The Gig Economy (sic)

The Gig Economy has merely exposed the lie that our labor is the most valuable asset we own. Rather, our man-hours have been depreciated drastically in the last 50 years. Much of this has been due to the explosion in capital credit after the abandonment by Nixon in 1971 of the gold peg under the Bretton Woods international monetary regime. This has led to capital-labor substitution, technological innovation, and productivity increases that have reduced the demand for labor, both skilled and unskilled. It’s made some of us richer.

The second contributing factor has been capital mobility under globalization and the liberalization of the populations of the developing world. This has led to a vast increase in the supply of both skilled and unskilled labor. China and India, for the past 30 years, but we still have Africa and South America in the pipeline. 

The combined effect of these policies and geopolitical trends has driven the marginal price of labor down towards the subsistence level. We need to think outside this shrinking box. Btw, union organization will do nothing to reverse these trends unless the focus is not on controlling the supply of labor and artificially raising wages. Asset ownership, risk sharing, and personal data ownership are key.

(Note: We can’t really expect Vanity Fair to tackle these issues.)

“What Have We Done?”: Silicon Valley Engineers Fear They’ve Created a Monster

Vanity Fair

In the heart of San Francisco, the gig economy reigns supreme. Walk into a grocery store, and a large number of shoppers you see are independent contractors for grocery-delivery start-up Instacart. Step outside, and cars with black-and-white Uber stickers or flashing Lyft dashboard lights are sitting, hazards on, blocking the bike lane as they wait for passengers. Cyclists zigzag around the cars, many hauling bags branded with various logos—Caviar, Postmates, Uber Eats—as they deliver food to customers around the city. You can stand on a street corner and count the number of gig-economy workers walking by, as I often do; sometimes it’s 2 out of every 10. On some corners, like the one near the Whole Foods on 4th and Harrison, I’ve counted 8 out of every 10.

The gig-economy ecosystem was supposed to represent the promised land, striking a harmonious egalitarian balance between supply and demand: consumers could off-load the drudgery of commuting or grocery shopping, while workers were set free from the Man. “Set your own schedule,” touts the Uber-driver Web site; “Be your own boss,” tempts Lyft; “Make an impact on people’s lives,” lures Instacart. These companies have been wildly successful: Uber, perhaps the most notorious, is also the most valuable start-up in the U.S., reportedly worth $72 billion. Lyft is valued at $11 billion, and grocery delivery start-up Instacart is valued at just over $4 billion. In recent months, however, a spate of lawsuits has highlighted an alarming by-product of the gig economy—a class of workers who aren’t protected by labor laws, or eligible for benefits provided to the rest of the nation’s workforce—evident even to those outside the bubble of Silicon Valley. A July report commissioned by the New York City Taxi and Limousine Commission found that 85 percent of New York City’s Uber, Lyft, Juno, and Via drivers earn less than $17.22 an hour. When the California Supreme Court ruled in May that delivery company Dynamex must treat its gig workers like full-time employees, Eve Wagner, an attorney who specializes in employment litigation, predicted to Wired, “The number of employment lawsuits is going to explode.”

Of course, the threads of this disillusionment are woven into the very structure that has made these start-ups so successful. A few weeks into my tenure at Uber, where I started as a software developer just a year after graduating from college, still blindly convinced I could make the world a better place, a co-worker sat down next to my desk. “There’s something you need to know,” she said in a low voice, “and I don’t want you to forget it. When you’re writing code, you need to think of the drivers. Never forget that these are real people who have no benefits, who have to live in this city, who depend on us to write responsible code. Remember that.”

I didn’t understand what she meant until several weeks later, when I overheard two other engineers in the cafeteria discussing driver bonuses—specifically, ways to manipulate bonuses so that drivers could be “tricked” into working longer hours. Laughing, they compared the drivers to animals: “You need to dangle the carrot right in front of their face.” Shortly thereafter, a wave of price cuts hit drivers in the Bay Area. When I talked to the drivers, they described how Uber kept fares in a perfectly engineered sweet spot: just high enough for them to justify driving, but just low enough that not much more than their gas and maintenance expenses were covered.

Those of us on the front lines of the gig economy were the first to spot and expose its flaws—two months after leaving Uber, I wrote a highly publicized account of my time there, describing the company’s toxic work environment in detail. Now, as Silicon Valley struggles to come to terms with its corrosive underpinnings, a new vein of disquiet has wormed its way into the Slack chats and happy-hour outings of low-level rank-and-file engineers, spurred by a question that seems to drown out everything else: What have we done? It’s a question that I, too, have been forced to grapple with as I notice how my job as a software engineer has changed the nature of work in general—and not necessarily for the better.

The risk, we agreed, is that the gig economy will become the only economy.

Gig-economy “platforms,” as they’re called, take their inspiration from software engineering, where the goal is to create modular, scalable software applications. To do this, engineers build small pieces of code that run concurrently, dividing a task into ever smaller pieces to conquer it more efficiently. Start-ups function in a similar way; tasks that used to make up a single job are broken down into the smallest possible code pieces, then partitioned so those pieces can be accomplished in parallel. It’s been a successful approach for start-ups for the same reason it’s a successful approach to writing code: it is perfectly, beautifully efficient. Across so-called platforms, there are no individuals—no bosses delegating tasks. Instead, various algorithms run on the platform, matching consumers with workers, riders with the nearest driver, and hungry customers with delivery people, telling them where to go, what to do, and how to do it. Constant needs and their quick solutions all hummingly, perpetually aligned.

By now it’s clear that these companies represent more than a trend. Though it’s difficult to accurately determine the size of the gig economy—estimates range from 0.7 to 34 percent of the national workforce—the number grows with each new start-up that figures out how to break down another basic task. There’s a relatively low risk associated with launching gig-economy companies, start-ups that can engage in “a kind of contract arbitrage” because they “aren’t bearing the corporate or societal cost, even as they reap fractional or full-time value from workers,” explains Seattle-based tech journalist Glenn Fleishman. Thanks to this buffer, they’re almost guaranteed to multiply. As the gig economy grows, so too does the danger that engineers, in attempting to build the most efficient systems, will chop and dice jobs into pieces so dehumanized that our legal system will no longer recognize them. [Note: yes, labor contracts will be obsolete and meaningless, which means asset ownership is the only defensible right.] And along with this comes an even more sinister possibility: jobs that would and should be recognizable—especially supervisory and management positions—will disappear altogether. If a software engineer can write a set of programs that breaks a job into smaller increments, and can follow it up with an algorithm that fills in as the supervisor, then the position itself can be programmed to redundancy.

A few months ago, a lunchtime conversation with several friends turned to the subject of the gig economy. We began to enumerate the potential causes of worker isplacement—things like artificial intelligence and robots, which are fast becoming a reality, expanding the purview of companies such as Google and Amazon. “The displacement is happening right under our noses,” said a woman sitting next to me, another former engineer. “Not in the future—it’s happening now.

“What can we do about it?” someone asked. Another woman replied that the only way forward was for gig-economy workers to unionize, and the table broke out into serious debate [Labor contracts, union or otherwise, will be legally ill-defined and indefensible]. Yet even as we roundly condemned the tech world’s treatment of a vulnerable new class of worker, we knew the stakes were much higher: high enough to alter the future of work itself, to the detriment of all but a select few. “Most people,” I said, interrupting the hubbub, “don’t even see the problem unless they’re on the inside.” Everyone nodded. The risk, we agreed, is that the gig economy will become the only economy, swallowing up entire groups of employees who hold full-time jobs, and that it will, eventually, displace us all. The bigger risk, however, is that the only people who understand the looming threat are the ones enabling it. 

The Titans of Tech

I reprint this article in full with citation from Quillette. The tone might sound a bit strident, but the warning signals pointing to a form of 21st-century feudalism are real. We’re seeing this in the CA housing crisis today and in the divergence in wealth and incomes since 1980, driven by cheap credit and technology. The oligarchs of tech have been able to leverage their wealth to dominate entertainment and information. They have set their sights on politics and the ideological politics of the tech industry are particularly disturbing and contradictory to its genesis in free-market entrepreneurialism.

You see, the idea here is to socialize the costs of wealth concentration and information centralization, using politics to buy off the unwashed masses who provide the raw material for their business models. Makes one feel good with noblesse oblige of the oligarchy, using the middle class’s money though.

Success can go to the brain.

What Do the Oligarchs Have in Mind for Us?

June 18, 2019

By Joel Kotkin

There seems to be no good reason why a thoroughly scientific
dictatorship should ever be overthrown.
~Aldous Huxley, Brave New World Revisited

The recent movement to investigate, and even break up, the current tech oligarchy has gained support on both sides of the Atlantic, and even leapt across the gaping divide in American politics. The immediate concerns relate to such things as the control of key markets by one or two firms, the huge concentration of wealth accruing to the tech elite and, increasingly, the oligarchy’s control over and manipulation of information pipelines.

What has not been discussed nearly as much is the end game of the oligarchs. What kind of world do they have in mind for us? Their vision of what our society should look like is not one most people—on the Left or Right—would like to see. And yet, unless unchecked, it could well be the world we, and particularly our children, will inhabit.

Almost 40 years ago, in his book The Third Wave, the futurist Alvin Toffler described technology as “the dawn of a new civilization” with vast opportunities for societal and human growth. But instead we are lurching towards what Taichi Sakaiya has called “a high-tech middle ages.” In his landmark 1973 work, The Coming of Post-Industrial SocietyDaniel Bell predicted that, by handing ultimate economic and cultural power to a small number of technologists and financiers the opportunity to monetize every aspect of human behavior and emotion, we would be handing them the chance to fulfill “a social alchemist’s dream: the dream of ordering mass society.”

The New Aristocracy

Like the barbarian princes who seized control of western Europe after the fall of Rome, the oligarchs have captured the digital landscape from the old industrial corporations and have proceeded to concentrate it in ever-fewer hands. Like the Medieval aristocracy, the ruling tech oligarchy—epitomized by firms such as Amazon, Google, Facebook, Apple, and Microsoft—have never produced a single coherent political manifesto laying out the technocratic vision of the future. Nevertheless, it is possible to get a sense of what the internet elite believe and, more tellingly, to see the outlines of the world they want to create.

This tiny sliver of humanity, with their relatively small cadre of financiers, engineers, data scientists, and marketers, now control the exploitation of our personal data, what Alibaba founder, Jack Ma calls the “electricity of the 21st century.” Their “super platforms,” as one analyst noted, “now operate as “digital gatekeepers” lording over “e-monopsonies” that control enormous parts of the economy. Their growing power, notes a recent World Bank Study, is built on “natural monopolies” that adhere to web-based business, and have served to further widen class divides not only in the United States but around the world.

The rulers of the Valley and its Puget Sound doppelganger now account for eight of the 20 wealthiest people on the planet. Seventy percent of the 56 billionaires under 40 live in the state of California, with 12 in San Francisco alone. In 2017, the tech industry, mostly in California, produced 11 new billionaires. The Bay Area has more billionaires on the Forbes 400 list than any metro region other than New York and more millionaires per capita than any other large metropolis.

For an industry once known for competition, the level of concentration is remarkable. Google controls nearly 90 percent of search advertising, Facebook almost 80 percent of mobile social traffic, and Amazon about 75 percent of US e-book sales, and, perhaps most importantly, nearly 40 percent of the world’s “cloud business.” Together, control more than 95 percent of operating software for mobile devices, while Microsoft still accounts for more than 80 percent of the software that runs personal computers around the world.

The wealth generated by these near-monopolies funds the tech oligarchy’s drive to monopolize existing industries such as entertainment, education, and retail, as well as those of the future, such as autonomous cars, drones, space exploration, and most critically, artificial intelligence. Unless checked, they will have accumulated the power to bring about what could best be seen as a “post-human” future, in which society is dominated by artificial intelligence and those who control it.

What Do the Oligarchs Want?

The oligarchs are creating a “a scientific caste system,” not dissimilar to that outlined in Aldous Huxley’s dystopian 1932 novel, Brave New World. Unlike the former masters of the industrial age, they have little use for the labor of  middle- and working-class people—they need only their data. Virtually all their human resource emphasis relies on cultivating and retaining a relative handful of tech-savvy operators. “Software,” Bill Gates told Forbes in 2005, “is an IQ business. Microsoft must win the IQ war, or we won’t have a future.”

Perhaps the best insight into the mentality of the tech oligarchy comes from an admirer, researcher Greg Ferenstein, who interviewed 147 digital company founders. The emerging tech world has little place for upward mobility, he found, except for those in the charmed circle at the top of the tech infrastructure; the middle and working classes become, as in feudal times, increasingly marginal.

This reflects their perception of how society will evolve. Ferenstein notes that most oligarchs believe “an increasingly greater share of economic wealth will be generated by a smaller slice of very talented or original people. Everyone else will increasingly subsist on some combination of part-time entrepreneurial ‘gig work’ and government aid.” Such part-time work has been growing rapidly, accounting for roughly 20 percent of the workforce in the US and Europe, and is expected to grow substantially, adds McKinsey.

Of course, the oligarchs have no more intention of surrendering their power and wealth to the proletariat than the Commissars did after the 1917 revolution in Russia. Instead, they favor providing what Marx once described as a “proletarian alms bag” to subsidize worker housing, and provide welfare benefits to their ever expanding cadre of “gig” economy serfs. The former head of Uber, Travis Kalanick, was a strong supporter of Obamacare, and many top tech executives—including Mark Zuckerberg, Y combinator founder Sam Altman, and Elon Musk—favor a guaranteed annual wage to help, in part, allay fears about the “disruption” on a potentially exposed workforce.

Their social vision amounts to what could be called oligarchal socialism, or what the Corbynite Left calls “fully automated luxury communism.” Like the original bolshevist model, technology and science, as suggested by billionaire tech investor Naval Ravikant, would occasion “the breakdown of family structure and religion” while creating the hegemony of a left-wing identity-centered individualism.

Life in a world dominated by these oligarchs would depart from the model of democratic and competitive capitalism that emerged over the last half-century. Rather than hope to achieve upward mobility and the chance to own property, the new generation will be relegated largely to the status of rental serfs. For the next generation, this promises a future not of upward mobility and owned houses, but of rented apartments and social stagnation. Here in California, Facebook is leading the drive to vastly expand this kind of housing, where the serfs and technocoolies can lose themselves in what Google calls “immersive computing.”The poor, most of whom simply want opportunity, will be relegated to permanent dependent status.

The World They Are Creating

To get a preview of the society the oligarchs want to create, the best place to look is where oligarchal domination is most complete. Wired magazine’s Antonio Garcia Martinez has called Silicon Valley “feudalism with better marketing.” In Martinez’s view, the new aristocratic class is an “Inner Party” of venture capitalists and company founders. Well below them is an “Outer Party” of skilled professionals, well paid, but forced to live ordinary middle-class lives due to high housing prices and high taxes. Below them lies the vast population of gig workers, whom Martinez compares to sharecroppers in the South, “…with the serfs responding to a smartphone prompt rather than an overseer’s command.” Further below still lie those who constitute, in Martinez’s phrase, “the Untouchable class of the homeless, drug addicted, and/or criminal.”

California, and particularly the Bay Area, already reflects this neo-feudal reality. Adjusted for costs, my adopted home state suffers the overall highest poverty rate in the country, according to the US  Census Bureau. Fully one in three welfare recipients in the nation live in California, which is home to barely 12 percent of the country’s population, while a 2017 United Way study showed that close to one in three of the state’s families are barely able to pay their bills. Today, eight million Californians live in poverty, including two million children. Roughly one in five California children lives in deep poverty and nearly half subsist barely above that.

For all its protestations of progressive faith, the Golden State now suffers one of the highest GINI rates—the ratio between the wealthiest and the poorest—among the states. Inequality is growing faster than in almost any state—it now surpasses that of Mexico, and is closer to that of Central American banana republics like Guatemala and Honduras than it is to developed countries like Canada and Norway. There’s even the return of medieval diseases such as Typhus tied to the growing homeless encampments. We could soon even see the return of Bubonic plague, although the mainstream media seems to be ready to blame this, like most ills, on climate change as opposed to failed social policy.

Urban website CityLab has described the tech-rich Bay Area as “a region of segregated innovation,” where the rich wax, the middle-class wanes, and the poor live in increasingly unshakeable poverty. Some 76,000 millionaires and billionaires call Santa Clara and San Mateo counties home. At the other end are the thousands of people who struggle to feed their families and pay their bills each month. Nearly 30 percent of Silicon Valley’s residents rely on public or private assistance.

As recently as the 1980s, the San Jose area boasted one of the country’s most egalitarian economies. But in the current boom, cost-adjusted wages for middle class workers, Latinos, and African Americans in Silicon Valley actually dropped. Many minorities labor in the service sector in jobs such as security guard, for around $25,000 annually, working for contractors. There’s ever-greater segregation of minority and low income families, workers forced into mobile home parks or sleeping in their cars, as well as some of the nation’s largest homeless encampments. According to the Brookings Institution, in the last decade, increasingly tech-dominated San Francisco has suffered the most rapid growth in inequality while the middle class family heads towards extinction.

Needed: An Alliance of Progressives and Conservatives against the Oligarchy

Americans, enamored of the entrepreneurial spirit, were initially slow to see in the tech oligarchy a threat to the future of the republic. But public skepticism, notably in California, towards the tech lords is growing; many on both sides of the political divide see them much like modern versions of the gilded age mogul, successfully playing the political system to avoid regulation, anti-trust action, and taxes.

Yet overcoming the oligarchs will not be easy. Far more than the old industrial giants, they enjoy unprecedented sway through their manipulation of the information pipelines, as is widely evidenced in de-platforming of largely conservative voices on outlets such as Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter. Nearly two-thirds of readers now get their news through and their dominance among younger generations is, if anything, more overwhelming. As the Guardian put it: “If ExxonMobil attempted to insert itself into every element of our lives like this, there might be a concerted grassroots movement to curb its influence.”

To this influence, they have added control over what is left of the traditional media they have helped to undermine. Often getting bargain basement prices, the oligarchs have been able to buy up prestigious outlets, including the New Republic in 2012, the Washington Post in 2013, the Atlantic in 2017, and Time last year.

In the coming political storm, the oligarchs will also retain some supporters on both the Left and Right, all aided by a huge, growing, and politically hermaphroditic lobbying operation. Some California progressives have backed the oligarchs on privacy and Senator Kamala Harris, one of the leading Democratic contenders, has gained widespread support from the oligarchs. Meanwhile, on the Right, some libertarians at places like the Wall Street Journal and conservative think-tanks, continue to defend the oligarchs as the rightful winners of dogged economic competition.

But these well-placed defenders may not be enough to fend off regulatory assaults, particularly as more people recognize how the world being created by the tech elites offers little promise for the middle class, democracy, or free thought. Rather than the saviors many once saw, the oligarchs now represent a clear and present danger to the most basic foundations of our democracy. Resisting them represents the great imperative of our era.

Joel Kotkin is a Presidential Fellow in Urban Futures at Chapman University and Executive Director for the Center for Opportunity Urbanism. His last book was The Human City: Urbanism for the Rest of Us (Agate, 2017).

Traveling The Road to Serfdom

house

This, too, is an illusion.

This post borrows from the famously titled book by Friedrich Hayek, The Road to Serfdom. In his landmark critique, Hayek laid out the reasons why government-directed socialism would lead to the impoverishment of society. Maybe more of us should be reading such books these days instead of watching American Idol.

A couple of weeks ago I also posted an article here on the “feudalization” of capitalism. In that article I explained how feudalism was based on the narrow ownership and control of land, while feudal capitalism would be based on the concentrated ownership and control of financial capital. But, of course, financial capital is only good for the economic power it provides over real resources, and now we are seeing that applied rather transparently. From a recent news report:

After quite a bit of bingeing — and more than a little purging — the private equity real estate market appears to be finding a bit of equilibrium, even after poor performance and regulatory changes have thinned the ranks of dealmakers in the sector.

This month’s issue of Private Equity Analyst takes a look at how a number of buyout firms, some with dedicated real estate funds and some without, are positioning themselves to profit from a nascent real estate recovery, even as fundraising for real estate funds remained well off its 2008 high of $139.9 billion.

Private equity real estate funds raised an aggregate $54.9 billion last year, and a further 451 funds are currently on the road chasing $148 billion According to data provider Preqin.

Leading the charge of successful fund raises in 2012 was the Blackstone Group, which held a final close on $13.3 billion for Blackstone Real Estate Partners VII LP in the fourth quarter of 2012. The fund’s predecessors, including the $11 billion Blackstone Real Estate Fund VI LP raised in 2007, were top performers in the portfolio of the New Jersey Division of Investment.

The changing investment landscape has led Blackstone to shift Fund VII into some previously-untapped territory, namely, the single-family housing market. The firm created a company called Invitation Homes to buy foreclosed homes, fix them up and rent them to families.  So far it has put about $2.6 billion to work in that space, amassing a portfolio of 16,000 homes.

The housing/financial bubble, bust, and nascent recovery is transferring the ownership of housing and land to an ever-narrower group of financial plutocrats – those the popular press refer to as the 1%. If you think Democrats (Obama or anyone else) or Republicans in Washington are doing anything to prevent this, you’re fooling yourself. They are all, through the Federal Reserve, promoting it.

Can’t afford your house because of the massive credit bubble we engineered? Okay, we’ll let Blackstone partners buy it out from under you with the cheap credit we’ve provided them and then they’ll rent it back to you! Problem solved. When the day comes when the real value of these assets results in much higher prices, Blackstone will sell it back to you or somebody else for a tidy profit. In the meantime, the steady devaluation of the dollar will make us one-percenters much richer and you serfs much poorer. Neat trick, eh?

This tragic state of affairs all resulted from an historic scam to turn homes into speculative trading assets. It would be wrong to blame just the 1%. Everyone who thought flipping houses was a great way to get rich (and they’re coming back in force) is complicit in this scam. As are the politicians and housing industry lobbyists who promote housing tax subsidies. If house prices were stable and based on fundamental economic relationships to incomes and rents, there would be no profit to be had by trading them and we might all live easier with a lot more financial security.

Instead, we are surely truly traveling down Hayek’s Road to Serfdom.