In the Aug. 6 issue of the Charleston City Paper, guest columnist Dwayne Green wrote a piece entitled “The Case for Uber.” Unfortunately, Mr. Green did not actually manage to make a case for Uber. It wasn’t because he didn’t try —he did — but rather because there simply is no case for the service.
Once you strip away the hipster/libertarian nonsense surrounding the “ride sharing” service, you are left with the banality that the only true innovation that Uber offers involves punching buttons on an app rather than placing a phone call. Which means, of course, that the shiny technocracy will gladly overvalue this answer-to-a-problem-that-does-not-exist when the inevitable IPO happens, despite the fact that Uber’s entire existence is based on breaking laws and flaunting regulations, and then lying about it with the most amazing sort of doublespeak.
After all, Uber is part of the new “sharing economy” even though nothing is exactly shared when money changes hands. It is unfathomable how anyone with the slightest bit of common sense can use the words “sharing economy” or “ride sharing” in the same sentence with Uber, but people — both liberal and conservative — do.
And it’s really no wonder that this is the case. Uber is just the latest example of a company exercising a particular brand of public relations gobbledygook from the ground up for almost every single aspect of their operation.
For starters, Uber calls its drivers “partners.” This is akin to the corporate renaming of cashiers to “sales associates,” except in this case, the title meaninglessly elevates the status of the driver. After all, Uber’s “partners” are not even their “employees.” One has to wonder just how equitable that arrangement is to the people who are doing all of Uber’s work (Here’s a hint: it isn’t. More on that later.).
But the descent into madness caused by the cognitive dissonance surrounding this issue doesn’t stop there. Just try to have a conversation with one of Uber’s proselytizing users who believe the service is better than a taxi. Like Ron Paul zealots before them, they will fill your ears with prodigious amounts of illogical, quasi-libertarian babble that, they believe, make their case.
Uber’s champions, both on the street and at their corporate HQ, would like you to believe that the company is facing undue hardship from excessive government regulation. This is the same line used by those who say that government regulations interfere with innovation. Well, the existence of a smartphone app fairly well negates any notion that innovation is in any way being stifled.
Uber wants you to think that they want a level playing field to be allowed to compete with existing taxi and limousine services, but this is plainly untrue. What Uber wants is a playing field tilted in their favor, so they can continue their low-cost, high-profit venture. The libertarian rallying cry for fairness in the system is the same petulant nonsense parents get from children who are told they cannot have dessert without first finishing their dinner. There is no interest in fairness except where it benefits the person or group who are supposedly being oppressed.
And when it comes to claims of wanting a fair chance to compete with taxi services, one wonders if Uber bothers to include its own smartphone-based competitors in that crowd? According to its main competitor, Lyft, the answer is no. Lyft recently laid charges against Uber claiming that the latter’s “partners” are booking rides and then either no-showing for the pickup or engaging the driver in some good old-fashioned “come join us” chatter while taking a meaningless, short ride down only a couple of blocks. I’m no business ethicist, but if these claims are true — Uber doesn’t deny these charges, and they claim that Lyft’s employees engage in the same behavior — then it seems that Uber does not have a leg to stand on when it says it is interested in honest and fair competition.
Uber likes to boast that their “partners” do far better than employees of taxi or limo services. One often cited figure states that an Uber driver can make $90,000 a year working for the service. These claims are almost certainly cherry-picked from the best performing drivers in the largest Uber areas. At least when the late-night, get-rich-quick scammers are talking to you, they have the common decency — and if not that, a fear of the federal government — to tell you that the stories of people earning a ludicrous amount of income by doing very little work are not their typical partners.
What is not mentioned is how much of that money the individual driver must pour right back into gasoline, car payments, cell phones, cell service, and insurance, not to mention how many hours one must be “available” for rides in order to make that sort of money. Now, I’m certain that no small number of Uber’s super-excited, City Paper supporters will point out in our online comments that the company recently applied for a South Carolina business license through the Public Service Commission. “See,” these fresh-faced, latte-sipping, freedompreneurs will say, “Uber does want to play nice and get along with society.” Except, of course, for the fact that — according to Abigail Darlington’s piece in the Sept. 15 Post and Courier — they don’t. Darlington notes, “[Uber’s application] outlines a series of regulations that the company has asked the commission to either bend or waive entirely to accommodate its unique business model.”
Imagine if you will, individuals driver’s license recipients informing the DMV that speed limits shouldn’t apply to them or CWP holders telling SLED that the rules regarding concealed weapons don’t apply to their “unique” situation. It’s ludicrous to believe that a society can operate in the manner laid out by the libertarians who “create” ideas like Uber.
Much is made of Uber founder Travis Kalanick’s supposed love for Ayn Rand and the tenets of libertarianism she espoused. Mr. Kalanick, though, is no libertarian. If he were, he would have created an app that placed the power directly in the hands of the riders and drivers. Instead, he created yet another corporation with a strong, charismatic leader at its head and a public relations department devoted to spitting out enough doublespeak that the consumer is simply unable to make an informed decision. That is not libertarianism, that is American corporatism.
The City of Charleston, along with the other South Carolina cities where Uber is currently operating illegally, would do well for its citizens by standing up to these “disrupters” — to borrow another empty technocratic buzzword — not through stings and fining drivers, but by actively seeking to deny Uber the ability to do business in the state.