The Desperate Hustle As A Way Of Life

The desperate hustle as a way of life (City Paper, April 23, 2014):

Here is the future: nobody gets any job security. Nobody gets a fair wage while they have a job. Nobody gets a retirement fund or even any guarantee they’ll be able to eat tomorrow. And almost everyone is doing everything they can just to get by—and paying some substantial portion of their earnings to a pimp or “platform” which controls the business they are in. And ain’t life a grand adventure? Isn’t it all so fun?

Welcome to the Sharing Economy.

This is the model of the new economy, where anyone with a car ought to be a Lyft contractor (your fare pays what he or she thinks is right but the company is tweeting out “we’ve slashed prices 20 percent”) and anyone with a house or apartment is renting it out on Air BnB and crashing at their boyfriend’s parents’ place.

All of this came about by design. The world is arranged according to the people who arrange things—the people who make money by this arrangement. We’re in our fourth decade of this. The Times reported this week that the American middle class has been surpassed by Canada’s.

And it’s much worse than the New York Times imagines. As Dean Baker points out, the middle classes in most other countries have increased their incomes while getting longer vacations. In the U.S.A.? Not so much.

This WaPost piece on how hard it is to “regulate” Air BnB limns the issue and never confronts it. But this life of hustle—the idea that everything you do, every day, needs to turn a profit or you starve—is familiar to anyone who lives or grew up in an inner city. In Salon today, D. Watkins points to the junkies putting on a fight-show for crack, and the lady who runs the candy/cig shop out of her second floor window, lowering the product down in a pencil box tied to a rope of shoelaces. You’ve seen the guys moving “loosies” and the guys selling the bags from the food pantry.

They are fucked. And we are them.

The kid who runs Lyft—John Zimmer—is a nice boy from Fairfield County. I grew up in Fairfield, and I remember in junior high wondering about a sign on a classroom wall which described an item in the curriculum. It said something to the effect of, “all students will learn the basics of how to manage staff.”

And I thought, in my 13-year-old brain, “But that’s ridiculous! How many of us are destined to have a staff to manage?”

But I was naïve. I did not yet understand that, in my town, 90 percent of my peers’ parents were managers, and all expected their kids to be bigger managers. I did not realize then that the whole nation’s economic credo would soon be re-imagined around the mathematically impossible idea that everyone—everyone!—is not just a manager, but an entrepreneur.

I did not yet understand then that those having or wanting just a job—just a job with decent pay—would be disparaged as “takers.”

I did not realize that, in 30 years, skilled people would be working basically for free just on the off chance they’d strike it rich in Silicon Valley.

And that, within my lifetime, those who did win that lottery would do so mainly by “innovating” a way to make all their staffers work for no pay at all—and kick their earnings up the line to those very smart managers.

It reminds me of one of my uncles, who spent the ‘80s scheming his way to a minor fortune in slum properties (all since lost, of course). One detour he took was Amway, and we ended up with some products in the house and I went to at least one “Amway Meeting” wherein I was pitched on the magic of “your downline.”

All this “innovation” notwithstanding, nothing happening in tech today looks very different. We’re all downline now.

The Lyft kid calls it “sharing.”

Today there are people all over Baltimore subleasing places they don’t own, peddling without a license, hacking. This is a criminal offense. The law does not recognize the right of the people to earn enough to eat.

All these entrepreneurs, most of them running little scams to get by, all of them held in contempt by the law and by most of society. Lyft and Uber and Air BnB face legal sanction too—but it’s just a civil matter. They break the same kinds of laws, but grandly. We respect their entrepreneurship because it is backed by venture capitalists.

So as Air BnB, Lyft, Sidecar and the rest formalize the shadow economy, turning jobs into hobbies and salaries into piecework and commission, think for just a minute about what this means for the prospect of honest work. Consider what the country, the world, and the economy will look like after another couple decades of this. Wonder, for just a second, if we’re sharing the wrong things with the wrong people.

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