I have claimed in recent posts that the Basic Income can combine socialist redistribution with neo-Liberal market forces. Uber may test the limits of this possibility.
Three FT articles vividly outline the Uber phenomenon. Murad Ahmed, Jeevan Vasagar and Tim Bradshaw describe the ruthless Uber business strategy.
Gillian Tett tells of one of the sharper conflicts in New York:
“This summer, a bizarre split emerged in the Hamptons, the sandy peninsula close to New York so beloved by the American elite. In one-half of the tiny spur, around Southampton, Uber drivers have been furiously ferrying hordes of people to and from barbecues, benefits and beaches.
But the other half, around East Hampton, is an Uber desert: town officials have banned the car service after local taxi firms insisted that drivers should only be allowed to ply their trade if they were properly regulated and had a bona fide East Hampton address.”
But the profile of Travis Kalanick the CEO of Uber epitomizes the essence of Capitalism: why he is successful, but why he is dangerous. Kalanick illustrates how opportunities become imperatives as Ellen Wood says they must for capitalists (see my blog post on 16.11.2014) He is merely more totally single minded and aggressive than others.
In earlier blog posts I have suggested that Zero Hours contracts could, and I believe will become mutually beneficial once a full Basic Income puts employees in an equal bargaining position with employers. No one, not even Jeremy Corbyn thought Zero hours contracts needed to be regulated until they suddenly became a potential form of slavery when the benefit sanctions regime came into force in October 2012 I believe regulation will rarely be necessary, but that should depend on experience once the Basic Income has made persuasion not force the norm.
Uber is the ultimate zero hours contract, where the employees– sorry, Uber insists they are nothing of the sort – already have complete freedom. With a Basic Income all zero contracts will have to be just as favourable to the worker. But if Kalanick has his way, you ain’t seen nothin’ yet. Uber will deliver your pizza, and your Argos purchase. All you need is a smartphone. Uber’s ability to offer cheap fares may drive even buses off the roads at times when they are less than full.
I believe that the general rule should be no intervention until shown necessary, but I think some form of regulation and legislation will have to be part of the final picture on private transport. The general rule is that communal transport will, all things being equal, have a lighter eco-footprint than individual journeys. The logic of that is that there should be a degree of subsidy. How that should be funded is a separate issue, but the Green insistence on less inequality has a bearing. But Uber ignores the environmental impact – there will just be a lot more vehicles. One unmentioned aspect which puzzles me is safety. Six years is a short track record, less than two in many places outside the USA, but with 340 cities, statistics on the accident records of Uber vis a vis taxis must surely be emerging.
But how will the Basic Income affect all this? Market forces have normally been seen as part of the armoury of the haves against the have nots, and without a Basic Income this is true. But subject to the caveats mentioned, once the have nots have equal bargaining power I see no reason why market forces should not be allowed to determine the relative merits of novel and established means of doing anything . The flexibility will be available to Uber and taxi drivers alike.
But at a deeper level I still cherish the belief that a Basic Income will help a new culture to emerge. Individuals like Travis Kalanick will presumably go on exploiting opportunities as ruthlessly and aggressively as courts and authorities will let them, but new opportunities should begin to look a bit less like imperatives, even for most entrepreneurs. Full taxis or equivalent will be better for the environment than almost empty double decker buses, and if ordinary people get a service they can afford which is not at present available without environmental impact, fine. But is it too much to hope that a consensus emerges, even among budding entrepreneurs, that the way towards whatever turns out to be the optimum is better achieved through negotiation, not buccaneering disregard of everything and everybody else?