Cash Cab, globalization and expanding the welfare state

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Recently I asked some university students, hesitantly, if they watch Cash Cab. Hesitantly, since I know they don't watch much TV, or own one. For their demographic, TV is part of media history -- like town criers or the jungle telegraph -- versus its present, which is new media, social media: in a word, the Internet. They said they all watch it, enthusiastically, online.

Cash Cab airs frequently on The Discovery Channel and Comedy Network. You hail a normal-seeming cab, climb in, lights flash and you're on TV via cameras inside and out. The cabbie's a local standup comic who gives you a free ride to your destination, quizzing you on (mostly) pop culture, for cash. If you miss three questions, he dumps you on the sidewalk. You can shout out for help by phone, or to pedestrians. I thought it might appeal because it offers some money and fame -- not much of either but Hey.

They said that was sort of right but added that there's also a free ride, which matters to people with exploding student debt and diminishing likelihood of ever repaying it. But what really surprised me was that they identified less with the passengers -- who squeal and high-five as if on a loop -- than with the driver. He's on TV every day plus he has steady work due to, they assumed, coming up with this great concept.

That's their grail -- they're mostly media and journalism students. Job prospects are few, they fill in doing "retail," sending out resumés and hoping to strike gold with a video you post on YouTube that goes viral and somehow transforms into money or at least a trip or tour somewhere glamorous. Or you devise an app or website that sells for a fortune. When I said, like the Grinch, that those chances were minimal, like winning the lottery or having a pro sports career, they scoffed back and said there are tons of examples. Everyone knows a few: Bieber, Diablo Cody, the girl who solicited donations and got flooded --

I felt educator's remorse afterward, for acting as if it was my task to douse their hopes and turn them stalwartly in the direction of political action to remedy the economic mess they've been deposited in. At least I hadn't known at the time, so hadn't pointed out, that the Cash Cab driver didn't invent it. It's a franchise created by a British TV producer who was in on the original Survivor series. It exists in about 40 versions including Arabic, Vietnamese and Slovak. Maybe they already knew, or it wouldn't have mattered.

Something else they surprised me with, that elicits my admiration, is that they don't yearn to return to the old days of steady jobs that were often soul-killing but provided semi-permanent assurances of security, usually in factories, corporations or government. In other words to restore the basic trade-off of the postwar era. It doesn't appeal to them. They prefer flexibility, relative freedom, even insecurity. That jibes with the view of Guy Standing in his book, The Precariat. He says under globalization, the old work world is gone forever, jobs dispersed worldwide, and not to be mourned. The need isn't to reinstate the past; it's to provide some security and equity under the new dispensation. For him and them, the point is to find the means to move out of their parents' basement or even, in the messianic distance, embark on raising a family.

The solution seems clear: society must take responsibility for basic support and security of its workforce, in return for its flexibility and acceptance of "precarity." In other words: expand the welfare state. That's the obvious new trade-off. You don't get pensions, etc. from your boss any more so "the state" (you may now grimace, spit, etc.) steps up. We all do for each other. Paul Krugman recently floated this notion in the New York Times and you could feel him curl up anticipating the reaction. I know it sounds jarring within current public discourse about inevitable cutbacks. But it's logical and reasonable in the circumstances. Maybe that's why those with power are determined to avoid even discussing it -- before its simple plausibility, or inevitability, gains a foothold.

This article was first published in the Toronto Star.

Photo: henry…/Flickr

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