It’s All About Uber! Not.

The Phantom Menace to Holy Uber: It sure looks (to an outside observer) like some sort of bat-whistle went out to conservative bloggers that caused them (and, suspiciously, the Jeb! campaign) to tee up the idea that Hillary’s big economic speech would be a Luddite attack on Uber and the liberating technology of the ‘sharing economy.’ But then Hillary didn’t deliver the grist for the mill, choosing not to say much at all (shouldn’t that always be the expectation for a Hillary speech?)  That didn’t stop the bloggers from unleashing their pent-up paragraphs anyway.

Take the estimable Charles C.W. Cooke: He didn’t have a whole lot to work with when he sat down to craft the the lede graf of his stirring defense of Uber against the Hillary assault. Cooke made the most of what he was given, and then some:

 Developments such as AirBnB, Zaarly, Uber, DogVacay, and RelayRides, Clinton conceded, are not likely to “go away” any time soon. But they are worrying nonetheless. Indeed, the “sharing economy,” she proposed, is “polarizing” and it is disruptive — guilty of no less than “displacing or downgrading blue-collar jobs.”

The trouble is, Hillary’s talk about “polarizing” and “downgrading” was in the paragraph before she got to the “sharing economy” — a paragraph in which she discusses “ advances in technology and expanding global trade have created whole new areas of commercial activity … but too often they’re also polarizing …” She’s talking about the “tectonic” effects of trade and technology that predate anything you could put on an app — Japanese automakers almost putting Detroit out of business, for example, computers rendering obsolete whole levels of middle-management, millions of  low-skilled jobs shifting to Asia. This happened decades before Uber existed–even before Etsy, hard as it may be to imagine such a world. It’s a development more important than the recent advent of the “sharing economy” by a factor of about 1000.

That these two forces — trade, technology — tended to promote greater income inequality seems inarguable.** Would Cooke deny it? It’s actually a step in the right direction for a Democrat to acknowledge these seemingly unstoppable tectonic trends rather than ascribing blame to evil trickle-down policies of Reagan and the Bushes.

Would Hillary try to suppress the more recent “sharing” developments? Well, here’s what she said:

This “on demand” or so-called “gig economy” is creating exciting opportunities and unleashing innovation but it’s also raising hard questions about workplace protections and what a good job will look like in the future.

We know what she means by “hard questions”! Hillary later pledges to “crack down on bosses who exploit employees by misclassifying them as contractors,” which might be taken as a reference to recent disputes over the status of Uber employees, or might be a reference to the hundreds of other, more important corporations (e.g. Microsoft) who have run afoul of labor laws by trying to move work away from “employees” to freelancers.

So Hillary says the “sharing economy” is exciting and innovative but we’re supposed to be wildly alarmed and — and let loose torrents of satisfying anti-statist rhetoric — because she thinks Uber drivers should get unemployment benefits? She doesn’t even rule out adapting labor law to Uber, as opposed to the other way around.

P.S.: Cooke’s right that New Deal liberalism attached too many benefits to employment, resulting in the web of rules firms like Uber are understandably trying to wriggle out of.  One of the virtues of Obamacare is that it provides benefits, through its “exchanges,” that are independent of any employment. But when firms then cancel their plans and shift employees into the exchanges, do anti-New Dealers like Cooke applaud, I ask you? (The main problem with Obamacare isn’t that it nudges people onto the exchanges. The problem is that what it offers on the exchanges kind of sucks, unless you are poor enough — making less than $46,000 — to get subsidized.)

P.P.S.: None of this is to deny the galactic mismatch between Clinton’s perception of the problems caused by “advances in technology and expanding global trade” and her solutions: “a new $1500 apprenticeship tax credit … reviving the New Markets Tax Credit and Empowerment Zones,” dinging firms about overtime and magically reviving unionism.

I would argue the problem she outlines is insoluble. We should chill out about the general horror of relentlessly rising income inequality while we concentrate on preserving and expanding the institutions that can still give us social equality: schools, neighborhoods, the health care system, and, most important,  maintaining (through a tight labor market) at least a minimum standard of living for everyone who works.  That would be a different speech than the one Hillary gave.

Update: Lowry too! …


** — See, for example, the cover of this eerily prescient volume, published in 1992.  Uber was founded in 2009.