Marc Andreessen, venture capitalist, recently sent out this twitter essay, as captured by a fan in motivational-poster font:
— pngmarca (@pngmarca) March 19, 2015
This posture, that we can achieve a more equal society through market innovation, is common in tech circles and initially seductive, so it’s worth considering the magical thinking on display here. “Thanks to Lyft and Uber, now anyone with a car can offer rides to other passengers. Hence, income inequality reduced.” First, Uber absolutely, positively does not allow “anyone with a car” to pick up passengers. A New York City driver can’t own a car any older than 2011. In fact, some makes can’t be used at all. Have a Honda Fit that you’d like to be an internet-age, disruptive entrepreneur with? Too bad, it’s not accepted. You can also be fired. This guy got fired for a lukewarm tweet about Uber. You can be fired for receiving only a 4.5/5 rating from passengers.
Turns out Uber has rules, because they’re giving anyone back the means of production. They’re just a company. And a cab driver who becomes an Uber driver hasn’t reduced income inequality; he’s changed bosses. Maybe someone who couldn’t drive a cab before but now can drive Uber as a second job has reduced inequality, but so does a second job walking dogs, and that job isn’t lauded as the second coming of the printing press. The Airbnb logic is similarly flimsy. It’s true someone renting out their living room of a one bedroom has added a few dollars to their income, but the guy who’s renting out his second and third houses for hundreds of dollars a night has added quite a lot more.
For whatever reason, the role of being a better boss or a better middleman isn’t enough for Silicon Valley. They have to be “the means of production.” Uber is a company, one worth more than any taxicab company to ever exist. Airbnb is a company. On net, they’re probably good companies, especially for showing how stupid and unproductive some regulations are. But they aren’t going to fix income inequality.