"I am not a great fan of Uber--you can quote me on that," declared Democratic hopeful Bernie Sanders in August. The main reason he has "serious problems" with the ride-sharing service? It's "unregulated," he told Bloomberg. In this, if little else, Sanders finds himself in agreement with rival Hillary Clinton, who decried the "gig economy" in a major economic address around the same time last summer.
On the face of it, the sharing economy should make people of virtually all political stripes feel warm and fuzzy. Nearly any 21st century stump speech is going to be full of buzzwords--entrepreneurship, fairness, choice, opportunity, consumer empowerment, flexibility--that best describe this fast-growing commercial sector. The vast majority of people who have taken an Uber, shopped on Etsy, or found a place to stay through Airbnb enthusiastically embrace these new services which allow individual buyers and sellers to interact more easily and directly. Yet many sharing-economy companies have faced staunch political resistance.
Initially that hostility mostly came from state and municipal governments, at the behest of local special interests--legacy hotel and taxi companies chief among them--who slyly suggested that their new competition posed a threat to "public safety" by often operating outside of traditional regulatory frameworks. But as more people participated in the sharing economy, as consumers or as workers, cities and states reversed course and began implementing rules that were friendlier to the newcomers, essentially caving to the reality already in place on the ground. It's hard to believe that Virginia was issuing cease-and-desist letters to Uber and Lyft only two years ago. Now the state has regulations, pushed by Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe, that are generally welcoming to the ride-sharing industry.
Not everyone is on board. In Chicago there's a push to require Uber drivers to get the same licenses as full-time taxi drivers, for example, and New York City is attempting to crack down on what are deemed "illegal" Airbnb rentals. But those are the exceptions, not the norm they were a few years ago. And both of those measures, like similar restrictions under consideration elsewhere, are likely to fail.
Within states, the sharing economy sometimes pits politicians from the same party against one another. In New York, Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo called Uber "one of these great inventions, startups, of this new economy" and said he doesn't "think the government should be in the business of trying to restrict job growth." Cuomo is working with state legislators to harmonize local regulations and bring Uber to all New Yorkers. At the same time, Democratic New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio has assumed a decidedly anti-sharing economy posture. Last year de Blasio unsuccessfully attempted to cap the growth of ride-hailing services in the city, citing concerns over traffic congestion in downtown and midtown Manhattan.
But just as pols from both parties in most localities were wising up, powerful national special interests started taking notice of Uber and Airbnb for reasons of their own. Facing declining membership, especially among young workers, unions have seized on the sharing economy as just another example of evil capitalists exploiting helpless workers.
Today, many Democratic federal politicians beholden to Big Labor blame sharing economy companies for America's tepid recovery from the Great Recession of 2007-2009. The problem, the International Brotherhood of Teamsters explained in its newsletter, is that "these companies are simply recycling old ideas and taking us backwards to a time when workers had no rights on the job." The complaints do not stop there. "Don't let the term 'sharing economy' fool you. There is no sharing. It's really just the 1 percent making money by stripping workers of the rights for which the labor movement has fought so hard to secure." The Teamsters' solution...