ESSAY: The job-killing app

By Jacob Waters

Clever apps can soothe life’s minor annoyances, but there’s always someone paying for our convenience. And that’s a problem. Some of these annoyances are conscious consequences of protecting societal interests—not mere bugs to be squashed.

Take Uber. Instead of hailing a taxi, you can request, connect with and pay for a ride with your smartphone. The cars are numerous and clean. The drivers, who work part time on their own schedules, are punctual and accountable. As described on its website, “Uber is evolving the way the world moves.”

Or Airbnb, which turns individuals into part-time hoteliers by helping them rent out their spare rooms. No more getting stuck with overpriced, smelly vacation accommodations.

Sounds great, right? Technology leads to efficiency, and consumers win.

But there’s a cost. Thousands of hotel workers may be out of work as Airbnb expands.

In Sacramento, newly adopted taxicab regulations will subject taxi drivers—many of whom are immigrants—to a language test and dress code, among other requirements. Though drivers feel disrespected, their bosses feel this is the only way regular taxis can compete with Uber and similar services, which are primed to displace some 233,000 cabbies and chauffeurs in the United States.

Yes, relying on traditional taxis and hotels sometimes leaves us rideless in the rain or in a bedbug-infested cheap motels. But larger interests—in this case, protecting jobs—sometimes trump individual inconvenience.

This conflict isn’t new—indeed, debates on the merits of regulation center on this issue. Should we accept inefficiency—and, thus, higher costs—for a greater good? For example, early opponents of establishing the minimum wage argued “no,” just as Uber and Airbnb implicitly do today.

Yet I think it’s fair to assume that most Uber riders and Airbnb guests support basic labor protections.

So what’s different? A theory: The people who benefit from deregulation are 1. few, and 2. resemble Rich Uncle Pennybags from Monopoly. But with Uber and Airbnb, the spoils are literally at our fingertips. We get to try on Pennybags’ monocle, and it’s hard to take it off.

Look, I’m not saying that we should renounce technology. But it’s worth remembering that the services we’ve so eagerly embraced—despite their immaculately clean layout and functionality—can have messy implications.

Jacob Waters is a political writer and Sacramento newbie. Follow him @jacobwaters.

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