2018/09/07: As long as we depend on the arbitrary will of another for our subsistence then it is hard to claim that we are free. While some of us would be able to find alternative employment in the event of our being dismissed, or of leaving a job after being harassed or otherwise mistreated, some would struggle, and some would suffer substantial harm. We cannot know for sure in advance which category we fall into. This suggests that welfare payments or alternative forms of employment ought to be available as of right, not only for the benefit of those who find themselves without work but to protect all workers from the insults and injustices of their employers. It further suggests that workers have a right to organize to reduce their vulnerability to arbitrary power in the workplace. Indeed, a fully achieved democratic republic would want to establish workplace democracy in an economy where individuals could always secure independent access to the means of subsistence.20
This general right to be free from domination has implications for the extent and nature of state activity. Without a general right to healthcare, we are not free to decide whether to take a job or to leave it. The overwhelming need to cover existing conditions, or to secure treatment for dependents, or to hedge against future risks, will make us vulnerable to pressure from our employers that need not ever be stated to be real. Here we can see the limitations of the liberal tradition’s attempt to understand unfreedom in terms of physical interference and coercive threats.
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They will need it. New York is only the latest city, following London, Paris and a number of others, to put restrictions on ride-hailing, which has turned urban transport upside down. I see it from both sides. In New York, finding rides in outer boroughs has become exponentially easier thanks to Uber and Lyft. I take multiple trips per week and I am considering giving up my car altogether (if you wonder why, read Calvin Trillin's novel about parking in New York).rnrnOn the other hand, traffic does seem worse, and anyone who invested in a traditional taxi medallion - which used to sell for more than $1m and have since plunged to low six figures - has lost out. That is what technology does, of course. Just ask the Luddites. The problem is that while 21st-century technology has reshaped many industries, labour laws remain stuck in the 19th century. No wonder numerous despondent taxi drivers have committed suicide. If we want the "sharing economy" to live up to its name, the platform technology companies that benefit the most from it have to do just that - share.rnrnBoth technical and existential changes are required. At core, we should give up on the fantasy that the gig economy somehow eliminates issues of power between workers and companies. Contractors who work via Uber, or any other "on-demand" platform do have more independence, and surveys show they like it. Uber plays this up, with ads in which a prosperous looking young white man smiles from a sunlit car, over the tagline "Freedom Pays Weekly." He might be a teacher on summer break making an extra buck in his spare time.rnrnIn reality, most Uber drivers are black, Asian or Latino and making below minimum wage. And, on the whole, algorithmic management puts dramatically more power in the hands of platform companies. Not only can they monitor workers 24/7, they benefit from enormous information asymmetries that allow them to suddenly deactivate drivers with low user ratings, or take a higher profit margin from riders willing to pay more for speedier service, without giving drivers a cut.rnRecommendedrnSarah O'ConnorrnLet gig workers control their data toornrnThis is not a properly functioning market. It is a data-driven oligopoly that will further shift power from labour to capital at a scale we have never seen before. It is not only taxi drivers that are being "uberised" but radiologists, lawyers, contractors and accountants. All these services can now be accessed at cut rates via platforms.rnrnRather than wait for more regulatory pushback, platform tech companies should take responsibility now for the changes they have wreaked - and not just the positive ones. That requires an attitude adjustment. Many tech titans have a libertarian bent that makes them dismissive of the public sector as a whole. Uber became infamous for simply going into new markets guerrilla style, disrupting first and asking questions later. (It is now trying to change its reputation under Dara Khosrowshahi, who replaced Mr Kalanick last year.)rnrnYet the potential benefits of ride-hailing and sharing - from less traffic to less pollution - cannot actually be realised unless the tech companies work with the public sector. One can imagine companies like Uber co-operating with city officials to phase in vehicles slowly, rolling out in underserved areas first, rather than flooding the most congested markets and creating a race to the bottom.rnrnThe same goes for other sorts of platforms, like Airbnb. That company often touts its ability to open up new neighbourhoods to tourism, but research shows that in cities like New York, most of its business is done in a handful of high end areas - and the largest chunk by commercial operators with multiple listings, with the effect of raising rents and increasing the strains caused by gentrification. Officially Airbnb has a "one host, one home" policy in New York, but better enforcement is needed.rnrnOn the labour side, too, the platform companies must take responsibility for the human cost of disruption. New York University professor Arun Sundararajan, has proposed allowing companies to create a "safe harbour" training fund that provides benefits and insurance for drivers and other on-demand workers without triggering labour laws that would categorise such workers as full-time employees (which is what companies want to avoid).rnrnIt is a hedge, but it would give both sides time to craft new rules of the road for the on-demand economy to ensure it does not become a zero-sum game.
Arthur Miller's classic 1949 Pulitzer Prize-winning play Death of a Salesman opens with musical direction: "A melody is heard, played upon a flute. It is small and fine, telling of grass and trees and the horizon. The curtain rises." The play follows Willy Loman, past 60, as his grasp on life crumbles amid job troubles. When, at the end of Act II, he reaches his beaten-down end, the melody soars again, this time a requiem. "Only the music of the flute," writes Miller, "is left on the darkening stage ." I heard this flute's dirge throughout last summer and fall, as I made the rounds talking with downsized journalists-men and women who had gotten hooked on the profession as young, ink-stained idealists, only to find themselves cast out in mid- or later life. These veterans spoke of forced buyouts and failed job searches-of lost purpose, lost confidence, even lost homes. I had known of the decimation of my profession: I'd read the statistics, seen the news articles, watched old friends pushed from jobs as bureau chiefs, editors, senior reporters, into the free fall of freelance. But the texture of their Lomanesque despair surprised me. There were some grim moments. Continue reading
We are creating a permanent class of unemployed Americans.
A new wave of robots is replacing workers in both manufacturing and distribution.
When we get a resume, in Word, from job applicants, we put it in the hex editor and go right to the end to see what else they've been writing.
2012/03/04: There's an argument you see around sometimes about Henry Ford's decision to pay his workers those famed $5 a day wages. It was that he realised that he should pay his workers sufficiently large sums to that they could afford the products they were making. In this manner he could expand the market for his products.
It should be obvious that this story doesn't work: Boeing would most certainly be in trouble if they had to pay their workers sufficient to afford a new jetliner. It's also obviously true that you want every other employer to be paying their workers sufficient that they can afford your products: but that's very much not the same as claiming that Ford should pay his workers so that they can afford Fords.
So, if creating that blue collar middle class that could afford the cars wasn't why Ford brought in his $5 a day wages, what was the reason?
Actually, it was the turnover of his staff.
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2018/01/16: A new answer could change how we think about unions, monopolies, and the minimum wage.
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Without the right design, a universal basic income would do little to advance radical change.
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2015/11/02: Would Tory MPP Tim Hudak still like the sharing economy so much if we were forced into the precarious labour on which it depends?
We're in the midst of a jobs crisis, and rapid advances in AI and other technologies may be one culprit. How can we get better at sharing the wealth that technology creates?
As an email startup CEO, I hear it every week. "I hate email. Email sucks. Why can't anyone fix it? And why would you want to spend your life working on something everyone hates?" Email is an obvious target for blame, since we collectively send 183 billion of them every single day. But blaming emai