The front page of today’s New York Times features a photo of Bush in an Uber car, over a story about Republican candidates embracing the company. It summed up the purpose fairly well:
Republican candidates are embracing Uber not just as a paragon of their free-market ethos and distaste for entrenched, government-protected industries, but also as an electoral strategy for building bridges to traditionally Democratic cities, where the company has thrived. During his visit to the left-leaning city of San Francisco on Thursday, Mr. Bush was ferried around, fittingly, by an Uber driver, who deposited him at a campaign event in a black Toyota Camry. “Thanks for the ride!” Mr. Bush hollered as cameras snapped away.
So what exactly is Jeb trying to communicate about the kind of president he’d be? On the surface, it’s entirely substance-free. It’s just about attitude: I’m hip to what the kids are into, I’m down with the trends, I’m forward-thinking. In that spirit, Jeb took to LinkedIn and mobilized a phalanx of Silicon Valley clichés to proclaim that his economic ideas are super-futuristic.
In a post entitled “Disrupting Washington to Unleash Innovators,” he went on and on about how liberals just want to crush innovation with their dastardly regulations, while he…well, he actually didn’t say anything about what sorts of policies he would pursue as president, other than to proclaim, “I’ve got a different view on things, and a different approach. I don’t mind disrupting the established order.” Ooo, did he say “disrupting”? How disruptive!
The truth, though, is that the president of the United States has no power to influence municipal disputes over taxi regulations, so there is approximately nothing Jeb will do as president to affect the regulations that govern Uber and other ride-sharing companies. And if you don’t feel at least somewhat ambivalent about Uber in particular, you haven’t been paying attention.
On one hand, the company provides a service that people find invaluable, and the local taxi regulations it fights against are often ridiculous (side note: despite the conservative assumption that the government “closest to the people” is the best government, it’s often local governments that are most corrupt and have the most onerous and illogical regulation). On the other hand, Uber’s leadership is apparently a bunch of arrogant jerks whose business model is built around moving into a new market, blatantly breaking the laws that restrain their ability to operate, and then trying to build pressure to get the laws changed. (Catherine Rampell lays out some of these issues well in today’s paper.)
In any case, one thing the federal government does have power over — and thus something Jeb Bush would have the ability to affect if he becomes president — is labor standards, and that’s a genuine policy dispute worth exploring. If Jeb’s right and more and more people will be earning income from companies like Uber, how should they be treated? What standards will apply to them? How are these workers going to obtain the things we ordinarily associate with a job, like health insurance, retirement savings, or paid leave?
Bush hasn’t spoken to these issues yet, but I’m pretty sure I know what his position is: the market will work everything out, and government just has to get out of the way. But we already have evidence that in some ways this approach is screwing more and more people over. It may or may not be appropriate to consider someone driving for Uber part-time to be an employee of the company, but what about a case like FedEx, which for years classified thousands of its full-time drivers as “independent contractors,” meaning the company didn’t have to pay payroll taxes or overtime, and could evade all sorts of other labor regulations? The company suffered a series of losses in court over the issue, and just settled a lawsuit by drivers in California for $228 million. Does Bush think they were in the right, and other companies should be able to just reclassify workers whenever they want?
That’s an example of what the Obama administration is trying to address with a new guidance the Labor Department just released to employers. It says in effect that you can’t just take an ordinary employee who works only for you and has all the conditions of their work controlled by you, and say, “You’re now an independent contractor” and thereby evade all your responsibilities as an employer. This kind of mis-classification has spread to all sorts of industries, with millions of employees finding themselves with fewer benefits, lower incomes, and less protection than the law says they ought to have. Hillary Clinton has endorsed the administration’s effort to crack down on mis-classification, but as of yet the Republican candidates haven’t addressed it. It’s no mystery what they’ll say, though: this is just more government meddling in the market.
There’s a lot more we should hear from Clinton on this topic and how it relates to companies like Uber, particularly since she’s the one more inclined to have government respond to the ways our economy is changing. In her economic speech Monday, she mentioned it briefly, saying: “This on-demand, or so-called gig economy is creating exciting economies and unleashing innovation. But it is also raising hard questions about workplace protections and what a good job will look like in the future.” Which is perfectly true, but it doesn’t tell us what in particular she thinks government ought to do to protect workers as the economy transforms.
I’m sure she’ll have more to say on the subject, and perhaps in response Jeb Bush can explain why government has gone too far out of its way to ensure that workers get a fair shake. Or he might even surprise us and offer a program of smart, nimble regulations that would allow innovative new models of work to flourish while still protecting people from exploitation. But until he says otherwise, we have to assume that Bush’s answer to the question of what government should do to respond to economic changes that can make workers more vulnerable is: “Nothing.”