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Vanity Fair Ought To Be More Careful

One of my future books is going to deal with just how wrong so many people can be about so many things. The reasons for such wrong-headedness are simple: One is immature on unprofessional writers, either out of ignorance or agenda, splashing stupid all over the web. The second is that we, as information consumers, tend bite into information in small chunks and swallow it all without questioning anything (especially if it validates our own misconceptions – confirmation bias). A glaring example of an agenda-laden package of stupid delivered to the world came from a Vanity Fair HIVE article in the September 2018 issue by Susan Fowler.

 

Right out of the gate, I am forced to set aside my incredulity if I am to believe her unofficial poll numbers about how many gig workers you’ll see at any given moment in San Francisco.

 

A gig worker is someone who works as an independent, performing app-driven or limited, self-driven functions. Uber, Lyft, Grubhub, etc. are examples. But there are others.

 

Bloody hell! If her outlandish numbers regarding how many gig workers there are in SF, all buzzing about on their assigned errands are true, then her city is an Uber-Valhalla! Forgive the pun, but I’d have liked to have experienced that utopia as a gig worker.

 

 

But like almost all information you’ll receive when motivated by a crusade or simple self-righteousness, the numbers in Susan Fowler’s article require a mystic suspension of disbelief.

 

Here are some real stats gathered from sources like Forbes, US News, Pew and others.

 

34% of the workforce fall into the category that some very loosely define as gig worker. This definition includes people who work 2nd jobs or work freelance. An example of the latter might be a really good-looking author/furniture maker who lives in Vancleave, Mississippi, whose initials are Matt Jordan.

But that is not the type of work the article refers to. Nor does the previous paragraph fit what most people define as gig work. Can my writing be considered gig work? Meh. Some would say yes, but I have only ever written one article based on a request. So I say no.

 

24% of the work force does report that they have received payment for work performed for an app-based service. Now we may be talking Uber or Wegolook, etc. But we would also be talking about affiliate marketers and gig writers, Fivvers who don’t run the streets in pursuit of the next gig. Further, that 24% includes many people who already have jobs and are only doing gig work part time. You won’t see the majority of these people flitting about the streets of San Francisco during the business day.

 

So, eight out of ten random passers-by, as Fowler states, being clearly in her line of sight, in pursuit of an app-based occupation is exceedingly difficult to believe. But perhaps she just happened to be counting on the exact date and time when an almost impossible number of gigsters just happened to collide on the same street corner. Perhaps two Lyfts and an Uber wait for riders, a Postmate glides by on a bicycle while three Grubhubs are delivering to nearby buildings. Meanwhile a Wegolook guy is measuring dents on a Prius with an “I’m with Her” bumper sticker on it (hey, this is San Francisco Vanity Fair is talking about). But when Fowler writes “eight out of every ten” it implies she sat and counted to ten several times and spotted dozens of gigsters. 80% of her total! Stephen Glass suddenly leaps to mind.  Vanity Fair ought to be more careful, even with “opinion” pieces. [emphasis mine]

 

San Francicso is populated enough to represent a fair cross-section of the population. When you only have 24% of the population being paid by the gig and at that, many working after business hours, and most of them not doing it in public, you have a very small number of people to count at any given moment.

 

But all that is prologue. It’s the meat of the article that offends the intelligence in more subtle ways. Take the time to consider what Fowler is trying to say (and not to say).

 

A quote (with my comments). “The gig-economy ecosystem (just “economy” will do – “ecosystem” adds a layer of bullshit and tips your hand right out of the gate) was supposed to represent the Promised Land, striking a harmonious egalitarian (PLEASE!) balance between supply and demand.”

 

The article is loaded with emotionalist tripe like this. But lets start here.

 

  1. These are just apps. Yes, even I have used the term gig-economy. But there is nothing magical about it.
  2. “Promised land?” “Harmonious egalitarian balance?” Seriously? Did an adult write this? Sweetie (Ms. Fowler), there is no such thing in the conduct of commerce as harmony and egalitarianism. Commerce is by its very nature competitive and cyclical. I sell you my widget for as much as I think you are willing to spend. You decide you want the widget more than the money you hold in your hand. If there are competing widget companies out there, I have to price my stuff to outperform the others. But you can shop more judiciously. So there is no balance. There are only cycles that reward or punish the buyers and the sellers. If supply and demand were balanced (and we pretended to be “egalitarian” – none of us are) we would all pay the same amount for everything. Wow! A pig just flew over my house!

 

Here’s another gem. From the start, it is clear Fowler is on a crusade. First she talks about the billions Uber, Lyft and Instacart are worth (rich people implies bad in the context of the article). She then talks about “- A class of workers who aren’t protected by labor laws, or eligible for benefits provided to the rest of the nation’s workforce – “.

 

It would almost move you to tears, if you were utterly ignorant of how the world works.

 

In response, we’ll stick to Uber drivers. Uber is the big gig on the streets.

 

These drivers are 1099, self-employed people. It is rare that a 1099 worker would be eligible for most of what an actual W-2 employee would be.

 

For example, a 1099 worker is not obligated to work in an inherently unsafe environment. So if my builder, Kenny, refused hang from a rope to paint my house, no matter how funny that would be to watch, I can’t force him to do it. Other than those kinds of considerations, a 1099 service provider need only supply what he promises and to take care of his own benefits. THAT IS THE NATURE OF THE RELATIONSHIP YOU HAVE WITH THEM! That is WHY they are 1099 and not W-2!

 

Here’s another doozy. Fowler quotes the New York City Taxi and Limousine Commission. They represent people who would not have jobs if not for a) BAD rich people and b) people on expense accounts that don’t care what transportation costs. And their constituent group, taxi and limo drivers, hates Uber as much as the buggy whip makers hated car makers.

 

Anyhoo, the commission, after stroking the stats as thoroughly as possible said that 85% of rideshare drivers earn less than $17.22 an hour.

 

Whoa! Stop the presses! Say What?! You mean to tell me that 85% of the drivers in New York sit like gargoyles waiting for that ping to come, then drive their cars from here to there, and they don’t get paid $17.22 to do it? They actually decide for themselves whether the amount they do get paid is worth schlepping around the city for?

 

I have two news flashes for Ms. Fowler. First the commission has no way of accounting for cash tips. In some markets, they are substantial. Second, when you sign up for Uber or Lyft, they promise no minimum (unless there is a special on for your first 30 rides only). What Uber does say is that nationally, their drivers can earn between $8.00 and $15.00 per hour.

 

So after the commission pencil whips their figures, the threshold for describing driver earnings is $17.22. I say WAY TO GO NEW YORK!  And to the drivers earning more, I compliment you on your ability to ferret out good money spots!

 

In Fowler’s piece there is mention of the Supreme Court of California ruling that Dynamex must pay its gig workers like full-time employees.

Big headline: California court rules against the laws of economics to the general detriment of most entrepreneurial individuals.

 

So what else is new? I read the weird standards they held must exist for an employee to be considered independent. By that standard countless lives can be ruined all in the interest of making sure no one gets ahead.

 

Now in fairness, in the case cited, Dynamex may be abusing the 1099 independent contractor rule. I don’t know. There are companies out there who say they are just an app-based service and gig workers work their own hours and are their own bosses. Then gigsters find out they are closely and personally managed and they must work the hours set for them. There are some that even have reporting requirements. This should be illegal, and it probably is. It is certainly a misrepresentation.

 

But Uber and Lyft certainly don’t fit that description. Drivers really do turn the app on when they want to work and turn it off when they want to stop. They have no minimums to meet. No one calls demanding an accounting of your time. No one chews you out for how you go about your business. If you are found to be unethical, you get canned. Perfect!

 

Fowler, who used to work for Uber as a software engineer, is now beating her breast in guilt at the Frankenstein she feels she helped create (a combination of an over-bloated sense of self-worth and drama queen syndrome). She said when she talked to drivers they claimed no matter how hard they worked they could only cover gas and maintenance on their vehicles and little else.

 

There is a technical term for anyone who would do that repeatedly. The term is SUCKER. I know from experience, in a very tough market that you are not going to get rich driving rideshare. BUT…if you are in a market where you are not making any money at it, why the hell would you continue to drive? My advise would be to network with other drivers and fix your problems, or quit. There are places in this world where there aren’t enough riders for Uber to be worthwhile. Only an idiot would repeatedly go out and spend six, eight or ten hours at time, away from home and relaxation, and not be able to collect a paycheck.

 

But one is left to wonder about which drivers Fowler was speaking to. Could it be her professional exposure was limited to complaints? That she never heard from the drivers who were actually killing it?

 

There is a lot more drivel, leading predictably to an obvious conclusion, notions like functions being broken down (as they are with gig work – making it so anyone can do them) into dehumanized pieces.

 

Well! Isn’t Susan just full of her socio-political self! What is a humanized task as opposed to a dehumanized one? How about cleaning a network engineer’s toilet or parking their car? Which is the humanized task? But yeah, we know where this is going.

 

When a group of Fowler’s low-level engineer bubbas were sitting around talking about how terrible their employers are, or how frightening the technology that feeds them has become, one person asks (you have to sigh here), “What can we do about it?”

 

The answer? You guessed it. Gig economy workers MUST unionize.

 

Rideshare drivers frequently see ringers come into their online groups waving the union banner. With the exception of a few people who don’t understand what is it they are doing as drivers or delivering food or measuring dents in cars, the ringers get laughed off the page.

 

Anyone who does 1099 work does so because either they wish to AUGMENT their income, or they wish to control more of their own time and effort. They reject the notion of a boss or a time clock. They will trade set effort for an agreed price – voluntarily. Any gig worker who claims to be abused by “the man” and still turns the app on tomorrow is an idiot.

 

So who will the union protect gigsters from, themselves? The app they are using? Their tool bag? Will a gig worker help widen his market reach by filing complaints against – who – the customer? Or would unions end up killing the golden goose, which is USUALLY the case.

 

Unions come with a truckload of time-wasting, overly complex work requirements. They also hide behind mountains of legal bullshit, required to maintain their very existence, which would cross the eyes of a hydra. How is the average Uber driver going to contend with that?

 

At the beginning of this piece I said people often buy off on stupid things because they read it in important places, like Vanity Fair. In Susan Fowler’s case, the story is drenched in frightening or dramatic drivel. If you don’t have time to digest it, you might even buy into it.

 

But it is thinking like hers that holds us back from realizing the full potential of what we can accomplish as persons, a company or an economy. And yes, this includes all the risks that come with any worthwhile endeavor.

 

So if you like having a rideshare ready to come pick you up and cheerfully take you wherever you want to go, at a great price, you might want to blow off Ms. Fowler’s heart tugger. People like her will ruin the concept.

 

Matt Jordan is an author, furniture maker and occasional gig worker living on the gulf coast.

 

 

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