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Columns

Lies, Uber Lives, and the New York Times

Sunday 26 July 2015

This is a story about those of us who have neither power nor money, and who need a basic modicum of both in order to survive in today’s world (where wolves act in a therapeutic capacity towards the more agressive species—humans.) 

 


 

The girl sitting on the sidewalk on the crossroads of 79th and Broadway does not belong there. Beautiful in an astonishingly innocent way, she does not appear to be more than 18. Wisps of dligently combed and demurely tied back blond hair frame her flawless skin and hopeful, self-contained eyes. She bites daintily at a sandwich, carefully brushing crumbs off her blue shirt and ironed buejeans. Although on the sidewalk, she is sitting on a clean orange duffel bag of the kind one can only imagine a mother choosing, to send her child off to college, fully-packed. Unperturbed by the traffic, she is greedily reading from an Emily Dickinson anthology. Hardback, pristine. She has not even crafted a “Pleas Help” sign yet; nor deposited a plastic cup or bag in front of her, to collect money from any willing to give.

People are noticing this child, sitting on the sidewalk, emanating desperate idealism and deep-rooted conviction that miracles and magic can happen in New York as long as you’re open and hopeful and in love with the city. We’re all shocked, and moved. For a brief moment, united in our consternation. What will happen to this child? We can see she does not belong there. She is not one of the hundreds—many of them, very young; almost all, artists—of homeless who roam the summer streets of New York. In a few days, this will change. The street will swallow her. She will disappear from our view, or altogether. It is what it is. The world can be a sad, bad, mad place.


A few days later, on the corner of Prince and Crosby in NOLITA, a group of pretentiously “destroyed” twenty-year olds peel out of a brownstone so grungy and dirty, that renting even its basement would be equivalent to renting a palazzo in Italy. On one of the walls, three words are spray painted: “Uber me a pizza”. Beneath it, a girl is sitting on the sidewalk. Early twenties, with an Asian-African delicate richness to her beauty, she is dressed to the nines. Lace beige shorts, a tight t-shirt, satin ballet flats. Her thighs are one with the dirty street. Immersed in a book (Malcolm Gladwell’s “David and Goliath”) she is unperturbed by the fact her apparently designer handbag rests on what could be aspirationally called an incohate compost heap. 


A purple long car pulls up. The brakes screech, slightly, like trying to make a point. She looks up. “Hey!” As she rushes I see the sign on the driver’s window: Uber. My intimations of dark things, die hard, happily. For the moment, this girl will not vanish. For the moment being the operative phrase. Fluidity is the nice name for the game, and you never know when you are the one waiting for Uber, or have become the one working for Uber. 


In this economy, it’s no secret, no shame. Everyone does Uber, and Uber is used to ferry everything: from people, to dogs, to pizzas. One hopes the list stops there (and dead bodies are still ferried about in the trunks of black limos driven by men who used to moonlight on the Sopranos, and work in waste disposal in New Jersey and on the East River.)

Uber is of course, just a symbol for a growing reality.

A recent www.newyorker.com piece about a house in Brooklyn whose residents claim it is haunted, and therefore seek a “ghost” discount on their rent, referred to one of the building’s doormen. In an aside, the piece mentioned that the man supplements his income by being paid to stand in line for Shakespeare in the Park tickets, as well as Cronuts. That is usual, as we all know. It’s the gig economy. Craigslist may seem to perceive of it as mainly “Pretty girls make big bucks easily. All safe, all legal. No clients outside Manhattan, above 100th street. Live the NYC dream!” and “Seeking arrangement with understanding woman with big bosom and small feet”, but in reality it encompasses everything and anything. From cleaning houses, to running errands, flying kites with kids, bartering, teaching yoga, cleansing karma, unclogging sinks, scaring off predatory ex-boyfriends, helping bored lonely pensioners fish in the Hudson. Outsource, Thumbtack, Uber, Lyft, AirBnB, Amazon’s Mechanical Turk, and many more. 


The gig economy is one of the driving forces behind the recent positive jobs report. 

Large swathes of the middle-class are surviving exclusively thanks to the gig economy. 

http://takingnote.blogs.nytimes.com/2015/07/23/new-york-strikes-a-welcome-deal-with-uber/

Millenials and many people of all ages are subsisting exclusively, or complementing their income, through these new venues. This reinforces them: both the new “middle little guys”, and the new ventures seeking to replace the old behemoths in power. This makes the establishment—the old “little guys” (e.g. taxi drivers, nail salon workers, hotel workers, fast food workers), and the old “big guys” (taxi medallion owners, hotel owners, fast food chains)—really mad. 

And it’s not just about the money. 

The old establishment powermongers envy the new juggernauts for their effortless ease, their sexy freedom in making people like them, and want to spend money on their services. Once they too were like that (although, it is hard to evoke a world when real estate and hotel entrepreneurs, taxi drivers, airlines, big industry, delivery services, and telecom were liked by the public.)

The old establishment workers envy the new gig-ers, their freedom in working when they need to, where they prefer, as long as they want to. The gig-ers wish they had a good, steady job with health insurance, holidays, and days off. The grass always looks greener on the other side, unless you’re at the top—in which case, it doesn’t really matter which side you’re on.


The de Blasio-Uber standoff highlighted the clash of the two worlds: the medallion taxi drivers and Uber. Charges of corruption and big-bank backing were exchanged. Public transport, as well as the vagaries, vicissitudes, and paradoxes of the gig economy (a comprehensive article on this can be found at http://www.fastcompany.com/3042248/the-gig-economy-wont-last-because-its-being-sued-to-death) became grist for the mill of the vicious war that broke out in the heart of summer. Things came to a head when every site, newspaper, prime time TV show, and even MTA bus (!) became festooned with Uber’s vituperation against de Blasio’s plans to effectively kill its business in New York.


It all felt unexpected and rather shocking, yet it shouldn’t have.


It’s a world of extreme competition for even the meagerest trophy. And when the trophy encompasses something less (traditional) than a steady pay cheque and the trappings of belonging to a larger entity that cocoons as well as demands, then we’re in unchartered waters. That’s when the jungle happens.


So, as de Blasio argued, that’s when the city (or state, when we’re talking federal level) should step in and put restrictions and regulations into place. 

Not so fast.

This concept works only when dealing with “traditional economy” jobs—and in many cases, it’s long, long overdue. It seems city/state step in to ameliorate conditions for the little guys, and establish the basics of justice and freedom, only when journalists raise the issues and campaign for them.

One recent such example: the introduction of a $15/hour minimun wage for fast-food workers http://ny.eater.com/2015/7/22/9008347/new-york-minimum-wage-fast-food founded on a probing article written by the New Yorker’s William Finnegan http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2014/09/15/dignity-4 a year and a half ago.


Yet, things become more opaque and equivocal when dealing with small businesses. 

An example: the New York Times made much of its story on the alleged exploitation of nail salon workers (by Sarah Maslin Nir http://www.nytimes.com/2015/05/10/nyregion/at-nail-salons-in-nyc-manicurists-are-underpaid-and-unprotected.html) but early today the New York Review of Books ran a story by a former NYTimes reporter, Richard Bernstein, alleging that The New York Times front-page exposé of a culture of wage-theft at nail salons that has been systematically ignored by city and state authorities, is neither true nor well-reported http://www.nybooks.com/blogs/nyrblog/2015/jul/25/nail-salons-new-york-times-got-wrong/


Wherever the truth may lie, this instance manifests two things: First, that it is difficult to know where the balance lies in many areas of work (blue-collar, white-collar, small business owner are no longer worlds away in the new economy) and second, that competition (in this case between two behemoths of traditional media, the NYTimes and the NYReview of Books) evens out the playing field and may lead to an overall eventual justice for all involved. 


In any case though, nails and cuticles aside, the American way of life has far transcended the world of good old fashioned capitalism. Amenities that used to cost a fortune have become necessities, usually free of charge. Information, education, communication, entertainment, money transfers. Products and services very few had access to, are now, instantaneously, or almost instantaneously, available to all—and at radically low prices, compared to what we were used to. Amazon Now, Amazon Prime, Jet, Google Now are just a few examples of instant gratification at maximum value. 

Amenities, “experiences”, culture, ways of life, are constantly being invented for everything the human (and artificial intelligence) mind can conceive of. And when that is done, our minds, emotions, and very nature are stretched and led to evolve in ways adequate to the new content being generated every milisecond. 

This new emergent world cannot be understood in traditional financial, political, and therefore, social terms.

Many of these companies (such as Google, Twitter, or even Amazon) operate for years at a loss. The market—always more versatile than politicians and law makers—has come to terms with the fact that for many companies belonging this world, it’s not about the money—or not primarily. It is indeed an unprecendented time: to be living in a world where most media has become reduced to an inch on a Twitter feed; and where Googling is tantamount to breathing…and yet, both companies make less than a median mustard company. Old power cannot be divorced from money, it seems. But new power can do even that.  

On Friday, a financial analyst on Bloomberg’s “What did I miss?” markets show recapped thigs beautifully: “nowadays, especially when talking tech, value and profit are two entirely different things.” 

Of course, Google, Apple, YouTube, ApplePay, Facebook Messenger, Twitter are the behemoth planets of a cosmos populated by a gazillion smaller or larger tech companies and app developers. Some care more about money (Uber, for example) than others (23andme.com) AirBnB seems undecided. It’s recent ad (mankind: is man kind? ) 


Yet this story is not about the war between old power reliant on money and new power reliant on more than money. 

This is a story about those of us who have neither power nor money, and who need a basic modicum of both in order to survive in today’s world (where wolves act in a therapeutic capacity towards the more agressive species—humans.) 


Enter the gig economy. For everyone who is not an overall success story, who does not have a safety net if they fall, it is necessary that the gig economy be allowed to go on evolving unfettered, especially in the New York City metropolis where inequality has hit the sky and has already infected all adjacent territories, including Pluto, our new favorite planet.


Competition will level out the playing field: competition between the old establishment and the new, and between the various iterations of the new establishment.

All the state/city has to do is ensure it keeps an equipoise between the forces that seek to stand their ground and those that drive evolution. Through this tempered disruption of inefficient and skewed status quos, everyone has to gain: the big guys, the middle guys, and most of all, the little guys.


 
My beloved terrorist
Published by: LIVANIS
First printing: 2001
Pages: 403
Hellenists: Greece does not wound them
Published by: LIVANIS
First printing: 1999
Pages: 314
 
 

 

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