Uber IPO is a moral stain on Sil­i­con Val­ley

The Charlotte Observer (Sunday) - - Opinion - BY FARHAD MANJOO

In 2010, I re­ceived an email from an ec­static em­ployee at a startup called UberCab. “What our tiny com­pany is do­ing for San Fran­cisco right now is huge,” he told me. The em­ployee’s joy was con­ta­gious. Back then, as a naive, baby tech pun­dit, I was prone to spin­ning out elab­o­rate vi­sions of tech-abet­ted progress, and the more I learned about UberCab’s bold idea, the more deeply I swooned.

Car own­er­ship is a fi­nan­cial and en­vi­ron­men­tal blight. Cars are one of the most ex­pen­sive prod­ucts we buy, but they barely get any use (most cars spend most of the day parked). UberCab – which short­ened its name to Uber – was us­ing tech­nol­ogy to push a rad­i­cal new ur­ban vi­sion, and it quickly be­came a poster child for Sil­i­con Val­ley’s mes­sianic vi­sion. Al­low­ing strangers to share their cars sounded crazy, but if it took off, Uber might re­duce the need for car own­er­ship and in­crease the uti­liza­tion of each car. It could make trans­porta­tion cheaper and far more en­vi­ron­men­tally friendly, and it might create sus­tain­able jobs for many driv­ers.

Dumbly, I once bought into this vi­sion. Here was a com­pany that could cred­i­bly claim to be chang­ing the world.

Boy, was I a dope. Nearly a decade later, as Uber begins pitch­ing its busi­ness to Wall Street in ad­vance of an ini­tial pub­lic of­fer­ing that could value the com­pany at $100 bil­lion, I’m sick­ened and sad­dened by my naiveté.

In the years since, Uber skirted laws and cut cor­ners to tram­ple over reg­u­la­tors and com­peti­tors. It ac­cel­er­ated the startup in­dus­try’s misog­y­nis­tic and reck­less hus­tle cul­ture. And it pushed a fright­en­ing new pic­ture of la­bor – one in which ev­ery­one is a con­trac­tor, toil­ing with­out pro­tec­tion.

Uber – and to a lesser ex­tent, its com­peti­tor Lyft – has in­deed turned out to be a poster child for Sil­i­con Val­ley’s mes­sianic vi­sion, but not in a way that should make any­one in this in­dus­try proud. Uber’s is likely to be the big­gest tech IPO since Face­book’s. It will turn a hand­ful of peo­ple into mil­lion­aires and bil­lion­aires. But the gains for ev­ery­one else – for driv­ers, for the en­vi­ron­ment, for the world – re­main in doubt.

To­day’s Uber is more re­spon­si­ble than yes­ter­day’s: Travis Kalan­ick was ousted as chief ex­ec­u­tive in 2017, and Dara Khos­row­shahi, its new chief, has led a thor­ough re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion. Tech giants – in­clud­ing Ap­ple, Google and Jeff Be­zos, who all ac­quired sig­nif­i­cant stakes in Uber – will make a killing. Saudi Ara­bian petromonar­chs will too.

Not Uber’s driv­ers. Re­cent stud­ies show that Uber driv­ers make poverty wages – about $10 an hour af­ter their ve­hi­cle ex­penses are de­ducted from their pay. Driv­ers’ for­tunes might only worsen af­ter the com­pany goes pub­lic. Uber lost nearly $2 bil­lion in 2018, and the best long-term hope for Uber’s busi­ness is that driv­ers dis­ap­pear al­to­gether, re­placed by cars that drive them­selves.

The en­vi­ron­men­tal gains have also yet to ma­te­ri­al­ize. Though rideshar­ing has prompted some peo­ple to go car­free, ve­hi­cle own­er­ship has gone up in ci­ties where Uber and Lyft are pop­u­lar. Car ser­vices might also be prompt­ing wealth­ier peo­ple to ditch pub­lic tran­sit, thus re­duc­ing po­lit­i­cal sup­port for it.

Soon a few new bil­lion­aires will roam the earth. All will be for­got­ten and for­given – and Sil­i­con Val­ley will move on to the next big idea to be squan­dered.

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