Transcript: CSPS Virtual Café Series: Gig Work and the Reshaping of Modern Markets
[The CSPS logo appears on screen.]
[A video chat appears with Taki Sarantakis and Wingham Rowan.]
Taki Sarantakis, Canada School of Public Service: Good morning, good evening, good afternoon, depending on when you're joining us. I am taking Sarantakis. I am the president of the Canada School of Public Service. And this is another edition of the CSPS Virtual Café, where we bring interesting people to come forward with interesting ideas, that are of broad interest to Canada's public service community. And today we're talking about something very, very interesting, as always. But today we're talking about something in addition to being interesting, a little bit novel, which is modern markets for all. And you'll see what that means as we go through. But you all know that we are in the age of platforms. And platforms are starting to have disproportionately large impacts on our lives. And you all know virtually all of those platforms, that are material anyways, are private platforms. And today, what we are talking about potentially- and I'm not going to give it away. You're going to have to sit and listen for a few minutes, is public benefit platforms. That's another way of kind of saying what we're going to go through today.
So today we are joined by Mr. Wingham Rowan and he's somewhere - I don't know if he's in Los Angeles or California or something. But he's far away, and he is the president of an entity called Modern Markets for All. And he has been profiled in my favourite magazine, apologies to all the others. The New Yorker. If you're in The New Yorker, you're a small "g" deity. You're a small "g" god. So, we love people from the New Yorker, all over kind of the world. So, Wingham, without much further ado, we're going to let you start. And I understand your presentation is in three parts. So, we'll kind of do a part, pause, we'll have a little conversation, and we'll repeat. Over to you, sir.
[Wingham shares his screen, showing a slide show. The first slide features two parents holding the hands of their young child. The title reads "Des marchés modernes pour tous : Une politique pour l'après-emploi." Text beside the family is of a New York Times headline from December 18, 2019 and reads "Le travail d'appoint fait de plus en plus partie de la culture américaine pour une vaste part de la population." Wingham Rowan's name appears with his website : www.moderonMarketsforAll.org.]
Wingham Rowan, Modern Markets for All: Excellent. Thank you, Taki. Yes. Part one, I want to bring you up to speed on a problem in today's economy. So, when you think about the future of work and I'm sure a lot of people on this webinar are thinking about that. You may unthinkingly be assuming it's about the future of jobs. And I ran British government programs that focused on people who are looking for work, but not for a job. And those programs are now being replicated by public agencies in California. Which is why it's like you said, I'm in Los Angeles at the moment. So, the reason that this is worth looking at is that these people who are seeking irregular work, ad-hock work, often fall through the gaps of all sorts of government and philanthropic programs. But when you start to delve into the problems they face, you quickly uncover a kind of...a sort of brutal injustice across the whole of modern capitalism and how it can be fixed.
[The slide changes. In three sections, it shows people and charts. The slide reads "LES TRAVAILLEURS : Qui étaient-ils avant la pandémie de Covid-19?" The first section of the chart reads: Régimes de travail irréguliers - essential. The second section reads: Régimes de travail irréguliers – leur plein gré. The third section reads: Régimes de travail irréguliers – contre leur gré.]
So, for this part one, let's just focus on the problem for a moment. So, to take us on that journey, I want to start by introducing the people I serve, about 20% of adults, the figure varies depending on which research you use, can't do a job at the moment. They have a medical problem that fluctuates day to day. They have complex parenting or caregiving needs for a family member. They're studying with an unpredictable schedule. And they can wake up each morning and the question is, can I work today? I don't know. It depends how the day goes.
You might be surprised how many people could take a job, but when they look at the jobs available to them, they would rather have a portfolio of Ad-hock employment. And I'm talking completely about the lower skilled here. I'm not talking about web designers and translators and copywriters and accountants and lawyers who can work from home. I'm talking about what you might think of as gig workers. Although, I hope to convince you it is a much bigger issue than that. And then thirdly, you have the partially employed.
So increasingly, the lower skilled corporate employees are scheduled through workforce scheduling systems that can operate very, very precisely in terms of calling people in and sending them home. And there is an absolute data deficit in this part of the labour market. You CANSTAT data will not be granular enough to capture what's going on. But if you were to say what percentage of Canadian adults were in each of these categories pre-COVID, I could produce research, independent research that would justify those figures. They will be bigger now.
[Numbers pop up under each section: 15%, 10% and 10% respectively.]
And long story short, if you're going to address the problems that this cohort faces, you have to focus on an issue I'm going to call quality of markets available, because someone in a job will typically enter the labour market every few years when it's time to move on. In this world, you can be in and out of the labour market several times a day, searching for some more work. And so, the markets you can access, where you can find that the opportunity to earn are absolutely pivotal.
So, we set out to analyze the quality of markets that this part of the labour market can rely on. To do that, you do need to compare the markets they use with what's happening to markets generally in the economy at the moment.
[The slide changes. It reads "LE PROBLÈME? L'iniquité des marchés."]
And that's where it gets disturbing. So, I'm going to take you on a journey, if I may, through what we call inequality of markets and to go-- I'm going to have to get a bit geeky. Bear with me, I will get back to the human aspect.
[The slide changes. It reads "LES MARCHÉS : la pierre angulaire du capitalisme." An image on the left side of the screen is of a mother and her children in a grocery store. The image on the right is of two women selling odds and ends in a parking lot of a farmers market]
But broadly, when I talk about markets, I mean, the plumbing of capitalism. I mean, any exchange where buyers of any resource meet the sellers. I don't mean markets in the sort of amorphous political sense that you may typically use it. We had markets for centuries, of course. And for centuries, nobody's really needed to analyze the relative efficiency of markets in different parts of the economy. They've all operated about the same level. But that started to change in the 1980s with computer trading, and then it really began to change in the late, late 1990s.
[The slide changes. It reads "LES MARCHÉS MODERNES : une nouvelle ère" and shows the logos of Spotify, Expedia, eBay and Amazon.]
We now have a whole new era of markets. And they are exponentially more powerful than what came before in terms of the offerings, each market contains, the tools it can offer to trading, the data it can generate, the ability to cut overheads. But also, the ability to centralize power and manipulate the markets. And under the hood- sorry I'm staying geeky for a while. Bear with me. Under the hood, what's going on is there's a whole raft of new technologies that have come to maturity, typically developed in government research programs instantly.
[The slide changes. It reads "MARCHÉS MODERNES : sous le capot." On the left side of the screen the following are listed in bullet format: Authentification; Connectivité; Fonctions d'affichage; Outils des réseaux, Interopérabilité; Exploration de données; and, System de paiement. All of these are in a bracket that lead to the right side of the screen with text reading: Technologies des marches moderns.]
And collectively I'm going to call these the modern market technologies. And the key to understanding markets inequality is understanding that these technologies are being used in very different ways, in different sectors of the economy.
[The slide changes, showing a rubric for a market, based on five criteria. It reads "LES MARCHÉS MODERNES : comment les évaluer?." The chart title is "Voici Les Cinq Facteurs Utilisés Pour Évaluer Un Marché (Pour Ses Vendeurs)." The first row reads: Profondeur; the row beside it reads: Quel est le pourcentage d'acheteurs éventuels qui ont recours à ce marché? (idéalement, 100 %). The second row reads: Étendue; the row beside it reads: Quel pourcentage de tous les actifs/atouts que les vendeurs pourraient vendre pourraient être effectivement échangés sur ce marché? (idéalement, 100 %). The third row reads: Portée de la fonctionnalité; the row beside it reads: Contrôle total des modalités/paramètres de vente? Jumelage sans effort? Données utiles? Interventions acceptées? The fourth column reads: Frais; the row beside it reads: Quelle part des gains des vendeurs est retenue par les opérateurs de marché? The fifth column reads: Gouvernance; the column beside it reads; Atténuation des risques des transcription? Protection des renseignements personnels? Neutralité? Transperence? Reddition de comptes? Vérification?]
So, we wanted to understand that and kind of begin to make it tangible. So, we asked ourselves, how do you rate one of these new marketplaces? How do you rank it against what's possible and what's out there? And when I say rank a market, I'm not interested in what it does for buyers. Cool new ways to buy stuff, don't sustainably pay the bills. I'm absolutely focused on what the market that we're ranking can do for sellers. And this might look like an academic exercise because nobody has perfect markets. Well, nobody did until...over the last 25 years or so, Wall Street has persuaded the buyers of financial assets to migrate to markets that may be lots of different exchanges, but they're interoperable so effectively they operate for the sellers as one broad, deep platform. They have extraordinary data generation capabilities. They have tools for trading, for risk mitigation, for proactively identifying opportunity that we can barely conceive of. And they can do all this for overheads that are often percentage-sorry, fractions of 1%. And government bodies were asked to create new institutions that would regulate and keep these markets solid and transparent. And they did. And we like efficient markets. We absolutely approve of this, we're capitalists. Until you contrast it with what's happened elsewhere in the economy.
[The slide changes. It shows icons and platforms under three titled subsections with the first section reading "Sites d'emplois" and showing job bank websites; the second subsection reading "Plateformes d'emplois à la demande" and showing logos of gig-job websites; the third subsection reading "Employeurs/Agences" and showing job and position filling software.]
So, what did labour get out of the modern markets era? Discount job boards, they're low tech, they're just classified adverts with a search engine. We all know about the gig work platforms, there's thousands of them. They've got a lot of money. They make a lot of noise. But from the selling perspective, they're not that relevant. The real impact is in these workforce scheduling systems. And in case you're not familiar with them, they are effectively operating monopsony markets. So, one culprit can buy the time buy the hours of their pool of employees. They're the only buyer in the market. And these things can be set to buy with day-by-day accuracy, with hour-by-hour need, calling workers in. And this impacts the workers who service in our hotel rooms, ring up our groceries, serve our coffee. It's just spreading through lower skilled employment now.
I want to give you a quick snapshot of these high-tech new labour markets. And to do that, I have to use a proxy because there is none of the transparency or accountability or audit ability that the Wall Street markets are built around. And the proxy I'm going to use is Uber because they're the best scrutinized of these new labour markets. They're certainly not the most impactful in seller terms.
[The slide changes with the title reading "MARCHÉS MODERNES : et la main-d'oeuvre?" There is a headline from the Observer from January 19, 2016 and reads "Uber Drivers Plan Boycott AfterFare Cuts Slash Their Earnings to Below Minimum Wage."]
So, in case you weren't...Uber has been caught systematically cutting their sellers earnings. They've done it multiple times. They were running software that identified regulators and then misled them. They were distorting the market they run to disadvantage competing markets, which might try to attract their sellers.
[The headline changes to a title from The Verge from September 8, 2017 and reads "Uber is under FBI investigation over software it used to track Lyft drivers."]
And when a first jurisdiction, California said enough and passed a law called AB5, to create some protections for workers on these platforms, Uber mobilized their competition and invested 205 million to overturn that law in a campaign known as Proposition 22. They were successful and instantly their valuations increased 30 billion dollars as a result of that 200 million investment.
[The headline changes to a title from The Guardian from November 11, 2020 and reads "Prop 22: why Uber's victory in California could harm gig workers nationwide."]
And in the course of the Proposition 22 campaign, Uber made a range of promises about increased flexibility and control for their sellers. And by now, you can probably guess what happened to those promises once the law was overturned.
[The headline changes to a title from the Los Angeles Times from May 28, 2021 and reads "Uber se rétracte quant à la souplesse qu'il a promise aux chauffeurs pour gagner leur soutien à l'égard de la proposition 22."]
So, this service Uber charged typically 30% of each seller's earnings, and you might say, well, why on earth does anyone sell an Uber? They have to. It's where the buyers have gone. Uber subsidizes buyers in new cities up to 60% of the cost of their fare. That's why the buyers migrate so fast to Uber. And Uber isn't an outlier in this new world of high-tech labour markets. It's the pathfinder. Uber became the most highly valued private company on the planet, ever. Thousands of companies are fighting desperately to be the "Uber of" that corner of the labour market. And I know this can all create a bit of overload. I know it can be tempting to try and compartmentalize it as a marginal issue, you know?
Yes, you've got these incredible markets at the top of the economy. You've got these frankly third rate, shabby pseudo exchanges at the bottom. But most people still have jobs. Most activity is happening outside these new high-tech markets. And I'd like to share two graphs, that I hope will explode any comfort you may feel that this is a marginal, marginal issue.
[The slide changes and the title reads "Graphique : Les capitaux à l'ère des marchés modernes." The graph is showing a red line heading up exponentially over a timeline from 1981. The title of the graph reads "Financialisation de l'économie américain."]
The first shows what's happened to sellers in the capital markets over the last 25 years. Financialization, this huge stock of resources and money out of the real-world economy into frankly pointless selling and reselling of financial assets. And from an investor's point of view, it makes absolute sense why when the markets are this good, this low overhead, this safe in terms of transaction risk. This able to generate data to give you all sorts of tools. Why would you put your money into the messy, friction laden, real world of building businesses, creating jobs, improving services? So, that's what this is all done because resources gravitate relentlessly to the most efficient market. And what's happened to labour in the modern markets era? Well, you will have had booms in the jobs market in Canada in that time, as other countries have. But I suggest what's happening behind the scenes is this. This is American data, but again, it won't be that dissimilar in Canada.
[The slide changes and the title reads "Graphique : la main-d'oeuvre à l'ère des marches modernes." The graph title reads "Index de la qualité des emplois dans le secteur privé américain." The graph shows two similar lines, the first line is "Faible qualité" and the second line is "Grande qualité".]
The "jobs" that are being created these days for the lowest skills are typically tech intermediated. And that tech is controlling, commoditizing and cheapening the workers, the sellers on these platforms. So that is the problem of market inequality. It is fundamentally distorting the economy, sucking resources up while disempowering and cheapening the-- what we all care about, which is the people at the economic base. So that's part one.
Taki Sarantakis: So, Wingham, you got a little bit geeky, but not too geeky. So, you got kind of New Yorker geeky, which is a general intelligent person will understand this. You don't have to be the specialist. So, congratulations and good for you. Nice setup.
I'm not going to have a conversation in this between kind of this part one and part two, but I am going to pull out three threads for our audience because our audience is composed of public servants. And for public servants, we don't live this daily. And I just wanted to pull out three threads because it's really, really important for people to understand this. Some of you understand it because your spouse is dealing with it or your children or your relatives or your friends. But you know, we kind of live in a whole bunch of bubbles in the public service of Canada. And one of the bubbles is kind of full time indeterminant employment with benefits and all the good things we enjoy. But this isn't the life of kind of most Canadians or most people around the world. So, I'm going to pull out three things that Wingham talked about and really put an emphasis on them.
First, he talked about work and historically work and jobs for most of us have been the same thing. Now, what is happening is that "work" is being disaggregated into its constituent tasks, and then each of those tasks is being farmed out in these efficient markets. And if you think about your work as a public servant every day, you might do, you know, 30 different things over the course of the day, but you might exercise four task skills. One of them might be scheduling, another one of them might be writing something. A third task skill might be using a piece of software, etc. And that bundle of tasks, is not only your work, but it is also your job. And in many, many situations now, that's no longer the case. That aggregation doesn't exist as work. It exists as tasks that people, or more rightly, these platforms put together to execute things.
The second thing I want to pull out from what Wingham said was this is not insignificant, the statistics that he showed you. This is about a third of the population. The employable kind of population has this kind of attachment to the workforce. And it might be growing higher as a result of the pandemic. And some of us like this attachment, this kind of weak attachment, which Wingham called kind of the voluntary irregulars, those that kind of value their time more than they value their income at any given point in a day or during a period. But there are other people who are kind of, as Wingham said, quarry regulars that for different reasons have to go in and out because they can't take full time employment. And then there are the last bundle, which is the really unfortunate which are kind of the forced irregulars. And those are people who like you and me, want full time jobs with benefits, but they can't find them. And so, this is how they participate vis-à-vis the labour market.
So, remember that. This is not an insignificant percentage of the workforce. And it may be insignificant in terms of your life experience and in terms of your friends life's experiences. But you're not typical. You're like, we are not kind of representative samples in the modern public service. And then the third thing I want to pull out is this notion of market. And markets, as Wingham said, they're ancient. Like, as you can guess from my name, I'm Greek. And the word market comes from agora, where buyer and seller, it's a place where people meet and they come together. And again, we in the public service, we come together through employment offers, whether they're indeterminant or casual or term. But that's how we come together. That's how I sell my labour and the Government of Canada buys it. And same with you. That is not the case for the vast majority of people in Canada. They don't sell their labour to a buyer in the same way that we sell our labour to our employer. So, Wingham on to part two.
[Wingham continues his slideshow. The current slide reads "La Solution : des marchés modernes pour tous."]
Wingham Rowan: Okay, thank you. Thank you. Very good summary. So, I want to focus now on how we fix this terrible injustice before it gets worse, because those numbers of people who are working in this fragmented way will grow. The force is driving it now off just fully unleashed. And the solution, I suggest, not to just fight a regulatory battle, but to look at what these technologies could do if they were tasked with unlocking and monetizing anybody who wanted unlocking and monetizing their skills, their assets, the things they own, the money they might lend, their potential skills and so on. And doing that requires policymakers to reconnect to a historical trend.
[The slide changes and the title reads "Politique : avancées technologiques et interventions." Images of the steam engine, radio, television and mobile phones appear.]
Every so often about once a generation, a technology emerges that can only deliver its potential with a political intervention. My favourite example is pumping. In the 1830s in Britain, pumping was really hot technology, the ability to move liquids at scale. And hundreds of little water companies sprang up and they pumped river water to well-off households, and they could only pump at high tide. The water was dirty because the rivers were also used for sewage, but it was a lot more convenient than going to the riverbank with a bucket several times a day. So, these little companies thrived. And then along came a bunch of people who said we could use this exciting new technology to pump clean water 24-7, to everyone. But that's only going to work if we can have coordinated reservoirs and only government can make that happen because we're going, "You have to purchase valleys and then flood them." The 1848 Public Health Act in Britain got that ball rolling. Every country in the world copied that model. And that's been the story broadly with electricity, broadcasting, telephony, postage, railroads, the money supply, air traffic control and so on.
These technologies started in this Wild West phase when they were typically used to serve the already well off. And then, government came in and envisaged what was possible for the technology and made this happen, and that didn't come about organically. There was specific legislation to create each of these public utilities. That's the legislation in two countries, the UK and the US. And what we're proposing is a policy that we call Modern Markets for All, that says governments around the world take it on themselves to make sure their citizens and businesses have a coherent road network, have a money supply, have clean water and so on. We're also going to take on making sure that our citizens and local businesses can deliver that economic potential in the best markets now possible, not the best markets that Silicon Valley and Wall Street wants to give us.
[The slide changes. The title reads "Project de loi sur les nouveaux services publics : points à retenir." The scree on on text reads: Pas un règlement sur les options en place; Plus ambitieux qu' à l'habitude; Ne sélectionne pas de gagnants; Avantage régional; Opposition. Critères : La technologie peut résoudre des problems pour le gouvernement; Le gouvernement dispose d'installations uniques dont le milieu de la technologie a besoin.]
And in that context, I want to go through a few takeaways from this strand of legislation. Over the last 200 years, which has been specifically aimed at saying, "here's a new technology, we're going to create a public utility version of it." So, the first is to make the distinction. This isn't about regulation. The British government did not set out to force the little water companies to pump clean water to everyone 24-7, even though it would have been uneconomical for them to do so. The British government said "We're going to create an alternative. Little water companies, you keep doing whatever you want." And that creates choice.
So, when the public electricity supply was created, you didn't have to use it. You could go out and buy a generator. You could power your radio off gas. All sorts of options were available. The reason these public utilities become so ubiquitous is not coercion. It's because they're genuinely much better and become extremely popular. It's notable how ambitious these utilities are. Nobody had moved water in the quantities the Public Health Act envisaged, and policy has to lead public opinion. This is very important.
So, in the 1840s, there wasn't a huge public groundswell of demand for clean water. Most people living in cities at the time didn't know clean water could exist. Every source of water they had was dirty. Policy had to say there is this concept called clean water and we're going to deliver it to you. It doesn't involve picking winners. The Public Health Act didn't nominate a model of pumping. It just said this is what pumping generally could do. Regional advantage often drives this kind of legislation because Britain had an industrial revolution with our coordinated railways, our water supply, which allowed urbanisation, our postage, which created a literate workforce. But even so, you do get opposition. So, this was the small water companies take on the Public Health Act a few years after it passed. And in case this seems like the mask mandate where I am today, I just remind you that cholera went from- from the patient's perspective, went from diagnosis to a rasping coughing up blood, death within a few hours. But it's still preferable to a public water supply for the water companies. So, there will be opposition.
And then it's worth looking at the criteria that separates out these technologies because there's been thousands of new technologies in the last 200 years. Why did this tiny handful merited political intervention, specifically to initiate a new model for the technology? And if you look at the roads, you see the answers.
So, in the early days of motor vehicles, landowners are all over Canada were throwing up roads and some of them allowed you to drive or whatever side you wanted. Some of them made you drive on the right. Some of them suggested, politely you drive on the left. They had wildly different signage, different levels of road covering. Some went somewhere useful, and some of them were more concerned with duplicating existing road and so on. And that was a problem for government because incoherent roads hold back economic growth. So, government met the criteria that they needed to solve the problem. And government has unique facilities that have coherent road network needs. Compulsory land purchase, forcing people to drive on one side of the road or the other, and then punishing the people who won't follow that arbitrary decision and so on. Coherent signage. So modern market technologies meet those two criteria in ways that social media or artificial intelligence or other parts of the digital realm don't.
[The slide changes. The title reads "Compromis : Aucun coût, opérateurs indépendants." Two lists appear. The first list is titled: Installations Uniques: 1) Measures de relance; 2) Interface; 3) Integration de l'impôt/de l'aide sociale; 4) Déréglementation; and, 5) Marketing. The second list is titled: Obligation Du Secteur Public: 1) Les opérateurs financent tout; 2) Petites transactions; 3) Marge brute selon un pourcentage fixe; 4) Décentralisé; and, 5) Gouvernance.]
The way to unlock this policy we call Modern Markets for All, involves doing it with no cost to the taxpayer. So, we are going to set policy that will initiate a new system of E-Markets running as a genuine public utility. And the way to do that without the taxpayer footing the bill, to keep it all politically palatable, I suggest, is a concession.
Government has a whole set of facilities it could uniquely bestow on any system of E-Markets across the economic base. And the idea is the government says, "Right, for a period of, let's say, 20 years, we are going to bestow all these facilities on one system of markets, as yet doesn't exist." And that's a huge business opportunity for whichever private sector consortia undertakes to fund design and run those markets. So, that consortium is going to have to take on all sorts of public service obligations, in return for the government bestowed benefits. It's a 20 year concession and you might set a rule that says rival consortia bid for the opportunity and the one that will commit to doing it for the lowest percentage markup on each transaction to get their return wins the deal. From the point that the concession has been won, government just gets out of the way. My favourite example of these concessions, because they can be spectacularly successful is the British National Lottery. Our government didn't fund, run or design the National Lottery. It simply passed the National Lottery Act. And 90% of Brits played the National Lottery in its first 18 months.
[The slide changes. It's titled "Official Public E-Markets, seamless: all micro-economy sectors." Below, a list reads:
- Anyone sell anything, equally
- Full legal enforcement
- (Anonymized) data shared
- No lock-in
- Fixed transaction charge: (2%?)
- Government pump-priming
- Enables: Investment, interventions"]
So, a concession based around Modern Markets for All, would create a platform that we call POEMS. And it's very difficult to briefly describe how radical POEMS would be. It is like trying to describe clean water to Victorian Londoners. We're so constrained in our understanding of modern markets technologies by today's platforms, which are siloed, high overhead, very poor functionality for sellers, unreliable in terms of transaction risk.
So, I'm asking you to kind of make a leap, and imagine a platform that was geared in every possible way to unlocking your economic potential. And by your, I don't mean you as a public servant. I mean, any citizen who might have very minimal skills, who may be marginalized. It's all about attracting investment and in upskilling. It's about monetizing their assets. So, they can start renting out the bike they're not using this morning. If they've got $20, they don't need for the next few days. They can rent it in transparent, safe markets. And they may not get a huge return, but it's so efficient and easy and safe to do so, and you can set it to do it automatically and so on. We just-- It's beyond our conception.
[The slide changes. The title reads "Marchés électroniques publics officiels." Examples provided in the slide include: Somes amples include hébergement, soins esthétiques, prêts en espèces, livraisons, électriciens, serveurs d'aliments, transfert de bagages, locations de bureaux, espaces de stationnement, location de manuels, huissiers audienciers, rayon X, cours de yoga, visites d'un zoo and other similar examples.]
It does all this for the tiniest charges, and it's all completely transparent and well governed. And yet, there would be thousands of sectors in POEMS spanning anything local people or local businesses could meaningfully sell. So that's POEMS, and I'd like to kind of illustrate what POEMS might achieve for the economy, and that's equally difficult because I'm going to try. So, at its core, what POEMS would do if it was successfully launched and became popular, we shouldn't take both for granted. But if that was the scenario and if it went the path of the UK National Lottery, for instance, you would begin to see new resources coming into the economy.
[The slide changes. A graphic lists positive elements under five subheadings reading: 1) Intervention en situation de crise; 2) Soutien des oubliés; 3) Écologisation de la micro-économie; 4) Gouvernement et précision; and, 5) Compétitivité régionales.]
On a very local level, you would see all sorts of new providers of resources. You would see people broadening not just beyond jobs, as Taki says, to beyond work, to work, but beyond that. How do I earn an income from that barbecue I only use every few days and the kids toys that my kid has now lost interest in? And it can connect these to the market and make sure they're looked after, make sure someone checks them and checks them in ways, we don't have time to go into. So, it's about all this. It's about very precise pricing because the overheads have collapsed and that means responsive, which means local providers get much cheaper proportionately.
It's likely to atomize a lot of activity away from big corporate sellers to very localised sellers. And interventions become much, much more effective. Much more data driven. So, it is a whole new world, and all this is technologically viable. It's commercially viable. We're waiting for policy to unlock the opportunity. That's the end of part two.
[The screen-share ends.]
Taki Sarantakis: Here's now where we do have to have a conversation, because, as you said, it's kind of the leap of faith. It's like imagining a different world. It's imagining a new set of, kind of, relationships between, you know, buyers, sellers, labour, capital, et cetera, et cetera.
Now you said that this isn't about regulation. And yet a lot of the examples that you talked about earlier, the utility sector, whether they're their phones or energy or water, those are synonymous with regulation. Like the fact that something becomes a utility is in some sense because it needs to be regulated. And the reason why you regulate something is because it's kind of a utility. So, it's a bit of a chicken and egg thing, but I heard you say this is not regulation. So, if it's if it's not regulation, what is it?
Wingham Rowan: Yeah, apologies. That was, I misspoke. I should have said it's not just about regulation.
Taki Sarantakis: Oh, okay.
Wingham Rowan: What I'm contrasting it with is, for instance, what California did, faced with the excesses of Uber, which was to try and force Uber to move closer to being a responsible labour market.
Taki Sarantakis: Okay. So--
Wingham Rowan: Yes. POEMS would be highly regulated and transparently so.
Taki Sarantakis: Right. And apologies on my end if I misunderstood that.
Wingham Rowan: No, no. That was my fault. I missed out that keyword.
Taki Sarantakis: So, if I go back now. Like, we're kind of in about a year...let's say we're a quarter century into the commercial internet. And at the beginning, the commercial internet, one of the the big...I guess, tenants was "hands off, Government! Stay away in government! Like, don't mess this up too government." And I don't know up until about, pick your date. I don't know when it was. Three years ago, five years ago, six years ago, two years ago, tech could do no wrong. And now, the pendulum seems to have flipped exactly to the other side, which is tech can do no right. And obviously kind of both of those are kind of ridiculous because they're polarizing at the extreme. Like the answer is, as is so often the case somewhere between those two extremes.
But give us kind of, an example or a concrete manifestation of what you're talking about. Because you talked about some of the platforms and there's gazillions of them. You know, there's TaskRabbit, there's Uber, there's Jiffy, there's just on and on and on and on. So, are you saying that that these particular platforms should be regulated, or nationalized, or combined, or replaced? Like walk us through. You've used Uber as kind of your primary example. And I think it's a good one because we all talk about kind of the Uber-ization of the economy or the Uber-ization of, you know, this industry or that industry.... Kind of walk us through, what would happen to Uber under the scenario that you're talking about?
Wingham Rowan: The first thing to be absolutely clear about, Taki, is this is not about nationalizing Uber, forcing Uber to do anything combined with anyone, open its data, cut its charges or anything. To be honest, I don't care what Uber does. Uber is like a little company pumping dirty water to Hampstead well-off houses in the 1830s. It's such a tiny, tiny part of the potential of what modern market technologies could do. It's all built around what buyers need, that's driven its success. And disclosure, I do use Uber just because it is so convenient and so cheap. So, I really don't care.
I mean, it's like asking an 1848 public health advocate what should be done about the Hampstead Water Company? I don't know. It's just such a minor thing in the scale of what this technology should be doing for us. So, what I'm talking about is creating an alternative, another choice. By all means drive for Uber if you want. But if you'd like to use the public utility marketplaces, use them instead or as well. Use them for as much as you want to or as little as you want to. You know, that's how public utilities work. People tend to see them in these apocalyptic terms that it's, you know, it's going to take over everything. No, it's not. You can still use- you can buy a generator to heat your home if you want. The electricity board can't stop you. So, that's the asked question. And what would this do to Uber and so on? Well, again, frankly, I'm not that concerned because I don't believe public policy should be driven by what's good for these get-rich-quick Silicon Valley companies that happen to have hawked a lot of public relations wins in the last couple of decades. But if they were smart, they would start adapting to POEMS and they would start saying, "Well, what can we do uniquely, that POEMS can't. Where can we add value?" And there's all sorts of answers to that. You know, they might focus on airports much more or whatever. But frankly, it's a sideshow if your main concern in policy is what's good for Uber? I'm wasting your time.
Taki Sarantakis: No, and I wasn't talking about Uber per se. I was using Uber as an example for these platforms because the conceptual link that we have to make is, you're not talking about the existing platforms. You sound almost benign towards them. It's like, I don't care what they do. You're talking about something new going forward. And is that your part three or we keep talking about that now.
Wingham Rowan: Part three is just very quickly, what can government do if it wants to start taking exploratory steps in this direction?
Taki Sarantakis: All right. And let's, before we go on to part three, most of the time we've been talking about labour, but a few times you've kind of talked about your barbecue and you know, your bicycle or your kid's toys sitting in the garage. Are you also saying that this is something that should be used for assets, not just labour?
Wingham Rowan: Yes, absolutely. So, remember, this is just about giving you by which I mean, you know, a typical Canadian, choices. It doesn't force you to do anything. But if you want to monetize your kid's toys or your home beauty equipment or your DIY tools, why shouldn't we help you?
Why do we insist that the lower skilled can only sell their labour? Whereas the highly, you know, people who have financial assets earn in all sorts of ways. Let's unlock those assets for the people who want to unlock those assets. One outcome is it could be very good for the economy. You know, I've got a power drill. I use it about, you know, nought point one percent of the time. Why is it earning money for me rather than sitting on a shelf while my neighbours also have power just sitting on shelves? So, let's see how we can make those markets as efficient as possible.
Taki Sarantakis: Yeah, very interesting because we know that there is incredible asset waste like you talked about the power drill. I remember reading somewhere and I think it's true, but you know, I can't vouch for it. But you know, the average power drill, not by a contractor, but by somebody like me and does little odd jobs around their house every once in a while. It's in use for something like less than two hours during the course of its entire lifetime. So, you know, why did I make a capital outlay to buy something that will be with me for years. But I, cumulatively, will only use it for something like two hours, if that? We also know about, you know, our automobiles, which for many Canadians are their second largest purchase. And most of us, our automobile sits a good, you know, of a 16, in some cases, you know, 23 hours a day. And you know, not a lot of assets in the commercial world can survive or be economic if they are being unproductive for, you know, the vast, vast majority of the time that-- that those assets are deployed. So why don't we go on to part three now?
[Wingham shares his screen. The slide title reads "Application Immédiate : Infrastructure publique pur les travailleurs à la demande." A headline reads "As we aim to reduce Driver incentives to our financial performance, we expect Driver dissatisfaction will generally increase. – Uber to the SEC, April 2019"]
Wingham Rowan: Okay. So, Part three. So, we've identified the problem, market inequality and its multiple symptoms. We've identified the big, sweeping, ambitious policy fix. And I just want to focus on a kind of first step because those of us behind this policy, and I'm talking about a group of us who are Brits, who worked on it well way back in the 1990s. We wanted to bite off part of it that could become reality rather than leave it as this sort of very elegant but frighteningly ambitious policy goal.
And so, we focused on one part of it, which is how do you create better labour markets for people doing "gig work?" And the need is clear. You know that filing to the SEC by Uber summarizes where they're coming from in terms of empowering people who need to sell their hours. And I should stress that people who do gig work around the world skew heavily towards communities of colour, women and the lowest skilled. So, we are talking about some pretty vulnerable people here.
[The slide changes and the title reads "Contexte : infrastructure du marché du travail public." Images of Workforce Planning Ontario and a Government of Canada Canadian job bank are shown.]
So, the first thing to say is there's nothing anomalous about government providing better infrastructure in labour markets. Canada has a network of several thousand job centres. They sit alongside commercial staffing agencies. Canada has a government provided job board, are open to all sectors and all legitimate employers. It's an alternative to Indeed.com, Monster. Com, commercial job boards. But there is none of this public infrastructure for people who need to work irregular hours, who aren't lucky enough to have 40 hours of availability each week, in many cases. And that anomaly has allowed these get rich, quick Silicon Valley companies to absolutely thrive.
[The slide changes to show a flow diagram of www.cedah.video. The text on screen reads: Base de données centrale des heures à attribuer.]
So that was the problem we set out to resolve in the UK government programs I ran. And we created technology and time to go in and show it to you, but it's real. It could serve Canada tomorrow. People are transacting in it in California, today. It's built completely around, putting the workers in control. Giving them full protections, giving those who want stability, stability. Progressing everyone empowering them, but also an aligned quality workforce in each area. And there have been conversations with the recovery panel set up by the Government of Ontario about possibilities of doing something similar in Canada. So that all exists and it's all tangible. And there's been a body of work with public bodies about how you make this kind of platform work within the public workforce systems. But there is this tantalizing big vision.
[The slide changes. The title reads "Pourquoi maintenant? Le capitalisme est à la croisée des chemins. It is just a matter of time before the pitch forks come for capitalism itself. – Financial Times, December 31, 2020."]
Modern markets all across the entire micro economy are trying to offer people opportunities that frankly, they probably can't conceive of now. Not just a better model of gig work. And we think the time is right. So, I wrote the books about all this in the 1990s, and it's always been fringe thinking. You know, the assumption has been, as you alluded to Taki, that the assumption has been that Silicon Valley and Wall Street will create a vision for these new technologies, and the rest of us will sort of be in awe of all that. And that is beginning to finally change, as you suggested.
[The slide changes and the title reads: Enfin : la fin de l'émerveillement. The slide is divided into three sections. The first shows a headline from the World Economic Form saying "Plus de 40 % des Américains estiment que le socialisme est une bonne chose" from May 29, 2019. The second section shows people protesting against Lyft and Uber. The third section shows a polluted wasteland that might be Earth in the future if climate change gets out of control.]
There is this collapse in confidence in capitalism, which is manifesting itself in all sorts of popular rage. People feel the system is skewed against them, and as we've just seen it is. We have the tech lash. At last, we have stopped being in awe of these companies. They're not that brilliant. They are just building assemblages of government funded blocks of technology. Their imagination is office, typically geared towards funding and business models. And we have the climate crisis. And markets are a fundamental issue in climate. Markets at a foundational level, determine what resources come into the economy, who from, how they moved around, what the cost aspect of any interventions are, how much we consume, all sorts. And not enough attention is paid to the role and the potential of markets in tackling climate chaos.
[The slide changes, showing Wingham's contact info. The slide reads "Thank you for listening. Even stalwarts of the progressive movement seem to reserve economic prosperity for the full-time worker. – New York Times, September 11, 2018."]
So, we think we may finally be coming into the sweet spot. We don't know which government is going to go first with a, we're now exploring a Modern Markets for All policy. We don't know which side of the aisle will embrace it. It's fundamentally apolitical. It's just an infrastructure upgrade. But it will all start when policymakers move beyond thinking about jobs to thinking about this new world where people are earning in all sorts of fragmented ways, and how you empower people in that new order.
[The screen share ends.]
Taki Sarantakis: Thank you. This is inordinately interesting. I want to spend our last couple of minutes because you're making a little bit of a plea for, I would say, kind of using modern tools for public good. Like, tech for good. And what do you liken it to? Is it a co-op? Is it kind of the government? I know you talked about concessions earlier. But what would it...Give us kind of a tangible example of like the government would say, okay, you're our platform for, I don't know, pick a task restaurant delivery.
[Wingham shakes his head.]
And, oh, I got it wrong. So how would it work?
Wingham Rowan: Okay, Taki. I kind of need to bang you against the wall and say—
Taki Sarantakis: Bang me against the wall virtually.
Wingham Rowan: Taki, stop thinking about this in terms of Silicon Valley business models.
Taki Sarantakis: Right.
Wingham Rowan: For the seller, the markets you want are horizontal. I want to sell my entire range of skills and assets in one market. With all the data, I need to decide which I can sell and when, and which are worth my while selling. So, the idea that you have one market for restaurant deliveries, one market for taxi rides, one market for dental hygiene, another market where you do a neighbour's washing, that's Silicon Valley's business model that needs that siloing because they've got to spend on marketing to drive their pseudo markets to real depth. And the only viable to do that if you adopt a very tight niche. If you set out to ask a very different question, how do we create an economically empowering set of modern markets? You very quickly come up with that. It's going to be horizontal. It's got to be one platform that where anyone can sell anything.
Now, we don't have time to go into how you structure that to make sure it doesn't become all consuming. It doesn't abuse its power and so on. I just ask you to accept it's entirely possible. We set out how modern markets for all dot org, modern markets for all dot org. So stuck thinking in the Silicon Valley mindset. That's just the Wild West phase of these technologies. When it gets really useful, as Wall Street knows, it's where you have horizontal markets. And that's part of the point. Public utilities built around new technologies, they're often way more ambitious than any vision for the technology that went before them.
Taki Sarantakis: So, I'm not going to let you off the hook that easily. I don't understand the today, and I'll grant you that. But tell us a little bit more about that tomorrow.
Wingham Rowan: Yeah, so well, it's a series of stages. So, the first stage might be, let's say, and Canada is of real interest here. You know, you are dynamic. You have got a sense of scale. You're not bogged down with polarized, gridlocked politics like your neighbour to the south or by Brexit, like your little neighbour across the Atlantic. So, let's assume for a moment that somebody influential in policy in Canada said, Okay, I just want to start exploring this.
Let's say they set up some sort of government commission based on quality of markets. Half our citizens and local businesses got the best markets now possible in which to develop their economic potential. I suggest the commission will quickly arrive at a no, but you probably want to ask the question. And let's assume that that then leads to some sort of concession. And with the proviso that it is absolutely not going to involve any taxpayer funding. So, the worst-case scenario is that the whole scheme fails. In which case the investor, the shareholders of the consortium that took over the concession are going to take a terrible hit. But that's probably not going to alarm the Canadian electorate. They'll still be where they were before the concession.
So, let's assume it works and that you now have a platform called POEMS, anyone can legally sell anything on it. It generates data. It constantly looks to develop each person selling through it as an economic asset. And that's the sole way that the consortium running the platform make money at that. You know, the platform is decentralized, is transparent, is inspectable. I mean, it's just-
Taki Sarantakis: And you don't- you don't outlaw any other platforms. You don't say, "if you want to do X, you have to do it through this platform." It competes in the market.
Wingham Rowan: Yeah. The only thing that you have to do through the platform is if you are a public sector entity, you a) have to promote the platform as part of what you promote to your client base, and b) your spending that's intended for communities has to go through the platforms. So, that's cleaning of government buildings, childcare, supply teachers, health workers, you know, government accounts for- I don't know what it is in Canada. Isn't it around 38% of GDP?
Taki Sarantakis: It's pretty big. I'm not sure it's that high but it's pretty big.
Wingham Rowan: Okay, you're not going to buy nuclear submarines through the platform, but any government expenditure at community level goes through the platform. That's the pump priming. Unless there is a demonstrable efficiency to be gained by doing it some other way. But you can't artificially bundle up your needs to create "efficiency". But the intention is not that it's a government procurement platform. That's just a starting point. It's then open to anyone. So, I might be selling my time as a classroom assistant, as local schools require me, but I'm also free to sell myself as a babysitter. The system might be saying, you know, if you've got sports coaching certification, you could earn an extra 12%. Do you want us to line up that certification? We've got an investor who pay for it if you allow them to tithe back 10% of your increased earnings for the following three months. It's all this sort of stuff. It's just a flywheel that starts going. And yeah, you don't have to use it at all. If you like Uber. Stay in Uber.
Taki Sarantakis: So, Wingham Rowan, a fascinating conversation because I think, as you said, we're at the precipice of something. And none of us really know what it is, but we know that tomorrow will probably look different than today. We have a lot of dynamics in terms of rising inequality across the western world and the eastern world, in some cases. We a lot of historical state like functions are now in the hands of these new digital giants. We have testimony across capitals of the western world about how are we going to rein in tech? How are we going to fix this? How are we going to solve this? So, this is an interesting idea to throw on the pile, which is that the public sector start thinking about how it could use some of this technology for public goods, rather than just saying, "well, you know, we're banning this or we're getting rid of this or we're regulating that." Wingham Rowan, thank you for your time. Really, really interesting. And take care, and all the best. Thank you so much.
Wingham Rowan: Thank you.
[The video chat fades to the CSPS logo.]
[The Government of Canada logo appears and fades to black.]