A Troubling Op-Ed Portends GOP Agenda Absorbing the Worst Ideals of Silicon Valley


The Washington insider publication Politico has a habit of publishing revealing op-eds by right-wingers in Washington that show their ideology in an unvarnished way. It's a place you can see their true feelings about the poor and the American entitlement system—which is to say runaway contempt for both. One so-bad-it-borders-on-self-parody op-ed dropped January 27, and it wants to massively overhaul several entitlements by subjecting those most in need to the Dickensian nightmare of the “gig economy”: "Uber for welfare: A bold proposal to use the 'gig economy' to reboot the safety net."

There’s about 85 red flags in the headline alone. Anytime someone talks about “rebooting” essential social covenants of democracy you know there’s going to be a poor or working-class person getting the shaft somewhere. The actual text doesn’t disappoint:

Historically, some opponents of workfare have argued that work requirements are untenable because the government cannot find a job for every welfare beneficiary. That may have been true years ago, when a “job” was binary and full time, but today the gig economy offers the solution: It can easily and quickly put millions of people back to work, allowing almost anyone to find a job with hours that are flexible with virtual locations anywhere.

The piece's basic thesis is that due to the hyper-liquidity of the exploitation economy (d/b/a “gig economy") the work requirements should be expanded to include auditioning for gig work, for example Uber or Fiver. One doesn’t need to think too long and hard to see the implications of this; namely, that in order to receive government assistance, a poor person would have to spend all day and night looking to do one-off chores and tasks like driving people around, cleaning toilets and other miscellaneous tasks.

Which brings us to the primary problem of the piece: the definition of “work.” The word “work” is used 21 times in the op-ed but how the authors define it and how most people do isn’t the same. To most people, work is a job with at least a modicum of security and predictability. One goes to work, one likes their work, one does good work.

To the gig economy, work means a one-off task. One is viewed legally as an "independent contractor” and thus stripped of the basic rights of an employee and the “work” one ends up doing has no assurances or predictability. In other words, it’s not work, it’s a series of gigs subject to the caprice of the free market. Alas, “welfare to gig” doesn’t sound too humane, so the definition is loosened to mean whatever remedial task one can do assuming they aren’t met with a lower bid from someone even more desperate than they are.

The authors of the piece, Cesar Conda and Derek Khanna, are both heavily entrenched in the revolving door of Silicon Valley and conservative Washington. Conda is a former chief-of-staff of Marco Rubio and current founding principle of Navigators Global, a lobbying firm that has represented everything from private prisons to casinos to large technology firms.

Khanna is something more of a guru, who has worked in the Romney campaign and consults helping technology firms “navigate the policy-making process in DC.” Put simply, these two men work for political and corporate interests that are both ideologically and financially motivated not only to keep the poor poor but to parlay their suffering into cheaper, less secure labor.

The authors insist “the average Uber driver makes about $19 an hour.” This line is misleading to the point of an outright lie because it omits the fine print that Uber drivers, as independent contractors, are required to pay for their own gas, insurance, and car upkeep, so that $19 an hour becomes considerably less when all is said and done. Indeed, this was a point of contention in a 2015 lawsuit in California where a judge ruled that Uber driver Barbara Ann Berwick should be reimbursed for cost incurred on the job totaling $4,152.20 and that she was, in fact, an employee, not a contractor. 

Uber positions itself as simply an app that “connects drivers and passengers,” but the labor office disagreed, ruling that Uber acted more like an employer than an app that connects people. The same logic used to exploit Berwick will be used to exploit the millions on entitlement roles—workers will go from employees with protections to perma-contractors with few rights and even less security. This isn’t “getting people back to work," it’s taking the most vulnerable and using them to undercut an already competitive low-skill labor market to further drive down wages and justify cutting welfare expenditures.

What the wealthy and their Republican propagandists fear above all is a working class that has peace of mind; a working class with a decent safety net, job protection and the ability to plan out its course without living in a constant state of terror about their next paycheck. This, however, makes exploiting them and playing them off each other that much more difficult. This raises labor costs and eats into their bottom line. It also makes the working class, above all, more political threatening since peace of mind makes stoking fears of immigrants and Muslims and socialist takeovers that much more difficult.

To make matter worse, at the very bottom of the essay, there’s an update that links to a rather unlettered and race-baity Medium post by one of the author's “friends,” Morgan Warstler, CEO of GovWhiz, meant to expound on the article's central thesis. Without getting into details, let’s just note that it includes one disgustingly classist meme and another terribly racist line. First the former:

The caption gleefully reads, “Note: GI/CYB solves for the criminally lazy.” The piece casually uses the racially loaded term “ghetto” three times:

The cost of goods and services in poor areas drops dramatically. Suddenly ghettos are cleaned up, properties are improved.

Every American middle class family who wants to hire cheap gig labor loves it. Those surrounded by ghetto blight love it.

...since the preponderance of goods and services in ghettos are suddenly far less expensive.

GovWiz is a dubious startup that has been in "stealth mode" for at least a year and has business ties with former Texas governor and presidential candidate burn-out Rick Perry, whose connections to the firm have “raised eyebrows." So here are a cadre of politically connected “free market” propagandists whose entire business model is predicated on exploiting the reins of government to line their and their clients’ pockets. 

Lazy stereotypes and puritanical self-righteousness are common among much of the rich donor base; combine this with techno-woo woo of Silicon Valley and launder it through slick PR specialists like Conda and Khanna, and the result is a sanitized version of what is an unchecked “let them eat cake” indifference to poverty. The poor can never be too exploited, the needs of the upper-middle-class never too monetized.

The gig economy is another name for snuffing out any notion of peace of mind. The idea that it should be used to gut what remains of America’s already razor-thin social safety net is an idea so toxic that, if the left isn’t diligent, just may become mainstream.

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