Uber cuts protested by New York City drivers

By Steve Light and Isaac Finn
2 February 2016

In response to a 15 percent fare cut announced by the company over the weekend, hundreds of Uber and other taxi drivers protested Monday at the Uber headquarters near Queens Plaza in New York City. They expressed anger that their already meager incomes would be reduced even further by the company’s action, forcing them to work even longer hours.

Uber driver rally against rate cuts

Uber is an international “ride share” service, whose drivers are treated as independent contractors rather than as employees. As of last summer, the company was valued at $17 billion. The rate cut was reportedly undertaken to increase the company’s market share, in competition with Lyft, another ride-share service, as well as regular taxis and car services.

The super-exploitation of Uber and other taxi workers is just one aspect of the ever-widening economic inequality in the city that is the financial capital of the world. With astronomically high living expenses, millions of low-wage workers are barely eking by in a city where are workers, according to a recent report, need to earn an hourly wage of least $38.80, roughly four times the current minimum wage, in order to afford the city’s 2015 median asking rent of $2,690.

A significant proportion of the rally was composed of drivers from countries such as Nepal, China, Russia, and the Caucasus region, reflecting the super-exploitation of immigrant workers. Signs expressed anger at wage cuts by billionaire owners. Trucks, cars, and taxis rolling by the rally blew their horns in support and were met with cheers from the drivers.

Many Uber drivers are part-timers, and net an average $300 per week for 25 hours worked, from which they still have to pay for gasoline, insurance, vehicle expenses, and self-employment taxes. Recent reports show drivers making $2.89 an hour, less than half the official minimum wage.

The development of Internet-based service using cell phone apps has greatly intensified competition, forcing drivers to work longer hours to try make sufficient income and pay off their investments for cars. The technology-based changes in the taxi industry have led to protests against Uber in at least nine countries in Latin America, Europe, Canada and the Far East.

Uber and other drivers at the rally spoke to reporters from the WSWS .

Victor, an immigrant from Russiam with two years experience, stated, “Even before they dropped the price we were working with very low margins. We already have to pay for inspections and insurance. We are always risking getting a ticket, and if we do we have to pay it.

“One of the guys did the math, and if you work about 57 hours, under the new rate, after expenses you are making about $9.50 an hour. Why not work in a warehouse, if they are only going to pay that much?

The protest at Uber headquarters

“When I joined Uber two years ago, I knew the rates and then the company changed the rules. I have already bought the car, the dealer doesn’t change the cost because of this, and my insurance is the same. I know in other states things are different and a lot of the drivers just work part-time, but we already paid out thousands of dollars for these cars.

“They say we are ‘partners’ but they didn’t ask us anything before making these changes. I think a lot of people will leave Uber, and then there will be less drivers. We might be really busy, but eventually the market will adjust and this will hit us hard.”

Pemba Sherpa, an immigrant from Nepal, who has worked for Uber for five months, decried the rate cuts, “They are trying to kill us. We have to pay rent, plus the cost of a car, which is between $60,000 and $65,000, and they are asking us to work for just over $4 an hour.

“When I started working for Uber, I asked them, ‘should I get the black car?’ and they told me to get it. Then they told me I had to pick up UberX clients for less money, or do pulls, which means I have to pick up multiple clients at the same time. If you are doing pulls, I could be picking up six people and they are all paying $2 each that is less than a subway ride. It is like I am a bus driver, but I did not sign up to be a bus driver.

“We are entrapped because we already bought the cars, and they just keep changing the rules. They send us our times and conditions every night, and we have to accept them or we won’t be able to work.”

Another Uber driver, added, “They want us to work for $4.89 an hour, and you can’t take care of your family for that. We will be working longer hours for the same amount of money, and that is an insult.

“We already have to pay for the cars, for insurance. We have to pay for dry cleaning for our shirts, and we are getting less money than if we worked at McDonalds.”

Parminder Singh, an Uber driver and former taxi driver, explained “Uber just keeps adding cars, and making things worse for us. New York taxi companies can’t add more cars, because that increases congestion on the roads and makes things worse.

“We just want to raise our kids, but you can’t do that on this much money. I work from noon until 1 or 2AM. My son is nine years old, and I never see him. He wants to see me, but I can’t because I am at work.”

Asked about the political issues raised by his working conditions, Singh added, “The city should be responsible for taking care of the people that live here. When I was in Yellow Cab we had protested in front of the Governor’s office, to make things better for all the drivers, but the politicians still have not done anything.

“My feeling is that the city should be providing jobs to people with qualifications. We should not have people becoming drivers, when they are trained for something else.”

“Uber is 1,500 drivers, and they will make us homeless” Bahkyti Yori asserted. “What happens when we cannot cover our insurance, financial costs? We will lose our cars, everything.”

Pasand Sherpa told the WSWS, “Uber lowered the rate 15 percent but Uber takes a high percentage, 30 to 35 percent, but there is no percentage increase for us. It was $8 at the start for riders but now it is $7. Every trip they charge us 35 percent. They discount from the customer’s side but not from the driver’s side. Wages are going down but we are working harder. It was better but now we would have to drive 500 miles. We don’t have a union. The Taxi Workers Alliance organized this.”

Medallion (yellow cab) taxi drivers joined the rally in support of the Uber drivers. Iqbal Singh, a yellow cab driver for 25 years, was there in support of the Uber drivers. “We came out to fight with them. Uber made $62 billion. If they are cutting back the fare, so they make less, then yellow cabs also make less money. They can then cut the fare again and make it even worse. We want Uber to have a set price.”

An Uber driver for two years, Shamsu Uddin said, “The jobs came online before for $3 per mile, then $2.15, and now again forty cents less. We can’t even make $100 to $150 an hour. How can we make the mortgage payments or pay for the new car or take care of our family. I drive twelve hours a day. Everything goes up in price, every bill, but not us. We built the billionaire boss. There are many competing companies–Yellow, Green, LYFT, Uber, Gate, Bayer, and now Juno is coming in April. [Mayor] De Blasio said it is not good for the driver but he set this up.”

Tenzin Wangyal assessed the situation, “I think there is a decent amount that can be made by drivers but the company takes 30 percent and the driver is left not making much. They structure the system to get people to fight against each other. It needs to be structured to bring people together. This should not only be including taxi but all people should support this fight. It is about fairness and justice. People just keep talking. No one is doing anything. That is why we are here, for our voice to be heard. They make the same speech, but it is the same old reality. It is time to act now and do the right thing. It is for democracy and justice.”

 

http://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2016/02/02/uber-f02.html

Cheap cab ride? You must have missed Uber’s true cost

When tech giants such as Google and Uber hide their wealth from taxation, they make it harder for us to use technology to improve services

A striking French taxi driver protests against Uber in Paris.
A striking French taxi driver protests against Uber in Paris. Photograph: Charles Platiau/Reuters

To understand why we see so few genuine alternatives to US technology giants, it’s instructive to compare the fate of a company like Uber – valued at more than $62.5bn (£44bn) – and that of Kutsuplus, an innovative Finnish startup forced to shut down late last year.

Kutsuplus’s aspiration was to be the Uber of public transport: it operated a network of minibuses that would pick up and drop passengers anywhere in Helsinki, with smartphones, algorithms and the cloud deployed to maximise efficiency, cut costs and provide a slick public service. Being a spinoff of a local university that operated on a shoestring budget, Kutsuplus did not have rich venture capitalists behind it. This, perhaps, is what contributed to its demise: the local transport authority found it too expensive, despite impressive year-on-year growth of 60%.

On the other hand, “expensive” is everything that Uber is not. While you might be tempted to ascribe the low costs of the service to its ingenuity and global scale – is it the Walmart of transport? – its affordability has a more banal provenance: sitting on tons of investor cash, Uber can afford to burn billions in order to knock out any competitors, be they old-school taxi companies or startups like Kutsuplus.

A recent article in The Information, a tech news site, suggests that during the first three quarters of 2015 Uber lost $1.7bn while booking $1.2bn in revenue. The company has so much money that, in at least some North American locations, it has been offering rides at rates so low that they didn’t even cover the combined cost of fuel and vehicle depreciation.

Uber’s game plan is simple: it wants to drive the rates so low as to increase demand – by luring some of the customers who would otherwise have used their own car or public transport. And to do that, it is willing to burn a lot of cash, while rapidly expanding into adjacent industries, from food to package delivery.

An obvious but rarely asked question is: whose cash is Uber burning? With investors like Google, Amazon’s Jeff Bezos and Goldman Sachs behind it, Uber is a perfect example of a company whose global expansion has been facilitated by the inability of governments to tax profits made by hi-tech and financial giants.

To put it bluntly: the reason why Uber has so much cash is because, well, governments no longer do. Instead, this money is parked in the offshore accounts of Silicon Valley and Wall Street firms. Look at Apple, which has recently announced that it sits on $200bn of potentially taxable overseas cash, or Facebook, which has just posted record profits of $3.69bn for 2015.

Some of these firms do choose to share their largesse with governments – both Apple and Google have agreed to pay tax bills far smaller than what they owe, in Italy and the UK respectively – but such moves aim at legitimising the questionable tax arrangements they have been using rather than paying their fair share.

Compare this with the dire state of affairs in which most governments and city administrations find themselves today. Starved of tax revenue, they often make things worse by committing themselves to the worst of austerity politics, shrinking the budgets dedicated to infrastructure, innovation, or creating alternatives to the rapacious “platform capitalism” of Silicon Valley.

Under these conditions, it’s no wonder that promising services like Kutsuplus have to shut down: cut from the seemingly endless cash supply of Google and Goldman Sachs, Uber would have gone under as well. It is, perhaps, no coincidence that Finland is one of the more religious advocates of austerity in Europe; having let Nokia go under, the country has now missed another chance.

Let us not be naive: Wall Street and Silicon Valley won’t subsidise transport for ever. While the prospect of using advertising to underwrite the costs of an Uber trip is still very remote, the only way for these firms to recoup their investments is by squeezing even more cash or productivity out of Uber drivers or by eventually – once all their competitors are out – raising the costs of the trip.

Both of these options spell trouble. Uber is already taking higher percentages from its drivers’ fares (this number is reported to have gone up from 20% to 30%), while also trying to pass on more costs related to background checks and safety education directly to its drivers (through the so-called safe rides fee).

The only choice here is between more precarity for drivers and more precarity for passengers, who will have to accept higher rates, with or without controversial practices like surge pricing (prices go up when demand is high).

Moreover, the company is actively trying to solidify its status as a default platform for transport. During the recent squabbles in France – where taxi drivers have been rioting to get the government to notice their plight – Uber has offered to open up its platforms to any professional taxi drivers who would like a second job.

Needless to say, such platforms – with properly administered and transparent payment, reputation and pricing systems – ought to have been established by cities a long time ago. This, along with the encouragement and support of startups like Kutsuplus, would have been the right regulatory response to Uber.

Unfortunately, there’s very little policy innovation in this space and the main response to Uber so far has come from other Uber-like companies unhappy with its dominance. Thus, India’s Ola, China’s Didi Kuaidi, US-based Lyft and Malaysia’s GrabTaxi have formed an alliance, allowing customers to book cabs from each other’s apps in countries where they operate. This falls short of creating a viable support system where innovators like Kutsuplus can flourish; replacing Uber with Lyft won’t solve the problem, as it pursues the same aggressive model.

The broader lesson here is that a country’s technology policy is directly dependent on its economic policy; one cannot flourish without the active support of the other. Decades of a rather lax attitude on taxation combined with strict adherence to the austerity agenda have eaten up the public resources available for experimenting with different modes of providing services like transport.

This has left tax-shrinking companies and venture capitalists – who view everyday life as an ideal playing ground for predatory entrepreneurship – as the only viable sources of support for such projects. Not surprisingly, so many of them start like Kutsuplus only to end up like Uber: such are the structural constraints of working with investors who expect exorbitant returns on their investments.

Finding and funding projects that would not have such constraints would not in itself be so hard; what will be hard, especially given the current economic climate, is finding the cash to invest in them.

Taxation seems the only way forward – alas, many governments do not have the courage to ask what is due to them; the compromise between Google and HM Treasury is a case in point.

 

http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/jan/31/cheap-cab-ride-uber-true-cost-google-wealth-taxation?CMP=fb_gu

We now have threat scores to match our credit scores

“Minority Report” is coming true: 

“Beware” analyzes arrest reports, property records and commercial databases to calculate our potential for violence

"Minority Report" is coming true: We now have threat scores to match our credit scores
(Credit: Dreamworks)
This article originally appeared on AlterNet.

Police have found a new way to legally incorporate surveillance and profiling into everyday life. Just when you thought we were making progress raising awareness surrounding police brutality, we have something new to contend with. The Police Threat Score isn’t calculated by a racist police officer or a barrel-rolling cop who thinks he’s on a TV drama; it’s a computer algorithm that steals your data and calculates your likelihood of risk and threat for the fuzz.

Beware is the new stats-bank that helps officers analyze “billions of data points, including arrest reports, property records, commercial databases, deep Web searches and…social-media postings” to ultimately come up with a score that indicates a person’s potential for violence, according to a Washington Post story. No word yet on whether this meta data includes photos and facial recognition software. For example would an ordinary person, yet to commit a crime, be flagged when seen wearing a hoodie in a gated Florida community?

The company tries to paint itself as a savior to first responders, claiming they want to help them “understand the nature of the environment they may encounter during the window of a 911 event.” Think of it like someone pulling your credit score when you apply for a job. Except, in this instance you never applied for the job and they’re pulling your credit score anyway because they knew you might apply. It’s that level of creepiness.

Remember the 2002 Tom Cruise movie Minority Report? It’s set in 2054, a futuristic world where the “pre-crime” unit arrests people based on a group of psychics who can see crimes before they happen. Only, it’s 2016 and we’re not using psychics, we’re using computers that mine data. According to the Post piece, law enforcement in Oregon are under federal investigation for using software to monitor Black Lives Matter hashtags after uprisings in Baltimore and Ferguson. How is this new software any different? In fact, this is the same kind of technology the NSA has been using since 9/11 to monitor online activities of suspected terrorists—they’re just bringing it down to the local level.

According to FatalEncounters.org, a site that tracks deaths by cop, there were only 14 days in 2015 in which a law enforcement officer did not kill someone. So, leaving judgment up to the individual hasn’t been all that effective in policing. But is letting a machine do it any better? Using these factors to calculate a color-coded threat level doesn’t seem entirely practical. Suppose a person doesn’t use social media or own a house but was once arrested when he was 17 for possession of marijuana. The absence of data might lend itself to a high threat level. The same can be said for online meta data that might filter in extracurricular interests. Could a person who is interested in kinky activity in the bedroom be tagged as having a tendency toward violence?

The Fresno, Calif. police department is taking on the daunting task of being the first to test the software in the field. Understandably, the city council and citizens voiced their skepticism at a meeting. “One council member referred to a local media report saying that a woman’s threat level was elevated because she was tweeting about a card game titled ‘Rage,’ which could be a keyword in Beware’s assessment of social media,” the Post reported.

While you might now be rethinking playing that Mafia game on Facebook, it isn’t just your personal name that can raise a flag. Fresno Councilman Clinton Olivier, a libertarian-leaning Republican, asked for his name to be run through the system. He came up as a “green” which indicates he’s safe. When they ran his address, however, it popped up as “yellow” meaning the officer should beware and be prepared for a potentially dangerous situation. How could this be? Well, the councilman didn’t always live in this house; someone else lived there before him and that person was likely responsible for raising the threat score.

Think what a disastrous situation that could be. A mother of a toddler could move into a new home with her family, not knowing that the house was once the location of an abusive patriarch. The American Medical Association has calculated that as many as 1 in 3 women will be impacted by domestic violence in their lifetimes, so it isn’t an unreasonable hypothetical. One day the child eats one of those detergent pods and suddenly the toddler isn’t breathing. Hysterial, the mother calls 911, screaming. She can’t articulate what has happened, only that her baby is hurt. Dispatch sends an ambulance, but the address is flagged as “red” for its prior decade of domestic violence calls. First responders don’t know someone new has moved in. The woman is giving CPR while her husband waits at the door for the ambulance. What happens when the police arrive?

It’s a scenario that can be applied to just about any family and any situation. Moving into an apartment that previously was a marijuana grow-house; buying a house that once belonged to a woman who shot her husband when she found him with his mistress in the pool. Domestic violence calls are among the most dangerous for police officers. Giving police additional suspicion that may not be entirely accurate probably won’t reduce the incidents of of accidental shootings or police brutality.

The worst part, however, is that none of these questions and concerns can be answered, because Intrado, the company that makes Beware, doesn’t reveal how its algorithm works. Chances are slim that they ever will, since it would also be revealed to its competitors. There’s no way of knowing the accuracy level of the data set given in the search. Police are given red, yellow or green to help them make a life-changing or life-ending decision. It seems a little primitive, not to mention intrusive.

“It is deeply disturbing that local law enforcement agencies are unleashing the sophisticated tools of a surveillance state on the public with little, if any, oversight or accountability,” Ryan Kiesel of the Oklahoma ACLU told me. “We are in the middle of a consequential moment in which the government is unilaterally changing the power dynamic between themselves and the people they serve. If we are going to preserve the fundamental right of privacy, it is imperative that we demand these decisions are made as the result of a transparent and informed public debate.”

While mass shootings are on the rise, violent crime and homicides have fallen to historic lows. You wouldn’t know that watching the evening news, however. Is now really the time to increase the chances of violent actions at the hands of the police, all while intruding on our civil liberties under the guise of safety?

 

http://www.salon.com/2016/01/15/minority_report_is_coming_true_we_now_have_threat_scores_to_match_our_credit_scores_partner/?source=newsletter

Obama’s final State of the Union: Lies, evasions and threats

160112211823-state-of-the-union-address-president-obama-arrives-opening-statement-02-00005921-large-169

By Patrick Martin
13 January 2016

The final State of the Union speech delivered Tuesday night by President Barack Obama was a demonstration of the incapacity of the American political system to deal honestly or seriously with a single social question.

Obama evaded the real issues that affect tens of millions of working people in America every day of their lives. He painted a ludicrous picture of economic recovery and social progress that insulted the intelligence of his television audience—and went unchallenged by the millionaire politicians assembled in the chamber of the House of Representatives.

Summing up what he called “the progress of these past seven years,” Obama gave first place to “how we recovered from the worst economic crisis in generations.” The so-called “recovery” has been a bonanza for corporate profits, stock prices, and the wealth and income of the super-rich. For the working people who are the vast majority of the population, it has been a disaster.

By most social indices, the American people are worse off in January 2016 than when Obama took office seven years ago. The real wages of working people have fallen, social services have deteriorated, pension benefits have been gutted, and cities such as Detroit and San Bernardino have been forced into bankruptcy.

According to a report by the National Association of Counties issued on the eve of the State of the Union address, of the 3,069 counties in the United States, 93 percent are worse off than before the 2008 financial crash according to at least one of four economic indicators: total employment, the unemployment rate, the size of the economy and home values.

In 27 states, not a single county has recovered fully from the 2008 crash and the deep economic slump that followed. These include such major states as Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Massachusetts, Missouri, New Jersey, New York and Pennsylvania.

Obama, however, painted a picture of nearly unblemished economic advance, declaring, “The United States of America, right now, has the strongest, most durable economy in the world.” He boasted, “We’re in the middle of the longest streak of private-sector job creation in history. More than 14 million new jobs; the strongest two years of job growth since the ‘90s; an unemployment rate cut in half.”

The president did not acknowledge that the post-2008 “recovery” is the weakest on record, that the vast majority of the new jobs created have been low-wage and many of them part-time, or that the drop in the unemployment rate is primarily due to the withdrawal of millions of people from the work force because they lost all hope of getting a decent-paying job.

He went on, tellingly, to cite the auto industry as a symbol of success, declaring that it “just had its best year ever.” This perfectly expresses the utter blindness, not just of Obama, but of the entire political establishment. The “best year ever” was for General Motors, Ford and Fiat-Chrysler, which enjoyed record profits, not for the auto workers who produced those profits.

Real wages for auto workers have dropped sharply since the Obama White House forced through a 50 percent cut in wages for all new hires as part of the bankruptcy reorganization of the industry in 2009. Mass discontent among auto workers was expressed at the end of 2015 in the rejection of contracts at Fiat-Chrysler and Nexteer, a major supplier, and in widespread demands for strike action, smothered by Obama’s stooges in the United Auto Workers union.

“Anyone claiming that America’s economy is in decline is peddling fiction,” Obama concluded. The social position of the American working class has, in fact, suffered a dramatic decline, through the combined efforts of the corporate bosses, the unions and the two capitalist parties, the Democrats and Republicans.

The president conceded that economic inequality has grown in the United States, but he described it as the outcome of long-term trends such as globalization and automation, as though the policies of his administration—bailouts for Wall Street, budget cuts and wage cuts for workers—had nothing to do with it.

In the seven years since the financial crash, brought on, as he admitted, by “recklessness on Wall Street,” not a single banker or speculator has been prosecuted or jailed. On the contrary, the billionaires have greatly increased their wealth, gobbling up 95 percent of all new income since Obama entered the White House.

Obama listed a few other policy “successes,” claiming that “we reformed our health care system, and reinvented our energy sector… we delivered more care and benefits to our troops and veterans.” He was referring, however, to a series of social disasters: the reactionary attack on health benefits for workers and their families known as Obamacare; the devastation of Appalachia and other energy-producing regions; and the abuse of ex-soldiers, wounded in body and mind, by the Veterans Administration.

Obama sought to defend the foreign policy record of his administration from criticism, mainly from the Republican right, where demands are being raised for military escalation in the Middle East and stepped-up attacks on democratic rights at home in the name of fighting “terrorism.”

While he claimed to reject an American role as the world’s policeman, he nonetheless boasted, “The United States of America is the most powerful nation on Earth. Period. It’s not even close. We spend more on our military than the next eight nations combined.”

He continued, “Our troops are the finest fighting force in the history of the world,” winning the bipartisan standing ovation that always accompanies any mention of American soldiers engaged in combat overseas.

Obama indulged in the glorification of killing that has become an essential part of the degraded spectacle that passes for political discourse in America. Describing the US war against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, he claimed, “With nearly 10,000 air strikes, we are taking out their leadership, their oil, their training camps, and their weapons.”

He called on Congress to pass an Authorization for the Use of Military Force against ISIS, but vowed to wage war with or without legislative approval. The leaders of ISIS, he proclaimed, “will learn the same lessons as terrorists before them. If you doubt America’s commitment—or mine—to see that justice is done, ask Osama bin Laden. Ask the leader of al Qaeda in Yemen, who was taken out last year…”

Then he declared, in language that will be noted by nations all over the world, that when it comes to waging war against potential adversaries, “our reach has no limit.”

Obama concluded his speech with an appeal to his Republican opponents to work with his administration and pull back from the extreme anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim rhetoric that has characterized the contest for the Republican presidential nomination.

In a clear reference to Donald Trump, he argued that “we need to reject any politics that targets people because of race or religion. This is not a matter of political correctness, but understanding what makes us strong.”

Obama was making an argument, not so much that racism and bigotry are intrinsically wrong, but that they make it more difficult for American imperialism to maintain its dominant world role. “When a politician insults Muslims,” he said, “it makes it harder to achieve our goals.”

 

http://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2016/01/13/sotu-j13.html

Delivering “people power”: lessons from ancient Athens

People Power

  • January 10, 2016

If we really want to effect change, we need to empower people from below. Athenian democracy might give some ideas on how this could be achieved.

Take a straw poll of nearly any Western country and you’ll soon notice that a lot of people are unhappy. Neoliberal economics has brought skyrocketing inequality, a callous disregard for the claims of human dignity, a disintegrating social contract and a generation of millennials, the vast majority of whom will be more educated and work harder than their parents, but who will somehow still be worse off.

Yet for all of the injustices this generation has had to stomach, it hasn’t yet been able to sustain a viable counter-movement. Instead, we’ve seen loosely related threads rise, peak and fall away again: Occupy, Syriza — even the long-standing climate change movement tends to lose a little steam every time an international conference fails to deliver convincing results, as demonstrated most recently by the COP21 meeting in Paris this fall.

Part of the difficulty in sustaining the momentum for real change is doubtless down to demographics with the young, who have been hit hardest by austerity, outnumbered by more sheltered baby boomers.

However, I believe that the biggest reason popular movements seem to never-endingly coalesce and evaporate with little to show for it is due to our very conception of democracy.

It is a fundamental characteristic of the current political system that change — even immensely popular change — can only be achieved at great cost and with an enormous time lag. That trait is embedded in the very core of what we call democracy and it is why the odds appear to be stacked against radical movements for equality, regardless of the popularity they enjoy.

SOCIAL FRAGMENTATION AND POLITICAL APATHY

It’s no secret that over the past thirty years, Western society has fragmented, with traditional forms of collective activity replaced by atomized lifestyles that can only be sustained through hyper-vigilant self-reliance.

Instead of working unionized jobs, many millennials have been banished to the ranks of the precariat, working freelance or on contract without steady colleagues. Even those with good jobs are frequently pressured to jump from workplace to workplace or even from country to country on the quest to keep a foothold on the increasingly shaky corporate ladder.

Millennials are expected to change jobs nearly 20 times over their ‘careers’. In this social merry-go-round of ever rotating acquaintances and work colleagues, many people lack both community and financial stability. In other words, the social fabric that is key to facilitating sustained political action on the part of ordinary people is threadbare.

Keeping up momentum is more difficult when you are worried about where your next meal will come from and aren’t in any one place long enough to build trust with your peers. It’s no surprise that we are living this way; after all, social security was purposely eradicated via the aggressive deregulation and neo-liberalization of the past forty years.

The insecurities that deregulation has brought are so glaringly obvious that many choose to focus on bringing regulation back, especially those who remember how (comparatively) good things were when labor, business and trade were subject to a bit more red tape. The flaw in the ointment here is that under the current political system, one is only allowed to regulate after one wins an election.

To make matters worse, because some aspects of deregulation — like international trade liberalization — are subject to international agreements, meaningful change would really only be feasible under a high level of cooperation across many governments, which means winning several elections in close proximity to each other.

That is a difficult task, perhaps even impossible.

KICKING THE ELECTION HABIT

Much as we celebrate them, elections are a statistically flawed, deeply biased exercise that delivers but the crudest approximation of the popular will, and sometimes not even that.

Take the latest British elections as just one example. In what was heralded as a change in British politics, in which voters allegedly had more choice than ever before, the Conservative Party won 36.9 percent of the vote, 51 percent of seats in Parliament and 100 percent of all political power in the country.

Since voter turnout was only 66 percent, the Conservatives came to power on the back of a 24 percent popular vote. Yet the party has the right to make all rules for the entire country of Great Britain and every person in it for the next five years.

At the same election the British Labour Party increased its vote share by 1.5 percent yet lost 26 seats. This kind of whimsical result is fairly normal, and while first-past-the-post is definitely the worst electoral system, they all have their flaws – flaws that can be exploited by those in power.

Winning an election depends more on gaming the system to maximize seat gains with minimal votes than it does on winning genuine support. Tactical expertise, deep pockets, and the ability to gerrymander trump popular support more often than all but the most cynical would care to reflect on.

Even where popular movements manage to leap these hurdles and succeed at the polls, the chances of it being translated into the law of the land are still minimal. It is a critical weakness of elections that they confer power on only a few people, and it is easy to bribe, remove or otherwise reduce the efficacy of those people, provided one has the willpower and resources to conduct the kind of concerted campaign this requires.

The former Greek Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis and US President Barack Obama are but two politicians who have been effectively sidelined from government despite having procured strong mandates from the electorate.

Agreeing to only effect change through the electoral system essentially dooms any poorly-resourced sector of society to failure, even if they represent the majority. At the very least, it sets the bar so high that the time lag between popular endorsement of reform and it actually being carried out can be measured in years, even decades.

It is difficult for the poorly-resourced to win elections, hard to carry out their platform if they do win, and nearly impossible, given today’s realities of workplace fragmentation and social instability, to build up pressure to force change between elections. However, for those with many resources at their disposal, it is easy to win elections (even without popular support), simple to ramrod legislation through, and child’s play to influence decision-making in between elections, primarily through direct, private meetings with government officials.

This all adds up to one inescapable conclusion: continuing to accept the legitimacy of the electoral system is tantamount to accepting the legitimacy of elite-only rule and the neoliberal economics it espouses, markedly increased social stratification and an end to any sort of pretense of equal opportunity.

If we really want to effect change, rather than playing the electoral game where we have been set up for failure, we need to empower people to affect politics under the prevailing, highly decentralized conditions. And oddly enough, going back in time – far back in time – gives some ideas on how this could be achieved.

WHAT WE HAVE TO LEARN FROM THE ATHENIANS

When I first began researching democracy, it did not even occur to me to investigate how politics worked in ancient Athens. I simply assumed that democracy then was like “democracy” today. However, when I finally did begin examining this ancient society, I realized that the truth was much different.

The word demokratia meant “people power” in ancient Greece, and while Athens was far from a utopia — we all know their record on women’s liberties and slavery — the Athenians managed to organize their political landscape in a way that delivered a high degree of political equality and freedom among citizens — things we claim to want.

The Athenians achieved this by setting up institutions that made it easy for people to have an immediate and meaningful impact on public affairs. There was no glorious struggle for a peoples’ say in Athens — such things were institutionalized into the very fabric of government.

The two primary organs for this were the Assembly, where citizens met four times a month to pass laws and decrees, and the courts, which were staffed by randomly selected citizen jurors. The majority of civil posts were also held by randomly selected citizens working in panels, and elections were downsized to the absolutely necessary, for example, the selection of military strategists.

Participation was not seen as a privilege that needed to be earned, but as a duty to be compensated in cold, hard cash. As the prominent Athenian orator Pericles once put it: “we… consider the man who takes no part in public life not as one minding his own business, but rather a good for nothing.”

Funnily enough, we still shell out for the only form of participation for which we randomly select citizens today — jury duty. It’s a tacit acknowledgement of the fact that people from all walks of life are only able to participate when they must be compensated for their time. Aside from this one telling trait, however, Athenian democracy, even the knowledge of Athenian democracy, has nearly vanished.

That’s a shame, since the Athenian system dealt with corruption and bribery — two of the biggest problems with electoral democracy today — very effectively. In a society where no individual held power, political corruption was simply a conceptual non-starter. Athens also incorporated a link between citizen participation and decision-making that was highly accountable and — by today’s standards — virtually effortless.

An Athenian could have a proposal debated and decided on within a very short space of time simply by tabling it in the Assembly. He did not need to spend a substantial portion of his life protesting, petitioning, hiring a PR agency or otherwise trying to call attention to an issue. An Athenian might not always get the outcome he desired, of course, but getting the issue onto the public agenda wasn’t much of a challenge.

Even a group of people who were fragmented and lacked the resources to maintain a high level of organization over a long period — farmers scattered over a wide area, for example, or people with disparate backgrounds but similar political views — could come to Assembly and have their concerns heard and dealt with in a matter of hours.

Democracy in Athens was responsive because people held power, and it was harder to wear down popular opinion by throwing money against it. We can’t recreate Athens, of course, but we can learn from it.

ENABLING DIRECT PARTICIPATION WITH TECHNOLOGY

While Athenian democracy can seem alien at first glance, it did allow the average person a level of political participation in a world that otherwise held little certainty, and we are already beginning to see some of Athens’ basic principles surfacing again. It is when these strands coalesce that we will get real change.

One element here are the randomly selected people’s assemblies that have been convened from Iceland to Australia over recent years.

In Ireland, the Constitutional Convention, composed of 33 political party members and 66 randomly selected citizens, passed recommendations for no less than 18 Constitutional amendments, including a recommendation for a referendum on same-sex marriage. After decades of political dilly-dallying, same-sex marriage was guaranteed constitutional protection with a vote of 62 percent in favor last May. The Convention’s other recommendations, which included implementing social, cultural and economic rights, showed just how far ahead the average person was of the political establishment and what a high level of consensus could be achieved through direct debate.

Another strand in the movement towards an Athenian system is the re-introduction of pay for participation, for example through a basic incomelinked to a citizen’s participation. The costs of such a move are lower than one might think — most developed countries could easily cover pay for participation at rates comparable to Athens just with the funds recovered from tax evasion, and there is reason to believe that such a system could even be used to replace welfare entitlements at a lower total cost.

Yet a third strand of the resurfacing Athenianism is participatory budgeting, allowing people to choose specific projects to be funded by public revenues. Originating in Porto Alegre, Brazil in the 1990s, participatory budgeting is now in use from New York to Paris. The unwashed masses’ favorite projects? Education, road safety and providing access for the disabled.

Finally, there are the movements focused on enabling direct online participation. IServeU allows citizens to have a direct say in Councillor Rommel Silverio’s vote on Yellowknife City Council in Canada, while Loomio has been used to allow direct citizen participation on Wellington City Council in New Zealand. These online platforms allow people to debate directly with one another and to vote, lowering the costs of peer-to-peer debate by cutting out the expensive travel.

What all of these strands have in common, is that they create a hub for direct citizen engagement. People are no longer fragmented or isolated. They do not have to win the right to participate in decision-making. Instead, this is freely provided on an equal basis, and, in some cases, even enabled by providing the money that allows citizens to escape from time-poverty.

This turns the tables on traditional neoliberal politics and economics. Popular movements need no longer struggle to be heard against a tide of experienced, well-resourced elites, a circumstance which has eroded so much hope and enthusiasm for politics. Instead participation becomes simple and easy, even under the current difficult conditions. People are empowered — and where people hold power, you have democracy.

 

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Charter schools are no cure-all

To the 1 percent pouring millions into charter schools: How about improving the schools that the vast majority of students actually attend?

If we really want to improve education for all, we must address income inequality.

To the 1 percent pouring millions into charter schools: How about improving the schools that the vast majority of students actually attend?

(Credit: AP/John Minchillo)

Obscured by the rancor of the school reform debate is this fact: Socio-economic status is the most relevant determinant of student success in school.

It is not a coincidence that the so-called decline of the American public school system has coincided with the ever-widening gap between the rich and the poor.  According to a 2014 Pew Research Center report, the wealth disparity between upper-income and middle-income families is at a record high. Upper-income families are nearly seven times wealthier than middle-income ones, compared to 3.4 times richer in 1983. Upper-income family wealth is nearly 70 times that of the country’s lower-income families, also the widest wealth gap between these families in 30 years.

As the income disparity has increased, so has the educational achievement gap. According to Sean F. Reardon, professor of education and sociology at Stanford University, the gap for children from high- and low-income families is at an all-time high—roughly 30 to 40 percent larger among children born in 2001 than among those born 25 years earlier. With 22 percent of children in the U.S. living in poverty, this country’s 27th-place PISA ranking—the worldwide study that measures K-12 academic performance—simply cannot be compared to a country like Finland, which ranks 12th and, at 5.3 percent, has the second-lowest child poverty rate in the world.

So, why are wealthy school reform funders so squarely focused on identifying teachers and their unions as the cause of public education’s decline and advancing charter schools as the best solution?

Charter schools will never be the answer to improving education for all. It is simply not scaleable. And yet titans of industry such as Bill Gates, Eli Broad and the Walton family, and billionaires such as John Paulson who earlier this year gave $8.5 million to New York’s Success Academy charter school system, are pouring their millions into support for charter schools—millions that will not, incidentally, be invested in improving the schools that the vast majority of U.S. students attend: traditional public schools.

Can it be a coincidence that those who have benefited most from the last 50 years of steadily increasing income inequality—the top 10 percent–support an education solution that hinges on denigrating public school teachers, dismantling unions and denying that income inequality is the underlying condition at the root of the problem?

The most generous explanation for this phenomenon says that the wealthiest among us are motivated to support charter schools purely out of ideology. They are operating under deeply held beliefs that a school system run by the government smothers innovation and that teachers unions inhibit a free market system that, if allowed to operate, would result in better teachers and child outcomes. In addition, these philanthropists believe that public education has become so hidebound that meaningful change within the system is no longer possible, and that fresh ideas and programs not beholden to a system that resists change will provide programs and ideas that are more effective.

Another explanation that has been posited is that good, old-fashioned greed is at the root. After all, the wealthy did not achieve their wealth through an indifference to achieving a return on their investments—and our public school system is a $621 billion per year endeavor. For example, a recent investigation by the Arizona Republic found that the state’s charter schools purchased a variety of goods and services from the companies of its own board members or administrators. In fact, the paper found at least 17 such contracts or arrangements totaling more than $70 million over five years.

In addition, there are specific tax loopholes that make it especially attractive to donate to charter schools. Banks and equity and hedge funds that invest in charter schools in underserved areas can take advantage of a tax credit. They are permitted to combine this tax credit with other tax breaks while they also collect interest on any money they lend out. According to analysts, the credit allows them to double the money they invested in seven years.

Another explanation suggests a darker motivation. The wealthy’s focus on charter schools is a strategy to weaken unions, one of the few reliable Democratic voting blocs that remain. It is also a convenient way to deflect from the fact that they have benefited most from income inequality and that their business practices—such as moving manufacturing jobs overseas and reducing their tax burden by taking advantage of offshore tax havens—have been among the causes of income inequality and the accompanying erosion of the middle class.

So, if you are a philanthropist from the tech or finance sectors and your goal is truly to fix education in this country, you would do well to apply your generosity, innovative spirit and funds toward addressing the problem of income inequality. Your wealth and position as prominent business leaders put you in a particularly influential position to help close the gap between the wealthy and the poor. Rebuilding the middle class—not expanding charter schools—is the most effective path to increasing access to quality education and to giving more students the opportunity to achieve their dreams.

Gary M. Sasso, Ph.D., is the dean of the College of Education at Lehigh University.