Has Uber caused more harm than good? After disrupting the lives of tens of thousands of livery drivers the globe over, many believe it has – but those critics probably never met Meshack Andrew and Osman Omer.
Osman spent 1991-95 living in a Kurdish refugee camp following Saddam Hussein’s brutal invasion of Kuwait. The Kurds have never had a country to call their own, and Osman’s teenage years near Erbil were particularly harsh. After miraculously winning a US visa in 1996, his life has been transformed. Osman and his wife now own their home and make a good living in Salt Lake City. He supplements his income as a receiving manager at a Walmart super center by driving an Uber several days a week. “Whenever I have spare time, I can drive MY customers to wherever they need to go.” Osman feels deeply blessed by both job opportunities. “If anyone told me when I was in Makhmur I would one day own a piece of the American Dream, I would have told them they were crazy.”
But even Osman’s blessings seem modest when compared to Meshack’s. The hardworking father of four children has more than doubled his income to 40,000 Kenyan shillings per month since abandoning his career as a corporate driver in Nairobi five years ago. It’s not that his life’s become easier: Meshack typically works 14 hours a day, 30 days a month. But because of his industriousness and thrift, his eldest son Simon will soon finish his electrical engineering degree at Kabete Technology College. Simon’s younger brother Steven plans to follow in his older brother’s footsteps, relying upon the same tuition help he got from his father. Simon and his siblings will reap the benefits of advanced technical degrees and life-transforming careers Meshack himself could never attain. Meshack exudes prideful joy, knowing all four of his children will live easier, more fulfilling lives because of his hard work and entrepreneurialism.
“The process of industrial mutation incessantly revolutionizes economic structures from within, incessantly destroying the old one, incessantly creating a new one,” wrote the late, great Joseph Schumpeter. Just as all of our personal weaknesses are mirror images of our strengths, capitalism’s painful tendency towards “creative destruction” is precisely how it breeds improved productivity, higher living standards and greater consumer choice. I can speak passionately to the latter. Over the past month alone, I have ridden Ubers in eleven different cities on three separate continents, all summoned through the convenience of a single app. In addition to getting from point-to-point in totally unfamiliar African, European and US environs efficiently, I made two great, new friends, Osman and Meshack.
Uber now has more than 3.5 million drivers worldwide. Many have inspirational, entrepreneurial stories like Osman and Meshack. Like Osman, many drivers work part time, augmenting their income whenever they can. Others like Meshack work punishing hours just to make as much as money as they can. Uber has clearly opened up new labor markets, and that new supply of labor has been met with consumer demand. In the US, a quarter of Uber drivers are female. They co-exist with licensed-for-hire drivers in most urban centers, but also service many more remote jurisdictions that never had car services. Approximately 25 million Uber trips are taken every day around the globe. Since its founding, Uber has provided more than 42 billion rides, point-to-point. Uber has created a much larger market, one traditional drivers could have never reached.
Stakeholder capitalism has captured the imagination of managers and workers alike because many have concluded that wealth generated by traditional capitalism has not been distributed broadly enough. The UAW insisted they had not been given their fair share of GM, Ford and Stellantis’ burgeoning profits. They now have more coming their way. Displaced livery drivers around the globe justly claimed Uber has made their former livelihoods less livable.
But new markets play an essential role in distributing capital and labor more broadly. If stakeholder capitalism is to have any chance of success, it must remain capitalistic. “Incessantly revolutionizing structures from within” invariably hurts some, but when it benefits more than it hurts – as has clearly been the case with Uber – the common good is served.