Editorial cartoon (12/28/2016)

The demise of the once-thriving taxi business in Chicago helps explain why the national economy keeps leaving so many middle-class American workers behind.

The impact of the so-called ride-sharing companies, the best known of which are Uber and Lyft, is a microcosm of how certain technological advances have destroyed decent-paying full-time jobs and replaced them with part-time jobs with no benefits such as health insurance and pensions.

I remember a few years back when Uber was first trying to get a toe-hold in Madison. A fit and dapper 20-something from Uber's headquarters in San Francisco came to the office to argue that Mayor Paul Soglin was wrong in insisting Uber shouldn't be allowed to operate here until it abided by the city's regulations on taxi companies.

He insisted that his company wasn't a threat to taxis, that the people who would use it are folks who would otherwise take their own cars.

Well, tell that to the 2,500 or so Chicago taxi drivers who are no longer working. And that's just Chicago. The disruption in the traditional taxi business has been as great if not greater in other metropolitan areas around the country. Once family-supporting jobs are now held by part-time moonlighters looking for a few extra bucks and others willing to work convoluted hours using their own cars for a share of their fares.

One taxi driver told the Chicago Tribune that he now has to work about 80 hours a week compared to the 50 or so he used to drive to earn enough in fares so he can continue to support his family.

Nothing wrong with that, defenders of free enterprise tell us. Wisconsin's pro-business governor and Legislature thought it so important to protect wealthy tech moguls in California from ogres like Paul Soglin that they passed a bill taking over regulation of the ride-sharing corporations. Always so supportive of home rule, these new Republicans.

Oh, I forgot, it was only in the interest of "creating jobs." In their minds it's always better to create a few part-time no-beneift jobs than to save some decent-paying full-time ones. Just think how much that helps profits.

But let's face it. This is the march of technology. Young people swear by ride-sharing services. Taxis are so yesterday. The buggy whip, after all, became extinct when Henry Ford brought out his Model Ts. What we forget, though, is that auto workers more than replaced those lost horse and buggy jobs — and when unions organized those auto workers, they built a middle class that had reasonable work hours and decent pay.

Not so with today's technological advances. Robots are now taking auto plant and steel worker jobs. Technological entrepreneurs build an app to dispatch private taxis and they and their stockholders share in billions while the worker bees driving those cars work without benefits or simple workplace protections.

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That's how we want it. We flocked to Wal-Mart at the expense of the mom and pops and their workers on main streets across the country, sacrificing decent jobs for those that pay the minimum wage.

In a recent Voice of the People letter, a Madison cab driver wondered why, in a city that prides itself on small businesses and buying local, so many have started using Uber. The money, he said, that cabdrivers make goes to paying for things like mortgage and food and not paying off a car like a BMW, which he claims some Uber drivers use.

Multiply this by dozens and dozens of other examples and soon you realize just how this all contributes to a national economy that sees more money going to the wealthiest at the expense of those actually doing the work. 

But it isn't the government we need to be mad at in this case — it's ourselves.

Dave Zweifel is editor emeritus of The Capital Times. dzweifel@madison.com and on Twitter @DaveZweifel

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Editor Emeritus

Dave is editor emeritus of The Capital Times.