Uber has been taking the country (and much of Planet Earth) by storm. But they're pissing a lot of people off in the process, which helps explain why they just hired the guy who sold Barack Obama to America.
Uber has been making waves for a while now. The car-sharing service, founded by some tech bros who wanted to look “baller in San Francisco,” can’t seem to stay out of the headlines—and not all of them are kind. As VICE recently reported, the startup tends to arrive in a new city, flout local regulations, and then force officials to the bargaining table by achieving massive market share in a matter of days or weeks. This presents plenty of problems, with drivers being accused of sexual assault, kidnapping, harassment and other forms of shady behavior. But it’s probably better for local governments to cut a deal with the upstarts than let their drivers (whose background check process remains questionable) go buckwild, right?
On Tuesday, the company’s flamboyant CEO Travis Kalanick responded to the cascade of criticism. Kalanick—who makes no bones about taking on the “asshole named Taxi”—raised the stakes, hiring David Plouffe, the data geek and strategy wunderkind who steered both of Barack Obama’s winning presidential campaigns, to be Uber’s “campaign manager.”
“We’re on an inexorable path of progress here,” Plouffe told the New York Times. “Uber is making transportation safer. It’s providing jobs; it’s cutting down on drunk and distracted driving. I think the mission is really important.”
Plouffe is the king of dishing out liberal kool-aid, so his rhetoric is no surprise. Like plenty of other movers and shakers in modern Democratic politics, the man has no qualms about cashing in on his relationship to the president, giving speeches abroad and taking on corporate clients since parting ways with the White House. But Plouffe’s relationship with Uber also speaks to another troubling trend on the left: buddying up with the scions of industry, whether Wall Street or Silicon Valley, under the auspices of doing the right thing and making the country a better place. It’s one thing for a professional campaigner like Plouffe to continue making money—Obama's other top strategy guru, David Axelrod, is working for Britain's Labour Party. But do we really need to be told that Uber is some kind of panacea for the country’s transportation woes—an inevitable good that we should just shut up and embrace already?
Of course, it’s not implausible that Uber will continue to expand its speedy provision of motor vehicles with random men behind the wheel and make a lot of people happy in the process. The company recently began testing out a new product, “Corner Store,” that offers delivery of basic human necessities like tampons and condoms. Good stuff, right?
Maybe. That Silicon Valley and the tech world have begun to do the whole politics thing is not news. Corporations like Google and Facebook have been ramping up their lobbying presence in Washington, advocating for their own interests (like all private businesses do). That means, for instance, supporting immigration reform that will ease the way for more talented programmers from abroad to join the party. And Plouffe isn't the only Obama campaign veteran who's cashing in on Silicon Valley's love of all things Barack: recently-departed press secretary Jay Carney is rumored to be a top-tier candidate to take over PR at Apple, and a handful of other former campaign hands are trying to kill teacher tenure in California (per the wishes of tech millionaire David Welch).
Uber fans will have to hope that Plouffe coming aboard doesn’t mean they’re in for another Obama-style bait and switch, getting everybody’s hopes up with lots of sensational rhetoric leading to catastrophic disappointment. Kalanick told the Washington Post that Plouffe is his “brilliant general,” an implicit admission that he hadn’t fully anticipated the hell being raised by taxi drivers concerned about how to go on making a living. Part of Plouffe’s job will be to help out abroad, where organized labor is still a potent force and protests have already gotten ugly. And as Noam Scheiber points out, Plouffe was always among the more ruthless members of Team Obama, at least as focused on torpedoing the other guy as doing good stuff for the public.
Maybe Plouffe will succeed in marshalling online armies of teenagers and 20-somethings who are pumped about being able to summon a car from their smartphone. Most of my own friends, for example, love Uber and don't really want to hear about the various problems with it. And in cities like Los Angeles, where public transit is essentially a myth, maybe it's a good thing. All we know for certain right now is that Uber, recently valued at $17 billion, is about to start flexing its muscle in the halls of power. What that means for cab drivers, other forms of transportation (like this country's basically nonexistent high-speed rail system), and your personal safety in the backseat of an unmarked car remains unclear.
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