Uber and Amos: Economic Justice in the Gig Economy (Luke 16:1-13)
Rev. Keith Anderson
The curbside at Atlanta airport's Terminal South is a strange place to have a moral crisis, but there I was. I had just arrived and in town and I needed a ride to my final destination. As I exited through the sliding glass door outside to the ground transportation area, on my right was the taxi stand. In my left hand was my iPhone open to the Uber app, which told me the nearest Uber car was just four minutes away.
Taxi or Uber? For many, it is a question with implications that extend far beyond what kind of car you ride in. It is a question that can raise real moral implications, just as it did for me.
In a very short period of time Uber has radically changed the way people use car services. Individuals can register with Uber and drive their own cars to transport passengers. As a rider, using the app is dead simple and pretty fun to use-and its often much cheaper than a taxi, whose rates are regulated by local municipal standards.
Uber is incredibly popular and convenient. Its much easier to find a ride, and offers drivers a supplement to their income, but there as been much debate about Uber (notably surrounding its exit from Austin, Texas), including how drivers may be poorly compensated, which is seen by some as a continuation of an erosion of labor market since the great recession.
Adding to my moral quandary was that my grandfather himself was a taxi driver. Many of my favorite childhood memories were of riding around in my grandfather's taxi. His name painted on the door conferred a certain dignity and the regulated rates that brought him a reasonable wage.
As people rushed by me, I debated in my mind and heart whether to honor my grandfather's legacy or call an Uber.
The Gig Economy
Uber and other services like AirBNB, are, depending on who you read, the heralding or simply the rapid acceleration of what many have called "The Gig Economy," where people cobble together a living through part-time or freelance work, or "gigs." As we well know, the days of working with the same company for one's whole career is well past. What we have been slow to recognize is that for many today its hard to find consistent full time employment at all, as more and more employers often don't want to make long-term commitments or pay benefits.
And its becoming increasingly common. Brandon Ambrosino reports that "According to a 2014 study commissioned by the Freelancers Union, 53 million Americans are independent workers, about 34 percent of the total workforce. A study from Intuit predicts that by 2020, 40 percent of US workers will fall into this category."
Younger workers trying to break into the job market are among those most affected. Catherine Baab-Muguira has referred to Millenials as "Generation 1099" meaning they get a 1099 rather than a W-2 for a regular salary. She says, "Millennials are obsessed with side hustles because they're all we've got."
She asks, "what happens when a generation raised with a 'you can be whatever you want to be' ethos meets the worst job market in years? In which many of the traditional dream careers-from working in the arts to becoming a lawyer-go from being long shots to being totally untenable, or more or less cease to exist altogether?"
While a "gig economy" in which people create their own paths has a certain romanticism to it, and does afford certain new opportunities, it leaves many workers vulnerable, insecure, and stressed. American workers are industrious and productive, but even so, many feel they are falling farther and farther behind.
The manager in Jesus' parable from Luke 16 could sympathize with those making their way in today's economy.
Like many, the manager finds himself on the verge of being laid off-in this case squandering his rich boss' property. He knows its coming so before the HR department fills out all the requisite paperwork, and he is locked out of his office and escorted from the building, he hurriedly makes amends with his boss' clients, so that when he moves on and looks for another job they will be inclined to help him. It's the first-century equivalent of freshening up his LinkedIn account and sending emails with copies of his CV to his networks of colleagues and friends.
Although he is fired and then unilaterally writes down the debts of his boss' clients, he surprisingly praised his shrewdness. The moral of the story seems rather ambiguous, but it seems to fit Jesus' counsel to his disciples to be "wise as serpents and innocent as doves" (Matthew 10:16), which is what people in today's labor environment certainly need to be.
Enter Amos. Amos was a prophet who spoke passionately on issues of economic justice. He prophesied in a time, not unlike our own, when the fundamentals of the economy shifted, leading to expanding income inequality, which was leaving people many behind.
Amos relentlessly and uncompromisingly addressed "a prosperity that enveloped the royal family and prominent members of society but did not trickle down to the poor. It is this uneven distribution of wealth...that set the atmosphere for the social crimes that Amos so violently abhorred." [i]
He outlines some of those crimes in this week's reading: trampling the needy, bringing ruin on the poor, slavery, exploitation, and unjust business practices.
Amos saw that economic exploitation takes many forms. Sometimes it might even appear as a shiny new app.
For Amos, "socioeconomic reorganization without compassion is not acceptable."[ii] Nearly 3,000 years later in today's gig economy, the same must be true for us.
Standing curbside in Atlanta, I put the phone back in my pocket and hailed a taxi.
Bible Study Questions:
1. How have you or someone you know experienced the shift toward the "gig economy"? What are the new opportunities and challenges it has presented?
2. How can we practice compassion in the midst of this time of socioeconomic reorganization?
3. What are the moral quandaries that this new economy or new technologies have raised for you? How have you addressed them?
For Further Reading:
Gary Vaynerchuk, The Thank You Economy
[i] Bruce E. Willoughby, "Amos" in the Anchor Bible Dictionary
[ii] Bruce E. Willoughby, "Amos" in the Anchor Bible Dictionary
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