Saving Uber from Itself

Saving Uber from Itself

There are two stories to Uber. Both matter.

The first story is this: Uber was founded in March 2009 by Travis Kalanick with a single, powerful idea: it shouldn’t be hard to hail a cab. Anyone living in a major metro area knows how important Uber and other ridesharing apps have become, rapidly turning street hails into a thing of the past. Powered by ubiquitous smartphone location tracking technology and fueled by nobody wanting to stand out in the rain waiting for that one taxithat’s not already taken, Uber erupted volcanically into the popular consciousness and quickly became a vital part of the informal infrastructure of cities around the world.

The second: Uber is a ruthless company that underpays its drivers, engages in troubling anticompetitive practices, is relentlessly opportunistic and profiteering to the point of jacking up fares in emergencies and breaking strikes in opposition to the President’s immigration ban, and fosters a toxic culture rife with worker exploitation and sexual harassment.

The second story is increasingly proving to be the dominant one.

Criticism of Uber and founder Kalanick is nothing new. From the outset, it drew criticism within the San Francisco area, where it first operated, for being essentially a service to keep rich people from interacting with the poor. Class issues have always been at the heart of Uber’s public persona; Kalanick is the sort who believes you get what you deserve and you deserve what you get, going so far as to berate one of his own drivers who complained that the pay structure had left him in severe debt. “You know what?” he said. “Some people don’t like to take responsibility for their own shit. They blame everything in their life on somebody else.”

Managing Backlash: ‘Julius Caesar,’ Donald Trump, and Shakespeare in the Park

Managing Backlash: ‘Julius Caesar,’ Donald Trump, and Shakespeare in the Park

A blonde solon in an ill-fitting suit lying dead on the Senate floor, bloody knives held aloft by a cohort of celebrating conspirators. It’s an arresting image, the onstage murder of a man we all immediately recognize as Donald Trump under another name, and in today’s fraught political climate – perhaps more so than at any time in living memory – it’s unsurprising that it has erupted into a firestorm.

It doesn’t matter that other politicos have been cast in the role of the very famously assassinated Julius Caesar in Shakespeare’s legendary play before (so much so that it’s been called a “common trope”), up to and including Obama. 2017 is not like other years, and Donald Trump is not like other presidents. Tensions are high, and inflammatory art has been known to result in real violence. This country feels like a tinderbox, and hushed conversations regarding how exactly the president might be prematurely removed from office frequently accent dinner dates, street corners, and office break rooms. And nobody is entirely sure who they can trust.

This is, I imagine, what pre-war feels like.

And there on the stage, New York’s Public Theater shows the president repeatedly and brutally stabbed to death by his opponents. The resulting conflagration is exactly what you’d expect from a country torn so sharply in two that the opposing sides no longer often speak; for some, this is harmless art. For others, it’s an incitement to violence. And consider that it wasn’t that long ago that our national conversation was “should we or shouldn’t we take to the streets to fight out our differences?”

The news today of the shooting of House Majority Whip Steve Scalise only heightens the urgency of this conversation. The heightened tensions of the day are already boiling over into political violence. The mess The Public Theater has stepped in is extremely serious.

Politics as PR, Part 3: Trump’s Center Cannot Hold

Politics as PR, Part 3: Trump’s Center Cannot Hold

It broke yesterday that Mike Dubke, Donald Trump’s communication’s manager, has resigned, although perhaps you missed that in the kerfuffle over a tweeted typo. This resignation is not surprising; the Trump administration has been beset by an almost daily barrage of scandals which his communications and PR people have been unable to contain. Even ignoring the administration’s early issues like the travel ban, we’re in the midst of almost a month of an endless ratta-tatta-ratta of scandalous disclosures punctuated, like the Battle of the Somme, by the bursting of periodic bombshells. Also much like the Battle of the Somme, every effort to bring it to a speedy conclusion with losses at a minimum has ended ingloriously.

This is essentially where we are right now: a presidential administration best discussed via metaphors to one of the largest, most protracted battles in human history.

The Trump administration is in a bloody war of attrition with breaking news, tending inexorably toward something ominous and undefined. Impeachment? Resignation? A thumping in 2018? It remains to be seen; things at this stage remain dauntingly unclear. But the smoke – the smoke is hard to miss, and we can almost make out a fire if we squint.

So understandably, the administration is in damage control. The resignation of Mike Dubke, whether voluntary and self-initiated or an outright termination, signals as much; the president cannot be thrilled with the almost entirely unobservable results of his team’s efforts to contain the news and change the story. The entire communications team – especially Dubke and White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer – have come under criticism from the notoriously blunt Trump; he believes he has been shortchanged by a staff of incompetents, famously musing that perhaps the daily press briefing should be done away with entirely.

The Profit Motive and the Common Good

The Profit Motive and the Common Good

I’m not someone who’s opposed to working for a living.

I’ve been working in one form or another my entire life, from delivering newspapers when I was 12 to working at the Army Navy Store my whole senior year of high school. I promoted my first New York Times-bestselling author before I was a junior in college, and at 24 I started a company out of my living room that grew into the eleventh-ranked public relations agency to work for in the country. In many ways, I’ve achieved the stereotypical American Dream of material success through blood, sweat, ramen noodles and all-nighters. I lived the “start-up life” long before it was an inspirational hashtag, and I’ve paid my dues along the way. So perhaps people will listen when I say that earning your way to the top shouldn’t be the non-negotiable cost of having a secure, decent, happy life.

I am not entirely certain why this is controversial.

But controversial is exactly what it is. We have an entire culture centered around the idea that you are worth your economic productivity and nothing more – where martyrdom is lauded and a lack of sleep and free time are held up like trophies where basic life-saving medical care comes at an exorbitantly prohibitive expense and a single misplaced step can throw your entire life (and that of your whole family) into financial chaos that can resonate for decades. For millions upon millions of Americans, the basic necessities of life are subject to the whims of an uncontrollable economy.

Which is, it seems, exactly how Donald Trump and many in the GOP seem to want it, at least if their budget and health plan are to be believed?

Last week, the administration unveiled its 2018 budget, called “A New Foundation for American Greatness,” featuring literally trillions of dollars in cuts to the assistance programs economically distressed Americans depend on most. This should surprise no one; since day one, Trump has been promising cuts in essentially everything save the military: defunding Obamacare, defunding the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Cutting the NEA, the NSF, the EPA. Medicaid. The Departments of Energy and Education. Low-income energy assistance.

School lunches. Food stamps. Meals On Wheels.

And these are just the most high-profile of cuts to programs that provide necessary social services. The assumption behind each of these cuts is that private initiative can (and should) fill the gaps. It’s the expansion of charter schools. It’s the empowerment and enrichment of insurance companies. It’s letting corporations drive scientific research in directions that benefit them directly.

In other words, it’s about breaking down one of the core functions of what the government is supposed to do, supporting the common good, and replacing it with self-interest and the profit motive, and by extension, restricting a secure and good life (and access to the tools that make it possible) to the already well-off.

Politics as PR, Part 2: How Trump Fans the Fire

Politics as PR, Part 2: How Trump Fans the Fire

It hasn’t even been two weeks.

Hard to believe, I know. But it wasn’t even two weeks ago that Sally Yates and James Clapper testified before Congress in the ongoing Michael Flynn investigation. In that time, we’ve been witnessing a presidency implode on a scale not seen since Watergate, and at a clip never seen period. The firing of James Comey on May 8 set off a chaotic, scandal-ridden Rube Goldberg machine, with every day bringing about a new twist, a new wrinkle, a new turn that can’t be unmade.

And there at the center of the swirling and inchoate mess is none other than the sweaty, pulse-veined brow of a sitting president who has no idea how to contain the damage or avoid the perception, however correct, that he has committed the cardinal sin of his personal religion: losing.

For Trump, there is nothing worse. And it’s getting increasingly hard to avoid the implication, what with the appointment of a special counsel to investigate the Comey firing and Russia connection (see Archibald Cox and Kenneth Starr, key players in previous scandals that ended, or almost ended, in impeachment). Trump finds himself unable to make a case for himself, and even the acting FBI director was uninterested in perpetuating Trump’s confused justification for terminating his predecessor.

Oh, but the president fancies himself a fighter, and in fighting, has done little but exacerbate the damage. His ineffective flailing has only thrown the White House into chaos as he undermined his own surrogates by flatly contradicting their justifications for Comey’s firing. And now their external PR campaign has entirely collapsed, leaving the administration with essentially no public voice to contain the damage.

None, that is, but the president’s terse, hostile tweets.

Let’s milk it, shall we?