In a world with quarterly mass shootings, nuclear missile warnings and a barrage of daily atrocities, it might be easy to write off the suicide by livery driver Doug Schifter in front of City Hall earlier this week as just another tragic end to a mentally unstable individual – but that ignores the sad truth of his ordeal. Doug died a victim of the new economy.
The adoption of new technology will always displace workers and the advent of ride sharing is no different. We know the proliferation of Uber, Lyft, Via and other ride sharing applications have profoundly reshaped our economy, creating winners and losers. In Doug’s final cry for help, he described how competition had pushed him to work 100-120 hours a week as a yellow cab driver, transforming him from self-employed businessman to a “slave.” In the new economy, Doug Schifter was a loser.
Doug is not alone.
Gina Bellafante writing for the New York Times detailed the emotional testimony last spring, from Bhairavi Desai the Executive Director of the New York Taxi Workers Alliance, about the mounting “existential difficulties” of the life of a yellow cab driver. In short, competition from ride sharing companies has substantially impacted driver incomes and dramatically devalued medallions.
Desai said, “Half my heart is just crushed and the other half is on fire.”
There are literally hundreds and thousands of workers in industries throughout our state that are being displaced by new technology. This is nothing new. In my own experience at Empire State Development we worked with many companies that made investments in new technology creating efficiencies that reduced employment. We knowingly assisted them, with the hope to preserve employers, save jobs and their impact on the community. It is a hard reality. But in those instances we always tried to focus on the displaced workers – typically with an emphasis on upgrading skills and placement services.
When it comes to the amorphous nature of the Doug Schifter’s of New York, there seems to be not enough attention on the displaced workers.
While many aspects of Doug’s plight are shared with those of a laid off manufacturing worker, somehow his story feels profoundly different. The classic role of government is to ensure the marketplace is fair, that rules are being applied equally and as conditions change (new technology is adopted) to amend those rules – to ensure some version of Teddy Roosevelt’s “square deal.”
In Roosevelt’s words, “But when I say that I am for the square deal, I mean not merely that I stand for fair play under the present rules of the game, but that I stand for having those rules changed so as to work for a more substantial equality of opportunity and of reward for equally good service.”
The present rules of the game are not fair. Yellow-cab owners like Doug are much more heavily regulated by the city. For example, by 2020, half of all yellow cabs must be wheelchair-accessible while ride sharing companies are exempt. And unlike ride sharing cars that utilize surge pricing to charge higher fares during peak times, yellow cabs are locked into fixed rates.
“Substantial equality of opportunity,” I think Doug Schifter saw that as being ripped away. Not just by competition from ridesharing companies but by a political system that feels more rigged, more disconnected and more unequal every day. In his final words, Doug bemoaned what is commonly understood – that Uber and Lyft have political muscle and are favored by leading politicians. According to Desai, in 2016, Uber and Lyft combined spent more on lobbying than Amazon, Walmart and Microsoft combined.
Doug worked until he could work no more, his livelihood hollowed out through no failure of his own – he felt powerless, is it any wonder he felt like a “slave.”
In his final Facebook post Doug wrote, “I hope with the public sacrifice I make now that some attention to the plight of the drivers and the people will be done to save them and it will have not have been in vain and also that we must stop what is happening to Government while we still have one we can vote out.”
The sharing economy has created enormous opportunities for workers and consumers. Their innovations have upended, transformed and in many ways distorted long-standing market places. But Uber, Lyft, Via and others aren’t the villains in Doug’s tragedy – they are like all business enterprises – self-interested and competing within the political, regulatory and consumer marketplace. They will someday be displaced by the companies that dominate the markets for self driving cars, urban transport pods, hyperloops, teleportation – or something we have never imagined.
No, the villains (for lack of a better term) are our political leaders and regulators who haven’t proven nimble enough, committed enough to preserve Roosevelt’s “Square Deal.” It’s not easy and it’s not going to get easier as the increasing pace of innovation is compromising the ability of policy makers to comprehend, let alone anticipate the impacts of new technology. Only through a commitment to evolving our outdated legal and regulatory structures – to change the rules – can we “work for a more substantial equality of opportunity.” The alternative is a generation of middle-aged slaves, depressed, angry, untethered and quite possibly at the wheel of your next ride.