COMMENT | Penang is safely in opposition hands, with Pakatan Harapan expected to win a majority of parliamentary and state seats. This does not mean, however, that there are not political undercurrents that are shaping the results. In fact, many seats are competitive, including Permatang Pauh, Anwar Ibrahim’s traditional constituency where his daughter Nurul Izzah is contesting.
To understand why, given that the state is an opposition stronghold, it is necessary to look at a nexus of local and national issues.
Disgruntlement over development
Many middle-class Penangites, especially those on the island, are unhappy with the pace and mode of development in the state. Congestion and (over)construction have evoked strong reactions from those concerned with their impact on the environment and quality of life.
The Sultan Abdul Halim Bridge ( 2nd Penang Bridge)
Critics contend that caretaker Chief Minister Lim Guan Eng’s development vision is not that different from that of BN’s – focused on ‘hard’ physical infrastructure rather than ‘soft’ human capacity enhancement. There are lingering concerns, for example, with the undersea tunnel, both its conception and financing.
This is compounded by a sense of dismissal of these concerns, with inadequate outreach to many in civil society who expect more engagement in governance. Lim’s government has evoked the ire of not only the local press, but many who are openly vested in bringing about better development for the state.
Weak BN state leadership
The BN opposition led by Gerakan’s Teng Chang Yeow is trying to capitalise on these resentments, with this ‘51 Unfulfilled Promises’. His confrontational approach has not gone down well, in part because the attacks on the DAP in Penang have been seen to be excessive.
The Iconic Penang Bridge
Few can distinguish the local concerns from the broad demonisation of the party on the part of the BN government that has occurred since 2013. The genuine issues are overshadowed by the onslaught of attacks, most evident with the charges laid against the chief minister. Among ordinary voters, the trial of Lim has backfired, and in fact strengthened Lim as the opposition heads into the election.
Coupled with this is a sense of hypocrisy. Many of the concerns leveled locally by the BN in Penang echo similar issues raised with their own tenure at the state level. It does not help the BN that the attacks are being led by someone who was in the previous government, as this undermines their credibility. Perhaps even more striking is the comparison made between the charges Lim is facing and those that caretaker Prime Minister Najib Razak is not.
The BN in Penang is seen as weak, as both Gerakan and MCA are considered to be subservient to UMNO. In fact, under the Najib government, these two Chinese component parties are perceived to be even weaker than in the past. Recall it was this subservience to UMNO that contributed to the ouster of the Koh Tsu Koon government in 2008. Many Penangites will not vote for parties that cannot stand up on their own.
DAP-Pakatan Harapan’s Lim Guan Eng
Electorally, the BN has effectively been led by UMNO in the state, and given the changed demographics of the state – with Malays making up larger numbers than Chinese now – there are more demands for UMNO to lead in Penang. For many, it is understood that a vote against Pakatan in Penang is a vote to bring UMNO into power in the state. This time, however, should BN return to power, UMNO would lead from the front, rather than from behind.
Chinese power and DAP’s Malay deficit
Another important underlying reason for the support among some Pakatan supporters is that Penang is the only state led by a non-Malay. It is the last bastion of Chinese Malaysian political power, which has been displaced within BN. There is long-standing resentment of this displacement – not only within Penang but across Malaysia. Penang has symbolic power, nationally and locally.
It is this symbolism that is equally resented in Malaysia’s racialised politics. Within the state and in Malaysia as a whole, Malay support for DAP has declined, especially since 2013. Despite the entrants of dynamic young Malay leaders such as Syerleena Abdul Rashid contesting in Seri Delima, the strategy to bring Malays into DAP ranks has not succeeded in translating into meaningful support among Malay voters. DAP is now more reliant than ever on its coalition partners for Malay support. At the same time, its partners have to face a backlash from some Malays for working with it.
This is playing out in many of the mainland Penang seats, where Malays are more concentrated. Nibong Tebal and Tasek Gelugor, for example, are competitive seats, as are a few of the state seats including Bukit Tengah, Seberang Jaya and Sungai Bakap. This sentiment also contributes to why Umno holds onto power in Balik Pulau, where there is a strong Umno incumbent. PKR is on the frontline of Malay anger against the DAP. Meanwhile, the strength of the alliance with Bersatu is being tested in Tasek Gelugor, with candidate Marzuki Yahya.
The erosion of Malay support is exacerbated by PAS seeking revenge in Penang – against the DAP for displacing and disrespecting the party in the state, and against PKR for working with DAP and choosing them as coalition partners at the national level.
PAS is comparatively weak in Penang, but it can shape the balance in Permatang Pauh in the state seat of Permatang Pasir, for example. It is also shaping the vulnerable contest of the Bukit Tengah state seat, where its demonisation of former Alor Setar MP Gooi Hsiao-Leung for questioning RUU355 is a continued PAS vendetta. PKR is further weakened by infighting, enhanced by the poorly-timed party purges, making the party more vulnerable than in the past.
Penang then and now
Penangites have a deep-seated belief in their role in shaping the future of their state and the nation. They take pride in being the pioneers of national development in the 1980s, and today they are pleased with the international recognition of the state has as a tourist attraction and vibrant manufacturing centre. Penangites have a global vision. They are sophisticated and hard working.
Many are post-modern in outlook, focused on the environment and ethical concerns. It is not a coincidence that Penang was the birthplace of the consumer movement and continues to have active watchdog organisations like Aliran. The political role the state plays in leadership is thus important. This is why, for most Penangites, they will vote opposition, holding the view that this is the more responsible vote for the future.
There will, however, be more strategic voting – split-voting at the parliamentary and national level – and potentially reduced majorities in some areas, tied to the weaknesses of the ruling coalition noted above, three-cornered fights and a desire to send the state government a signal to be more responsive to legitimate criticism.
Penang will send a message about how power should be practised and the place Malaysia wants to be moving forward.
BRIDGET WELSH is an Associate Professor of Political Science at John Cabot University in Rome. She also continues to be a Senior Associate Research Fellow at National Taiwan University’s Center for East Asia Democratic Studies and The Habibie Center, as well as a University Fellow of Charles Darwin University. Her latest book (with Greg Lopez) is entitled ‘Regime Resilience in Malaysia and Singapore’. She is following the 2018 campaign on the ground and providing her analyses exclusively to Malaysiakini readers. She can be reached at email@example.com.
The views expressed here are those of the author/contributor and do not necessarily represent the views of Malaysiakini.
Sri Lanka was drifting towards China. This was obvious in the aftermath of Sri Lanka successfully concluding a terrorist war that was aided and abetted by the Christian West and India. What would the Christian West and India do?
China is slowly and steadily progressing to become the dominant trading power of the world. Their modus operandi are different from those of others or of days gone by. Their policy towards the Third World is not Gunboat Diplomacy or its modern variants but one of accommodation and mutual benefit with little or no conditions attached. It was more co-existence than sheer dominance and all that entails. In this enterprise China is promoting new trade routes, called the new Silk Road. This is happening through land routes as well as through sea lanes.
Even before the end of the Tamil Racist War called Eelam War, the Rajapakse Adminstration embarked on major infrastructure improvement projects. These involved building of major road networks followed by the development of sea ports and airports. Would foreign countries come to build infrastructure projects in other countries out of generosity? It is the duty of individual countries to invest on such projects. Then only it becomes feasible for investors – foreign and local to pitch-in and engage in commerce, trade and industry.
Hambantota Sea Port is leased to China for non-military purposes by Sri Lanka
One of the main items in the Chain of Pearls Project of China is the Hambantota Sea Port and the Mattala Airport. Although most of these projects were in the drawing boards for decades, funds were in short supply as well as the political will and courage to embark on such large ventures. Finally, funds came flowing from China and these projects became a reality. Sri Lanka was ready to ‘take off’ reaching Middle Income Earning Country status.
It is obvious that these achievements were and are being viewed with jaundiced eyes by India as well as by US and their US led allies in the Christian West. Situation in Sri Lanka didn’t fit in with their vision of the Third World in the new Millennium where the new normal is CHAOS – a la Tunesia, Libya, Egypt, Syria, Iraq Afghanistan and a myriad other big and small!
This airport contract may be given to India as part of Sri Lanka’s Balancing Strategy between China and India.
India has Great Power ambitions in South Asia and in the Indian Ocean Region and then in the world. One of their unrealized dreams was to have Sri Lanka as one of their provinces. Failing their ambition is to have a weak government in Sri Lanka which can be easily cajoled to fall in line. One of India’s ambitions is to have the deep water harbor of Trincomalee as their southern most naval post. It is in this connection that they were contemplating projects such as Sethu Samudra Sea Lanes, Power Project in Sampur and the Road from Mannar to Trinco as well as bridge or tunnel to connect Sri Lanka to mainland India. It is with this picture in the background that one must visualize the Indian manipulations in Sri Lanka at present. Eelam Project which is still alive and the sizeable Indian Community in the hill country constitute political as well as manipulative assets that can be commandeered to do their bidding.
As for the Eelam Project which was earlier financed and executed partly from India, there is not much appetite in India to give power to the Tamils per se. They know very well if Eelam comes into being that it will be US and her allies who will have sway and influence over them. This can one day lead to the balkanization of India through a series of ‘color revolutions across India. Unlike China which is a more a monolith than other and power well consolidated through the Communist Party of China, India is for all purposes and intents still remain a political construct of the British Empire – largely made up of extremely diverse and at times adverse groups of nationalities. Their geography being what is bestowed to them by the British is not an easy task to manage the centripetal forces that tend to explode India from within. Only way India can bring about a reverse force that can keep India intact is to conjure up external threats from her neighbors. Pakistan, Bangladesh and China and Nepal and Sri Lanka provide this excuse to India. It is only the external threats that bring up Indian-ness in Indians. At all other times Tamilians, Maratis, Bengalis, North Indians and Punjabis on the one hand and Hindus and Muslims not to mention the tiny but influential Christian minority are constantly trying to undermine each other in a social fabric that is still enmeshed in caste based discrimination and dominance. This is why Tamil Nadu adding up Eelam to make up greater Tamil Nadu is a big No No for India. India’s only ambition at present is to have Sri Lanka as a weak vassal state kept forever destabilized doing their bidding when required, same as Nepal and Bhutan!
Western Christian Powers led by the US too invested on the Eelam project with an eye on Trincomalee as their next Sea Base after Diego Garcia. They are more interested in sea lanes and maintenance of global dominance. Though the powers of the Western Christian nations are in the wane they are not yet ready to give in without a fight. Therefore, their power and influence though residual and intimidatory, cannot be wished away. They still exercise power over and above their ability as movers and shakers of the world! Soon they will realize that theirs is not the only game in town!
It is with this picture in the background India, US and her allies invested on a project to depose the powerful Rajapakse Administration. Given the background of Sri Lankan politics and the mentality of the Sri Lankans it was an easier project than the other Colour Revolutions” elsewhere in the world. All what was required was massive disinformation campaign on the ground through the mobile phones, internet, so called ‘civil society’ well financed with dollars and willing knaves who could betray party, friends and the nation.
Rajapakses were depicted as utterly corrupt and incorrigible. They made use of some of the already disgruntled and left aside politicians of the SLFP to switch sides at appropriate times to bring about regime change. First to persuade was Maithreepala Sirisena, the most disgruntled of the lack luster politicians of the lot. It is no secret Mahinda Rajapakse by passed most of these inefficient and party hangers-on to get through most of the important jobs mainly the infrastructure projects. He placed implicit trust on those who could be trusted and his very capable brothers came in very handy. He even ‘imported’ some ‘go getter’ politicians from the UNP for these purposes.
Let us look at the voting pattern, those who voted for Sarath Fonseka in 2010 and those who voted for Maithreepala Sirisena in 2015. Did people personally vote for Sirisena – No.
It was a repetition of 2010 when sizeable number of the population voted for Sarath Fonseka seeking CHANGE not to Fonseka per se. However, in 2015 the disinformation exercise was in high gear favored by excesses of some of the high-handed work of the Rajapakse Second Term. That too was buttressed by the fiat votes of the Tamils and Muslims who vote en-block on the dictates of their leaders. These leaders frequently change allegiances to bring about regime change in line with their race base or faith base politics. While Racist Tamils are working towards dismemberment of Sri Lanka and carving out a separate state for themselves, the Muslims are working towards total domination through population increase, land acquisition and economic dominance!
Sarath Fonseka who polled nearly 4.5 million in the 2010 Presidential Elections polled less than 10,000 island wide when he contested elections in 2015 on his own steam. In the case of Sirisena he was not a Presidential aspirant 3 months prior to the election and it was not even in his wildest dreams he could be President of Sri Lanka. His only wish was to become Prime Minister succeeding D M Jayaratne before retiring from politics. What happened was a political coup masterminded by the Christian West aided and abetted by the Indians. They failed in 2010 but succeeded in 2015. The script of the coup is very clear and obvious; it is Made in USA!
When one looks at the Big Picture it is easy to surmise that the plot was hatched by the same think tanks in the US that plotted the overthrow of former Yugoslavia, Tunesia, Libya, Egypt and now trying hard on Syria. They were assisted by RAW operations from India. On their own admission US had spent over US$500 Million to destabilize Sri Lanka and Burma and India’s RAW may have used unknown Millions for the same purpose each to their own ends!
With 8th January 2015 Presidential Election the so called Yahapalana Administration came into being. The foreign agenda for Sri Lanka ran as follows:
Topple Rajapakse Administration – done
Appoint Ranil Wickramasinghe as PM – brings the Central Bank under his command – done
Change of Constitution – Out goes 18th and incomes the 19th reducing Presidential powers and increasing Prime Ministerial powers – done
Rob the Central Bank to find finances for fund depleted UNP reserves, finance next parliamentary elections, wreck Sri Lanka’s economy – done
Stop Rice Farming and destroy food security – done
Stop Fertilizer subsidies to Rice Farmers – done
Deny promised prices for Tea, Rubber, Coconut and Pepper Farmers – done
Increase taxes – done
Depreciate the Sri Lanka Rupee – done
Sell state assets – in progress
Destroy Sri Lanka’s Buddhist Establishment – in progress
Move armed forces from the North and East paving way to re-emergence of terrorism – in progress 75% complete
Bring Geneva threats against Sri Lanka and denounce War Heroes as war criminals to satisfy the Diaspora Racist Tamils – done
Revamp the entire Constitution of Sri Lanka to suit meddling by the Christian West as a means to balkanize Sri Lanka. This they are depicting as a measure to bring reconciliation among the communities in Sri Lanka and other groups in the shadows such as the LGBTQ. Whether separation of communities and coming out of the closet for the LGBTQ will bring about reconciliation is entirely a different subject! – in progress
After 3 years of Yahapalana Administration, most of the above have come to pass or are earmarked for implementation and Sri Lanka is on the way to be another Failed State. This is where the importance of the coming Local Government Elections become obvious.
All political parties aligned with the ruling cabal – the UNP, SLFP (Sirisena Clique), the JVP, Muslim and Tamil political parties, who were not interested in having Local Government Elections in a hurry could not keep the façade of a democratic regime any longer. After nearly 3 years of constantly postponing Local Government Elections finally there will be elections on 10 Feb 2018. The rulers have suddenly realized that they need Local Government bodies to bring about development, despite !
They have seen the popular adulation for the ‘defeated’ Mahinda Rajapakse with the Nugegoda Rally – not long after the ‘change’ of 8 Jan 2105 – Mahinda Handa and now later Pohottuwa, the ruling cabal is very afraid!
People have seen what the Change in 8 January 2015 has brought about. Though the older generations have been fooled before by the likes of Rice from the Moon and Dharmista Samajayak , but now even the younger generations whose dreams are more cyber than real have had a chance to see the reality of chasing after mirages. The promises of Saadharana Samajaya, Wasa wisa thora ratak, Dooshanayen thora Ratak have evaporated like the morning dew. Their proponents – one dead and the other no where to be seen!
They have a chance to show their pleasure or displeasure on the way the Yahapalana has succeeded in bringing about CHANGE”! Ranil- Sirisena joint enterprise is for all purposes and intents gone for good. Only reason it keeps going is self preservation for the incumbent keeping all the strappings of political power intact. They say that the country is now stabilized economically and diplomatically abroad and they are now ready to take on developing the villages, towns and cities. They are promising, they will do the same thing they have done to the Country on a Macro Scale to the villages on a micro scale. It would be good to see if the population be they – Sinhalese, Tamil, Muslim or other will have a taste and an appetite for more of the same of Yahapalanaya after a dismall 3 years in power. The nation must see that what remains is only complete subjugation to external forces as a Failed State.
There is no political establishment that is totally squeaky clean. We have seen what has become of Mr Clean. We simply have to choose the party that is less corrupt – just because we are human! Just because we need leaders to rule a country and we need who are capable, experienced and confident. Would South Korea be what they are today if they had Yahapalanaya? Would Samsung, Hyundai, Daiwoo, LG and others would be where they are today if there was no political patronage? Only thing a country can do is to keep it all that is bad to a minimum and within acceptable and economically manageable limits.
It is now up to the people of Sri Lanka to take into consideration all what has happened during the last 3 years and give their verdict on 10 Feb 2018. This is not about getting things done at village, town and city and municipality level. This should be vote on how Yahapalanaya have performed during the last 3 years, how they have kept their promises to the people and on a bigger scale of what is to become of Sri Lanka under the proposed change of Constitution and secret and not so secret dealings with foreign countries.
Go out early on 10 February and vote. See that your vote count. Don’t stay at home unconcerned. We are talking about the future of our sons and daughters. See that you stand to be counted among those who love our Motherland – Sri Lanka! Not a FAILED STATE and a dismembered land continuously at war!
Phnom Penh Skyline 2017 – Phnom Penh Is Changing Day By Day
Cranes building Phnom Penh’s rapidly rising skyline give testimony to Cambodia’s enduring economic success as well as to China’s commitment to investing in the Kingdom’s infrastructure. Cambodia has been highly successful in attracting foreign direct investment, creating employment and alleviating poverty for millions. The outstanding performance of its economy has been widely acknowledged: the Asian Development Bank calls Cambodia the ‘new tiger economy’ and the World Bank announced Cambodia’s transition from a low-income to a lower middle-income country. The widely held expectation is that Cambodia will achieve upper middle-income status by 2030 if recent growth rates are sustained.
That said, Cambodia also still holds least developed country status. For this reason, Cambodia is likely to retain the preferential trade agreements and donor payments that the country has enjoyed for decades. Economic prosperity is set to advance — unless politics gets in the way.
Cambodia’s economic rise starkly contrasts the political chaos that reached a climax in November 2017 with the dissolution of the Cambodia National Rescue Party — the country’s only major opposition party — and the detention of its leader, Kem Sokha. Prime Minister Hun Sen has also threatened to close the Cambodian Centre for Human Rights, which was founded by the detained opposition leader.
The moves have been widely condemned as marking Cambodia’s shift to a one-party dictatorship, and many Western countries have threatened action. Member states of the European Union announced restrictions on rice imports from Cambodia, while Canada and Australia encouraged Cambodia to reinstate proper democratic processes. Perhaps the strongest response came from the United States, which Hun Sen has accused of supporting the arrested opposition leader’s efforts to conspire against the Cambodian government. In response, the United States immediately cancelled the US$1.8 million in funding it had pledged for the 2018 Cambodian general elections and it announced visa sanctions against Cambodian officials who were ‘undermining democracy’.
Since the 1991 Paris Accords, the United States has spent billions supporting the democratic process in Cambodia in order to restore and preserve peace after two decades of civil war and Khmer Rouge atrocities. Unfortunately, the recent political developments are widely viewed as a collapse of the democratisation process — a view that is shared by international rights organisations such as Global Witness and Human Rights Watch. Further recommended sanctions include asset freezes, travel bans on senior officials, trade restrictions and the suspension of all technical assistance for elections.
The Cambodian government and the ruling party have been rather bemused by Western criticism. The Prime Minister welcomed the cutting of US aid for the elections, pointing out that this would make an end to NGO meddling in Cambodian affairs. After all, Western aid has always been conditional on the government maintaining proper democratic processes and institutions. Alluding to the robust performance of the Cambodian economy, a spokesman of the ruling party dismissed concerns saying: ‘everything is better now than before’.
Will Cambodia’s political fiascos put an end to its economic rise? Cambodian unions fear foreign sanctions will involve a cancellation of preferential tax rates. In a joint statement, the four major unions in the country appealed to foreign embassies and buyers to treat their industries as separate from politics.
Economic analysts expect the current political instability will have only limited, short-term effects. The West will tighten sanctions if Cambodia continues its crackdowns on democratic institutions such as civil society organisations and independent media outlets. These crackdowns are most likely to intensify in the run up to the 2018 general elections. Foreign investment in Cambodia overall will hardly be affected either way as the overwhelming majority comes from other Asian countries.
As one of China’s most favoured nations, Cambodia not only receives economic investment and aid with ‘no strings attached’ but also receives Beijing’s political approval. China has explicitly expressed its support for the Cambodian government and Hun Sen, who is one of Beijing’s most important allies in Southeast Asia (and in the South China Sea dispute in particular).
New Roads for Cambodia
Similarly, the Cambodian business community is championing close ties to the government. It views an election victory for the ruling Cambodian People’s Party as the most desirable scenario since any other outcome would be detrimental to established business interests.
His Majesty King Norodom Sihamoni
While the political drama is unfolding, Cambodian people go about business as usual and politics does not seem to be the first thing on their minds. The current ‘crisis of democracy’ has been a long time coming and is not alien to the region at large. Authoritarian rule is enduring across Southeast Asia. Arguably, as the United States rapidly loses its role as protector of democracy, the ensuing ‘politics of disorder’ is swiftly becoming the new regional order.
Heidi Dahles is Adjunct Professor at the Griffith Business School, Griffith University.
“Sharing” boosters herald the virtues of autonomy and flexibility; skeptics warn about the rise of a new precariat.
Not long ago, I moved apartments, and beneath the weight of work and lethargy a number of small, nagging tasks remained undone. Some art work had to be hung from wall moldings, using wire. In the bedroom, a round mirror needed mounting beside the door. Just about anything that called for careful measuring or stud-hammering I had failed to get around to—which was why my office walls were bare, no pots yet dangled from the dangly-pot thing in the kitchen, and my bedside shelf was still a doorstop. There are surely reasons that some of us resist being wholly settled, but when the ballast of incompletion grew too much for me I logged on to TaskRabbit to finish what I had failed to start.
On its Web site, I described the tasks I needed done, and clicked ahead. A list of fourteen TaskRabbits appeared, each with a description of skills and a photograph. Many of them wore ties. I examined one called Seth F., who had done almost a thousand tasks. He wore no tie, but he had a ninety-nine-per-cent approval rating. “I’m a smart guy with tools. What more can you want?” he’d written in his profile. He was listed as an Elite Tasker, and charged fifty-five dollars an hour. I booked him for a Wednesday afternoon.
TaskRabbit, which was founded in 2008, is one of several companies that, in the past few years, have collectively helped create a novel form of business. The model goes by many names—the sharing economy; the gig economy; the on-demand, peer, or platform economy—but the companies share certain premises. They typically have ratings-based marketplaces and in-app payment systems. They give workers the chance to earn money on their own schedules, rather than through professional accession. And they find toeholds in sclerotic industries. Beyond TaskRabbit, service platforms include Thumbtack, for professional projects; Postmates, for delivery; Handy, for housework; Dogvacay, for pets; and countless others. Home-sharing services, such as Airbnb and its upmarket cousin onefinestay, supplant hotels and agencies. Ride-hailing apps—Uber, Lyft, Juno—replace taxis. Some on-demand workers are part-timers seeking survival work, akin to the comedian who waits tables on the side. For growing numbers, though, gigging is not only a living but a life. Many observers see it as something more: the future of American work.
Seth F.—the “F” stood for Flicker— showed up at my apartment that Wednesday bearing a big backpack full of tools. He was in his mid-forties, with a broad mouth, brown hair, and ears that stuck out like a terrier’s beneath a charcoal stocking cap. I poured him coffee and showed him around.
“I have molding hooks and wire,” I said, gesturing with unfelt confidence at some coils of translucent cord. “I was thinking they could maybe hang . . .” It struck me that I lacked a vocabulary to address even the basics of the job; I swirled my hands around the middle of the wall, as if blindfolded and turned loose in a strange room.
Seth F. seemed to gather that he was dealing with a fool. He offered a decision tree pruned to its stump. “Do you want them at eye level?” he asked.
“Eye level sounds great,” I said.
Seth F. had worked for TaskRabbit for three years, he told me as he climbed onto my kitchen stool—“like twenty-one years in normal job time.” In college, he had sold a screenplay to Columbia Pictures, and the film, though never made, launched his career. He wrote movies for nine years, and was well paid and sought after, but none of his credited work made it to the big screen, so he took a job as a senior editor at Genre, a now defunct gay magazine, where he covered the entertainment industry. He liked magazine work, but was not a true believer. “I’m one of those people, I think, who has to change jobs frequently,” he told me. He got a master’s degree in education, and taught fourth grade at Spence and at Brooklyn Friends. Fourteen years in, a health condition flared up, leaving his calendar checkered with days when it was hard to work. He’d aways found peculiar joy in putting together IKEA furniture, so he hired himself out as an assembly wiz: easy labor that paid the bills while he got better. He landed on TaskRabbit.
“There are so many clients, I rarely get bored,” he told me. He was feeding cord through the molding hooks to level my pictures. At first, he said, hourly rates at TaskRabbit were set through bidding, but taskers now set their own rates, with the company claiming thirty per cent. A constellation of data points—how quickly he answers messages, how many jobs he declines—affect his ranking when users search the site. He took as many jobs as he could, generating about eighty paid hours each month. “The hardest part is not knowing what your next paycheck is from,” he told me.
Seth F. worked quickly. Within an hour, he had hung six frames from the molding over my couches. Sometimes, he confessed, his jobs seem silly: he was once booked to screw in a light bulb. Other work is harder, and strange. Seth F. has been hired to assemble five jigsaw puzzles for a movie set, to write articles for a newspaper in Alaska, and to compose a best-man speech to be delivered by the brother of the groom, whom he had never met. (“The whole thing was about, ‘In the future, we’re going to get to know each other better,’ ” he explained.) Casper, the mattress company, booked him to put sheets on beds; Oscar, the health-insurance startup, had him decorate its offices for Christmas.
As we talked, his tone warmed. I realized that he probably visited strangers several times a day, meting out bits of himself, then moving on, often forever, and I considered what an odd path through professional experience that must be. He told me that he approached the work with gratitude but little hope.
“These are jobs that don’t lead to anything,” he said, without looking up from his work. “It doesn’t feel”—he weighed the word—“sustainable to me.”
The gig economy is a growing trend for companies to mainly employ independent contractors and freelancers instead of using full-time employees.It provides both the company and the people who work for them complete flexibility to work as and when they want, and only pay people for the jobs they do.
The American workplace is both a seat of national identity and a site of chronic upheaval and shame. The industry that drove America’s rise in the nineteenth century was often inhumane. The twentieth-century corrective—a corporate workplace of rules, hierarchies, collective bargaining, triplicate forms—brought its own unfairnesses. Gigging reflects the endlessly personalizable values of our own era, but its social effects, untried by time, remain uncertain.
Support for the new work model has come together swiftly, though, in surprising quarters. On the second day of the most recent Democratic National Convention, in July, members of a four-person panel suggested that gigging life was not only sustainable but the embodiment of today’s progressive values. “It’s all about democratizing capitalism,” Chris Lehane, a strategist in the Clinton Administration and now Airbnb’s head of global policy and public affairs, said during the proceedings, in Philadelphia. David Plouffe, who had managed Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign before he joined Uber, explained, “Politically, you’re seeing a large contingent of the Obama coalition demanding the sharing economy.” Instead of being pawns in the games of industry, the panelists thought, working Americans could thrive by hiring out skills as they wanted, and putting money in the pockets of peers who had done the same. The power to control one’s working life would return, grassroots style, to the people.
The basis for such confidence was largely demographic. Though statistics about gigging work are few, and general at best, a Pew study last year found that seventy-two per cent of American adults had used one of eleven sharing or on-demand services, and that a third of people under forty-five had used four or more. “To ‘speak millennial,’ you ought to be talking about the sharing economy, because it is core and central to their economic future,” Lehane declared, and many of his political kin have agreed. No other commercial field has lately drawn as deeply from the Democratic brain trust. Yet what does democratized capitalism actually promise a politically unsettled generation? Who are its beneficiaries? At a moment when the nation’s electoral future seems tied to the fate of its jobs, much more than next month’s paycheck depends on the answers.
One Thursday evening in February, Caitlin Connors texted me and said to meet her at a bar in Williamsburg called Donna. The place was large and crowded; I found her in the middle of a big group, in a corner bathed in light the color of Darjeeling. Connors is small and outgoing, with a brown Jackie O. bob that looks windswept even indoors. She had come to New York five years earlier, from Colorado, “to learn about the Internet,” she said, and she worked in marketing awhile. Agency life had not been her thing—“a lot of crazy bitches”—so she started her own branding firm, the Fox Theory, which does marketing for entrepreneurs, artists, authors, and a sleight-of-hand magician. She led me to the bar to sit. She wore a black floral blouse and skinny navy pants. “I think we’re just coming into the next wave of human civilization,” she told me, and drained her cocktail with a straw. “Humans can operate on a person-to-person basis, sharing ideas and sharing business without intermediaries.”
When Connors first came to New York, she lived with several roommates in a huge, run-down place in Chelsea she dubbed the Fox Den. When her sister came to stay with her, they moved to a newer building, the Fox Den 2.0, and that was where she discovered Airbnb. She started to rent out an extra room, and the income made them “less pinched.” When she moved again, with another roommate (she has had thirty-six roommates in total), they searched for an optimally Airbnb-able place. They ended up in Williamsburg, a neighborhood that seemed “trendy” to tourists. The Fox Den 3.0, as the new digs were christened, was a three-bedroom duplex by the Bedford Avenue subway station. It had sleek new appliances and a lovely yard; through an ingenious configuration of beds and couches, it could sleep up to twelve people.
Connors tried to rent it out one week a month. Some swapping was often required. If she and her roommate were in town during a rental, they decamped to make room for the guests. Sometimes they used an acquaintance’s pad in Manhattan, also on Airbnb. Sometimes Connors stayed at the home of an old friend. “It’s the time we have to hang out and chill and catch up,” she said. “He loves it. I love it.” The financial upsides were considerable. By Airbnb-ing out their apartment one week a month, Connors and her roommate could clear their four-thousand-dollar rent. Sometimes they were gone for longer. One golden month, Airbnb-ing brought in five figures. “That’s more than most people, smart people, make in their job,” Connors observed.
For Connors, though, the real benefit of Airbnb was that it allowed her to travel, which she still loves to do. She spent part of November in Mexico, and part of December in Jordan. She saw the Fox Den as a tool for living a worldly life without committing to a worldly career. (“Otherwise, you’d have to be another level of rich to make this work.”) She spent all of January in Cuba, which gave her a new business concept.
“In Cuba—random little town—half the town wanted me to start their Airbnb accounts for them,” she said. Connors found a population that desperately needed help with the marketing of personal brands. Now she got out her iPhone and started swiping rapidly through photos, many of which centered on azure shorelines and shirtless men. “Cuba is preserved like a time capsule,” she said. She stopped at a street scene. “Everyone drives old cars.” She swiped. “These are their farms. They plow their fields with oxen.” On her next trip, she planned to help Cuban artists market themselves as American millennials do: “I want to help the Cubans learn to make money off of their art.”
A friend of hers, Prescott Perez-Fox, passed by us, on his way out. Connors snagged him. “I don’t know what you do anymore!” she said.
Perez-Fox fished some business cards from his pocket. “I’m a graphic designer and brand strategist, and I also run a podcast, and a podcast meet-up. You should come to our meet-up,” he said, handing her a card. The card said, “NEW YORK CITY PODCAST MEETUP.” “That’s the group,” he said. “My show is on the back side.” The back of the card said, “THE BUSY CREATOR PODCAST.” “It’s about workflow and creative productivity and culture and habits for creative pros.”
“Why have I not been”—Connors blinked hard—“learning from you more often?”
“Girl, get after it!” Perez-Fox exclaimed. In addition to hosting his own podcast, he had been a guest on nine other podcasts, including “Freelance Transformation” and “Life in the Woods: Hope for Independent Creatives.” “I’m finishing a project tomorrow,” he told her. “Then I’ll be more free.”
Connors said that she was in New York at least through next week, probably, and then she was going back to Cuba. “Want to come down?” she asked.
“Ah,” Perez-Fox said. “A little bit hasty.”
One of the best things about Cuba, Connors explained when Perez-Fox had darted out into the night, was that she greeted each day there without anxiety. “Not waking up stressed every day, doing something super-rewarding, and having time to write and make art and all that stuff—that’s what I want,” she told me. Soon after we went our separate ways, she left town, to fly south.
In 1970, Charles A. Reich, a law professor who’d experienced a countercultural conversion after hanging with young people out West, published “The Greening of America,” a cotton-candy cone that wound together wispy revelations from the sixties. Casting an eye across modern history, he traced a turn from a world view that he called Consciousness I (the outlook of local farmers, self-directed workers, and small-business people, reaching a crisis in the exploitations of the Gilded Age) to what he called Consciousness II (the outlook of a society of systems, hierarchies, corporations, and gray flannel suits). He thought that Consciousness II was giving way to Consciousness III, the outlook of a rising generation whose virtues included direct action, community power, and self-definition. “For most Americans, work is mindless, exhausting, boring, servile, and hateful, something to be endured while ‘life’ is confined to ‘time off,’ ” Reich wrote. “Consciousness III people simply do not imagine a career along the old vertical lines.” His accessible theory of the baffling sixties carried the imprimatur of William Shawn’s New Yorker, which published an excerpt of the book that stretched over nearly seventy pages. “The Greening of America” spent months on the Times best-seller list.
Exponents of the futuristic tech economy frequently adopt this fifty-year-old perspective. Like Reich, they eschew the hedgehog grind of the forty-hour week; they seek a freer way to work. This productivity-minded spirit of defiance holds appeal for many children of the Consciousness III generation: the so-called millennials.
“People are now, more than ever before, aware of the careers that they’re not pursuing,” says Kathryn Minshew, the C.E.O. of the Muse, a job-search and career-advice site, and a co-author of “The New Rules of Work.” Minshew co-founded the Muse in her mid-twenties, after working at the consulting firm McKinsey and yearning for a job that felt more distinctive. She didn’t know what that was, and her peers seemed similarly stuck. Jennifer Fonstad, a venture capitalist whose firm, Aspect Ventures, backed Minshew’s company, told me that “the future of work” is now a promising investment field.
Many dreamy young people, like Caitlin Connors, see unrealized opportunity wherever they go. Some, in their careers, end up as what might be called hedgers. These are programmers also known as d.j.s, sculptors who excel as corporate consultants; they are Instagram-backed fashion mavens, with a TV pilot on the middle burner. They are doing it for the money, and the love, and, like the overladen students they probably once were, because they are accustomed to a counterpoint of self. The hedged career is a kind of gigging career—custom-assembled, financially diffuse, defiant of organizational constraint—and its modishness is why part-time Lyft driving or weekend TaskRabbit-ing has found easy cultural acceptance. But hedging is a luxury, available to those who have too many appealing options in life. It gestures toward the awkward question of whom, in the long run, the revolution-minded spirit of the nineteen-sixties really let off the leash.
As Caitlin Connors’s apartment became more popular, she faced unforeseen challenges. Cleaning had to be done rapidly, in between stays. Questions from guests required prompt responses, even when she was abroad, and had no Internet access. When Airbnb logistics started to approach “a full-time job,” she hired a management company, called Happy Host, to handle bookings, cleanings, and related chores. Happy Host normally charges twenty-five per cent of earnings, but Connors found the cost worthwhile. “I’m, like, They do everything for you?” she said. “Sign me the fuck up!”
One day, I went to visit Happy Host’s founder, Blake Hinckley, at his loft apartment on Broadway, a block from the Strand bookstore. The elevator opened into the living room, which was sparsely but stylishly furnished with caramel-colored leather couches and bright, extroverted art work. Hinckley, who is twenty-nine, had a blond cascade of hair, round glasses, and a short, raffish beard. He had studied English and economics at Middlebury College, and worked for the Boston Consulting Group, doing efficiency assessments for big companies. While travelling three hundred days a year, he was also renting an apartment, in Boston. He did the math and found that, if he’d put the place on Airbnb, he could have made tens of thousands of dollars. Around that time, consulting in New York, he met his girlfriend. “The idea of being staffed in Cleveland and doing another ‘delayering’—B.C.G.’s polite euphemism for layoffs—just seemed catastrophic,” he said. Love, freedom, and a dream of fleeing corporate America won out.
Hinckley and three roommates have Airbnb-ed their apartment (“Glam Greenwich Village 4BR Loft”). As part of its service, Happy Host arranges professional photography, and the loft, a former hat factory with Eamesian kitchen stools and a fig tree by the window, stood ready for an appraising gaze. In addition to taking photos, Happy Host writes text for Airbnb listings, screens reservation requests, coördinates check-ins, greets guests, answers e-mails, and supplies soaps, towels, and wine. Hinckley’s people remain on call for emergencies, which can arise under improbable conditions. The company once had a client who, in the space-saving fashion of New Yorkers, used the drawer under her oven as a storage area for documents and mail. She nearly lost the kitchen to a fire when a Bavarian guest attempted to bake.
The afternoon was waning, and the “unrivaled natural light” in the apartment’s “West facing windows” had turned tawny. Twin arrays of seven large, gonglike bells, each mounted on a facing wall, shot off a pong. “The gamelatron!” Hinckley explained. “My roommate was at sea, and saw a gamelatron, and had a religious experience.”
Hinckley told me that creative, affluent professionals are the company’s typical customers. “Startup founders, consultants, people in private equity have been really drawn to this, because they’re so busy, they don’t have time to respond to a guest inquiry within the hour, or the inclination to wake up at one in the morning because the guest has had a couple of cocktails and is having trouble opening the door,” he said. “Also, intellectually, the concept of pricing really resonates.” If a property is constantly booked, its prices are too low; frequent fallow periods mean the rate is high. Long stays are favored, because cleaning and coördinating make turnovers costly. Happy Host sets future rates using a proprietary algorithm.
When deciding whether to work with a host, Hinckley assesses the apartment’s appearance (enlisting a designer if necessary), amenities, and location. Opening a laptop, he asked for my Zip Code and entered it into AirDNA, a third-party subscription database that gathers Airbnb market information nationwide.
“Forty-seven rentals in your neighborhood,” he said, peering at the laptop screen. “Seventy-one per cent are occupied at any time. Your median person is making 31K there on a 22.8K two-bedroom cost.” He frowned: weak margin. “The neighborhoods we like are the ones that are really high on this trend line.” He clicked to a new data set. “SoHo, Greenwich Village. There, you have people making over fifty-five thousand dollars on their apartment, if it’s a full-time rental.” He looked at me and opened up his eyes wide. “Which is wild.”
In promotional material, Airbnb refers to itself as “an economic lifeline for the middle class.”A company-sponsored analysis released in December overlaid maps of Airbnb listings and traditional hotels on maps of neighborhoods where a majority of residents were ethnic minorities. In seven cities, including New York, the percentage of Airbnb listings that fall in minority neighborhoods exceeds the percentage of hotel rooms that do. (Another study, of user photos in seventy-two majority-black neighborhoods, suggested that most Airbnb hosts there were white, complicating the picture.) Seniors were found to earn, on average, nearly six thousand dollars a year from Airbnb listings. “Ultimately, what we’re doing is driving wealth down to the people,” Chris Lehane, the strategist at Airbnb, says.
It is, of course, driving wealth down unevenly. A study conducted by the New York Attorney General in 2014 found that nearly half of all money made by Airbnb hosts in the state was coming from three Manhattan neighborhoods: the Village-SoHo corridor, the Lower East Side, and Chelsea. It is undeniably good to be earning fifty-five hundred dollars a year by Airbnb-ing your home in deep Queens—so good, it may not bother you to learn that your banker cousin earns ten times that from his swank West Village pad, or that he hires Happy Host to make his lucrative Airbnb property even more lucrative. But now imagine that the guy who lives two doors down from you gets ideas. His finances aren’t as tight as yours, and he decides to reinvest part of his Airbnb income in new furniture and a greeting service. His ratings go up. Perhaps he nudges up his prices in response, or maybe he keeps them low, to get a high volume of patronage. Now your listing is no longer competitive in your neighborhood. How long before the market leaves you behind?
I put a version of this question to Lehane on the phone one morning. In the White House, he was known as a “master of disaster” for his strategic crisis management. As Al Gore’s press secretary, in 2000, he led the double-black-diamond effort of making the Vice-President seem loose and easygoing on the campaign trail. He told me that even an arms race to the top of the market would benefit overlooked neighborhoods. “It has a ripple effect on the local economy,” he explained.
A competitive Airbnb host who hires a cleaner and a decorator in Queens creates work for locals. Guests—some of whom, Lehane insisted, prefer to be in remote neighborhoods—might patronize businesses in the area. “What we do represents a different model of capitalism,” he told me. After hanging up, he sent a six-hundred-word e-mail of elaboration, and another after that.
He pointed out that, traditionally, affluent people have accrued further wealth passively—from real estate, investments, inheritances, and the like. Those with less charmed lives have had to resort to work in exchange for money. Airbnb makes passive earning available to anyone with a spare room.
In a competitive market, though, advantaged people still end up leveraging their advantages: that is why Happy Host exists. Today, every major Airbnb city (among them London, Paris, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago, and New Orleans) has multiple Happy Host equivalents to help meet rising market expectations. A two-year-old New York competitor, MetroButler, has twenty-two contractors and two cleaners, and last year bought the clientele of another competitor, Proprly. MetroButler’s co-founder Brandon McKenzie had been using Airbnb to pay down law-school debts when he realized that short-term rentals could support an entire service industry. “We’re sort of in the business of pickaxes during the Gold Rush,” he said.
Others harbor similar ambitions. “Our goal is to become a mega-behemoth,” said Amiad Soto, who, with his twin brother, co-founded Guesty, a Tel Aviv-based company that helps hosts manage bookings (or arranges for a remote operator to do so under their names). Guesty has seventy-five employees, and Soto spends much of his time hiring more. For physical work, most such companies rely on other apps—Handy, Postmates—or hire part-time workers themselves. Sharing is not only challenging an existing model; it is generating its own labor force.
One drizzly spring afternoon, I met a MetroButler worker named Bobby Allan while he prepared an apartment for guests. Allan is a conservatory-trained actor and singer in his mid-twenties. He came to MetroButler last summer, from a gig at Proprly; he also works as a cater-waiter and as a hype man at children’s parties. At MetroButler, he is a part-time contractor, without benefits, but he doesn’t mind: gig work makes it possible to take time off for more exciting endeavors (for instance, an appearance in Syfy’s “The Internet Ruined My Life”). MetroButler pays him fifty dollars for each two-hour cleaning—sixty if he greets the guests, too. “You meet so many crazy people,” he told me. The place he was cleaning, a small garden apartment with a child’s room at the back, was a regular for him. He had put fresh company linens on the queen-size bed, and had left hotel-size shampoo and conditioner bottles, with the MetroButler logo, on the nightstand. He discovered that the bulb in the desk lamp had burned out, so he made a note to buy a replacement.
In the child’s room, Allan dressed the twin bed in crisp white sheets, pulled the duvet cover over the duvet with impressive speed, and rolled a bath towel and a hand towel into little logs, to be arranged in the center of the bed. His first tax return as an independent worker had been a shock, he said. But the work had been instructive in many other ways, too. He consulted his phone. Every task was annotated on a photo of the space in an app that let MetroButler watch his progress in real time; he checked off each detail and took a photo of the room when he was done. He hummed the finale to “The Firebird” while he swept the floor.
Normally, every efficiency has a winner and a loser. A service like Uber benefits the rider, who’s saving on the taxi fare she might otherwise pay, but makes drivers’ earnings less stable. Airbnb has made travel more affordable for people who wince at the bill of a decent hotel, yet it also means that tourism spending doesn’t make its way directly to the usual armies of full-time employees: housekeepers, bellhops, cooks.
To advocates such as Lehane, that labor-market swap is good. Instead of scrubbing bathrooms at the Hilton, you can earn directly, how and when you want. Such thinking, though, presumes that gigging people and the old working and service classes are the same, and this does not appear to be the case. A few years ago, Juliet B. Schor, a sociology professor at Boston College, interviewed forty-three mostly young people who were earning money from Airbnb, Turo (like Airbnb for car rentals), and TaskRabbit. She found that they were disproportionately white-collar and highly educated, like Seth F. A second, expanded study showed that those who relied on gigging to make a living were less satisfied than those who had other jobs and benefits and gigged for pocket money: another sign that the system was not helping those who most needed the work.
Instead of simply driving wealth down, it seemed, the gigging model was helping divert traditional service-worker earnings into more privileged pockets—causing what Schor calls a “crowding out” of people dependent on such work. That distillation-coil effect, drawing wealth slowly upward, is largely invisible. On the ground, the atmosphere grows so steamy with transaction that it often seems to rain much needed cash.
“Airbnb enabled me to go back to school and become a full-time student and work as a part-time photographer.”
“Airbnb is necessary while my cousin is out of town to work.”
“I am here as an individual, not representing some radical, self-serving organization. I am speaking to my own experience.”
The streets near New York’s City Hall were ear-stinging and windy on the morning of a big Airbnb hearing, but attendees clogged the doorway, and the air inside was thick with sour human concern. A new law had made it illegal for many New Yorkers to advertise short-term rentals. The law ostensibly targeted unregulated hoteliers, who snatch up multiple apartments and Airbnb them year-round, but it served the broader interests of major hotel trade groups, such as the American Hotel and Lodging Association and the Hotel and Motel Trades Council, which lobbied against Airbnb. At the hearing, hosts protested the rule’s breadth: why not limit each member’s listings, rather than banning them all?
Christian Klossner, the Executive Director of the Mayor’s Office of Special Enforcement, sat behind a desk microphone, wearing a patient expression as speakers gave testimony. Suzette Sundae, a musician wearing a fifties-style swing dress and a white cardigan over her tattoos, said that she ran a vintage-clothing store in Park Slope. When the store’s traffic fell off, she had Airbnb-ed her home. “It saved me from having to declare bankruptcy, and it allowed me to close my store without owing a dime,” she said. An East New York resident named Heather-Sky McField recalled having to travel to Baltimore each week to care for her mother, who had breast cancer. She had been unable to evict her tenants, who’d stopped paying rent. “Had it not been for Airbnb, I would have been foreclosed by now,” she told Klossner.
Given such testimony, it was easy to see how the sharing economy became a liberal beacon—and easy to see the attendant paradoxes. A century ago, liberalism was a systems-building philosophy. Its revelation was that society, left alone, tended toward entropy and extremes, not because people were inherently awful but because they thought locally. You wanted a decent life for your family and the families that you knew. You did not—could not—make every personal choice with an eye to the fates of people in some unknown factory. But, even if individuals couldn’t deal with the big picture, early-twentieth-century liberals saw, a larger entity such as government could. This way of thinking brought us the New Deal and “Ask not what your country can do for you.” Its ultimate rejection brought us customized life paths, heroic entrepreneurship, and maybe even Instagram performance. We are now back to the politics of the particular.
For gigging companies, that shift means a constant struggle against a legacy of systemic control, with legal squabbles like the one in New York. Regulation is government’s usual tool for blunting adverse consequences, but most sharing platforms gain their competitive edge by skirting its requirements. Uber and Lyft avoid taxi rules that fix rates and cap the supply on the road. Handy saves on overtime and benefits by categorizing workers as contractors. Some gigging advocates suggest that this less regulated environment is fair, because traditional industry gets advantages elsewhere. (President Trump, it has been pointed out, could not have built his company without hundreds of millions of dollars in tax subsidies.)
Still, since their inception, and increasingly during the past year, gigging companies have become the targets of a journalistic genre that used to be called muckraking: admirable and assiduous investigative work that digs up hypocrisies, deceptions, and malpractices in an effort to cast doubt on a broader project. Some companies, such as Uber, seem to invite this kind of attention with layered wrongdoing and years of secrecy. But they also invite it by their high-minded positioning. Like traditional companies, gigging companies maintain regiments of highly paid lawyers and lobbyists. What sets them apart is a second lobbying effort, turned toward the public.
“We’re borrowing very heavily from traditional community-organizing models, and looking at the grass roots in each city,” Emily Castor, Lyft’s leader in the campaign against regulatory constraint, told me a while back, when we spoke in the company’s San Francisco headquarters. “Who are the leaders? Who are people who distinguish themselves as passionate, who want to get more involved? We have a team that includes field organizers who are responsible for different parts of the country.”
If Uber has come to be known as the Wicked Witch of the West, dark-logoed, ubiquitous, and dragging a flaming broom of opportunism, Lyft has sought to be the Glinda, upbeat, pink, and conciliatory, and its organizing outreach has been key to this reputation. Castor’s work was not accosting government but assembling users, building a network of ordinary people who wanted Lyft in their lives.
“They’ll have dinners and other opportunities for people to learn more about what policy activities are happening in their area,” she said. This often means turning out for community-style lobbying—like the hosts at the Airbnb hearing in New York. “We get to know who has a powerful voice that would be helpful if shared with elected officials,” she explained.
Castor is a friendly woman with tidy blond hair who also started out in Democratic politics. After college, she worked in Washington as a legislative aide for the California representative Susan Davis. In 2008, before returning to school to get a degree in public administration, she worked on an unsuccessful congressional campaign. She moved to San Francisco, and in 2011 worked as a municipal finance consultant. It was an exciting time to be in the Bay Area. In the wake of economic collapse, young people with big ideas and an understanding of mobile technology were thinking about how work could be made cheaper, lighter, and more accessible. Castor started renting out her car on Getaround, an early sharing-economy company, and then tried Zimride, Airbnb—any service she could get her hands on. Their premise of sharing moved her. “It was like falling in love,” she told me. “You ask yourself, Is this love? Is this love? And, when you find the thing that’s right, you don’t have to ask.” Early in 2012, she started an event series, Collaborative Chats, devoted to the sharing economy. When Lyft launched, in June, 2012, the founders hired her to be the company’s first “community manager.” She found that she could draw on her political training. “Collective identity is one of those aspects that, in the theory of social movements, is so important,” she told me. “You’re not just ‘taking rides.’ ”
A key architect of that organizing strategy is Marshall Ganz. From the sixties through the early eighties, he worked under Cesar Chavez, leading the organizing efforts of the United Farm Workers. Now, at the Harvard Kennedy School, he teaches what he calls “a story of self, a story of us, a story of now”: the collective-identity movement-building method that Castor invoked. In July, 2007, he led a boot camp to train Obama’s first battalion of organizers for Iowa and South Carolina’s primary contests. He told me that he found the sharing companies’ use of grassroots methods “problematic.”
“There’s a difference between exchange, which is what markets are all about, and discernment of common purpose, which is what politics is about,” he said. Ganz told me that he had been distraught after Obama’s victory in 2008 when the Democratic National Committee seemed to abandon the President’s grassroots network. What he had hoped would be a movement had been cast aside as an electoral tool that had served its purpose.
Castor, who is nearly four decades younger than Ganz, had a different heroic ideal for social change. “When I worked on the Hill,” she recalled, “my chief of staff used to say, ‘A political campaign is a startup that is designed to go out of business.’ ”
Questions have emerged lately about the future of institutional liberalism. A Washington _Post _/ABC News poll last month found that two-thirds of Americans believe the Democratic Party is “out of touch,” more than think the same of the Republican Party or the current President. The gig economy has helped show how a shared political methodology—and a shared language of virtue—can stand in for a unified program; contemporary liberalism sometimes seems a backpack of tools distributed among people who, beyond their current stance of opposition, lack an agreed-upon blueprint. Unsurprisingly, the commonweal projects that used to be the pride of progressivism are unravelling. Leaders have quietly let them go. At one point, I asked Chris Lehane why he had thrown his support behind the sharing model instead of working on traditional policy solutions. He told me that, during the recession, he had suffered a crisis of faith. “The social safety net wasn’t providing the support that it had been,” he said. “I do think we’re in a time period when liberal democracy is sick.”
In “The Great Risk Shift: The New Economic Insecurity and the Decline of the American Dream” (2006), Jacob Hacker, a political-science professor at Yale, described a decades-long off-loading of risk from insurance-type structures—governments, corporations—to individuals. Economic insecurity has risen in the course of the past generation, even as American wealth climbed. Hacker attributed this shift to what he called “the personal-responsibility crusade,” which grew out of a post-sixties fixation on moral hazard: the idea that you do riskier things if you’re insulated from the consequences. The conservative version of the crusade is a commonplace: the poor should try harder next time. But, although Hacker doesn’t note it explicitly, there’s a liberal version, too, having to do with doffing corporate structures, eschewing inhibiting social norms, and refusing a career in plastics. Reich called it Consciousness III.
The slow passage from love beads to Lyft through the performative assertion of self may be the least claimed legacy of the baby-boomer revolution—certainly, it’s the least celebrated. Yet the place we find ourselves today is not unique. In “Drift and Mastery,” a young Walter Lippmann, one of the founders of modern progressivism, described the strange circumstances of public discussion in 1914, a similar time. “The little business men cried: We’re the natural men, so let us alone,” he wrote. “And the public cried: We’re the most natural of all, so please do stop interfering with us. Muckraking gave an utterance to the small business men and to the larger public, who dominated reform politics. What did they do? They tried by all the machinery and power they could muster to restore a business world in which each man could again be left to his own will—a world that needed no coöperative intelligence.” Coming off a period of liberalization and free enterprise, Lippmann’s America struggled with growing inequality, a frantic news cycle, a rising awareness of structural injustice, and a cacophonous global society—in other words, with an intensifying sense of fragmentation. His idea, the big idea of progressivism, was that national self-government was a coöperative project of putting the pieces together. “The battle for us, in short, does not lie against crusted prejudice,” he wrote, “but against the chaos of a new freedom.”
Revolution or disruption is easy. Spreading long-term social benefit is hard. If one accepts Lehane’s premise that the safety net is tattered and that gigging platforms are necessary to keep people in cash, the model’s social erosions have to be curbed. How can the gig economy be made sustainable at last?
During the final days of the Obama Administration, I went to see Tom Perez, at that time the Secretary of Labor and now—after a candidacy fraught with inner-party conflict—the chair of the Democratic National Committee. Perez, tieless in a white shirt, greeted me from a couch. Beyond the stresses of leaving the Cabinet, he had just experienced a bad nosebleed and looked drained.
“If you’re looking for the five-point blueprint, I don’t have it,” he said, when I asked about his vision for the gigging labor market. Last year, he pushed the Census Bureau to reinstate the Contingent Worker Supplement to gather data. (The government currently has no information on a gigging sphere as such.) He believed that any long-term labor model should include input from workers, but wasn’t sure what that should look like. “Voice can take a lot of forms,” Perez said. “I’m a big fan of collective bargaining and the labor movement, but I recognize that there are other ways.”
Perez champions what he calls “conscious capitalism”—free-market liberalism, with an eye to workers’ rights—and he insisted to me that profit-seeking and benefits-giving are not at odds. “Shareholders are best served when all stakeholders are well served!” he explained. The mind-set was mainstream during the nineteen-nineties, and still runs strong in the tech community, with its doing-well-by-doing-good ethos. One popular idea is that app markets regulate themselves with online ratings by and of everyone involved in a transaction.
The record here is mixed. Some earners complain about the way rating systems favor the judgment of customers (Seth F. told me that it is hard to challenge a poor rating) and can be leveraged for haggling purposes. (Some Airbnb customers, Blake Hinckley, of Happy Host, said, use trivial problems to seek a refund.) And reputation governance can’t pick up patterns of unjust exclusion. Research on Airbnb found that identical profiles given different ethnic names were treated differently by hosts, and that pricing on equivalent apartments ran lower for black hosts than for everybody else. (A couple of weeks ago, Airbnb agreed to let a regulatory body, in California, test for discrimination; the company itself has instituted an aggressive program to try to curb such behavior.) Still, you cannot regulate somebody’s house or car the way you regulate a hotel or a taxi.
“Someone who’s hosting on Airbnb might say, ‘Well, this is my space. I only want a certain kind of guest in my spare bedroom,’ ” Arun Sundararajan, an N.Y.U. business professor, says. Is that unreasonably discriminatory? In a new book, “The Sharing Economy,” he proposes a halfway measure like Airbnb’s: self-regulation in collaboration with government. Many elected politicians like a long-leash approach, too. In November, 2014, after an Uber employee described tracking a journalist’s movements, Senator Al Franken sent a list of privacy-policy queries to Uber’s C.E.O.; last fall, Franken pressed Uber and Lyft about apparent race-based discrepancies in wait times. “What I’m trying to do is help customers understand what these companies are doing, and encourage these companies to put in place voluntary measures,” Franken told me soon after dispatching the first letter. Some companies have taken preëmptive measures. Laura Copeland, the head of community at Lyft, describes having created an “advisory council” of seven drivers to make sure that the people on the street have a voice in the company.
Other assessments suggest that employees, too, should get their houses in order. “To succeed in the Gig Economy, we need to create a financially flexible life of lower fixed costs, higher savings, and much less debt,” Diane Mulcahy, a senior analyst at the Kauffman Foundation and a lecturer at Babson College, writes in her book “The Gig Economy,” which is part economic argument and part how-to guide. Ideally, gig workers should plan not to retire. (Beyond Airbnb hosting, Mulcahy sees prospects for aging millennials in app-based dog-sitting.) If they must retire, they should prepare. Mulcahy suggests bingeing on benefits when they come. Fill your dance card with doctors while you’re on employee insurance. Go wild with 401(k) matching—it will come in handy.
This ketchup-packet-hoarding approach sounds sensible, given the current lack of systemic support. Yet, as Mulcahy acknowledges, it’s a survival mechanism, not a solution. Turning to deeper reform, she argues for eliminating the current distinction between employees (people who receive a W-2 tax form and benefits such as insurance and sick days) and contract workers (who get a 1099-MISC and no benefits). It’s a “kink” in the labor market, she says, and it invites abuse by efficiency-seeking companies.
Calls for structural change have grown loud lately, in part because the problem goes far beyond gigging apps. The precariat is everywhere. Companies such as Nissan have begun manning factories with temps; even the U.S. Postal Service has turned to them. Academic jobs are increasingly filled with relatively cheap, short-term teaching appointments. Historically, there is usually an uptick in 1099 work during tough economic times, and then W-2s resurge as jobs are added in recovery. But W-2 jobs did not resurge as usual during our recovery from the last recession; instead, the growth has happened in the 1099 column. That shift raises problems because the United States’ benefits structure has traditionally been attached to the corporation rather than to the state: the expectation was that every employed person would have a W-2 job.
“We should design the labor-market regulations around a more flexible model,” Jacob Hacker told me. He favors some form of worker participation, and, like Mulcahy, advocates creating a single category of employment. “I think if you work for someone else, you’re an employee,” he said. “Employees get certain protections. Benefits must be separate from work.”
In a much cited article in Democracy, from 2015, Nick Hanauer, a venture capitalist, and David Rolf, a union president, proposed that workplace benefits be prorated (someone who works a twenty-hour week gets half of the full-time benefits) and portable (insurance or unused vacation days would carry from one job to the next, because employers would pay into a worker’s lifelong benefits account). Other people regard the gig economy as a case for universal basic income: a plan to give every citizen a modest flat annuity from the government, as a replacement for all current welfare and unemployment programs. Alternatively, there’s the proposal made by the economists Seth D. Harris and Alan B. Krueger: the creation of an “independent worker” status that awards some of the structural benefits of W-2 employment (including collective bargaining, discrimination protection, tax withholding, insurance pools) but not others (overtime and the minimum wage).
I put these possibilities to Tom Perez. He told me that he didn’t like the idea of eliminating work categories, or of adding a new one, as Harris and Krueger suggest: you’d lose many of the hard-won benefits included with W-2 employment, he said, either in the compromise to a single category or because current W-2 companies would find ways to slide into the new classification. He wanted to move slowly, to take time. “The heart and soul of the twentieth-century social compact that emerged after the Great Depression was forty years in the making,” he said. “How do we build the twenty-first-century social compact?”
Perez’s new perch, at the D.N.C., has given him a broader platform, and a couple of hours after the House passed the American Health Care Act last week, he championed the old safety net in forceful language. “Scapegoating worker protections is often a lazy cop-out for some who want to change the rules to benefit themselves at the expense of working people,” he told me. “We shouldn’t have to choose between innovation and the most basic employee protections; it’s a false dichotomy.” The entanglement of the sharing economy and Democratic politics has continued—Perez’s press secretary at the Department of Labor now works for Airbnb—but his approach had circumspection. “Any changes you make to policies or regulations have to be very careful and take all potential ripple effects into account and keep the best interest of the worker in mind.”
His own effort to do that led him one day to New York, where he stopped by a company called Hello Alfred. “I just wanted to introduce us a little bit, explaining why we’re here,” Marcela Sapone, the company’s C.E.O. and co-founder, said. “I think the best way to do that is to show you what we do. I heard that you like Coke heavy”—that is, the opposite of Coca-Cola light—“so we went ahead . . . ” She handed him a miniature bottle.
“The perfect size!” Perez exclaimed. He looked delighted and confused.
“At Alfred,” Sapone went on, “we think that help should be built into your life.” Sapone and her co-founder, Jess Beck, had met at Harvard Business School after leaving McKinsey. “We were thinking about how we were going to balance a career, building a family, building a social life in the community—you’d have to be a superhero. So we asked for some help to become that superhero,” Sapone said.
Unlike TaskRabbit, Hello Alfred is based on recurring service. When customers download the app and sign up, they’re assigned a single tasker, called a home manager, who comes once or twice a week, on a schedule. Alfred taskers often have keys and let themselves in; the idea is that, like traditional home help, they get to know their clients’ preferences and quirks. “It’s sort of a weird relationship you build with this person,” Leah Silver, a client who is an elementary-school teacher on the Upper West Side, told me. “They know so much about you.”
The reason for Perez’s visit was an unusual feature of Hello Alfred’s model: although the taskers can work part time, on a schedule they determine, all are full W-2 employees. Perez considered the company to be a model—creative, well-intentioned, and kind toward its employees—and praised it between pulls on his Coke heavy. “I appreciate that you’re understanding the high road is the smart road,” he said. “This is not an act of charity! This is an act of enlightened self-interest.”
He would have been more correct to call it self-interest tamed. Sapone told me later that it’s expensive to carry a staff of W-2 workers on a gigging schedule. The tax burden is greater for Hello Alfred than it would be on a 1099 model, the hourly rate is high, and the required human-resources infrastructure drives up the cost. Attrition is low, but W-2 companies are also vulnerable to various employee lawsuits from which 1099 employers are insulated.
For now, however, companies such as Hello Alfred, going above and beyond market demands out of principle, may be the gig economy’s best hope. And, occasionally, the principles travel. Blake Hinckley has already moved the most senior three of his six Happy Host staff cleaners onto W-2 status. The reason, he told me, is Sapone: they knew each other in Boston, and she convinced him that any honorable company owed its workers employment benefits.
One afternoon, I accompanied a Hello Alfred tasker named Phillip Pineno as he went to service apartments in Kips Bay. A placid guy with tiny silver hoops in his ears and a hipster’s dusky beard, Pineno does tasking four days a week and, like Bobby Allan, works in his remaining time as an actor. In the lobby of a building facing Bellevue South Park, he gathered packages and ascended to a client’s apartment—one of eleven he’d visit that day. A bag of Trader Joe’s Veggie & Flaxseed Tortilla Chips went in a cupboard. A box of cereal was tucked into position on the counter. Pineno used to be a caterer, doing events at Lincoln Center and the Museum of Natural History. The work was fine, he said, but unpredictable, different from Hello Alfred. “You get to feel more like a human,” he told me. He could take time every week to work toward his dream without gambling his future on it. He had found some sense of workplace comfort—of being valued and known.
For many gig workers, as for Seth F., that dream remains elusive. When Seth F. had finished hanging art work in my living room, I led him to the dining room. He took a small electric drill and some screws out of his backpack, and started driving them into the plaster. We were hanging a small print of a Sol LeWitt drawing, squares in squares in squares. He extracted a laser level, and projected it across the wall. “This is my favorite tool,” he told me, with a moving tenderness. He rarely met other taskers, he said; there were no colleagues in his life with whom he could share experiences and struggles. The flexibility was great, if you had something to be flexible for.
“The gig economy is such a lonely economy,” he told me. He left his drill behind after he finished the work, but I was out when he returned the next day to get it. I never saw him again. ♦
A Chinese flag flies in front of the Great Wall of China, located north of Beijing August 18, 2007. Photo: Reuters/David Gray
China has announced its eight economic aims for 2018 after leaders finished the annual three-day Central Economic Work Conference on Wednesday (December 20, 2017).
The conference, convened by the Central Committee of the Communist Party and the State Council, traditionally sets China’s economic agenda for the coming year. This year, the delegates first act was to rubber stamp the program set at the 19th Party Congress while also agreeing to follow the principles of “Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era”.
The conference then went on to set out the country’s immediate economic focus. This will include promoting new and high quality development, continuing the reform of the economy and improvements in standards of living while, at the same time, ensuring that growth is stable, sustainable and healthy.
China’s President Xi Jinping with Premier Li Keqiang
Xinhua reported that President Xi Jinping opened the conference – where he summarized the achievements of the nation since the 18th Party Congress in 2012 – while Premier Li Keqiang gave a closing speech that outlined China’s eight economic tasks for 2018. In summary, these are:
First, China will work to deepen its supply-side structural reform and upgrade its manufacturing sector from “Made in China” to “Created in China”. The focus should be on quality instead of speed, and obsolete capacity should be eliminated. Technological innovation will be encouraged as will the cooperation between companies that produce military products and those that produce civil-use ones. The economy should work to lower energy and logistic costs and further reform the power, oil and gas and railway sectors.
Second, China will make use of market forces. The country will push forward the reforms of state-own-enterprises and state-owned assets whilst improving their ownership structures and modernizing their management systems. The dispute of property rights will be resolved according to the law, entry barriers in different sectors will be reduced and the relationship between private and public sectors will be managed and regulated.
Third, the scientific development of the rural economy will be encouraged. China will improve the quality of produce in the agricultural sector and, by deepening the reform in grain reserve system, will help stabilize produce prices.
Fourth, the government will promote regional development and the increased cooperation among different cities. Government will try to provide equal public services and infrastructures so people across different geographies will enjoy roughly the same living standard. The Jingjinji Metropolitan Region of Beijing, Tianjin and Hubei will continue to be developed as the capital region of China. Other key projects include the green development along the Yangtze River Delta, the Belt and Road developments and the Greater Bay Area Initiative in the Guangdong-Hong Kong-Macau area.
Fifth, China will work to further open its economy to attract foreign investments. The country will steadily open markets to foreign firms and will protect their investments and intellectual properties. China will follow standard international conventions when it comes to the restriction of inward foreign capital and will launch more free-trade-zone test sites.
Sixth, China will work to improve living standards and the country’s social security system. More emphasis will be placed on improving primary and secondary school education, early-age education and child care services. The country will also improve the pension fund system and encourage private funds to work in the elderly-care and healthcare sectors.
Seventh, the country will establish a rental housing market. It will establish new rules to better protect both property renters and leasers and will work to ensure healthy development in the property sector.
Eighth, China will increase its pace in ecological development and enhance environmental protection. It will launch large-scale green campaigns and encourage public and private funds to invest in the environmental protection sector by promoting the notion that “only truly green areas can become prosperous”.
The conference called for all government departments to stay united with Xi Jinping as a core leader and implement the country’s economic development plan for 2018.
As long as the Cambodian government manages to maintain satisfactory economic performance, continues its piecemeal reforms benefitting the majority of the population, and promotes some appearance of democracy in the country, it will continue to demand difficult value judgments on the part of Cambodian citizens as to whether the CPP’s actions against the media and civil society are worth fighting back against.– Kongkea Chhoeun
It might be easy to forget given the events of August–September 2017, but Cambodian democracy had until a few years ago been making progress. Many key indicators of democratic quality had continued to improve since the 1998 national elections, which followed the near collapse of the system in the aftermath of the July 1997 internal fighting between armed forces loyal to Prime Minister Hun Sen and Prince Norodom Rannariddh.
Competition among political parties increased, thanks to the unification of the opposition parties in 2012 ahead of the 2013 national election. The economy also continued to grow extraordinarily well. Growth has averaged 7 per cent per year since 1993, and poverty has fallen more than 1 per cent per year on average since 2003. Inequality has also declined. Vertical political accountability has been strengthened markedly, thanks to decentralisation and deconcentration. Cambodians are increasingly able to hold local leaders to account through local democratic processes.
Sanderson Park, at Wat Phnom, Phnom Penh has a sculpture of a dove with an olive branch in its beak. It is made up entirely from parts of AK-47 rifles.
But the 2013 polls were a turning point. Although they won the election, the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) lost the popular vote for the first time since 1998, seeing its popular vote plummet by more than 20 per cent. To its credit, the CPP-led government subsequently implemented various reforms aimed at winning the hearts and minds of Cambodian voters. The CPP has permitted moderate reforms, restructured the National Electoral Committee and increased public servants pay. And in August 2017, Hun Sen also promised a slew of new benefits for garment workers, including a big increase in their monthly minimum wage.
But with the carrots have come sticks.Indicators of horizontal accountability have either stalled or are in decline. Local and international NGOs and media operated with comparatively little constraint from the state before the 2013 national election period. Since then, the government has made disturbing moves that wipe out progress made in terms of political openness. Among a range of actions is the passage of legislation governing NGOs.
Despite a boycott by the opposition, the Parliament passed the Law on Associations and Non-Governmental Organisations, which requires the nearly 5000 domestic and international NGOs that work in the country to register with the government and report their activities and finances or risk fines, criminal prosecution and being shut down. In August 2017, the government used this law to order the National Democratic Institute (NDI) to shut down its operations and repatriate its foreign staff, accusing the NDI of illegally operating in the country.
The Cambodian government has also targeted foreign and foreign-linked media. In August 2017, the government accused the Cambodia Daily of failing to pay more than US$6 million in taxes, giving the paper one month to resolve the issue or risk being shut down. The Daily is a US-owned outlet credited for its reports critical of the government. In addition, the government instructed more than a dozen radio stations across the country to cease operations, accusing them of failing to report how much and to whom they sell their airtime.
Two major factors — one internal and one external — may explain the government’s recent measures against international NGOs and media. Internally, these measures were escalated as a result of the June 2017 local government elections, the result of which represented a big boost for the opposition Cambodian National Rescue Party and a serious blow to the CPP. After the June 2017 local government elections, the CPP still controlled the majority of local governments — 1156 or 70 per cent of communes. But the opposition party’s share of local governments increased about 12 fold in comparison with the last local elections held in 2012.
The external factor is the declining role of the United States as a champion of democracy. The drastic moves targeting US-based NGOs and media occurred in the aftermath of the election of Donald Trump. His election and subsequent attacks on mainstream media have disconcerted democrats at home and abroad and certainly delegitimised US efforts to promote liberal democratic principles internationally.
Furthermore, the failure of the United States to pre-empt and manage democratic breakdown in Thailand, and to promote democracy in Laos and Vietnam, only serves to diminish the US role in promoting democracy in Cambodia, and potentially gives the Cambodian government an excuse to maintain the status quo.
Likewise, Australia and European countries have been silent on these issues so far, showing a similar unwillingness to influence internal political decisions in Cambodia. The 2014 Australia–Cambodia refugee deal tainted Australia’s reputation as an altruistic donor to Cambodia, and has certainly undermined Australian leverage in promoting reforms in Cambodian domestic affairs. And European countries have been busy cleaning up the mess in their own backyard after the Brexit vote in 2016 and the rise of populist movements across the continent.
Meanwhile, Cambodia is increasingly dependent on China, and less and less so on Western countries. China is feeding the Cambodian economy, investing US$857 million (roughly 61 per cent of total FDI) and channelling US$320 million in aid (roughly 30 per cent of total aid) to the country in 2015. By contrast, investment and aid from Western countries is either modest or on the decline.
Whatever the mix of domestic and global political influences, the consequences of the CPP’s crackdown on Cambodia’s democracy are being felt. As long as the Cambodian government manages to maintain satisfactory economic performance, continues its piecemeal reforms benefitting the majority of the population, and promotes some appearance of democracy in the country, it will continue to demand difficult value judgments on the part of Cambodian citizens as to whether the CPP’s actions against the media and civil society are worth fighting back against.
Kongkea Chhoeun is a PhD Candidate at the Crawford School of Public Policy, The Australian National University.
This article was first publishedhere on New Mandala.