Rule-Making as Structural Violence: From a Taxi to Uber Economy in San Francisco

Veena Dubal 

Between 2012 and 2014, California regulators made critical decisions that ultimately restructured political economies of mobility around the world. In municipal and then state regulatory bodies, policy-makers refused to enforce existing taxi laws and regulations against so-called “ridesharing” services, including industry leader UberX, as well as Lyft, and Sidecar. Regulators determined that the companies were not taxis but “transportation network companies” (“TNCs”), and created new rules to govern them. These California rules were the first of their kind anywhere in the world. The regulations and logics that they engendered were subsequently replicated nationally and internationally. The global regulatory response devastated worker livelihoods and transformed what had been a low-paid full time job to even lower-paid part time gigs.

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How did workers make sense of rapid change in their industry? What were their reactions when regulators refused to enforce existing taxi rules and to the rulemaking that ultimately devastated their livelihoods? And what can their narratives, experiences, and understandings tell us about the political economy of law amidst innovation?

Taxi workers in my ethnographic research challenged two fundamental aspects of the prevailing popular and academic narratives of “uberization” as a neoliberal political and economic re-ordering. First, workers argued that this legal transition and the social and political norms it propagated were embedded neither in technology nor in techno-utopian imaginaries. Instead, in making sense of their own precarity, taxi workers placed blame on the structural power of private actors and the instrumental power of regulators. Second, in telling the tale of how law and power worked together to facilitate the demise of their tenuously secure work, drivers were emphatic that this was not a story of deregulation or state withdrawal. Contrary to some traditional academic accounts, taxi workers argued that both the rule-making process and the rules themselves created and valorized a market in which the state had a strong, active, and even authoritarian hand.

Now a global phenomenon, Uber began as UberCab in San Francisco in 2010. Less than two years later, Lyft and Sidecar launched a different model: non-professional private drivers using their own cars and a suggested, non-mandatory price for the ride. Uber adopted this new model as UberX but with a mandatory fee set by the company. Shortly thereafter, the United Taxicab Workers—a twenty-five year old, worker-led taxi driver advocacy organization—alerted city officials to the growing number of unlicensed taxis competing for their work and roving the streets of San Francisco. They lobbied the city to enforce taxi regulations against the companies.

Mark, a UTW leader and long-time taxi driver, was frustrated at the city’s inaction. He told me in late 2012,

These are worse than illegal limos. They don’t even have licenses! People are using their own cars. Non-professional drivers. They are running afoul of every taxi regulation. They claim they’re innovative and new, but we already have this technology! This is what Cabulous [a taxi app] is. We’ve been using this for the past few years. This isn’t about technology. This is just a new exploitative business model—one step removed from the leasing model that the taxi companies have been using for years. They’re just bandit cabs. We’ve been pushing the MTA to issue another cease and desist but they won’t. They won’t enforce their own regulations. (my italics)

Mark argued that the Uber business model was not about technological innovation—but about the innovation of capital. He, like many other taxi drivers, emphasized that the technology itself pre-existed Uber. He understood Uber as an exploitative evolution from the precarious leasing model introduced in the San Francisco taxi industry in the late 1970s. Unlike taxi drivers who had to pay taxi companies for the lease and gas before they could venture out onto the road, Uber drivers also had to bear the costs of their vehicle maintenance and hybrid liability insurance (which did not exist until 2016). To make matters worse, the companies were operating without vehicle caps or fare regulations—the two key regulations that taxi workers had long used to maintain some semblance of wage stability.

Ruach—who, like Mark, had been driving in San Francisco since the late 1970s—argued that Uber’s innovation was to centralize dispatch, which UTW advocates had been pushing for years.

The media keeps selling this as innovative technology. This is not innovative or about technology. We have been trying to get the Board of Supervisors to pass an ordinance to mandate centralized dispatch for years. They won’t do it. The dispatch companies and the cab companies push back. And now, all of a sudden, these tech companies come in and everyone’s excited about centralized dispatch. HELLO! Have you been listening [to us] all these years? That’s all these companies are. (my italics)

When I asked worker advocates why they thought the city was unwilling to use their regulatory powers to stop these companies, especially since the SFMTA had just commodified and sold 900 medallions two years earlier, they blamed it on the structural power of capital.   Barry, another driver and advocate, described Uber’s massive lobbying efforts as “graft.” Although in most cases, the lobbying was technically not illegal, he understood it to be steeped in anti-democratic, corrupt practices. In a conversation we shared in 2013, he explained,

Ron Conway was an early funder of Mayor Ed Lee, and he is also an investor in Lyft and Uber. There are rumors [former] Mayor Willie Brown is getting his pockets lined as well. This is just graft. They are using the language of the tech economy. But they know that’s not what this is about. These are just taxi companies but with Wall Street money. Infinite amounts of money. We thought they [the taxi companies] were corrupt. (my italics)

In 2013, a rule-making process that began in late 2012, the California Public Utility Commission decided two critical things. As a matter of law, Uber offered pre-arranged rides and therefore, under the California Constitution, was to be regulated not by (more progressive) municipalities but exclusively by the state. And second, in the explicit name of “innovation,” the agency was to create a new regulatory category—Transportation Network Companies—and regulate them differently than limos and taxis—without car licenses, vehicle caps, or fare regulation.

Drivers like Mark, Ruach, and Barry directly related the structural power of venture capital to this regulatory outcome. They often felt their advocacy was misunderstood; they did not oppose technology. In fact, they laid claim to the technology themselves. But they protested the specific role of law, and in Barry’s words, the “greed and graft” through which those laws were achieved, in compelling the demise of their industry and livelihoods. They acknowledged that by producing two regulatory regimes, officials had eased the burden on TNCs at their expense. But they framed the character of the state as heavy-handed, not as laissez faire. This was not government facilitating a “free market” through deregulation, but preventing competition by maintaining fares at below market rates, and creating an overall unequal playing field.

Today, workers’ wages across the Uber-taxi divide are roughly 65% of what they were in 2010. They are often below the minimum wage. Told through the eyes of workers, the case study of how regulators responded to rule-breaking platforms and created the city’s contemporary Uber economy can neither be explained through innovation fanaticism nor fundamentally through a politics of efficiency and deregulation. Taxi workers understood innovation discourse as obscuring both their everyday hardships and corruptive, though legal, state practices. And they reframed the law in this process as playing an active role in undermining democratic principles, producing the myth of a free market, and exacerbating political and economic inequalities. As Mark wrote to me in a text following the fifth recent suicide of a taxi driver, “The invisible hand has shown its hand.”

Veena Dubal is Associate Professor of Law at U.C. Hastings College of the Law, San Francisco. 

Visit our Political Economy of Technology page to read all the posts in this series.

Moving Environmental Politics Out of the Courts

Alyssa Battistoni— 

On the campaign trail in 2016, Donald Trump took aim at Barack Obama’s signature climate change policy, the Clean Power Plan, as a “job-killing regulation.” Trump vowed to tackle regulations “on Day One.” By March 2017, he had signed an executive order directing EPA head Scott Pruitt to review the policy.

But even before Trump was elected, over half the states in the country joined oil and gas companies in suing to overturn the Clean Power Plan in 2016, accusing the EPA of “regulatory overreach.” Now that Trump is trying to roll back the CPP, a group of seventeen different states is suing the EPA to stop it from delaying implementation of the plan. The courts may save the Obama policy yet. But the ongoing litigation battles illustrate how court-centric environmental politics have become, and the limits of legal strategies in achieving political victories.

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Gender Equality as Social Reproduction Infrastructure

Julie Suk —

On May 30, 2018 the Illinois legislature voted to ratify the ERA. Thirty-seven states have now ratified the sex equality amendment to the U.S. Constitution, just one state shy of the three-quarters required by Article V to validly amend the Constitution. Legal commentary following this news is primarily focused on questions about the amendment’s legitimacy, such as the status of post-deadline ratifications and attempted rescissions, the constitutionality of ratification deadlines for amendments, and the validity of legislation eliminating the deadline. But it is equally important to contemplate how the ERA could change the political economy of gender inequality. It can be more than a symbol that locks in the sex discrimination law we already have. We can take some inspiration from feminist constitutionalism around the world to imagine a twenty-first century ERA that catalyzes new gender-equal infrastructures, particularly for biological and social reproduction, compatible with a sustainable and more humane political economy.

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Data Nationalization in the Shadow of Social Credit Systems

Frank Pasquale –

The political economy of digitization is a fraught topic. Scholars and policymakers have disputed the relative merits of centralization and decentralization. Do we want to encourage massive firms to become even bigger, so they can accelerate AI via increasingly comprehensive data collection, analysis, and use? Or do we want to trust-bust the digital economy, encouraging competitors to develop algorithms that can “learn” more from less data? I recently wrote on this tension, exploring the pro’s and con’s of each approach.46038488 - law concept: circuit board with  scales icon, 3d render

However, there are some ways out of the dilemma. Imagine if we could require large firms to license data to potential competitors in both the public and private sectors. That may sound like a privacy nightmare. But anonymization could allay some of these concerns, as it has in the health care context. Moreover, the first areas opened up to such mandated sharing may not even be personal data. Sharing the world’s best mapping data beyond the Googleplex could unleash innovation in logistics, real estate, and transport. Some activists have pushed to characterize Google’s trove of digitized books as an essential facility, which it would be required to license at fair, reasonable, and non-discriminatory (FRAND) rates to other firms aspiring to categorize, sell, and learn from books. Fair use doctrine could provide another approach here, as Amanda Levendowski argues.

In a recent issue of Logic, Ben Tarnoff has gone beyond the essential facilities argument to make a case for nationalization. Tarnoff believes that nationalized data banks would allow companies (and nonprofits) to “continue to extract and refine data—under democratically determined rules—but with the crucial distinction that they are doing so on our behalf, and for our benefit.” He analogizes such data to natural resources, like minerals and oil. Just as the Norwegian sovereign wealth fund and Alaska Permanent Fund socialize the benefits of oil and gas, public ownership and provision of data could promote more equitable sharing of the plenitude that digitization ought to enable.

Many scholars have interrogated the data/oil comparison. They usually focus on the externalities of oil use, such as air and water pollution and climate change. There are also downsides to data’s concentration and subsequent dissemination. Democratic control will not guarantee privacy protections. Even when directly personally identifiable information is removed from databases, anonymization can sometimes be reversed. Both governments and corporations will be tempted to engage in “modulation”—what Cohen describes as a pervasive form of influence on the beliefs and behaviors of citizens. Such modulation is designed to “produce a particular kind of subject[:] tractable, predictable citizen-consumers whose preferred modes of self-determination play out along predictable and profit-generating trajectories.” Tarnoff acknowledges this dark possibility, and I’d like to dig a bit deeper to explore how it could be mitigated.

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Artificial Sovereigns: A Quasi-Constitutional Moment for Tech?

K. Sabeel Rahman –

Consider the following developments:

  • In recent weeks, the explosive revelations about Cambridge Analytica and its systemic data-mining of Facebook profiles has cast into relief the way in which our contemporary digitized public sphere is not a neutral system of communication but rather a privately built and operated system of mass surveillance and content manipulation.46038488 - law concept: circuit board with  scales icon, 3d render
  • Meanwhile, Alphabet has announced that its subsidiary, Sidewalk Labs, will take over management of a major redevelopment of part of Toronto’s waterfront, in an effort to build from the ground up a modern “smart city.”
  • These developments come amidst the longer-term development of new forms of technological transformations of our political economy, from the rise of Amazon to its position as the modern infrastructure for the retail economy, to the ways in which technology is transforming the nature of work and the social safety net.

There has been a growing sense of concern about the twin crises of twenty-first-century democracy on the one hand and of the growing problems of inequality and insecurity on the other. Technological change is at the heart of both of these transformations. Technological change alters the distribution and dynamics of political and economic power, creating new forms of “functional sovereignty”—state-like powers concentrated in entities and systems that are not subject to the institutional and moral checks and balances that we associate with the exercise of public power. Such arbitrary power represents a kind of quasi-sovereignty that, left unchecked, poses a threat of domination.

The rich scholarly debate on law and technology has surfaced a range of approaches for addressing some of these concerns, from legal standards for privacy and data use to antitrust and public utility regulation, and more. These proposals and interventions can be reframed as part of a broader challenge of defusing the threat of domination created by these technological systems. Regulating and responding to new technologies and modern forms of economic and political power thus represent a variation on familiar questions of public law and constitutional design: how to structure the exercise of potentially arbitrary, state-like power, rendering it contestable, and therefore legitimate.

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Police Surveillance Machines: A Short History

Elizabeth Joh –

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The year 2015 witnessed a dramatic rise in demands for police surveillance machines. After a number of widely shared incidents of police violence against often unarmed civilians, public protests and media attention led to calls for the adoption of surveillance machines by the police.  Advocates of surveillance machines, including the family of Michael Brown, argued that these technologies would increase transparency and accountability surrounding police interactions with civilians by collecting and preserving data for public review.  Indeed, the most contentious police-civilian interactions often came down to public disputes as to the alleged threat posed by the civilian, versus the propriety of the police response. Surveillance machines promised a technological layer of accountability by rendering these hidden interactions public. Now that they are being implemented, however, the political economy of police technologies raises new concerns about concentrated private power, consumer platform protection, and adequate regulation of data in the future of policing.

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What Comes After Not Enough?

Amy Kapczynski —

What might a new human rights movement look like after Occupy, Brexit, Piketty, and Trump?   Sam Moyn’s new book brings us deftly to the edge of this question, and it’s here that I want to jump in.   Not Enough offers important insights into some of the failures of the existing movement, at least in its mainstream form. Drawing on these, as well as my own experience with the access to medicines movement – a movement that has invoked human rights but never defined itself through that idiom – I’ll offer a few thoughts on the shape of a human rights yet to come.

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One central aim of Moyn’s new book is to demarcate two kinds of left political thought – one organized around distribution and another organized around sufficiency.   Do we demand equality? Or do we demand enough? The key failure of the human rights movement, he argues, is that it has settled for the latter, and a particularly stingy version at that. As market fundamentalism advanced, human rights spun out a minimalist utopia. Socioeconomic rights took shape as demands to a “core minimum.” The movement demanded a “just enough” that in its very nature could never be enough, nor just.

As Paul O’Connell noted last week, Moyn’s is really only a history of part of the human rights movement. It has never been clear exactly how to define “the movement,” and many local groups make radical and even revolutionary claims under the sign of human rights. Moyn’s framing is not, however, without justification: he trains his attention on the institutions and documents that many people treat as the “core” or most consequential aspect of the movement. Implicitly, this reproduces a status hierarchy that I’ll argue in a minute must be undone if human rights is to be remade. But it also allows Moyn to show why we need a new human rights. The mainstream human rights movement came to prominence by embracing a certain kind of minimalist anti-politics, and trading off the best for the good.

This mainstream paradigm is inadequate to the challenges we face today. Moyn is right: We need a new human rights, one that does more than seek to “avert disaster and abjection.” This new version should embrace the politics of “material equality.” It must also demand deeper political accountabilities, inventing structures to facilitate a “welfare world” rather than accepting the pastiche of participation offered by international institutions to date.

What might a human rights movement look like that was more adequate to the challenges of our time? All of this, I think, and a few things more.

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Technology, Political Economy, and the Role(s) of Law

Julie E. Cohen –

Legal scholars who work on information policy tend to focus on questions about how existing doctrinal and regulatory frameworks should apply to information-era business models and online behavior, perhaps undergoing some changes in coverage or emphasis along the way. They have asked, in other words, how law should respond to the changes occurring all around it. For the most part, they have not asked the broader, reflexive questions about how core legal institutions are already evolving in response to the ongoing transformation in our political economy—questions about how disputes over scalesanddata.jpginformation are reshaping the enterprise of law at the institutional level. That is a mistake. Information-economy actors do not simply act in markets; they also mobilize legal tools and institutions to advance their various goals. Through that process, legal institutions gradually become reoptimized for the new roles they are called upon to play.

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The Political Economy of Immigration Enforcement: Part II

Sameer Ashar and Amna Akbar— 

In our first post, we made the case for studying immigration enforcement through a political economy lens. Without political economy, we are left with an ahistorical and inadequate understanding of the challenges and realities of immigration enforcement, which implicate both state and market, and not just Donald Trump and Barack Obama, but our colonial past as well. In this second post, we elaborate on three central insights of a political economy and racial capitalism lens: the rise of “guard labor” in the neoliberal, austerity state; lopsided bargaining power between workers and their bosses; and the persistently colonial dynamics of labor extraction.

First, immigration enforcement is a key part of the expansion of guard labor in the United States: the sector of the modern U.S. economy devoted to ensuring conformity to public and private institutional imperatives. This includes everything from police and private security to detention facilities, jails, and prisons to parole, probation, and surveillance. Consider how immigrant detention facilities are marketed as economic development projects, especially in areas without other sources of jobs and income. Private prison companies, especially, have used underdevelopment and deindustrialization in parts of the United States to make the case for new facilities. Those companies have also marketed detention facilities as providing much-needed jobs for veterans returning from years of extended American military engagement in Afghanistan and Iraq. Municipal and county governments have provided carceral capacity for immigrant detention, at a cost. Immigrant detention brought federal dollars to localities starved for funds during the extended austerity regime of the Bush and Obama administrations.

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The Political Economy of Immigration Enforcement: Part I

Sameer Ashar and Amna Akbar— 

Liberals and progressives bemoan the problems of immigration enforcement and deportation along the vectors of racialization and criminalization. Their critique goes something like this: the immigration enforcement system is unfair in how it targets Black and Latinx and other immigrants of color, and this targeting has worsened as immigration enforcement has become increasingly entangled with criminal law enforcement. (A related concern has been that “immigrants are not criminals”: but both immigrant rights and racial justice movements have deconstructed and debunked this idea, since the meaning of what it is to be a criminal is just as raced and historically contingent as being an immigrant.) These concerns are played out in a field of celebratory narratives about the United States as a nation of immigrants, erasing the settler colonial routes of the country’s political and economic power.  By failing to consider questions of political economy—specifically how racial capitalism has shaped our present—these critiques lack explanatory power and historical grounding.

In this two-part series, joining colleagues such as Tendayi Achiume, Angélica Cházaro, César Cuauhtémoc García Hernández, and Sherally Munshi, we make the case that political economy and racial capitalism are central to any thoroughgoing understanding of immigration enforcement. We write in opposition to race-neutral law-and-economics descriptions of interior enforcement, such as that of Adam Cox and Eric Posner. Immigration enforcement provides a lens for understanding the global and historical relationships between the state, the market, and workers. Immigration enforcement, after all, emerged as a post-colonial tool in white settler nations like the United States and Canada as a way to limit and exclude the arrival of former colonial subjects. Here, we introduce questions and concerns that come into play when viewing immigration enforcement through a political economy lens.

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