The Uberization of corporate political action

By Dieter Zinnbauer

With more than USD 12 billion spent the 2020 US election cycle may well have been the most expensive political campaign in the world so far. Yet in the shadows of this epic political contest another campaign unfolded that in my view provides some really interesting early signals on emerging trends in corporate political activity.

Alongside the national election Californians went to vote on a number of plebiscitary ballot measures. Among them Proposition 22 that like no other exemplifies how business lobbying unfolds in the era of what is often called the gig-and platform economy.

Prop 22, as it is known for short, was spearheaded by Uber and Lyft as a last ditch effort after exhausting all judicial and legislative tactics to win an exemption from a new Californian labor law that aimed to force these companies to classify their drivers as employees, rather than independent contractors.

A special type of thing

Leaving aside the merits of the argument – as consequential and hard to defend the position of Uber and peers may be-  Prop 22 is remarkable on many fronts.  It exemplifies the growing use of what was once meant to be a plebiscitary counterweight to corporate influence by these very corporate actors to advance their own interests.  

It saw platform companies that connect millions of drivers and tens of millions of passengers in so called two-sided markets take fully advantage of these relationships by intensely lobbying and mobilizing these constituencies for their cause.

It witnessed the deployment of targeted push messages and suggestive survey snippets through the proprietary app infrastructure, administered and tracked by a black-box algorithm that also sets prices and assigns business opportunities and thus commands Foucauldian-like disciplinary allure. Which driver would want to be seen and classified to be unsupportive of the company’s political project while the day’s earnings depend on being assigned this one lucrative trip to the airport? 

Ballot 22 also starkly illustrates the chimera of political equality or of even the resemblance of a level playing field in a world with unconstrained campaign expenditures that resulted in the gig-side outspending the labor side by a factor of 10 to 1.  And it is truly remarkable in its brazen disregard of democratic legitimacy. It aimed to expressly derail a provision that was not hidden on page 1205 of a large body of complex legislation and stealthily whisked through without much public scrutiny. Instead it took aim at a piece of legislation that had been in the public, even international spotlight for quite some time, extensively discussed and lobbied on and resoundingly tested and confirmed in court.

Even more astounding, Prop 22 sought to prevent any future democratic course correction through including a clause that would require an unprecedented 7/8 supermajority in the legislature for overturning it – a much higher hurdle than is set for amending the US constitution.

All these features are fascinating in themselves and deserve a much more detailed examination which has already begun in academic circles, for example with regard to platform-led mobilization  or data-driven corporate advocacy and to which I hope to contribute to in a longer essay elsewhere soon. Here and now I just wanted to offer some very early and unpolished ideas on one more, largely overlooked angle that makes Prop 22 and the corporate political actions of Uber et al. so fascinating.

In very broad brushes the thinking here goes as follows: 

Businesses that are not explicitly chartered as public benefits corporations derive their social license to operate primarily by making a positive economic contribution in terms of innovation, resource efficiency et al. (and yes, by doing this as responsible corporate citizens that respect the spirit of applicable laws, planetary boundaries etc.). The longer-term ability of a company to be financially self-sustaining in a competitive, externality-free market situation is – absent any other claims about achieving non-financial societal benefits – a first approximation for such a positive economic contribution.

Society puts a higher economic value on the contribution of the corporation than the costs of its fairly priced inputs. The business model adds overall economic value, the business organization – not just the people involved in it as individuals claiming their citizenship rights – can invoke this overall economic contribution to justify a certain degree of standing in the democratic discourse.  

Yet this is precisely not the case with companies such as Uber and Lyft.  They have been losing vast sums of money for years, bleeding cash on every ride even while exploiting many regulatory gaps that lower their cost structures relative to their competitors in the ride-hailing business. All this was made possible by enormous sums of venture capital funding – USD 26 billion for Uber alone up until April 2020. Venture funders bet on those companies to eventually achieve a winner-takes-most status and commensurate pricing power in a market characterized by strong network effects and economies of scale /scope. 

The envisioned route to economic dominance, however, also requires to simultaneously build and assert the political influence necessary to stave off regulatory efforts such as categorizing drivers as employees and many other pricey regulations that threaten to close the very regulatory arbitrage opportunities on which large parts of the business model  of Uber, Lyft and other gig companies are ultimately built. 

Overall this results in a situation where venture-funding is at least as much about blitz-scaling political power as it is about financing hyper-growth for market dominance. Both are necessary, both reinforce each other. The build-up of political good will and supportive constituencies is not a by-product of building customer loyalty. It is an essential part of the strategy to architect a business model that critically depends on regulatory accommodation and complicity. Yet, all along and rather ironically this heavy reliance on political action and political success stands in stark contrast to the relative normative weakness of claims made by companies without a clear route to profitability that cannot convincingly back up their political voice with an obvious net positive contribution to overall economic welfare. Stripping away all ornaments what’s left is a story of VC-funded particularistic political rent-seeking. 

Now, much more needs to be explored here and there are many holes that can be punched into this storyline as described in these very broad terms. So please check back here soon for a more developed version of this argument. In the meantime I would love to hear your comments and criticism to help advance this conversation. 


 Epi-epilogue

Uber et al. won Prop 22 by a large margin of 58% to 41%. Prop 22 turned out to be the most expensive ballot initiative in US history. So far.  After the vote Uber’s CEO announced in an analyst call that the company will “more loudly advocate for laws like Prop 22  [and] work with governments across the US and the world to make this a reality.”  The company continues to loose large sums of money.


About the Author

Dieter Zinnbauer is a Marie-Skłodowska-Curie Fellow at CBS’ Department of Management, Society and Communication. His CBS research focuses on business as political actor in the context of big data, populism and “corporate purpose fatigue”.


Photo by ryan park on Unsplash

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