Tuesday, January 23, 2018
As regular readers know, I am particular about language and meaning, especially in the business-entity space related to limited liability companies (LLCs). I think because of that, I was drawn to a new paper from Shu-Yi Oei (Boston College), The Trouble with Gig Talk: Choice of Narrative and the Worker Classification Fights, 81 Law & Contemp. Probs. ___ (2018). The abstract:
The term “sharing economy” is flawed, but are the alternatives any better? This Essay evaluates the uses of competing narratives to describe the business model employed by firms like Uber, Lyft, TaskRabbit, and GrubHub. It argues that while the term “sharing economy” may be a misnomer, terms such as “gig economy,” “1099 economy,” “peer-to- peer economy” or “platform economy” are just as problematic, possibly even more so. These latter terms are more effective in exploiting existing legal rules and ambiguities to generate desired regulatory outcomes, in particular the classification of workers as independent contractors. This is because they are plausible, speak to important regulatory grey areas, and find support in existing laws and ambiguities. They can therefore be deployed to tilt outcomes in directions desired by firms in this sector.
This Essay’s analysis suggests that narratives that are at least somewhat supportable under existing law may be potent in underappreciated ways. In contrast, clearly erroneous claims may sometimes turn out to be hyperbolic yet harmless. Thus, in evaluating the role of narrative in affecting regulatory outcomes, it is not only the obviously wrong framings that should concern us but also the less obviously wrong ones.
There are several interesting points in the piece, and find this part of the conclusion especially compelling:
I cannot prove that the deployment of gig characterization is the only reason certain legal treatments and outcomes (such as independent contractor classification for workers) seem to be sticking, at least for the moment. My narrower point is that while gig and related characterizations appear innocuous and accurate relative to the sharing characterization, this set of descriptors may actually be doing more work in terms of advancing a desired regulatory outcome. The reasons they are able to do more work are that (1) gig characterization speaks to an important and material legal ambiguity, (2) the gig characterization is plausibly accurate, even if deeply contested, and (3) the proponents of gig characterization have been able to use procedural and other tools to shore up gig characterization and defeat its competitors. These observations may be generalized beyond the gig context: While the temptation is to focus on narratives and characterizations that are clearly wrong, this Essay suggests that we should also pay attention to more subtle narratives that are less clearly wrong, because such narratives may be doing more work by virtue of being “almost right.”
This last point is one that resonates with me on the LLC front, where people insist on comparing or analogizing LLCs to corporations. There are times when such a comparison or analogy is "almost right," and it is in these circumstances that the perils of careless language can cause the most trouble because the same comparison or analogy can get made later when doing so is clearly wrong.