Uber über alles

The tech industry used to invent and build stuff. It used to be genuinely in the business of innovation. These days it’s in the business of expl0iting and intimidating labor, swamping the civil authorities with high-volume end runs around lodging and taxi regulations, and brainwashing their customer bases with marketing propaganda that is nearly totalitarian in scope. It’s almost heartbreaking to watch. The Bay Area is one of the most stunningly gorgeous and blessed places on earth, and the tech industry has spent the last twenty years doing its level best to destroy it, shredding its civic and social fabric and sucking away its immense potential. At the same time that the industry has been ruining my childhood hometown and pricing much of the Peninsula beyond the reach of young doctors, it has been propagandizing my native upper middle class to intellectual and spiritual death, turning my peers into a mob of callous monsters who are too full of themselves to even consider giving any thought to what they’re doing to our country. They’ve sold their souls for on-demand jitney cab service from a criminal racket, and it would inconvenience them to buy their souls back.

One of the earliest canaries in the coal mine was Hewlett-Packard. According to mutual friends, the Packard scions in particular are an exceptionally well-adjusted, responsible bunch, and it was they who ultimately provided the critical mass needed to fire Carly Fiorina after becoming increasingly alarmed by her performance as CEO. From what I’ve heard (secondhand but very credibly), they were reluctant to intervene in HP management as a matter of course but felt a sincere sense of duty to the family company and saw no alternative to cashing Fiorina out so that she’d stop running HP into the ground. These were low-key heirs who had established themselves in other lines of work and did not intrude into executive decisions lightly, but they felt a sense of duty and acted on it. It’s hard to think of a starker, more disgusting contrast than Fiorina herself, who not only trashed their family business for personal gain but proceeded to misrepresent herself as a corporate visionary and trailblazer in a bid for the presidency of the United States, with the complicity of a smitten press. This was moral parasitism by people whose entire way of life verges on the chronic slander of their hosts. If any of the Hewlett or Packard scions were troublesome, I’m pretty sure that I would have heard about it by now through the grapevine. They’re probably too modest and publicly reticent for anyone’s good except Fiorina’s. I can’t really blame them, though; they sound like they’re trying to avoid being dragged down to the level of the bumptious, incompetent, self-dealing charlatan who looted and sacked their families’ company and badly damaged its reputation.

Then there were the buses. These are the creepy unmarked commuter buses that ferry techies to work. Their mere presence in the Bay Area was a bone of contention in its own right, since they raised the specter of entrenched, unabashed privilege. The bad optics were exacerbated by the terrible pay and work conditions that the client corporations provided for the drivers (using subcontractors to cover their asses, of course), but most blatantly by the manner in which these buses came to routinely obstruct heavily-trafficked Muni stops, gumming up San Francisco’s already overwhelmed local bus system. Studies showed these private buses having longer dwell times at stops than Muni buses. Muni riders were livid that these private buses were making their commutes even worse, and Muni’s unionized drivers were unhappy to keep finding their stops obstructed by private bus drivers making barely above minimum wage.

The private buses weren’t even allowed to use the Muni stops. They were squatting on public infrastructure and making it next to useless. Anyone who isn’t an asshole knows that it’s against the vehicle code to park at a fucking bus stop. A taxi or private car incidentally boarding or discharging passengers at a bus stop is rarely a nuisance, but these are 55- and often 81-seat buses helping dozens of divas at a time gentrify the Mission. The city government had to take the private bus companies to court for obstructing Muni stops on a daily basis without permission. The companies orchestrating this shit probably figured, hey, we’re disrupting society, so fuck y’all. Running a competing private transit system whose buses habitually block city bus stops is the equivalent of parking an Escalade stretched limo across 280 or taking Thomas the Tank Engine on a pleasure ride down the Caltrain line without clearance from dispatch. Awwh, Timmeh…. Chuggah Chuggah Tommeh Tommeh Tommeh #TOMMEH! For all I know, libertarian theory allows me and my friends to go to SFO and park our tiny houses in the middle of the runway intersections. No one involved in the operation of these private bus fleets could be brought to admit that, yeah, maybe we should stop being a bunch of assholes and start giving a shit about how we’re fucking up the commute for normal people whose employers don’t send deluxe motorcoaches to pick them up twice a day. Like, maybe we should check with the city first about places where we can load our buses without being bad neighbors and not block expressly marked no-parking zones in front of public bus stops.

Or, you know, maybe we should get business licenses before starting centrally managed jitney cab companies and pop-up bed-and-breakfast networks. Instead, ride-hailing companies forbade their drivers to purchase commercial vehicle insurance and refused to classify them as employees, no matter how many hours a week they drove for the companies and even though they could be banned from the apps (in effect, fired) for so much as mediocre customer ratings. AirBNB has recurrently been in trouble for racial discrimination by its hosts of a sort that would get a licensed hotel or aboveboard landlord put under a federal consent decree. Again, fuck y’all. These weren’t oversights; they were the deliberate business decisions of extremely well-capitalized companies that figured they’d throw white-shoe lawyers at their legal problems until the other side caved and tap the Saudi sovereign wealth fund for several billion dollars in fresh cash if they got bored with Sand Hill Road.

Now Uber has practically the entire urban and inner suburban haute bourgeoisie in its corner. It’s frightening how pervasive and effective the propaganda has been. A trial attorney who obtained a $100m class-action judgment against Uber for misclassifying its drivers as independent contractors says that she’s afraid to take additional claims against Uber before a San Francisco jury because every time she goes out on the street in her neighborhood she overhears people gushing about Uber. It sounds like being a lawyer in the antebellum South who just successfully sued all the plantations at once. I do declare, Mrs. O’Hara, we are awfully inconvenienced by this recent unpleasantness.

One of the main ride-hailing app talking points is that Uber and Lyft have led to a reduction in drunk driving, the implication being that its critics are asshats who would rather have people get maimed and killed by drunk drivers than driven home safely by a politically unpopular company. This is a really filthy argument. First, it’s a rather ugly slur on those of us who object to what are frankly criminal enterprises barging into taxi markets where they have, for the most part, not sought or obtained business licenses or commercial insurance. Second, it’s garbage-ass zero-sum logic designed to make citizens choose between highway safety and regulating multinational corporations whose entire business models are predicated on calculating disregard for the law.

Looking at the problem a bit more broadly, though, it’s clear that this approach lets the worst bars and nightclubs off the hook for negligence that should get them sued into bankruptcy. Every city with a large Uber fan base also has a drinking district full of establishments that turn healthy profits by knowingly getting their patrons trashed to hell without making any effort to ensure that they don’t drive home drunk. These aren’t  random businesses; they hold liquor licenses, which supposedly require individual and corporate proof of moral fitness. Since there’s already a baroque moralizing framework around liquor licenses, they absolutely should assign strict civil and regulatory liability to their holders for any personal injury or death caused by their intoxicated patrons. This shouldn’t be merely the letter of the regulations; negligent establishments should be shut down by police the next business day if they’re credibly accused of contributing to a fatal or injurious DUI accident and not allowed to reopen until they’ve convinced a court that they’ve reformed. These are not innocent businesses; in many cases, their very model of business is to get their customers shitfaced.

It isn’t the responsibility of some tech-bro organized crime outfit to white-knight America’s drunkards and their DUI victims. It’s the responsibility of the drunkards themselves to arrange transportation other than driving their own drunk asses home (taxi, designated driver, night bus, stumbling into the R6 tracks and smashing some teeth, whatever). If they’re too derelict or incompetent to get home safely from the bars, it’s the responsibility of the establishments that served them alcohol when they were already intoxicated. This is like saying that it should be the responsibility of airlines to properly repair their planes. It’s expensive and cumbersome for bars to make sure that their intoxicated customers get home safely in the same way that it was expensive and cumbersome for American Airlines to not cut corners in the reattachment of DC-10 engines. We already have this surreal police state ID regime and parallel black market for high-quality fake ID’s, so why the hell can’t we stop liquor license holders from knowingly dumping out-of-control drunks onto the streets, car keys in hand?

That’s right: public corruption. The club owners pay off city hall. Then Uber comes in, swamping the market and the regulatory agencies, insisting that its derelict business model will finally eliminate the carnage caused by the nightlife sector’s derelict business model. It’s a self-licking ice cream cone.

Lick my cone, Kalanick.

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