Republican presidential candidates are unfairly claiming Uber for the GOP. At least, so says a New York Times editorial, in which Vikas Bajaj argues that there’s no good reason to believe that Republicans are the friends of the so-called “gig economy” while Democrats are its enemy. More:
Conservatives are just as likely as liberals to find themselves on the other side of a company like Uber. For example, Mayor Boris Johnson of London, a Tory, proposed restrictions on Uber’s growth earlier this year. In Philadelphia, a regulatory board appointed by the state and made up primarily of Republicans has decided that the company’s popular UberX service is illegal […]
But in some policy areas, the interests of Uber are more closely aligned with Democrats than they are with Republicans. Mr. Kalanick, for example, has gushed about the benefits of President Obama’s health care reform law, which Republicans love to hate
This editorial does suggest one truth: Neither party has (yet) made the gig economy into the kind of winning political issue it could be. But the reasons are more complicated, and, in the end, more favorable to the GOP, than the piece suggests.
The conflicts over the so-called “gig economy” aren’t just about Uber or AirBnB or any one company, but about a whole new kind of economy focused around freelancing and service jobs. This economy is already coming, and, as it does, 21st-century trends are colliding with 20th-century institutions. Established business interests naturally have a stake in maintaing the status quo, and they have the political power to influence regulators and politicians. Thus Democrats and Republicans alike will be pushed by existing companies to limit the growth of the gig economy, and we can expect both parties sometimes to yield to that pressure and sometimes not to, as competing forces shake out.
But political parties that understand the wider issues at stake here can indeed make headway with a younger electorate that is at home in the new economy and protective of the benefits it brings. That goes for either party, but, contra the editorial, making that pitch is a more natural fit for the Republicans than the Democrats. On both this issue and on school choice, millennials appear naturally friendly to the policy of “more options and less regulation”, and the GOP is the party that more vocally preaches that laissez-faire message. Democrats trying to shore up life-long blue employment by coming down on the gig economy will find themselves working against the interests of two core constituencies—young people and ethnic minorities—who are increasingly embracing it and the opportunities it offers. It’s true, as the editorial argues, that there is no simple line between liking Uber and voting for a Republican candidate; there are not likely to be many single issue AirBnB voters. But young people who enjoy the service economy and the options it offers are apt to be friendlier towards laissez-faire rhetoric and policy than they would have been if they had never encountered these new services, and the GOP naturally stands to gain in the long run from that kind of shift.
For Republicans to reap the full rewards of backing the gig economy, however, they have to do more than just cheer deregulation; they also need a positive vision for what a social system of support looks like for workers. As the editorial points out, Obamacare is a prime case. Whatever else the ACA may have done (and we are on record pointing out its failures), one thing it did do right was make insurance coverage less tied to employment, so that it’s become easier for people in new kinds of employment situations to get insurance. Future health reforms need to protect and extend that. Nor is it only health insurance at issue. Our tax system punished low and middle income who are self-employed, for example, and retirement is harder for the self-employed as well.
Both parties need to think about how to support workers as the 21st-century economy takes shape, and if Republicans can do that, as well as push for a regulatory light touch, then they really might become the party of Uber, after all.