Monday, July 20, 2015


       Over the past week or so, the livery company, Uber, has been running a television ad on both cable and broadcast networks in the New York region. The ad isn’t intended to attract new riders. It’s meant to galvanize public opinion against legislation pending in the New York City Council. Tellingly, however, the City Council is not the villain in this piece. Instead, Uber’s vitriol is reserved for Mayor Bill de Blasio.

      This ad not only contains a remarkable number of lies of omission, but plays the race card in a heavy-handed manner.

      Six Uber “driver-partners”, all recognizably African-American or Latino, speak directly to viewers. Jashiel addresses the audience first. “People,” he explains, “have access to an Uber in places where they never thought they’d be able to be picked up.” Joel follows: “We live in five boroughs. They should be able to go anywhere they want to.” Lassana then switches topics, telling us, “We don’t just pick up people. We pick ourselves up.”

      But they can’t pick themselves up, or serve an underserved public, because De Blasio has surrendered to the taxi industry and is depriving people like Jashiel, Joel, Lassana, Luisa and Moises of the jobs they desperately need to better their lives.

      The ad is so deceptive it’s hard to know where to begin, but let’s start with the outright deceptions.

      New York City’s transportation needs, aside from the subway and bus systems, are served by the familiar yellow cabs, by the new green cabs that operate in northern Manhattan and the outer boroughs, and by livery cabs that are supposed to accept only radio calls, but have been picking up street hails for many decades. Two other categories, Black cars and limousines, are irrelevant here.

      I live in the West Harlem neighborhood of Hamilton Heights, a neighborhood supposed ill-served by the current system, but I can assure that I have never waited more than two minutes without being picked up by a cab, be it yellow, green or livery. This is equally true in the outer boroughs wherever population densities are high enough to support cruising cabs. Uber, just another livery service at bottom, adds nothing to this mix. Beyond that, a map released by Uber reveals that Uber users are concentrated in lower Manhattan and the Brooklyn waterfront across the East River. Brooklyn’s interior, Queens and the Bronx are actually blank.

      That brings me to the lies of omission. First, Uber would have you believe that drivers readily respond to calls from NYC housing projects like the Van Dyke House in Brownsville, Brooklyn. This is unbelievable on its face. It becomes even more unlikely when you factor in the first lie of omission: Uber drivers do not have to accept jobs. They can refuse a job for any reason at all, including pickups in dangerous neighborhoods.

       But that brings me to the second lie of omission. Drivers really don’t have to worry about calls to housing projects because in order to use Uber, patrons must have a smartphone and a credit card on file with the company, two barriers the very poor are unlikely to overcome. Again, as Uber’s own figures reveal, Uber customers and Uber vehicles are tightly concentrated in the lower Manhattan and the mostly-gentrified neighborhoods of northern Brooklyn.

      Two further lies of omission seal the deceptive deal.

      First, Uber’s ad would have you believe that de Blasio, a slave to the “taxi industry”, is trying to destroy Uber, but the legislation limits the growth of the entire livery sector, and only for one year while the Taxi and Limousine Commission gathers data on traffic congestion.

      Second, the spokespeople who appear in the ad claim that driving for Uber is the opportunity of a lifetime. In truth, Uber drivers throughout the country, far from lauding the company’s business model, have engaged in many protests against Uber’s practices. One common complaint is that Uber expands too rapidly, leaving drivers unable to make a living. Another complaint, that drivers are forced to accept discounts designed to increase volume, has gone unaddressed by Uber. Drivers further complain that although Uber tells its customers that the tip is included in price of a ride, drivers are only paid the amount of the fare, and that only after Uber deducts its twenty percent commission and the sales tax, another eight-and-a-quarter percent.

      I could go further, but I don’t see the need. The ad is not only deceptive with its talk of underserved neighborhoods that are not, in fact, served by Uber, but as I’ve already written, there’s not a Caucasian or an Asian in the mix. Uber is playing the race card, and playing it over and over again. I must have viewed the ad ten times in the course of a Yankees game just last night.

      The deception part would not have motivated me to write this posting. Nor would the racial implications. Travis Kalanick, Uber’s founder and CEO, is a self-identified libertarian whose online avatar reveals his head on the cover of Ayn Rand’s novel, The Fountainhead. For half-humans like Kalanick, winning is all that matters. As long as you don’t end up in prison, tactics, no matter how underhanded, are irrelevant. No, what bothers me, what motivated me to do the research and write the post, is the involvement of David Plouffe, Uber’s newly-appointed senior vice-president for policy and strategy.

      Plouffe, you see, served as Barack Obama’s campaign manager and White House advisor. He witnessed the race card used again and again to bludgeon the President. That he should now use race to advance the interests of a billionaire mogul is truly, and absolutely, disgusting.

      So, raise a glass, David, perhaps of a wine that set you back five figures. Enjoy the bespoke suits, too, and the private jet. Bathe yourself in all that money. You deserve it, bro, having paid with your soul.

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