Politics

 

Inside Uber’s Political War Machine

Inside Uber’s Political War Machine

“We’re in a political campaign, and the candidate is Uber, and the opponent is an asshole named Taxi,” Travis Kalanick, the CEO of ride-sharing company Uber, said while on stage at a conference in late May. “Nobody likes him, he’s not a nice character, but he’s so woven into the political machinery and fabric that a lot of people owe him favors.”

Kalanick wasn’t bluffing. Uber really is the candidate: It has been interviewing potential campaign managers--real ones, from real presidential campaigns--for months. A source close to the hiring process told me, “They want somebody who has been steeped in that political warfare.”

And for good reason.

In the process of trying to force regulators to concede to its enormous popularity, “Uber” has become, in some ways, a loaded political term. And observers and participants alike are questioning, in real time, how much government interference is too much.

Uber, which in June was valued at $17 billion, appears to be launching a full-scale political operation—complete with backroom operators and face-saving strategists.

To combat governmental hostility, Uber has hired political muscle all over the country: in D.C., it has the Franklin Square Group (Apple, Google). In New York, it has Bradley Tusk (Michael Bloomberg’s former campaign manager). In Chicago, it has Michael Kasper (the lawyer who got Rahm Emanuel on the ballot). Additionally, it has lobbyists in Miami, Baltimore, Houston, and Denver.

And Uber’s not the only member of the new sharing economy who’s gone political. Airbnb, a housing and rental service estimated to be worth $10 billion, has hired one of the most-connected operators in New York—and even formed its own “grassroots” political organization.

Kalanick (who did not respond to multiple requests for an interview) looks like a television preacher, appears on Gwyneth Paltrow’s Instagram, and once joked to a journalist about how the success of Uber increased his desirability to women: “Yeah, we call that the Boob-er.”

For a time, Kalanick’s Twitter avatar was the cover of Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead—which he has repeatedly said was not the sort of bold political statement some have made it out to be. (In other interviews, he has indicated Rand has influenced his thinking.) But it is difficult to not see some parallels between Uber’s business model and libertarianism.

Given that, it’s not surprising that Uber is gaining friends on the right side of the political aisle. For example, Grover Norquist, the anti-tax activist, on ThursdayTweeted “Today, there are two political parties/movements in America. One is UBER, the other is with taxi commission. Choose.”

Overwhelmingly, the political types who openly support Uber—Norquist and Republican Senator Marco Rubio, to name two—are the ones who were demonizing regulators long before the phrase “call an Uber” had ever been uttered. But now, of course, the phrase has been said millions of times in multiple languages across the globe.

Companies like Uber—along with Airbnb and less popular services like Zilok (which lets you rent “anything” from strangers)—make up the sharing economy, a community in which individuals rent out their possessions or their labor, and businesses act as middlemen, helping to arrange plans. Uber and Lyft (another ride-sharing service) will connect passengers with drivers, but won’t provide a car. Similarly, Airbnb will introduce homeowners to those looking for a place to stay, but doesn’t own properties.

The distinction of not owning any hardware, sharing economy companies would like customers and regulators alike to believe, should make all the difference when it comes to the law. Except, it doesn’t—at least not yet. The fact remains that Uber and Airbnb have built multibillion-dollar empires by operating in places where they are illegal, and so they are turning political to protect themselves.

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Ride-sharing companies like Uber and Lyft are apps which allow users to summon a private car with a few swipes on their smartphone. All that’s required to participate is a valid credit card. No cash ever gets exchanged. In short: It is so convenient that it makes a taxi seem about as high-tech as a camel.

Uber provides a variety of vehicles to choose from: SUVs, “black cars” like Mercedes and BMWs, and the lower-end “UberX,” which can be anything from a dated, smelly Lincoln Town Car to a new Toyota. Lyft cars, where passengers sit in the front seat and greet drivers with a fist bump, are adorned by an identifying pink mustache. Other ride-sharing apps include Sidecar and Hailo--but Uber, which operates in 34 countries, remains king.

Uber functions like the free market: Drivers and passengers alike are given mandatory star ratings, on a scale of 1-5, after each ride. If a driver’s average rating falls too low (below 4.5), they can be kicked off the app without notice. If a passenger’s does the same, they could risk being skipped over for rides by drivers. (Although passengers are not informed about their ratings, a driver told me mine was 4.7.) This system is meant to self-regulate by weeding out the bad eggs.

And self-regulation is an important concept when it comes to understanding the government-averse sharing economy.

Uber and Airbnb—the most successful services of their kind—are “disruptive” innovations. It’s a term which has been employed, sometimes incorrectly, by tech companies trying to brand themselves as being different, but actually has a specific definition first introduced by Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christensen in 1995. New York magazine’s Kevin Roose described in layman’s terms the actual meaning of “disruptive” to be “The process by which ‘technologically straightforward’ services and products target the bottom end of an established market, then move their way up the chain until, eventually, they overtake the existing market leaders.”

And unsurprisingly, being overtaken is not something market leaders—or their defenders in government—particularly enjoy.

This month, Uber and Lyft launched in Miami, the former incentivizing locals with $200 worth of free rides. That’s despite the fact that, in Miami, law mandates an hour of wait time before a private car can pick up a passenger after a request has been made, as well as a minimum fare of $70--meaning ridesharing is totally, obviously illegal. Miami’s taxi industry responded to Uber and Lyft’s arrival by calling for drivers to be thrown in jail. Before Uber had even launched, some 150,000 people had opened the app in the city--there was demand, and Uber responded to it.

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