There’s a lot of reasons to hate Uber. Claims of rampant discrimination and sexual harassment by a former engineer, which turned out to be systematic, led to the ousting of an executive. The entire tech industry seems to be getting a once-over as bad press overshadows the sharing economy’s success, but some haven’t forgotten that Uber has been a morally compromised corporation since its inception and that it thrives on a system that makes it so.
While you can catch it on TV up and down the East Coast of the US, Uber’s lighthearted recruitment ad has infected the internet with promises of work flexibility and great supplement income. Deceptive messaging like this has always been part of marketing, but this is one of the more blatant campaigns that dares to show the target audience how they’re being taken advantage of while also proclaiming that said exploitation is in their favor.
In the first eight seconds of this ad, the actor transitions from Uber driver to science teacher. From here the deception of this ad is made clear. The Uber driver is shown to have a career which requires at least a four-year degree from a college or university and a commitment in excess of 50 hours a week, but he’s paid a meager wage (which is further reduced when you factor in supplies he’d have to pay for out of pocket). In eight short seconds, anyone with a basic understanding of the education profession knows that the man in this Uber ad is overworked and underpaid, but he’s also formally educated and so dedicated to his profession that he most likely uses his own money to make sure his students have the supplies they need to learn even though the state and federal government don’t supply them. And on top of that, the man in the ad needs a “side hustle” to make ends meet. Unfortunately for him, he doesn’t realize his second job isn’t worth the added stress.
According to ScIQ, the Uber driver’s supplementary income isn’t helping at all. While the company prides itself on low fares for riders, drivers wind up shouldering the majority of the cost that runs the business. Though they boast a 90¢ rate per mile in Los Angeles for its dirvers, once you factor in the 25% Uber collects, the cost of maintenance, fuel, amenities like breath mints and water (vital to maintaining those four-star ratings), and the budgeting needed when filing 1099s in April, the driver makes about 6¢ per mile in Los Angeles.
This is an employment arrangement designed for to target the most economically vulnerable. Driving for Uber means being overworked to the point of bodily harm, but it provides hundreds of dollars in the present that can cover emergency expenses or allow the impoverished to limp on from one month to the next. The Uber driver from the ad could make sense of the figures that spell this out (he is a science major after all), but the desperation of financial inequality has burdened him and a significant portion of the population past the point where they are able to make sense of the limits of their earning potential and the mechanisms in place that keep them fixed.
While many companies exploit their workers in this way, and their corporate structures are worth dissecting, let’s make sense of what forces people like the Uber driver to knowingly place themselves in a position to be exploited for fleeting relief, and why a specific class in society is entirely exempt from this consideration.
Conspiracy RPG Deus Ex starts off with a mission on Liberty Island that makes a succinct point on what drives the masses to desperation. After a shipment of Ambrosia, a treatment for the “Grey Death” spreading across the world, is stolen by the National Secessionist Front, UNATCO Agent JC Denton tracks the drugs to the group’s leader, Leo Gold.
While Gold rightly makes sense of wild conspiracies like JC being a socially and mechanically engineered killing machine and that the Grey Death is actually a bioweapon, his remarks on inequality show the stage for this dark future where the elite want to cull the general population in order to fulfill their grand plans.
It’s all in the numbers. For a hundred years, there’s been a conspiracy of plutocrats against ordinary people. Number one: In 1945 Corporations paid 50% of federal taxes. Now they pay about 5%. Number two: In 1900, 90% of Americans were self-employed. Now it’s about 2%. It’s called consolidation. Strengthen governments and corporations, weaken individuals. With taxes this can be done imperceptibly over time.
-Leo Gold, Deus Ex
While the corporate tax rate can be corroborated, there’s no indication what data sets provided the 90% self-employment figure referenced here. Still, there is merit to this conspiracy.
Claims about greys at Area 51 or engineered superbugs released by the Illuminati to keep birth rates down and deaths at an all-time high are the stuff of Coast to Coast radio, the idea that rich men with ambitions make decisions that affect billions is something the mind can make sense of. This is especially the case when you consider that there are eight men alive today who have as much accumulated wealth as half of the entire human race.
This wealth inequality is made digestible by French economist Thomas Piketty’s 2013 book, Capital in the 21st Century. It takes almost 700 pages for Piketty to make his argument about what affects the distribution of wealth and why it remains in the hands of a few select families despite attempts from billions to escape poverty.
The US, without surprise, is the patient zero is Piketty’s diagnosis of global wealth inequality. This is supported by many factors, but two main factors in the US’ brand of capitalism is the government’s tolerance of oligarchic and plutocratic practices despite their ability to limit both through political power.
Piketty’s formula “r > g” (rate of return is greater than the rate of economic growth) explains how an oligarchy can be set up once a small pool of wealth is accumulated. That relatively small sum can be applied to investments and trusts, allowing the marginally wealthy to have a return on their capital in the form of dividends, gains, and interest payments. These can offer returns to the wealthy anywhere between 4% and 5%. That’s a rate that far exceeds the US’ average growth, meaning that what wealth accumulates over time can never be replicated through budgeting and saving regardless of the income. This is what makes the Uber side hustle so appealing to the average worker; the supplemental income it offers makes up for what income alone cannot cover in the moment.
Successes from the r > g formula include Warren Buffet, George Soros, Carl Ichan, Raymond Dalio, and Abigail Johnson. Their ability to invest over time has given them the billions they now possess, seemingly confirming Piketty’s argument that the possession of some wealth leads to the acquisition of even more wealth.
Children of these investment gurus are benefactors of what Piketty calls “patrimonial capitalism,” where those in the 1% are mostly comprised of people who have inherited wealth. Instead of having an elite class that have some claim to innovation like, say, Bill Gates or Elon Musk, it’s one comprised of trust fund babies.
Being part of patrimonial capitalism (which includes 60% of the 400 wealthiest Americans) allows for admittance to ivy league colleges regardless of grades or accomplishments, financial shelter during times of economic distress, access to high-end employment through familial ties, and so many other advantages that it’s no wonder the current oligarchic class readily breeds the next in a never-ending cycle of wealth redistribution. But only within the family.
This absurd level of wealth concentration could be counteracted, and it has been in the past, but certain forces within the government have made a decades-long effort to ensure that returns are protected from proper taxation. The federal estate tax is one such attempt to fairly tax inheritance, which is still in use. And this “death tax,” as fear-pushing conservatives like to call it, is again on the chopping block as Congress and the White House work more closely with one another. With an executive branch worth more than $14 billion and 271 representatives classifying as millionaires, it’s no wonder the government makes it a priority to protect wealth from taxation (and why entitlements are always threatened with cuts to make up for those lost taxes).
This is plutocracy, a government run by the wealthy to ensure the interests of the wealthy. Piketty argues that these two components of US capitalism make meritocracy–the deadly work performed by the Uber driver in that ad, both at his day job as a teacher and his side hustle–essentially pointless without regulation to keep an oligarchy in check and a plutocracy from forming within the government. Without those checks, both conditions are a natural occurrence; an oligarchy is the reward and a plutocracy the necessary framework needed to maintain wealth.
Piketty remarks that the US’ state of inequality today is “probably higher than in any society at any time in the past, anywhere in the world.” And in a Ted Talk, he stated that the one thing he’d change about Capital is providing more current data sets that show wealth inequality is even worse than he’d been able to write in 2013.
By now our Uber driver is pretty depressed. He’s aware that he doesn’t have a platform to affect his economic standing in a meaningful way and will have to find a new way to supplement his income or risk being drained from driving while grading school papers. The ad makes a cutesy point of showing just how tired he gets when he’s not working, making it a question as to whether or not he does anything but sleep when he’s not in his car. Uber understands the kind of people who see their driver program as a way to fix their immediate situation though it isn’t a viable employment option, which makes the ad particularly mean spirited.
One supposes our drive could get lucky and the very specific conditions of WW2 could be replicated. With another massive conflict and a consumer boom invigorating a new middle class, he could be awarded the privilege of working just one job to take care of his daughter and feed his dog without losing his home. The income for his skilled labor as a teacher would rise, and the unskilled labor of other Uber drivers would remain about the same. But the differentials would only set a new standard that will again depreciate as economic growth returns to its average low rate and the buying power of the dollar is again offset by inflation.
Piketty offers an answer for this, a way to end this conspiracy and put wealth inequality around the world out to pasture. The Global Wealth Tax. Piketty’s idyllic tax would reach returns all over the world, ensuring that governments are allowed to tax that capital and have it contribute to economic growth or assist in making any actual meritocratic attempts more equitable. He also has admitted several times that despite it being mathematically sound any such attempt is politically impossible. Especially in the US.
The concentration of wealth into few hands, and cooperative scheming from interested parties to make sure that as little of it goes back into the country’s economy, widening the gap between the 1% and everyone else, sounds not so crazy. It sounds constructed, well planned, and executed with an apelike fear of loss on the part of the elite. It’s a clearly observed conspiracy in full swing, ripped straight out of Deus Ex.
Any solution to wealth concentration relies upon the existence of governing bodies with the interest to make a meritocracy actualized. Without the incentive to do so, like Piketty pointed out, any change to an oligarchic culture and plutocratic practices won’t occur. But this has been observed in what’s been called the American Dream before, and it’s engineered only to get progressively worse.
If you’d like to read more in depth about Thomas Piketty’s ideas, you can get Capital in the 21st Century here.
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