“Sharing Economy” and a Nation of Contractors

UberI remember several years ago, Paul Krugman was in the UK debating a couple of conservatives on a television show there. At one point, Krugman said, “Well not everyone is going to start their own business.” And a female PM said, “Why not?” Krugman didn’t even respond because it was such a ridiculously stupid thing to say. But I noted at the time that if everyone went into business for themselves, there would be no businesses — just contractors everywhere. One can hardly imagine a more inefficient system. There would be no way to improve productivity by scaling up. But of course, conservatives like the idea of everyone starting their own business so they can label workers as less worthy than business owners.

But among a lot of younger computer types, this idea sounds great. A nation of contractors, that’s the ideal! But the laws of economics have not changed. Business management has not changed. But the public intellectual space has changed to allow the myth of contractors to be used by big businesses to take on none of the traditional responsibilities of having employees while at the same time not having to pay the large cost premium of actual contractors.

This, of course, is what is going on with companies like Uber and Lyft. The drivers are just small business people, not employees! As Michael Hiltzik put it last week, “That concept is so alluring, on the surface, that it has spread to house cleaners, launderers, delivery persons — you name it.” The California office of the labor commissioner found that Uber drivers are actually employees and not “independent contractors.”

This case has a special relevance to me. Right now, I’m working for a company out of London. I’ve never met the owner or my main contact. I get paid for work done, which I do on my own time frame using my own tools, working in my own office. I am, in other words, the very definition of an independent contractor. And I’m very happy with that. But I’ve had employers in the past who wanted to claim that I was an independent contractor. There are lots of reasons for this, but one of the biggest is to avoid costs like payroll tax contributions. But at the same time, they wanted to dictate how I dressed, when I worked, where I worked, and generally wanted to micromanage me. I was not an independent contractor in those cases, although I was often so desperate for work that I went along with it.

The commissioner’s office found that Uber was far too controlling of what its drivers did for them to be considered independent contractors. What’s more, it noted that Uber is wrong to say that it is just a technology company. If it weren’t for the drivers, it would have no business. But consider this: Uber requires that drivers pass a background check. How does that make any sense if all that Uber is doing is hooking up drivers and fairs? Well, of course, it doesn’t.

In another case, US District Judge Edward Chen noted, “Uber does not simply sell software; it sells rides. Uber is no more a ‘technology company’ than Yellow Cab is a ‘technology company’ because it uses CB radios to dispatch taxi cabs.” And that really does reveal the whole game. The only reason that Uber has been allowed to get away with its shenanigans is because the technology that it uses is newer than other technologies. But there is nothing new about what Uber is doing to maximize its profits.

Amazon was created just shy of 20 years ago. For most of that time, it did not collect any state sales tax. It still doesn’t collect sales taxes in 19 states that have them. And the one thing we all know is that Amazon’s profit margins are razor thin. So it has used this illegal subsidy for many years, destroying local book stores who could not get away without paying sales tax. In California, the sales tax is at least 7.5% and where I live it is 9.25%! How many local bookstores now gone would still be in business if they had been able to grab almost as much as 10% in profits off the top?

Where Amazon Collects Sales Taxes

All this nonsense of the “sharing economy” and the “new economy” has to stop. We are not a nation of contractors. We are not a nation of people who only want to buy stuff online. We are pretty much the same as we’ve always been. It’s just that the rich and powerful are using new technologies to trick us into taking even more away from us.

Split Infinities and the People Who Use Them

A Dictionary of Modern English UsageThe English-speaking world may be divided into (1) those who neither know nor care what a split infinitive is; (2) those who do not know, but care very much; (3) those who know and condemn; (4) those who know and approve; and (5) those who know and distinguish.

1. Those who neither know nor care are the vast majority, and are a happy folk, to be envied by most of the minority classes. “To really understand” comes readier to their lips and pens than “really to understand”; they see no reason why they should not say it (small blame to them, seeing that reasons are not their critics’ strong point), and they do say it, to the discomfort of some among us, but not to their own…

4. Just as those who know and condemn the split infinitive include many who are not recognizable, since only the clumsier performers give positive proof of resistance to temptation, so too those who know and approve are not distinguishable with certainty. When a man splits an infinitive, he may be doing it unconsciously as a member of our class 1, or he may be deliberately rejecting the trammels of convention and announcing that he means to do as he will with his own infinitives.

—Henry Watson Fowler
A Dictionary of Modern English Usage

Confederate Flags and Nazi Tattoos

Confederate Flag - Nazi SymbolAny connection between the massacre at the Emanuel AME Church and the Confederate flag is, of course, indirect. So don’t consider this article about that vile act. People have been talking about the Confederate flag and that’s a good thing. But I will repeat what I’ve said many times over the last several years: I hate the Confederate flag. As I wrote back in January, “Martin Luther King Jr was born and raised in Georgia. Yet I’ve never seen anyone wearing a t-shirt with his image as an act of ‘southern pride.’ No. ‘Southern pride’ is always expressed with the Confederate flag, Stonewall Jackson, or Robert E Lee.”

There is no doubt that the Confederate flag is a racist symbol. But again, let’s leave that aside. As we all know, most of the people fighting for the Confederacy were not slave owners. But beyond slavery, the Civil War was the answer to a great question: is our allegiance to our state or our country? And the answer to that was resounding: it is to the country. States have lots of nice things and they have control over certain aspects of government. But we are all Americans and to put South Carolina above the United States is an act of treason.

Nazi Heritage Not HateBut like I said, that was an arguable question 150 years ago. And that’s perhaps why the liberals of that time said to the south, “Welcome back!” There was no punishment. Even the President of the Confederacy — a man who under most circumstances would have been hanged along with many others — spent just two years in federal custody and then went on to have a successful life, dying rich and having a huge public funeral. This was the early version of Obama’s looking forward. And the conservatives responded to that the same way they responded to Obama’s mercy.

As the Union moved on and forgot about the Civil War, the south did not move on. Instead, it wrapped itself in the flag of the Confederacy. It created myths about the righteousness of its cause. And so every time southerners bring out the flag, they are saying, “We were right!” It is not even a question of them trying to claim that they weren’t traitors — which they most clearly were. That would be understandable — especially if people commonly talked about the treasonous Robert E Lee. But they don’t. In fact, he is widely seen as a hero, much to my personal disgust. And these people are not asking for absolution for their forefathers’ treason.

But the people who continue to wrap themselves in the Confederate flag are the same people who claim to have some kind of a monopoly on the “real” America. Yet they clearly don’t care about America as it is. It is instead “America.” And that’s why we get this nonsense from the supposed Constitutional Conservatives that “the powers not expressly delegated to the United States” are given to the states. Except that isn’t what the Constitution says. That’s what the Articles of Confederation said, and what the south tried to re-establish when it revolted against the United States.

To me, the Confederate flag is very simple: it is the flag of a failed country that attacked the United States and started the most deadly war we have ever had in terms of our own casualties. Almost half the population of North Dakota are people of German descent. Would anyone find it acceptable for the state to fly the Nazi flag? Even apart from its obvious racism and offensiveness to Jews (and basically everyone else), it would be offensive to the very idea of the United States of America. It would be like having a Fort Rommel.

Yet there the Confederate flag is. I live in liberal northern California and I still see it everywhere. I’m not suggesting that people shouldn’t be allowed to display the flag. But I am saying that we should treat people who display it the same way we treat people sporting Nazi tattoos.

GOP Loses Even When It Acknowledges Racism

Brian BeutlerBrian Beutler wrote a very interesting take on, Why Republicans Didn’t Want to Say the Charleston Killer Is a Racist. He distinguished between the Republican presidential candidates not wanting to take a stand against the Confederate flag and not wanting to to call the massacre at the Emanuel AME church a racist hate crime. There probably are a whole lot more Republican flag lovers than Republicans who would be offending by saying a white separatist kid who kills nine African Americans is a racist. So why all the confusion from the candidates?

Beutler thinks it is fundamentally ideological, “Republicans are reluctant to attribute anything serious in American society to racism, because so many Republican dogmas are premised on the notion that racism has been all but wiped out in America.” He related it to global warming and the new Republican excuse for not having an opinion on it, “I’m not a scientist.” With the racism question, it is, “I can’t say what he was thinking.” But it all comes down to the idea that if you admit that there is a problem, you have to do something about it. And both those problems imply distinctly liberal solutions. The truth is that conservatives have no solutions to them.

I agree with all of this, but I think it goes deeper. Another aspect of it is Henry Kissinger’s idea of a revolutionary power, and the fact that the Republicans have become one. The whole party has given up on practical politics. It is now focused entirely on ideology. And that ideology is basically that the government shouldn’t be involved in anything but going to war (and stopping women from having abortions). So even to admit that anything is wrong in society is to open oneself to the charge of lacking purity in pursuit of the the “limited government” ideal.

But this is true only of the base. The Republicans understand that their broader appeal is based upon an unstated racism. Why is welfare bad? You can talk all you want about moochers and hammocks. But the appeal of slashing welfare is based primarily on the image of black people in public housing waiting for their welfare check. Cliven Bundy spoke what usually goes unsaid in the Republican Party, “I would see these old government houses, and in front of that government house the door was usually open and the older people and the kids — and there is always at least a half a dozen people sitting on the porch — they didn’t have nothing to do.” They do nothing; just sit around waiting for those sweet, sweet welfare checks. Of course, those sweet, sweet welfare checks are a thing of the past — thanks to Bill Clinton’s welfare “reform.” But no one seems to know that.

The power the Republicans’ appeal is based on the idea that there is an underclass — and we all know what that underclass looks like — that is stealing all our hard earned money. So it isn’t surprising that Republicans would be disinclined to talk about race at all. The more explicit race is in the public conversation, the less powerful it is. Most people in the center — and certainly on the left — do not want to think of themselves as racists. The moment we start talking explicitly about race, these people become hyper-aware of racist appeals. And the Republican appeal loses much of its power.

So it is certainly good that Nikki Haley and Ben Carson are talking about racism and the Confederate flag. But generally speaking, it is bad for the Republican Party. Because resentment of minority groups is the primary product that the party has to sell.

Morning Music: Mark Eitzel

Everclear - American Music ClubI swear, there was a decade of my life that I’m not sure I would have gotten through if it hadn’t been for Mark Eitzel and American Music Club. His combination of wry despondency so matched where I was. It is often hard to hold onto the wry part. But if Eitzel could laugh at the fact that he was spending his nights crying into his beer, then there was hope.

Here he is all by himself performing the first track off Everclear, “Why Won’t You Stay.” Everclear is widely considered American Music Club’s masterpiece. I don’t agree, but it is unquestionably a great album. The thing is that the band has never produced an album that wasn’t good. But my favorite is probably United Kingdom because of its under-produced and dark sound. My friend Dave Luoto once gave me a cassette tap with California on one side and United Kingdom on the other. (I now own the import that has both albums on it.) It was one of the best gifts anyone had ever given to me. And I listened to it over and over again. I made a little fun of myself about this in my unfinished second novel:

We made our way down I-5, through Gresham, the turn off to OSU, and onward toward Eugene. I’d been switching between American Music Club California with “Jenny Don’t Go” and American Music Club United Kingdom with “Highway 5.” By about Roseburg, Rachel, silent up til then, blurted out, ‘If I hear My Big Aloha one more time, I’ll scream.”

Here we see Mark Eitzel singing at a radio station. And he seems like he’s actually, well, happy. I’m glad to see it. I feel a whole lot better these days too.

Anniversary Post: Roth v United States

American AphroditeOn this day in 1957, Roth v United States was decided incorrectly. It was one of the major “obscenity” cases. This was the one that said that Congress could pass laws banning material “utterly without redeeming social importance.” It was later superseded by Miller v California, in the sense of coming up with yet another definition of obscenity as anything that lacks “serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value.” Of course the question remains who is to decide. And how does any of this affect society when we aren’t talking about public expressions.

The case was about Samuel Roth, the publisher of American Aphrodite. I’ve used an image of one of its covers to give you an idea of just how “horrible” it was. And it wasn’t sold in supermarkets; it was a mail order magazine. It was mostly erotic stories. That perhaps is the biggest American disease: the compulsion to stick our noses in other people’s business. Banning erotica is a minor sin compared to our general tendency to invade any country that doesn’t do exactly what we want.

Regardless, who gets to decide what has merit is always the same: the power elite. And I find it amazing that today, the people who want to ban things like American Aphrodite are also the people who want to ban abortion and then scream about how big and intrusive the government is. As I always say: I’m a First Amendment absolutist. Only two justices agreed with me, Hugo Black and William Douglas. It makes me think back to the Soviet Union where political dissidents were put in insane asylums. So if Thomas Paine were writing today, the government would just decide that his work lacked “serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value.” Problem solved!

We mark this dark day — one of many — 58 years ago when another piece of the First Amendment was carved out.