Stow Lake Bridge in Golden Gate Park San Francisco by Apollo (Henry Kielarowski).
Stow Lake Bridge in Golden Gate Park San Francisco by Apollo (Henry Kielarowski).
SUNDAY, JUN 11, 2017 07:00 AM PDT
If you live in any major city in the world, you probably know the type: they roam the clean parts of town, lattes in hand, wearing American Apparel hoodies emblazoned with logos of vowel-deficient startups. Somehow, in the past decade, a profession turned into a lifestyle and a culture, with its own customs, habits and even lingo. In film, television and literature, the techie archetype is mocked, recycled, reduced to a stereotype (as in Mike Judge’s sitcom “Silicon Valley”), a radical hero (as in “Mr. Robot”), or both (as in “The Circle”).
If, as many claim, the hipster died at the end of the 2000s, the techie seems to have taken its place in the 2010s — not quite an offshoot, but rather a mutation. Consider the similarities: Like hipsters, techies are privy to esoteric knowledge, though of obscure code rather than obscure bands. They both seem to love kale. They tend to rove in packs, are associated with gentrification, and are overwhelmingly male. There are some fashion similarities: the tight jeans, the hoodie fetish, the predilection for modernist Scandinavian furniture. And like “hipster,” the term “techie” is often considered a slur, a pejorative that you lob at someone you want to depict as out of touch, rarefied and elite — not a fellow prole, in other words.
Yet there are differences, too: The techie often brings with him or her a certain worldview and language that attempts to describe the world in computational terms; the transformation of the word “hack” into an everyday verb attests to this. Some techies view their own bodies as merely machines that require food the way computers need electricity, a belief system exemplified by the popularity of powdered foods like Soylent. This happens in exercise, too — the rush to gamify health and wellness by tracking steps, calories and heartbeats turns the body into a spreadsheet.
How does a profession mutate into a culture? David Golumbia, an associate professor of digital studies at Virginia Commonwealth University and author of “The Cultural Logic of Computation,” suggests that some of the cultural beliefs common to those in the tech industry about the utopian promise of computers trickle down into what we may think of as tech culture at large. Golumbia describes the basic idea, “computationalism,” as “the philosophical idea that the brain is a computer” as well as “a broader worldview according to which people or society are seen as computers, or that we might be living inside of a simulation.”
“You frequently find people who avoid formal education for some reason or another and then educate themselves through reading a variety of online resources that talk about this, and they subscribe to it as quasi-religious truth, that everything is a computer,” Golumbia said. “It’s appealing to people who find the messiness of the social and human world unappealing and difficult to manage. There’s frustration . . . expressed when parts of the world don’t appear to be computational, by which I mean, when their actions can’t be represented by algorithms that can be clearly defined.”
“It’s very reductive,” Golumbia added.
Mapping the social world onto the algorithmic world seems to be where tech culture goes astray. “This is part of my deep worry about it — we are heading in a direction where people who really identify with the computer are those who have a lot of trouble dealing with other people directly. People who find the social world difficult to manage often see the computer as the solution to their problems,” Golumbia said.
But tech culture isn’t confined to screen time anymore. It’s become part of everyday life, argues Jan English-Lueck, a professor of anthropology of San Jose State University and a distinguished fellow at the Institute for the Future. English-Lueck wrote an ethnographic account of Silicon Valley culture, “Cultures@SiliconValley,” and studies the people and culture of the region.
“We start to see our civic life in a very technical way. My favorite example of that is people going to a picnic and looking at some food and asking if that’s ‘open source’ [available to all]. So people use those technological metaphors to think about everyday things in life,” she said.
English-Lueck says the rapid pace of the tech field trickles down into tech culture, too. “People are fascinated with speed and efficiency, they’re enthusiastic and optimistic about what technology can accomplish.”
Golumbia saw the aspects of tech culture firsthand: Prior to being a professor, he worked in information technology for a software company on Wall Street. His convictions about computationalism were borne out in his colleagues. “What I saw was that there were at least two kinds of employees — there was a programmer type, who was very rigid but able to do the tasks that you put in front of them, and there were the managerial types who were much more flexible in their thinking.”
“My intuition in talking to [the] programmer types [was that] they had this very black-and-white mindset, that everything was or should be a computer,” he said. “And the managers, who tended to have taken at least a few liberal arts classes in college, and were interested in history of thought, understood you can’t manage people the way you manage machines.”
Yet the former worldview — that everything is a computer — seems to have won out. “When I started, I thought it was this minor small subgroup of society” that believed that, he told Salon. “But nowadays I think many executives in Silicon Valley have some version of this belief.”
For evidence that the metaphor of the human body as a computer has gone mainstream, look no further than our gadgetry. Devices like the Fitbit and the Apple Watch monitor a the wearer’s movement and activity constantly, producing data that they can obsess over or study. “There is a small group of people who become obsessed with quantification,” Golumbia told Salon. “Not just about exercise, but like, about intimate details of their life — how much time spent with one’s kids, how many orgasms you have — most people aren’t like that; they do counting for a while [and] then they get tired of counting. The counting part seems oppressive.”
But this counting obsession, a trickle-down ideology from tech culture, is no longer optional: In many gadgets, it is now imposed from above. My iPhone counts my steps whether I like it or not. And other industries and agencies love the idea that we should willingly be tracked and monitored constantly, including the NSA and social media companies who profit off knowing the intimate details of our lives and selling ads to us based on it. “Insurers are trying to get us to do this all the time as part of wellness programs,” Golumbia said. “It’s a booming top-down control thing that’s being sold to us as the opposite.”
Golumbia marvels at a recent ad for the Apple Watch that features the Beyoncé song “Freedom” blaring in the background. “How did we get to this world where freedom means having a device on your that measures what you do at all times?”
By Sally Neas / Yes! Magazine
Back in March, when Donald Trump was facing off with two now-forgotten candidates for the Republican Party’s presidential nomination, the small town of Barnstead, New Hampshire, was quietly protecting its citizens. At their annual town hall, residents voted unanimously for a city ordinance establishing the right to freedom from forced religious identification.
This inconspicuous action was part of a growing national movement for strengthened community self-governance that has found new purpose as the reality of a Trump presidency fast approaches. It came in the form of a community bill of rights, a charter or ordinance that affirms certain rights within a municipality. Similar bills have granted the right to a clean environment, safe and affordable housing, health care, and worker’s rights, among others.
President-elect Trump’s campaign promises, proposed policies, and cabinet appointments offer little confidence that environmentalists, women, people of color, low-wage workers, Muslims, immigrants, and those who identify as LGBTQ will find protection in federal-level policies. In the years to come, community bills of rights are one strategy for cities across the nation to continue to shelter such populations.
In fact, many cities have already begun. At least 10 major sanctuary cities have reaffirmed their position as such, and some, including San Francisco, have released statements or passed ordinances pledging noncooperation with Trump’s policies. Some municipalities, such as Grant Township in Pennsylvania, already have existing community bills of rights.
In Grant, as is often the case, this legislation arose out of environmental battles. “A few years back, the EPA announced a public hearing about an injection well,” said Stacy Long, an elected official on Grant’s Board of Supervisors. “We were horrified, and thought we would simply clue the EPA in on what a terrible idea it would be in our community.”
But residents quickly realized the EPA was likely to issue a permit. Looking for a different strategy, community members turned to the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund (CELDF), a nonprofit organization that champions community rights through education and legal support. It worked with Grant Township to write a community bill of rights, which, among other things, included a ban on storing fracked water.
“[Communities] can spend years with normal environmental battles, only to find that they do not have much authority to make a decision at the local level,” said Mari Margil, associate director of CELDF. “We go back with them and help them figure out: Why did they end up in this situation they are in, where they don’t have much in the way of local democratic decision-making authority.”
CELDF’s strategy is fundamentally different from that of other environmental organizations. Instead of working through normal legal channels of permitting and suing, where Margil said activists “can spend years, only to end up getting the thing they did not want,” CELDF works to grant communities fundamental rights over their own natural resources, as was the case in Grant Township. Instead of battling with the gas companies, Grant declared “All residents of Grant Township, along with natural communities and ecosystems within the Township, possess the right to clean air, water, and soil.”
The General Council of the Ho-Chunk Nation of Wisconsin went a step further this September when it voted to amend its constitution to grant rights to nature itself. If approved by the tribe, the constitution will proclaim: “Ecosystems and natural communities within the Ho-Chunk territory possess an inherent, fundamental, and inalienable right to exist and thrive.”
The Ho-Chunk made their stand in solidarity with the Standing Rock Sioux and in recognition of the destructive impact of fossil fuel extraction and development. This type of support demonstrates the role that community rights laws could play under Trump, who has pledged to expand fossil fuel extraction and dissolve the EPA.
Environmental battles often pave the way for human rights protections, as was the case with the Barnstead law. It was aimed directly at Trump’s proposed ban on Muslim immigration and followed on the coattails of another community rights law that prevented water privatization.
“Before the election, I was listening to Trump and getting very concerned,” said Kati Preston, who championed the bill. “I am a Holocaust survivor and know that, in New Hampshire, you can pass laws locally.”
New Hampshire’s uniquely independent political climate makes opposing local legislation an unpopular move for elected officials. But in most states, power—and funding—held at higher levels make local legislation a soft target. State governments preempt local governments, and the Federal government preempts the state. CELDF thus makes a philosophical argument that pushes up against preemption.
“Communities are arguing that they have a right to local governance,” Margil said. “We have a fundamental violation of our democratic rights when we have a state legislature that is overriding our ability to protect our communities, protect our people, protect our land. It is a right to community self-governance that is being usurped by industry, by corporations, by state legislatures working hand in hand with corporations.”
Preemption is one of the pitfalls of community bills of rights, as those in Morgantown, West Virginia, discovered. In 2011, the city passed a local ban on horizontal drilling and fracking within 2 miles of town. Within days, a company seeking to drill in the area sued, claiming the city did not have jurisdiction to regulate such activity. A local circuit court agreed, finding cities to be “creatures of the state.”
In 2012, two New York State judges ruled differently. In response to separate municipal fracking bans, they ruled that local governments do, in fact, have the right to set their own environmental laws. These decisions were a victory for local governments on specific issues. But the idea of the right of communities to local self-government will likely be tested under a Trump administration.
The balance between federal, state, and local governments indeed has a long and fraught history that does not necessarily reflect the progressive intentions of CELDF. Calls for local autonomy and states’ rights have echoed throughout history with nasty undertones. Since pre-Civil War America, southern states asserted local control to maintain the institution of slavery, and Confederate states insisted that they were suffering under federal government infringement. Later, the phrase cropped in segregationists’ response to the civil rights movement, and then again in Richard Nixon’s presidential campaign, which used the phrase “states’ rights” to pander to Southern voters.
And local-level defiance certainly has a similar flavor to the obstructionism common during the Obama administration. Five states initially refused to comply with major provisions of the Affordable Care Act, and after the Supreme Court ruled that bans on gay marriage were unconstitutional, many states defied the ruling and maintained such bans. In fact, in his critique of the ruling, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton said the court’s ruling reaffirmed the state’s “resolve to … return to democratic self-government.”
Despite its speckled past, local self-governance may play an important role under a Trump administration. Although community bills of rights may not have fully sharpened legal teeth, they do offer assurance to a frightened citizenry and direction to cities wanting to protect civil liberties and work toward environmental sustainability. Although they may be barred from executing policies that conflict with state or federal laws, cities and towns can continue to plan for climate change mitigation, offer social services, and fight hate crime. Community bills of rights provide a framework for these and other measures.
Perhaps the most vital role they play is when considering how change happens. It is often iterative: pioneers lay the moral and legal foundation that creates an impetus for broader change. Early desegregationists set the stage for the civil rights movement.
“I think it is a beginning,” Preston said of her community’s anti-religious-persecution law. “If it spreads, it will send a message that we do not want [religious registration] laws. It is simply that: unless you stand up and be counted, bad things will happen.”
Sally Neas wrote this article for YES! Magazine. Sally is a freelance writer and community educator based in Santa Cruz, California. She has a background in permaculture, sustainable agriculture, and community development, and she covers social and environmental issues. She blogs at www.voicesfromthegreatturning.com.
Chelsea Faith died in the horrible Ghost Ship warehouse fire in Oakland, CA last Friday night.
I’ve known Chelsea since she was a teenager coming to my Moksha Tribe Parties. She was a beautiful, talented, amazing person. Her loss, and the loss of so many friends and kindred souls in that demon fire, diminishes me and the rest of the communal dance community.
Chelsea Faith was an electronic musician based in San Francisco, California. Her passion for dance music history is evident in her work, which takes cues from Detroit techno, Chicago house, and classic rave sounds. A multi-instrumentalist since childhood, Chelsea began experimenting with electronics as a teenager, which lead to playing live techno and house at underground raves in the 2000s. She has been working as a live performer, producer, DJ, and remixer for over a decade, using her gear savvy and innate musicianship to create lush, retro-futurist productions. Cherushii (Chelsea) signed with LA-based dance music tastemakers 100% Silk in 2013, and released her second 12″ for the label “Far Away So Close” in November 2015.
Hacker House Blues: my life with 12 programmers, 2 rooms and one 21st-century dream.
By David Garczynski / Salon September 18, 2016
I might have been trespassing up there, but I would often go to the 19th-floor business lounge to work and study. Located on the top floor of the a luxury high-rise in the SOMA district of San Francisco, the lounge was only accessible to residents of the building. Yet for a while I found myself there almost every day.
Seventeen floors below, I lived in an illegal Airbnb with 12 roommates split between two rooms. There were six people packed into my bedroom alone — seven, if you included the guy who lived in the closet. Three bunk beds adorned the walls, and I was fortunate enough to score a bottom bunk. Unfortunately, though, it was not the one by the window, which, with the exception of one dim lamp, was the only source of light in the room. Even at midday, the room never lit up much more than a shadowed cave. At most hours of the day, you could find someone sleeping in there. Getting in and out of bed was a precarious dance in the darkness to avoid stepping into the suitcases on the floor, out of which most of us lived.
In the shared kitchen, the sink more often than not held a giant pile of dishes, and the fridge, packed with everyone’s groceries and leftovers, emanated a slightly moldy aroma. Mixed in there were the half-eaten meals and unfinished condiment jars of tenants who had long since moved out — all left to rot, but often too far buried in the mass of food to be located.
Let’s just say the room was not as advertised.
The Airbnb posting did boast of access to a 24-hour gym, roof deck and bocce courts. The building has an indoor basketball court, an outdoor hot tub and even a rock climbing wall. The 19th-floor business lounge alone comes with a pool table, a porch, several flat-screen TVs and an enviable view of much of San Francisco. For $1,200 a month, it all seemed worth it. The post did say it was a four-person apartment, not 13, and included a picture of a sunny room with a pair of bunk beds, but I figured for a short sub-lease while I attended coding school, it wouldn’t be so bad. The reviews, after all, were pretty positive, too: mostly 5-stars. However, none of them mentioned the fact that I wouldn’t even be given a front door key.
I’d have to sneak into the building every night. The only way I entered the building was by waiting until someone exited or entered, and then I’d slip through the door before it closed. From there I’d walk straight past the front desk guard and head to the bank of elevators. Despite my nerves, that part was surprisingly easy. The building caters to the young tech elite, so a backwards hat and a collegiate T-shirt practically made me invisible. When I got to my floor, I’d make sure none of the neighbors were watching, and if no one was around, I’d stand on my tiptoes and grab the communal key hidden atop the exit sign. Once the door was unlocked, I’d return the key to its perch for the next tenant to use.
I had moved to San Francisco to break into the tech world after being accepted into one of those ubiquitous 12-week coding boot camps. I had dreams of becoming a programmer, hoping one day I could land a remote contracting gig — a job where I could work from wherever and make a good living. My life would be part ski bum and part professional.
In my mid-20s uncertainty, the coding route seemed to have the most promise — high paychecks in companies that prized work-life balance, or so it seemed from afar. I knew the road wouldn’t be easy, but any time I’d mention my ambitions to family and friends, they responded with resounding positivity, affirming my belief that it was a well-worn path to an obtainable goal.
All of the people in that Airbnb were programmers. Some were trying to break into the industry through boot camps, but most were already full-time professional coders. They headed out early in the morning to their jobs at start-ups in the neighborhood. A lot of them hailed from some of the top schools in the country: Stanford, MIT, Dartmouth. If I was going to get through my program, I needed to rely on them, academically and emotionally. Once the program started up, I would find myself coding 15 hours a day during the week, with that number mercifully dropping to 10-12 hours on the weekends. Late at night, when my stressed-out thoughts would form an ever-intensifying feedback loop of questioning despair — What am I doing? Is this really worth it? — I would need to be able to look to the people around me as living reminders of the possibility of my goals.
Every night, the people whose jobs I coveted would come home from 10- to 12-hour shifts in front of a computer and proceed to the couch, where they’d open up their laptops and spend the remaining hours of the night in silence, sifting through more and more lines of code. Beyond preternatural math abilities and a penchant for problem solving, it seemed most didn’t have much in the way of life skills. They weren’t who I thought they would be — a community of intelligent and inspiring men and women bouncing ideas back and forth. Rather they were boys and girls, coddled by day in the security of companies that fed them, entertained them and nursed them. At home, they could barely take care of themselves.
Take for example the programmer who lived in my closet: Every night he’d come home around 9 p.m. He’d sit on the couch, pour himself a bowl of cereal and eat in silence. Then he would grab his laptop and head directly into the closet — a so-called “private room” listed on Airbnb for $1,400 a month. It was the only time I’d ever see him. The only way I could tell he was home was by the glow of his laptop seeping out from under the closet door. Hours later, deep into the night, the light would go out, and I would know he had to gone to sleep. By the time I arrived, he had been living there for 16 months, in a windowless closet with a thin mattress placed right on the floor. During the day he codes for Pinterest. Yeah . . . that Pinterest.
Maybe there were people working in this city who were living out the tech dreams of everyone else, but I’ve realized the number of people who dream about it far outnumber of people who obtain it. Everyone I spoke to in this town seemed doe-eyed about the future, even while they were living in illegal Airbnbs and working at failing startups across the city.
The odds weren’t in my favor. Most likely I’d find myself in the 92 percent of start-ups that go under in three years, trapped like some of my friends — much smarter and better programmers than I’ll ever be — bouncing from failing company to failing company.
Or maybe not. Maybe I would make it, only to become like my friends who earn six-figure paychecks and still lament that they’ll never be able to buy a home here. What illusions could I continue to maintain then?
There was a good chance I’d find myself in a situation like another roommate’s. During salary negotiations for a job at a start-up, he was encouraged to accept the pay tier with a lower salary but higher equity stake. Now he works 12-hour days just to try to keep the company (and his potential payout) afloat on a paycheck not much higher than some entry-level, non-programming jobs.
The most likely scenario, however, was that I’d become like the mid-30s man who slept in the bunk above me. The reality of his situation slowly slipped him into a depressive state, until he was sleeping most hours of the day. The rest of his waking hours were spent walking around slumped and gloomy.
Programming for me was never supposed to be more than a means to an end, but that end started to feel farther and farther away. The longer I lived in that Airbnb, the longer I realized my dreams would never be met. In all likelihood I would be swept up in an economy here that traded on hopes and dreams of the people clamoring to break in. The illegal Airbnbs that dot the city can afford to charge their amounts because there is no shortage of people wanting to break in. There is another smart kid around the corner who believes that despite the working and living conditions this is just the first step to striking it big. Never tell them the odds.
I had hinged my happiness on an illusion and naively fought to get into a community that wouldn’t help me advance in the direction of my dreams. Maybe in the end I would get everything I needed or at least a nice paycheck, but I’d lose all of myself in the process. I’d be churned and beaten by the underbelly of the tech world here long before I could ever make it out.
If you are interested, it’s not that hard to sneak up to the 19th-floor lounge. I still do sometimes, despite having long since moved out and given up programming. From up there the view of San Francisco takes on the artificial quality of a miniature model. To the north, you’ll see a sea of tech start-ups, their signs and symbols a wild mash of colors. From this distance, it can all look so peaceful. Just know that somewhere in that view is another “hacker house” with bright kids living in almost migrant-worker conditions. Somewhere out there is a coding boot camp with slightly inflated numbers, selling a dream. Their fluorescent halls and cramped bedrooms are filled with the perennially hopeful looking to take the place of those who have already realized this dream isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.
It is a beautiful view, though. Just one I no longer want for myself.
David Garczynski has lived in the Bay Area for one year now. In that time, he’s lived in an illegal Airbnb, on his cousin’s couch, in two short-term subleases, and has been evicted once. He just signed an official (and legal) lease last week.
Rent and housing costs in most major cities have skyrocketed since the financial crisis, cutting deeply into workers’ standard of living and prompting concerns about a new global housing bubble. Driving the soaring cost of rent is a global financial system that is being pumped full of cheap credit by all the major central governments at the expense of workers around the world.
Prices in some areas boggle the mind. San Francisco’s average asking price for a one-bedroom apartment went from $1,258 per month in January 2010 to $4,126 in February 2016. In London, the average home price has doubled since 2009, from about £300,000 ($437,600 USD) to £600,000 ($875,100).
Hong Kong’s housing market, which largely avoided the US real estate crash, more than tripled in its average sale between 2004 and today. The city is now considered the least affordable place in the world, with the median Hong Kong home price worth 19 times the city’s average skilled white-collar worker’s annual salary.
Housing and rental markets are so high that the Swiss bank UBS estimates that the majority of the world’s urban real estate markets are now “significantly overvalued.”
What is most striking about the colossal increase in prices, however, is how divorced it is from the incomes of the vast majority of the global population, which are moving in the opposite direction.
Historically, rent prices have tended to move with income and inflation. For example, in the United States the median home price adjusted for inflation remained largely flat between 1970 and 1998, fluctuating slightly above and below $160,000. This was a period in which workers’ incomes were also flat. After 1998, however, the housing market skyrocketed, with the median home price rising from about $160,000 in 1998 to $275,000 in 2006, the peak of the finance-driven boom. This jump was driven by all manner of financial speculation, including rampant criminal behavior, which had been let loose by the lowering of interest rates by the US Federal Reserve.
The housing market today is going through a new version of the 2006 housing crisis. However, unlike 2006, this process is global. Nearly every major capitalist government in the world is pursuing a policy of near-zero interest rates, encouraging rampant speculation in both the stock market and the real estate market.
This trend can be seen clearly in the United States. Between 2001 and 2014, the average real rental price rose 7 percent nationwide according to Harvard University’s Joint Center for Housing Studies. During that same period, median household income dropped by 9 percent.
In Los Angeles, the second largest city in the US, 40 percent of families either make poverty wages or are unemployed. As families and individuals increasingly struggle to make ends meet, rent has increased sharply in LA. In January 2010, an average one bedroom apartment went for $1,224 a month. Six years later, the cost was $1,935. And the worst is not over. A 2016 forecast by USC Casden Multifamily predicts that in the next few years rent will “soar.” It is no wonder that homeless in the city grew by 16 percent in just two years between 2013 and 2015.
Another way of capturing the growing divide between wages and rent for hundreds of millions of workers around the world is the Median Multiple, the ratio between median household income and average home price. According to the Demographia International Housing Affordability 2016 Survey, a Median Multiple of three and under is considered affordable (e.g., a family making $50,000 a year buying a house at $150,000 or less). A multiple exceeding five is considered “severely unaffordable.”
In 2015 Demographia surveyed 367 cities inside the UK, US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Ireland and Japan. According to the group, the 10 most unaffordable cities were: Hong Kong with a Median Multiple of 19.0; Sydney (12.2); Vancouver (10.8); Melbourne, (9.7); Auckland (9.7); San Jose (9.7); San Francisco (9.4); London (8.5); Los Angeles (8.1) and San Diego (8.1). All of these cities have experienced a doubling or even tripling of their Median Multiple since 1998.
The surge in prices and collapse in income has led to more renters on the renting market, since buying has become out of reach. In the United States, between 2005 and 2015, there were 9 million new renting households. This is the largest gain on record for a 10-year period according to Harvard University’s Joint Center for Housing Studies. In 2015, 37 percent of all US households rented, the highest level since the mid-1960s, and up from 31 percent in 2005.
Workers are now becoming trapped in this situation, as they spend more of their income paying for rent and are less and less likely to be able to buy a house. In 2001 in the US, 41 percent of renters spent 30 percent of their income or more on rent. This rose to 49 percent in 2014. In the same year, 26 percent of the renting population spent more than half of their income on rent. In the UK, a fifth of all young adults now stay in their parents’ home until they are at least 26. In 2015, 31.5 percent of US young people aged 18 to 34 lived at home, up from 27 percent in 2005.
While workers suffer under crushing rent burdens, landlords and investors are raking in millions if not billions. This year, a total of 184 billionaires made their wealth through real estate. This was up by 22 individuals from the year before, even as the overall number of billionaires went down from 1,826 to 1,810 individuals.
Those who make money off of rents do not add anything to the productive system. While a certain amount of money can go to maintenance and upkeep, vast and increasing sums of money made by real estate are from the pure monopoly status of owning land.
The wealth of these billionaires principally comes from the unsavory fact that in order to keep the global economy afloat, the central banks around the world have pumped the major banks full with cheap credit.
As UBS Global notes in its 2015 Global Real Estate Bubble Index, “Loose monetary policy has prevented a normalization of housing markets and encouraged local bubble risks to grow.” They write that much of the “overvaluation” in the global housing stock comes from a “dependence on low interest rates.”
“Price-to-rent (PR) multiples are greatest in Zurich, Vancouver, Hong Kong, Geneva and Singapore. The extremely high PR multiplies indicate an undue dependence of housing prices on low interest rates. Paris, London and Sydney follow suit and form a trio of cities with PR multiples around 30. House prices in these cities are vulnerable to a sharp correction should interest rates rise.”
In other words, the deluge of cheap credit provided by the world’s central governments to their major banks has unleashed an orgy of speculation. The world’s richest are getting even richer by doing nothing as their real estate investments shoot through the roof. Meanwhile the vast majority of the world’s population must pay increasingly obscene amounts just to have a place to live.
As Lenin noted in his work Imperialism, in capitalism’s state of decay there is an “extraordinary growth of a class, or rather, of a stratum of rentiers, i.e., people who live by ‘clipping coupons’, who take no part in any enterprise whatever, whose profession is idleness.”
This describes exactly the parasitic layer of real estate moguls, whose money comes not from producing anything of value to the world economy, but by sucking away money from the system in the form of rent. There is no one who benefits from high rents except the small layer of people who control the vast majority of the world’s property.
The Uber Battle Has Only Just Begun
It’s one of those universally acknowledged truths that the rise of the on-demand economy creates challenges for the labor movement. Last week, a major court settlement and a backroom fracas between two unions emphasized the immediacy of those challenges.
Ride-hailing giant Uber agreed to pay $84 million to settle two class-action lawsuits from its drivers, essentially buying time before the company has to answer to whether its business model—classifying drivers as independent contractors—is legal. Meanwhile, the Service Employees Union International and hospitality union Unite Here’s competing interests in the sharing economy came to blows when SEIU tried to broker a controversial deal with Airbnb.
Both the court settlement and the SEIU-Unite Here brouhaha have created more questions than answers to how unions—and the labor movement more broadly—can effectively combat the harmful consequences of Silicon Valley’s disruption of the employer-employee relationship.
Uber’s $84 million settlement with drivers made for nice headlines, but as Michael Hiltzik notes for TheLos Angeles Times, when looked at closely it’s a far better deal for the company than the workers. The most active drivers in the suit will receive up to $8,000, but compensation for the vast majority of the drivers involved will likely be just a couple hundred bucks. Additionally, Uber must now show cause for “deactivating” (its Orwellian phrasing for “canning”) drivers, and not accepting enough rides cannot be one of those causes. Whether this will actually lead to fewer unpredictable firings remains to be seen.
A final concession in the deal requires Uber to “facilitate and recognize” drivers’ associations that can bring up drivers’ concerns and discuss them with the company on a quarterly basis. Again, the degree to which such an association would have any real benefit for workers—or whether it’d be a pseudo-company union—remains unclear.
Meanwhile, Uber’s $84 million payout is a bargain. By agreeing to the settlement, Uber completely avoided any legal ruling on whether the company must classify its drivers as employees. Uber has an estimated valuation of $64 billion (how much of that is attributable to its refusal to acknowledge its drivers are employees is anybody’s guess), and the company likely sees the settlement as a way to buy some legal breathing room on the issue of misclassification as it faces attacks on several other fronts.
For instance, the National Labor Relations Board is currently investigating whether Uber’s drivers are in fact traditional employees, and thus eligible for minimum wages, overtime, workers’ compensation, and importantly, the right to unionize. Unions like the Teamsters are already attempting to organize drivers in anticipation of a favorable ruling and lobbying for legislation that allows for gig workers to unionize. Seattle, which is on the vanguard of passing labor-friendly ordinances, recently passed a law granting independent contractors the right to unionize. Democrats in the California legislature were also pushing a similar law, though they recently announced that they are holding off for now (the California bill apparently gave workers less power than the Seattle ordinance, prompting some unions to temper or withhold their support). The Teamsters have announced that they are forming an association for Uber drivers in California similar to the association they are helping support in Seattle.
The union strategy for gaining ground among app-based drivers so far appears to be a rather chaotic approach of throwing everything—organizing, lawsuits, legislation—at the wall and seeing what sticks. Central to a cohesive strategy is the question of whether labor can force companies like Uber to classify its drivers as employees, which may result in the happiest outcome for workers but which also may require a long, expensive battle in the courts.
An alternative route, pioneered by Seattle, is to push for collective bargaining rights for independent contractors, which would ensure workers’ right to organize but gives employers flexibility and enables them to duck many of traditional employers’ legal responsibilities. Some centrists in the Democratic Party favor establishing a new, third classification, often called a “dependent contractor,” that would extend some legal guarantees to workers like Uber drivers; many in labor see this as an unnecessary concession to employers who just want to craft new, less comprehensive regulations to better fit their business models. The Uber settlement settles none of these issues; indeed, it merely ensures that the debate, both within and without the labor movement, will continue.
When Solidarity Softens
Early last week, news broke that SEIU was trying to reach a deal with home-rental company Airbnb. In exchange for the union’s tacit seal of approval, the company would endorse a $15 minimum wage and promote the use of unionized housekeepers to its hosts. When Unite Here, which represents hotel workers, heard that this deal was in the works, it furiously mobilized a coalition of labor and housing activists calling on SEIU to pull out.
“We are appalled by reports that SEIU is partnering with Airbnb, a company that has destroyed communities by driving up housing costs and killing good hotel jobs in urban markets across North America,” said Unite Here spokesperson Annemarie Strassel in a statement. “Airbnb has shown a blatant disregard for city and state laws, has refused to cooperate with government agencies, and turns a blind eye to the fact that its business model exacerbates the affordable housing crisis.”
“They are essentially selling cheap cover to an American corporation for union dues from a few members,” said Peter Ward, head of the Unite Here local in New York. “It goes against all the principles of the labor movement.”
It was also discovered that former SEIU President Andy Stern was acting as a representative for Airbnb in the negotiations, reigniting criticism from many within labor that the union (and Stern in particular) was too inclined to cut deals with corporations that might add to its membership rolls. But SEIU quickly released a statement saying that they were merely having an early-stage conversation and denying that they had reached a deal. “We actively and regularly engage in conversations with companies who are committed to doing right by their workforce by paying better wages and giving them a voice at work through their union,” an SEIU spokesperson said in a statement. Airbnb is one such company, however, there is no formal relationship or agreement between SEIU and Airbnb.”
Later in the week, reports surfaced that the SEIU-Airbnb deal had crumbled, and after privately meeting, Unite Here and SEIU agreed “to find a common approach to protect and expand the stock of affordable housing in all communities across the country and to protect and preserve standards for workers in residential and hotel cleaning while also growing opportunities for these cleaners to improve their lives,” according to an SEIU statement.
The not-so-small irony here is that SEIU has for years been funding and directing probably the largest union campaign in history to have directly benefited millions of workers—the Fight for 15—despite the fact, as the union must know, that it has faint prospects of turning the vast majority of those workers into dues-paying members. And yet, when the union was presented with perhaps the first such campaign that could have generated more members—the Airbnb initiative—it came at the expense of another union, Unite Here, which has a vested interest in the industry where most of its members are employed, as SEIU does not. Understandably, Unite Here took SEIU’s pursuit of the Airbnb deal as a direct affront to its own mission, and it had no trouble rallying affordable housing advocates and other unions to its cause.
This is far from the first time that unions have had contentious turf battles. However, with membership rolls diminished, the more active unions (such as SEIU and Unite Here) are constantly searching for new organizing opportunities. Silicon Valley and its startup economy bring with them both organizing opportunities and organizing conundrums. But unless and until labor can agree on a common strategy and appropriate jurisdictions, the SEIU-Unite Here fracas will just be the first chapter in what could be a chaotic period within the movement.