The Sharing Economy : Disruption’s Tragic Flaw

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Similar criticisms are being directed toward Uber’s labor practices, questioning the fundamental fairness of its model. Uber’s drivers own the key physical assets —cars, maintenance, gas—but the company unilaterally sets the rates and terms of their labor, including its claim on each fare. Uber drivers— and other “on-demand” workers— have become increasingly vocal  as the question the rights of these enterprises to operate outside of minimum wage laws, anti-discrimination statutes, workers’ compensation laws, and union-organizing rights. The firms have few obligations, while  workers undertake nearly all the risks.  In a Wall Street Journal article about on-demand employment, One worker tells the WSJ, ‘We are not robots; we are not a remote control; we are individuals…”  An Uber competitor quoted in the same article praised Uber’s indifference to laws, “They don’t even make any effort to comply with what they think are bad laws.”

It seems to me that despite all the disruption rhetoric, these Uber practices suggest more continuity than change. They import the old logic of the neoliberal paradigm that explicitly disavows any unique allegiance to people and places.  They also replay  an even earlier Fordist logic that treats people as interchangeable parts in a universe of standardization and anonymity. The failures of institutionalization on the employment side also violate end consumer interests.  These are two sides of the same coin. In consumer -facing service businesses we know all too well that employees who are exploited, insecure, and stressed do not easily operate in the best interests of their end consumers, as their motivations and incentives tend toward exerting the least possible effort.

In my view, what we see in Uber and similar cases is a tragic flaw: disruption without discipline. Disruption without the  institutionalization required for systemic coherence, which is essential for trust. Half mutation, half repetition…half advocacy, half contempt…half future, half past.  Uber’s is opportunistic disruption that does not rise to Schumpeter’s standard for moving capitalism’s evolutionary dial.

So far, the investment process has both enabled this tragic flaw and profited from it. Even as the accounts of Uber’s privacy violations were emerging in early December 2014,  its profits and alleged 40% growth rates were sufficient to raise another $1.2 billion from venture firms, pushing its valuation to $41 billion and making it, according to the Wall Street Journal, the highest valuation “for any private startup backed by venture capitalists.” A month later, in January 2015, it received another $1.6 billion in financing from Goldman Sachs.

And while Mr. Denner praises Silicon Valley’s ability to raise capital…what does that mean for the economy?  Just this week, a prominent Wall Street analyst’s comments underscored the relationship between exorbitant investor returns and the inequality that is defacing our society:‘‘Right now we have earnings coming off of record highs as a percentage of GDP and yet you have Wall Street saying ‘don’t worry, it’s going to soar to new highs.’ Pardon me, but when did the peasants with the pitchforks come out and start rioting? Society at large has to enjoy some of the largesse, or else the pitchforks come out. So earnings as a share of GDP can’t really advance materially from current levels, or at least it’s not healthy if they do.

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