Politics

The left vs. the sharing economy: Where are the Atari Democrats of today?

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Vox’s Timothy Lee looks at how Republicans and Democrats view the emerging sharing economy. Republicans — at least nationally — seem almost uniformly positive. They see Uber, for instance, as a feisty, innovative startup vs. regulators and the cronyist taxicab cartel. But Democrats are sort of split. Lee:

Some liberals dislike Uber on ideological grounds, but others — especially in the media, politics, and technology centers of New York, Washington, and San Francisco — are regular Uber customers. On one side of this debate are old-school liberals with strong ties to the labor movement and urban political machines. For them, Uber is a conventional story about worker and consumer rights. Labor unions believe Uber is flouting the law by classifying workers as independent contractors rather than employees. And they would love to unionize Uber’s fast-growing workforce.

More broadly, conventional liberals are suspicious of claims that deregulation and innovation will benefit workers and consumers in the long run. They view Uber’s “gig economy” as part of a broader trend toward declining worker power. They blame decades of deregulation — under both Republicans and centrist Democrats like Bill Clinton — for this trend, and believe stricter regulation of Uber could be part of a larger trend toward stricter regulation of labor markets more generally. In his campaign against Uber this week, Bill de Blasio primarily focused on congestion concerns, but he also mentioned workers’ rights as a major concern.

On the other side of the debate are liberals — many of them Uber customers — who see Uber as an innovative company fighting entrenched special interests. While they might be sympathetic to theoretical arguments for government regulation, they remember what the taxi market was like before Uber came along.

These tensions perhaps help explain why Hillary Clinton’s recent critique of the “gig” economy was so muted, like she had to check the box. It fits into her campaign thesis about growing economic insecurity, but she also doesn’t want to appear like an anti-innovation, status-quo Luddite and alienate young people and Silicon Valley supporters. But I don’t see any Dems calling themselves Uber Democrats or Lyft Democrats.

Just yesterday I watched a documentary about the rise and fall of Atari, the revolutionary 1980s video game company. (I had a 2600!) And that reminded me of an extinct political species called the Atari Democrat, which Wikipedia describes thusly: “In 1980s and 1990s US politics, the phrase Atari Democrat references Democratic legislators who suggested that the support and development of high tech and related businesses would stimulate the economy and create jobs.”

Those more business and market-oriented Dems evolved into the centrist 1990s Bill Clinton Democrats, helped along by the 1990s tech boom. Where are the Atari Democrats of today? Too much emphasis out there on the problems and challenges caused by technological change, perhaps, rather than the opportunities. Too much emphasis on wealth redistribution versus wealth creation. In the battle between the Inequality Democrats and the Innovation Democrats, the former seems to be winning.

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