Uber just ran over the mayor of New York. Bill de Blasio (D) wanted to limit the company’s expansion, citing traffic and complaints from the taxi industry, which is, as the saying goes, on the wrong side of history. Uber marshaled most of the world’s lobbyists and consultants and, in the apt description of the online journal Capital “crushed the mayor.” He merely decided to study the matter.
He can study all he wants, but if the proper study of mankind is man (Alexander Pope), then the proper study of Uber is not the additional traffic it creates but how it has been embraced by all sorts of people and donned the white hat of progress. Those who oppose it — cab drivers and such — are not characterized as unfortunate victims of technology, but villains who are standing in the way of progress. This, in America, is high treason.
Uber managed to cast itself as progress incarnate and the taxi industry as a bunch of thick-headed peasants who didn’t know that its time had passed. Indeed, as an Uber user myself, I cheer for an untrammeled service, but I recognize also that cab drivers are merely among the first to go. Technology, like Donald Trump, is on the march.
The Uber drivers who cheered for their company may ultimately be replaced themselves by driverless cars. Press the app and a robot shows up, speaking — in a touch of authenticity — with a generic foreign accent. In Nevada, self-driving trucks are already legal and, while these trucks are not yet authorized for use in city streets, they eventually will be.
What will happen to the United States’ 5.7 million truck drivers? Some, no doubt, will find other work, some will seek retraining for jobs that pay far less, but some will sink into an appropriate funk. What, too, will happen to the country’s many truck stops since, from everything I’ve read, robots do not drink coffee or eat flapjacks? (Maybe they can be programmed to do so.)
The conventional response to my conventional worries is to just let things take their course. We have been this way before and have seen previous disruptions where, for a while, workers suffered when machines took their place. In a recent Financial Times piece, Walter Isaacson exhumed Ned Ludd, whose followers (Luddites) smashed mechanical looms in 19th-century Britain fearing they would replace mill workers. In due course, the evil looms actually produced more jobs and greater prosperity. I get Isaacson’s point, but “past is prologue” is a line from Shakespeare, not an unalterable truth.
Already, Uber has become a political issue. Republicans by and large are pro-Uber, and Democrats, representing unions and such, have their doubts. Jeb Bush was happy to be seen in an Ubermobile and Marco Rubio characterized Hillary Clinton’s qualms as antediluvian nostalgia. All of Silicon Valley, it seems, is cheering for technological innovation for, I’d say, two reasons: (1) It’s what they do for a living, and (2) they don’t drive cabs.
In New York City, the price of a taxi license, called a medallion, has dropped by 25 percent since 2013. They peaked at $1.3 million, and while many medallions are owned by corporations, many are also owned by individuals, a lot of them immigrants, who keep their cabs going around the clock to pay off their loans. For their hard work, for their touching belief in the American dream, they are facing ruination.
U.S. politicians are only tentatively coming to grips with the challenge of technology coupled, I should add, with globalization. (U.S. workers are less rich, Chinese workers are less poor.) The French have responded by cracking down on Uber and setting up a Potemkin village retraining system whereby the unemployed work for fake companies at fake jobs. The United States may have to do something similar — make-work programs reminiscent of those, such as the Civilian Conservation Corps, created in the Great Depression. The model for that could be just across the Hudson from Manhattan. In New Jersey, it’s illegal to pump your own gas — make-work jobs up and down the Turnpike.
The sneering contempt for workers and others who, for understandable reasons, prefer the comfort of the present to the terror of the future is just an updated version of Marie Antoinettism. Ominously, it suggests that there’s some ugly politics to come. I thought de Blasio was wrong, but I cannot cheer that Uber ran him down. On the way, it hit a lot of hardworking cab drivers.
Read more from Richard Cohen’s archive.