that’s a whole lot of things if we’re deciding that’s no longer cool.

              If the issue you’re citing is one of scale, then you’re talking about how a thousand prn employees mean no one gets a decent full-time job. Which is a whole other set of issues and a valid concern.

              • Gareth

                On the same topic, there are full-time professional politics bloggers. Isn’t Erik taking money out of their pockets with his part-time work?

        • Drew

          Not wrong, but it’s hard to tell that to someone who’s sick of living hand to mouth and wants a little extra $$

  • Gareth

    Journalists aren’t doing that great either. Would you support limiting their numbers too?

    • There’s no question that the deprofessionalization of journalism has been a huge problem in terms of anyone being able to make a living at it, not to mention having the resources to do deep reporting.

    • BiloSagdiyev

      Sterilization via water and beer supply, or open season?

      • Gareth

        Government licensing, and harsh penalties for unlicensed journalism, seems consistent with what he wants for taxis.

        • spencer_e9876

          Not really, since there are no censorship or media consolidation implications in a government licensing program for taxis.

  • SamR

    Uber and Lyft have been successful in part because cab drivers were often rude and generally expensive. Loud music or telephone conversations, often a dirty vehicle, etc.

    • woodrowfan

      depends on where you are. Most of the time I call a cab in Northern Va the cab is clean, it’s on time, and the (immigrant) driver pleasant and professional. We took cabs everywhere in New York a few weeks ago. The only bad ride was an Iranian driver who loved listening to the Savage Weiner. (the driver got a small tip)

    • TheBrett

      I don’t care about music or even rudeness to be honest, so much as not knowing in advance how much I’m going to have to pay (meaning whether or not the cab driver is going to rip me off by taking a longer route or pulling the “my credit card machine is broken” con).

      • djw

        Yeah, this is a real problem in Dayton. In the pre-Uber days, a cab from the airport meant about a 40% chance of the scenic route and/or rigged meters (the most corrupt cab companies in town have exclusive airport pickup rights, for reasons that may not be entirely above-board). As long as the alternative is getting ripped off or getting into a shouting match with the cab driver in front of my apartment, I’m not going to feel particularly bad about using Uber instead.

        For the talk below about how much easier cab companies are to regulate with public interest in mind, it’s striking how many cities fail to do so.

        • BiloSagdiyev

          Regulatory capture isn’t just for BehemothCorp. I live in a small city that had very limited cab service for a long time primarily because the cab company (THE cab company) was in tight with the city council somehow. (I forget if it was a cousin thing.)

          Once some deregulation/loosening happened, the number of cabs on the street blossomed and it became clear how much pent up demand there was.

    • cpinva

      “Uber and Lyft have been successful in part because cab drivers were
      often rude and generally expensive. Loud music or telephone
      conversations, often a dirty vehicle, etc.”

      they’ve been successful by violating every commercial carrier law everywhere they operate. as well, they have zero financial risk, with respect to operating assets, those are all owned/insured/maintained by the drivers. even at that, they still manage to lose money. add incompetence to arrogance, and you have a potent brew for failure.

      • MarciKiser

        Yeah, that probably wasn’t phrased as clearly as he’d have liked. What I think he meant was “Uber and Lyft have been successful (at capturing the customers who used to utilize traditional cabs) because cab drivers were often rude and generally expensive.”

      • brewmn61

        Yeah, this.

      • SamR

        That’s true too, but this idea that we owe cab drivers something is nuts. Cab drivers generally provided an expensive, unpleasant experience.

  • NicknotNick

    This is a very interesting comparison. I think that one way that it falls down a bit is that the shit jobs are still out there, available for everyone who is lower down on the totem pole; Taxi driving is actually higher up than those, in that it required an initial investment and held out the possibility of making more. Meat-packing doesn’t. In the hierarchy of crap jobs, taxi driving was higher up. You’re sitting down, listening to music, chatting with customers, running the air conditioning.

    One of the ways that Uber made it palatable was by turning it part-time. Everyone who desperately needs money, but finds themselves hesitant to actually apply to a job that is truly crap, can use its techie veneer to convince themselves that they’re actually free-lancers, part-timers, people who know how stuff works who are just leveraging the fact that they have a cell phone and some free time. The taxi medallion was a real barrier to their entry before, because their personal identity didn’t see them borrowing and committing to driving; Uber jerks them around by paying them less and giving them no permanent foothold, a typical American trick of leveraging your own self image against you.

  • randomworker

    Random thoughts:

    1. I was in Dallas last week. The taxi driver was desperate for my fare. He even arranged to pick me up the next day. Ok, I thought, but this will never happen. He was 10 minutes early. “See those cars over there?” he said, pointing to a sea of taxis, “they are all waiting for an airport fare. It will be noon before I have a fare.”

    2. Immigrants have displaced African Americans at airports, hotels, in taxis, etc. Have African Americans moved up the chain?

    3. If there had been a gig economy in the early 80s I would have been right there doing it. Yes, I had 3 part time jobs. Some of them totally sucked. Eventually I got lucky and got out. I was 37 when I finally dropped my last part time job.

    • Alesis

      What data we have suggest that the negative wage effects of immgration are
      1.) Small
      2.) Limited to high school dropouts
      3.) Far outweighed by the benefits even for the working class.

      I know this isn’t central to your point which I very much agree with but I think it’s worth factoring in.

      • TJ

        I know you’re well aware of the facts but for those who aren’t it’s important to note that nationwide 40% of black boys don’t graduate high school. People shouldn’t take from your 3 facts that economic competition isn’t a real world fact for American minorities and immigrants. I think good immigration policy explicitly takes this economic competition into account and creates win-wins for all affected groups. Sometimes we can give the impression that this economic competition is of no consequence.

        If education is an escalator to lift people from poverty, young African American males are languishing at the bottom level. Only about 60 percent of them will earn high school diplomas, and roughly four in 10 drop out before graduation day. That’s compared with a 65-percent graduation rate for Latino males and 80 percent for young white men.

        http://www.takepart.com/article/2015/02/11/black-brains-matter-why-are-graduation-rates-so-low

        • Alesis

          I wouldn’t say “no” consequence.

          “Far less consequence than a host of other factors and not particularly amenable to immgration policy” would be better.

          • TJ

            If you lack a HS diploma I’d argue that any consequence is a big consequence. I’d also argue any immigration policy that doesn’t explicitly take into account economic competition among working class people isn’t being imaginative enough.

            We compensate and protect farmers and companies from competition, why shouldn’t we do that for working class people? Dems talk all the time about helping white coal miners but the party can’t shield working class blacks– the base of the party? There’s no heart in that. There’s no reason immigration reform can’t be a win win for everyone involved. We just have to think bigger.

            We can’t actually fall for the rhetoric that there are jobs working class blacks just won’t do (there aren’t). Instead we should remember that businesses exploit the people they can the most, which is why only a win win immigration policy will ever work.

            • Alesis

              Were talking about wage effects of something of 2% and that’s under extremely high levels of immigration. Mariel boat lift high.

              I’m all for real treatment of it as a policy concern but I suspect an economically based immgration policy would yield more and not less immigratio.

            • Alesis

              We don’t shut off our noses to spite our faces because we really do like our noses

  • addicted4444

    One thing that annoys me a lot is companies allowing their white collar employees to volunteer.

    So basically, you are gonna let me do something I am no good at, it’s costing you about $60-$70/hr in my lost time, and you consider this something to be celebrated when instead you could have hired 4 people each of whom will be at least 2x as good as me (I’m being generous to myself) for the same amount of money, and gainfully employed a few people for a few hours.

    • Mr. Kite

      This I hadn’t actually thought about. My MegaCorp is very big on volunteering and you can spend a lot of hours on it. I know a lot of parents volunteer at their kids’ schools (me included) and I don’t see that taking anybody’s job.

      Shelving stuff in a food bank though – they could hire 5-10 people in place of one senior level volunteer.

      • Central Planning

        My international employer is big on volunteering too. I think the volunteering is more for the employees, not the places that get the benefit of volunteers. It’s a low-cost company perk because the work that they missed is still going to get done – before/after work or on weekends.

        I don’t understand how a non-profit that takes advantage of my volunteering would be better off hiring somebody (or 4 people) for a day. That wouldn’t be a job, it would be part-time, contract work. Wouldn’t that be more administrative overhead for the non-profit than using a free volunteer? Hiring, payroll, insurance, background checks (probably would have to do on volunteers too, so a wash)

        And having been on the board of a non-profit, we did not have any employees. We had part-time workers that helped our customers. Adding payroll would have sucked away time and resources from what we were trying to do.

  • humanoidpanda

    The figures are from Uber itself and I am not sure how that compares to traditional cabs, but whites are the minority of Uber drivers
    https://www.google.com/amp/s/www.entrepreneur.com/amphtml/242096

    ( in my own experience, when I was living in Philly I don’t recall eve having a non immigrant driver. In the burbs it was about 50/50

    • humanoidpanda

      Although many of the immigrants were from Russia, which made very annoying election season. ( there is no love like that of the middle aged Russian male towards trump(

    • Philip

      In my experience in the bay area, Lyft is heavily non-white and pretty heavily immigrant as well, but anecdote != data

      • TJ

        Yeah I don’t think there’s a strong basis for Loomis’ “whiten” argument. This article in the Times is fascinating because it makes it out to be the very opposite in London, where black cabs are a bastion of white working class men while Uber is an economic ladder for working class immigrants. In reading the article I found myself sympathizing with both groups.

        They travel the same streets every day, strangers but also adversaries in what has become a familiar 21st-century conflict: the sharp-elbowed ride-hailing company Uber, versus entrenched taxi companies.

        And yet the clash in London is different, less about the disruptive power of an app, or a new business model, than about the disruption of Britain. London’s cabby wars echo the culture wars that fueled Britain’s vote last summer to leave the European Union — and that have brutally flared up again in recent weeks: immigrant versus native…

        The vote to leave the European Union, known here as Brexit, exposed a deep rift between those who have profited from globalization, sometimes spectacularly, and those who feel threatened by immigration and automation. Six out of 10 Londoners, including Mrs. Bakkali, voted against Brexit. But Mr. Walsh and most black-cab drivers interviewed for this article voted in favor.

        https://mobile.nytimes.com/2017/07/04/world/europe/london-uk-brexit-uber-taxi.html

    • Bob Loblaw Lobs Law Bomb

      I’ve been taking Lyft almost exclusively to and from work for the last 8 weeks while my car has been in the shop. I think that I’ve had 2 white drivers the whole time.

      I also typically use the “pooling” service and end up carpooling with another rider, the vast majority of them who have been African American riding to or from work, which, given our city’s uneven public transportation that has historically made it difficult for anyone without a car to get reliable transportation to a decent job, seems like a net positive.

      • Why has your car been in the shop for 8 weeks? Taking a ride service to work costs less than getting it fixed?

    • djw

      That fits with my experience in Seattle, and most big cities. The cab drivers are mostly minority/immigrant too, dominated by Eritreans and Somalians. Uber/Lyft are a greater diversity of immigrants, with an occasional white person here or there.

      In *some* places (Seattle is definitely one of them), the arrival of TNCs have definitely created more net employment for drivers, because the supply of legal cabs had been kept at level way below demand, which benefitted medallion holders but was not great for workers or consumers. Which doesn’t mean Uber isn’t a shitty, terrible company for a variety of reasons–the cab industry can be pretty shitty, too.

      • MarciKiser

        Yeah, it seems untenable to say that “it’s whitened traditional immigrant jobs” when:

        1) There’s wide agreement that a sizeable number, probably a majority, of Uber/Lyft drivers are people of color

        and

        2) We’re then overlooking the shitty way cab drivers have treated minorities since forever, to the point where it’s not even surprising when someone brings up that a cab drove right past a non-white person trying to flag them down or refused to pick up a fare in a minority neighborhood.

        There’s good stuff to talk about here, but Erik has springboarded from a rather shaky premise.

        • TJ

          Also, there’s nothing divine about immigrants or POC. I’ve had 2 negative racial experiences can drivers. Both refused to drive me to “scary” black neighborhoods. Both were immigrants, one South Asian, the other African. In the case of the latter I found it ironic that the guy who ultimately took me to my friend’s house in the “scary” black neighborhood was white.

  • TheBrett

    Uber’s claims aside, I thought a lot of the Uber and Lyft drivers were cab drivers who crossed over and started doing Uber/Lyft business.

  • Jackdaw

    Uber (and Lyft is presumably similar) is something of a special case, which Lemieux touched on in a post not long ago; most if not all of their “success” thus far is due to fares being subsidized by roughly 41 percent in order to undercut taxi pricing, which is why Uber is burning through millions of dollars of venture capitalists’ money every quarter. Once they either pull the plug entirely or start charging break-even rates, the Uber advantage disappears.

    • Philip

      It’s the same dirty trick Amazon has pulled. “Burn huge cash reserves to undercut competitors who have to make a profit until no one else is left.”

      • andrekenji

        Amazon is a low profit enterprise that is always investing in infrastructure, like distribution and data centers. Uber is famous for not having such infrastructure at all.

      • djw

        Yes, but the traditional model of “jack up prices once you’ve destroyed competition” can’t work because the price of entry is low.

        • Craigmcl

          This is something that is obvious to people who have thought about it for more than five seconds – which describes approximately 1% of the people who have strong opinions on the subject.

      • The same dirty trick of providing a better product or service at a lower price.

    • A lot of people like to say Uber subsidizes their fares, but given their business model, I don’t even see how that’s possible. There’s no money going from Uber to the driver. They don’t own any vehicles. Their only costs with respect to the ride are providing the app and the servers to run it. I can’t see any way they’re losing money providing that.

      They certainly lose a lot of money. I expect a lot of it is going to R&D. But since they’re not a public company, there’s no way to know.

      • Craigmcl

        “There’s no money going from Uber to the driver.”

        lol, wut

        • Are you unclear about how Uber works?

          • Craigmcl

            Are you? Do you…lol…do you actually think the drivers aren’t paid?

            • Uber charges the rider a fee, takes their cut and remits the rest to the driver. There are no monies from Uber being paid to the driver.

              I guess you could say that technically there is money going from Uber to the driver, since they’re facilitating the transaction and the money goes through their system, but I think that’s pretty pedantic.

              • BiloSagdiyev

                The Pedantmobile gets 37 miles per finer point.

              • MarciKiser

                Given that Uber pays its drivers in weekly direct deposits, refunds tolls they paid (theoretically), and also pays them referral bonuses and other incentives, it seems more correct to say there is money going from Uber to the driver.

      • spencer_e9876

        “A lot of people like to say Uber subsidizes their fares, but given their business model, I don’t even see how that’s possible.”

        That’s where a bunch of the money their investors give them ends up going. They do this because it’s how they keep fares lower than cabs – and their fares are definitely lower – while remaining attractive to drivers.

  • Xer

    The new gig economy does worry me on many levels. Not only do I worry about people who used to make a decent living at these jobs, I worry about their clients. It’s easy to regulate big taxi companies, and it’s easier to imagine enforcement action if a taxi co refused to pick up people with disabilities or in poor neighborhoods, etc. then it is to imagine Uber getting caught for that.

    I have the same reservations about Air bnb. What about people in wheelchairs? Real hotels have to pay for accessibility. There are bed and breakfasts who are struggling because they follow all the regulations and collect all the right taxes while their competitors don’t. Not to mention the loss of housing stock in high demand areas. Sure, hotels are built there, too, but with Hilton there’s a chance people can lobby their city council and use zoning to keep housing available. And I wasn’t the least surprised to find out that there were Air bnb hosts who refused to rent to minorities.

    Quite honestly, I’m surprised that none of these issues seem to come to mind for any of my liberal friends. Maybe they are too concerned about their own bottom lines and see the gig economy as a way to earn extra cash and save on expenses. In everything else they seem very concerned about immigrants and minorities, but not so much this. (Impacts of anything on people with disabilities never seems to come up with them either, but I bet that’ll change once they have older parents with physical limitations. Same with anything that impacts parents. They’ll extoll the virtues of car sharing and look at you blankly when you say it doesn’t work for anyone who needs a car seat.)

    • solidcitizen

      A thousand times this.

    • Justin Runia

      Yeah, I get caught up on the AirBnB thing, because generally, the experience of visiting a city in its residential areas is so much better than being stuck in the tourist quarter without a kitchen and surrounded by the same chain restaurants that you have back home.

    • y10nerd

      I’m a misanthrope on parental issues, so it’s generally a plus to me that when I use ride-share services, I am almost guaranteed not to have young children around me.

    • MarciKiser

      “And I wasn’t the least surprised to find out that there were Air bnb hosts who refused to rent to minorities.”

      Not the least surprised either, but that’s hardly peculiar to the gig economy. Remember, one of the few tenable upsides of ride-share services like Uber and Lyft is that they do provide car service to minority areas that used to be neglected.

      We’re touting the virtues of traditional taxi drivers in this post, but don’t forget how many of them have blown right past a black man trying to hail them for a ride.

      • djw

        Remember, one of the few tenable upsides of ride-share services like Uber and Lyft is that they do provide car service to minority areas that used to be neglected.

        Yeah, the sharing/gig economy seems to cut in opposing directions on this issue. Airbnb is worse than hotels, but Uber/Lyft are by all accounts better than taxis on this front.

    • Philip

      I’ve been waging a years-long battle in my friendgroup to persuade people of this. I managed to get almost everyone off Uber and onto Lyft, which is a tiny baby step but at least it was something. But prying airbnb out, getting people to plan ahead a bit so they can use public transit instead of rideshares, etc has been basically impossible.

    • dl

      or the hatred for union-made beer on this blog **ducks**

  • saraeanderson

    This is an excellent point, and I congratulate you on a supremely-clickable title.

  • EvanHarper

    > The taxi medallion system is a pretty terrible one, largely because it places the burden of risk entirely on the driver, but limiting the number of drivers makes some sense if we expect people to earn a living at the job.

    This really doesn’t make any sense. It might make some sense if the medallion system were a protectionist compact among drivers, but it’s not. It’s a protectionist compact among taxi medallion owners.

    D.C. is that rare city without a medallion system and when they had city staff study the issue they found, not surprisingly, that these systems are good for whoever gets the initial distribution of medallions and terrible for everyone else, including drivers, other than the original lucky duckies. See https://web.archive.org/web/20110917122819/http://cfo.dc.gov/cfo/lib/cfo/taxicab_medallion_memo_jan4.pdf

    • Craigo

      “After accounting for relevant expenses, the average earnings of medallion owner
      operators who are still making medallion loan payments fall to $0.56 per hour.”

      Wow. I’d like to see the numbers for SF, which only allows owner-operators.

      • Paul Thomas

        That number is so extreme as to suggest that there must be some kind of data error involved.

        Someone working a hundred hours a week without a single day off, ever, would make less than $3000 a year, which is probably not even enough to feed himself, much less obtain clothing or shelter. It’s inconceivable that anyone could survive on that.

        • TheBrett

          Could the drivers be significantly under-reporting income? Especially if they’re taking a lot of payments in cash . . .

          • Drew

            When I lived in D.C. a few years ago, every cab I took had a “broken” card reader, so you’re probably right.

        • Craigo

          They probably don’t survive on that. The same document indicates that medallions change hands every 29 months on aveage, including all categories of ownership. Since many owners manage to hold onto theirs for years or even decades, it’s likely that a large number of O&O cabbies are lasting no more than a year or two before selling theirs.

    • bweest

      It seems that one of the biggest issues in the example is that the driver has to pay ~$250/day to rent/lease/use his vehicle. The driver (and passengers via high fares) is being screwed by the medallion owner who is capturing most of the value of the service.

  • MarciKiser

    “Part of what Uber and other gig economy companies have done is to whiten traditionally immigrant jobs.”

    Is there any research on this? Obviously anecdote != data and so on, but at least in my area the vast majority of Uber drivers I’ve encountered are people of color.

    Also, I’ve appreciated how LGM has framed the only good thing about Uber as “a giant transfer of capital from rich white assholes who are subsidizing everyone’s rides”, and often quote it to friends.

  • y10nerd

    White people drive car-sharing services? In three years, I’ve had one white person as a driver (and that’s living in NYC).

    The analysis isn’t necessarily wrong, but Erik is sort of taking a pretty big cheap shot when he’s making it about race as a means to make his point against Uber/Lyft more impactful (even if it’s using incorrect information).

    Mind you, this also doesn’t take into account the data (anecdotal and statistical) that ride-sharing services have been particularly beneficial to people of color in the boroughs who used to count on basically no taxi coverage.

    Mind you, we should still regulate the hell out of the industry. But I think we often struggle on the Left to remember that market forces aren’t just an evil – often, they are responding to a perceived consumer need or desire and that pretending that doesn’t exist doesn’t make the problem go away.

    • solidcitizen

      I am genuinely curious how you can both take a “car-sharing” service and think that we should regulate the hell out of it. There is a regulated “car-sharing” service available to you almost anywhere, yet you choose the unregulated one. Why?

      • y10nerd

        I live in Bushwick. The amount of work I have to do to get access too a green cab is simply ridiculous. Even sit the app, it will often take 2x longer and they are more likely to cancel.

        If I decided to buy more groceries at the store then I could carry on public transit, I can either not purchase them or I could call a Lift.

        • Perkniticky

          Or you could try grocery delivery.

          • y10nerd

            Which clearly has no perverse externalities on the part time gig economy.

            Also, I don’t know, I like seeing the vegetables and meats I buy.

            • Perkniticky

              No, but it cuts down on car miles. But I agree, you don’t want to buy fresh produce – it’s only really good for bulk grocercies.

            • Drew

              Yeah same here. I have had poor luck with grocery delivery. I like to select my own produce. Fail to see how that’s unreasonable just because some other people don’t care.

    • twbb

      The car-sharing services in NYC basically overlap almost completely with livery cab drivers, so those are the demographics you’ll be seeing. When I’ve been to places where they aren’t regulated the same (e.g. Philadelphia, Providence) I have had plenty of white drivers, oftentimes young college students.

      • I have not seen any statistics on the race of Uber drivers. I only spent a couple minutes looking today though.

    • Crusty

      In a well to do suburb of NYC, I’ve had white lyft drivers, including white collar professional types laid off from their jobs or real estate brokers with no happening listings. But probably more immigrants and non-immigrant minorities. Sample size of about twelve rides.

      • janitor

        Its my experience as well, in Southern California, that Uber/Lyft drivers are as likely to be Mexican-American as white. This is anecdotal, of course, and I don’t know the statistics.

        But I’m not sure about the accuracy of this post by Prof. Loomis overall, although generally I am in full sympathy with his pro-union, pro-worker, anti-globalization stance. First, I don’t know why he thinks Grapes of Wrath describes the historical reality– a “whitening” of California farm labor and therefore an increase in concern in the 1930s. You can’t go wrong in California farm labor history by stressing the poor treatment of workers, white or non-white, and even in the thirties, their non-white ethnicity (Mexican Americans? Filipino-Americans? Japanese Americans? they didn’t abandon the fields in the 1930s! Most deportations occurred in urban areas.) Second, historical analogies aside, would you really argue that a poorly paid, insecure “gig” economy results in the assertion of white privilege? I don’t see it. In fact, everywhere I’ve worked, the second jobs start going to women and ethnic minorities, that’s exactly when security, good pay, and regular hours vanish. I’m no fan of Uber, but they are just a symptom, not a cause, and you can bet that soon Uber will be trumpeting how “diverse” their work force is, even as they screw their drivers over.

  • SteveRedgrave

    I’m usually on board with most of the viewpoints on this blog, but I guess I’m wayyy out of sync when it comes to ride-sharing..

    I live in the south-side of Chicago, juuust outside of the Hyde Park bubble, and Uber & Lyft have been godsends. I get the impression that most everyone on this site lives in some tiny ass town <100k people where you probably know your cab-driver's name. Good luck getting a cab in a city sometimes if you "fail" the one-drop rule or live in a shitty neighborhood. Also, you should play a drinking game every-time a cab company cancels on your, even using whatever useless buggy app the cab companies put out. I love the fact that Uber & Lyft apparently punish drivers for too many cancellations.

    Also, I know this is anecdotal, but every time I've taken a city cab it's been an insane experience. From the really old claptrap vehicles, drivers not knowing destinations and using their phones in their laps, to flat out reckless driving.

    Look, I've stopped using Uber because of their rampant crazy sexism and general bro-douchebaggery and now purely use Lyft – but there is no way I'm going back to a cab only society. I'm not going to be happy with a service or product that's maybe 60% as good when I've had the chance to see what a real-goddamn service feels like…

    Edit: I rambled on a bit on a tangent, but the original impetus of my post was that as a person of color there is a flip-side to this race argument..

    • Drew

      It seems like NYC cabbies are increasingly unfamiliar with basic landmarks. I was meeting someone across the street from Saks and I asked to be taken there…huh? Maybe I have unrealistic expectations but I’ve been visiting New York regularly since I was a toddler and I can’t remember having to give cabbies directions to basic places so often.

      What I’m saying is, give me the guy with the gps and route guidance over that.

  • Bloix

    I don’t doubt that your anecdote is true. Now here’s another anecdote. Two Saturdays ago I took an Uber from downtown DC to Bethesda. (I was in the office and was meeting my wife and friends for a movie, and due to yet another problem with the DC metro, the Bethesda station was unexpectedly closed.) My driver was a middle-aged black man who, judging by the way he drove – he knew the streets and didn’t pay attention to the gps – had been a hack. I asked him and he said yes, he’d driven a cab for 25 years, but had recently moved to Uber and liked it better. He makes less money per trip, but he spends no time at all cruising for street hail business, so overall he makes more money.
    And of course it’s better for the environment and for traffic if cabs don’t spend hours driving around empty and are on the road only when they are picking up and dropping off customers.

    • Bloix

      PS – “he has another five hours to drive to just cover his daily costs”
      The fixed-price structure of traditional taxi regulation, in which drivers have to stay out longest when the demand for their services is lowest, is one of the true perversities of the taxi business. Uber’s surge pricing signals drivers when it makes sense to go home and when to come out, so drivers don’t waste hours cruising around for riders who never show up.

  • Porkman

    I object to this line. “We need a taxi system that provides both good jobs for people and provides the necessary services required by the public.”

    It still buys into what seems like an increasingly idiotic idea in the age of automation, namely that firms are the primary providers of money to people so they can be consumers.

    Firms like Uber or taxi companies do not want to provide jobs to people. The only reason they ever did so was because it was necessary to for business reasons.

    Now, it isn’t.

    We can force it through the power of law or artificial scarcity (such as medallions) but that’s King Canut trying to stop the tide.

    UBI has a lot of hype, but at least it’s not trying to stand athwart the forces of capitalism and yell, “stop!” The world where an economy at full capacity productively has a for profit reason to employ 7 Billion Mark 1 humans is gone.

    We need to make a conceptual leap…. not that people shouldn’t receive compensation for their labor, because of course they should, but that their labor shouldn’t be the primary way they are assured decent housing, disposable income, medical care, etc.

    Tax the profits and pay everyone out of that money. If someone wants to work on top of that, they can.

  • libarbarian

    Part of what Uber and other gig economy companies have done is to whiten traditionally immigrant jobs.

    Do you have any actual data to back up your “Uber drivers are disproportionaly white” thesis?

    I know around a dozen people who drive for Uber. All but 2 are non-white immigrants.

  • gleeb

    Or, as I keep pointing out, you could just take the bus like a regular person. Heck, to use the Chicago example, there’s a big train that goes right to the airport.

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