Saturday, July 25, 2015

Precarious Taxis

This post has two parents: an interview with Charlie Post, reprinted in International Viewpoint, the official publication of the Fourth International. (I have added them, belatedly, the This Blog's Beat.) And also Mayor DeBlasio's fight with Uber, which he has now lost decisively.

Mr. Post takes issue with the word precariat as a useful descriptor of social reality. That's a portmanteau of the words precarious and proletariat, and denotes those who work part-time, and/or without benefits, and without any job security. Mr. Post doesn't dispute the growth of the precariat workforce, but he sees it as in no way distinct from earlier historical patterns.
If you look at the condition of workers before the First World War, say in the 1890s, the vast majority of working people lived an incredibly precarious existence. I was doing some research on skilled workers in Victorian England, the so-called labor aristocracy. Most of these people were working half the year, subject to long bouts of unemployment, and if they were out of work they could lose housing. ... The sense of what most people alive today thought was “the norm,” was actually the historical exception.
Mr. Post attributes the recent rise to "neoliberalism," an ill-defined term that suggests a capitalist offensive to lower workers' standard of living.
When I was much younger, in my late teens and twenties, I was first radicalizing in the 1970s, and I had a lot of friends who’d get jobs at the post office or the Brooklyn Navy Yard. They knew that if they got laid off or fired for political activity, they could collect unemployment, get food stamps, probably get on Medicaid, or they could pick up another job quickly. Since the successful neoliberal offensive, we have seen that it is much harder to get full-time employment that have social benefits, and in general the welfare benefits have degraded or disappeared. 
The consequences of getting laid off or fired today are much more severe today than they were just a few decades ago.
While Mr. Post's friends were working at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, I was a cab driver in Chicago. I began working for Checker Cab Company and had to join the International Seafarers Union. This was a corrupt, mob-run outfit whose only function was to collect dues from the drivers. For the first couple of months they took about a third of my paycheck as an "initiation fee"--the best way to rip off a precariat worker. After that it was a mere 10% fee. With Checker I was paid a commission off the meter, along with tips.

After a year or so at Checker Cab, I moved over to Flash Cab, a non-union, "Jewish" company operating mostly on the city's far north side. They ran a good radio dispatch service. There I rented the cab for a twelve hour shift and paid for my own gas, keeping whatever was left over. That was sometimes over a hundred dollars (a lot of money in the '70s), and occasionally I lost money. Typically I earned about $30 for a ten-hour day.

I drove a cab partly for the money, partly because it gave me proletarian street cred (I was a union member after all, though they were too cheap to send me a card), and mostly because I enjoyed it. Neither company offered me any benefits.

So I'm familiar with the precariat.

An Uber-funded study (which I'm inclined to believe) shows that Uber cars are slightly cheaper than Yellow taxis, and in any event are much faster and more reliable. (See here.) I've been thinking about driving for Uber as a part-time retirement job.

There is much debate over whether Uber drivers earn more or less than cabbies. I don't know. But the Uber folks have many advantages: 1) They're safer. All customers come with a pre-approved credit card. No money changes hands in the car. 2) They can set their own work hours. I had a lot of flexibility working for Flash, but my shift started at 5pm, whether I liked it or not. Uber drivers have no such restrictions. 3) Uber drivers are earning equity in their car. Indeed, that's an important consideration for me. I can work for Uber for a year or two, and at the end I'll have a car for the rest of my life, clear and free.

So Mr. Post will have us believe that this is all an evil plot by neoliberals to screw the working class. I don't think so, though everything comes with trade-offs. But there is one, undisputed beneficiary from all of this change: the consumer. Consumers get better taxi transport at similar or lower prices from drivers with an equity stake in providing good service. They come out a winner no matter what.

And that's what Mr. Post (or any Marxist) does not understand. The beneficiary of a precarious workforce is neither the neoliberal capitalist nor the employee, but rather the consumer. The purpose of a capitalist economy is to sell as much high-quality stuff as possible at the lowest possible price to the most consumers. In that, Uber is indisputably better than the over-regulated Yellow Cab industry.

So here's a more concise definition of the precariat. A precarious worker is somebody whose income is sensitively determined by market signals. Or, put another way, there's no buffer between the worker and the market. The cab driver, the shop keeper and the restaurateur are all members of the precariat, as are their employees, e.g., at McDonald's or Walmart.

Seen this way, it's obvious that precarious workers benefit consumers. And that's why Mr. Post is wrong when he regards the trend as an "offensive" against the working class that will lower their standard of living. To the contrary, it will raise the standard of living of consumers, which also includes all workers. Cheaper cab fares for everyone!

The opposite of a precarious worker is somebody whose income does not depend on market signals at all. This certainly includes most government employees, who get paid whether or not they actually do anything useful. Mr. Post and I, for example, are both employees of public colleges. We're not precarious, but instead we're parasites. Our income derives from scamming eighteen-year-olds and mooching off the taxpayer.

Mr. Post favorably cites a fellow academic, a certain Kevin Doogan. Mr. Doogan is the author of New Capitalism, a book that sounds interesting. It's so good, in fact, that it's a top 1,740,000 best seller on Amazon. You'd think it'd be in the bargain basement by now, but no, even on Kindle it costs nearly $20!

Mr. Post is himself an author of The American Road to Capitalism, followed by a very long subtitle. That's done better, in the top 1,300,000 books sold. It's not available on Kindle, but you can buy a paperback copy of your very own for under $29.

That's how out of touch these guys are. They're not writing for actual readers. Instead they're just sucking up to referees and tenure committees.

Your tax dollars at play.

Further Reading:

No comments:

Post a Comment