Think Uber’s Problems Stop at Its Management and Culture? Think Again.

Uber and Silicon Valley have much deeper problems as well.

Uber and Silicon Valley have much deeper problems as well. (Illustration by Heske van Doornen.)

This post appeared in The Minskys.

Keep track of all of Uber’s problems with The Big List of Uber’s Controversies.

In February 2017, Susan Fowler published a blog post detailing the sexual harassment and gender discrimination she experienced during her time as an engineer at Uber, the ride-hailing company. Although this was not the first time that Uber had been accused of creating a workplace where pervasive sexism and discrimination thrive, Fowler’s piece struck a chord. It built on a wave of criticism of the company from an earlier public relations disaster — Uber’s missteps following protests of President Trump’s racist executive order at John F. Kennedy Airport starting on January 28th and the resulting #DeleteUber campaign — and emboldened others to report sexual and other misconduct at the company (215 complaints about its corporate workplace have been filed).

While the criticisms levied at Uber are generally applicable to Silicon Valley as a whole, public ire was now focused on Uber, which was having a public relations crisis seemingly every week. The one-time $70 billion-valued private company (five times more valuable than the grocery store Whole Foods, which has 431 supermarkets, and was recently acquired by Amazon) was under immense pressure from even investors too. In response, it agreed to two investigations, both led by law firms. One investigated the workplace complaints that had been lodged against the company, leading to the firing of over 20 employees as well as disciplinary action against others. The second’s task was to investigate Uber’s corporate culture and develop recommendations to restructure the company to try to address the root causes of the problems. This team was led by former Obama administration Attorney General, and former Uber advisor, Eric Holder.

Continue reading

The Automation Grift: From Flying Cars to Ordering Cat Food on the Internet – Part 2

Can extravagant claims about technology be backed up?

Can extravagant claims about technology be backed up? (illustration by Heske van Doornen)

This post appeared in The Minskys.

It’s conventional wisdom among pundits that automation will cause mass unemployment in the near future, fundamentally changing work and the social relations that underpin it. Part 1 of this series contrasted this extreme rhetoric with the data that should support the inevitable robot apocalypse, and found that these predictions are likely motivated by politics or outlandish assessments of technology, not data. Part 2 assesses the technology behind these predictions, and follows a thread from the mid-20th century onwards. Subsequent parts will examine the political economy of automation in both general and specific ways, and will also discuss what the future should look like — with or without the robots.

Part 1 of this article made a case that macroeconomic data does not suggest that there is rapid automation occurring broadly in the economy nor in large industries or sectors. Other indicators, like slack in the labor market, support that assertion. It pointed to periods of rapid automation in the past as well, and found these were times with generally low unemployment and healthy job growth.

Regardless of the data past or present, there are still claims that society is on a precipice, facing mass unemployment due to wide-scale automation. Many say that the technology in the near future is different than developments that occurred in the past, and that instead of slow or moderate change that the economy can adapt to, the rate of change will be so profound that suddenly millions will be out-of-work.

There are good reasons to be suspicious of this narrative. First, it is very difficult to predict how technology will develop and affect the world, and if it will be viable or even necessary in the first place. Second, adopting new technology — for example, automating a process and replacing workers — and more importantly, the threat of adopting new technology, gives power to employers and capital instead of workers. This weaponization of technology needs to be credible in order to be taken seriously; hence, it relies on the broader narrative that rapid automation is happening. The first point will be considered now; the second, in Part 3.

Continue reading in The Minskys.

The Automation Grift: The Robots Are Hiding From The Data But Not From The Pundits, Part 1

Robots are going to take your job; or are they?

Robots are going to take your job; or are they? (illustration by Heske van Doornen)

This post appeared in The Minskys.

It’s conventional wisdom among pundits that automation will cause mass unemployment in the near future, fundamentally changing work and the social relations that underpin it. But the data that should support these predictions do not. Part 1 of this article contrasts this extreme rhetoric and the data that should support the inevitable robot apocalypse, and finds that these predictions are likely motivated by politics or outlandish assessments of technology, not data. Part 2 assesses the technology behind these predictions, and follows a thread from the mid-20th century onwards. Subsequent parts will examine the political economy of automation in both general and specific ways, and will also discuss what the future should look like — with or without the robots.

The Rhetoric

Few things are more breathlessly written about than automation and how it will affect society. In the mainstream discourse, technology writers, policy wonks, public relations hacks, self-stylized “futurists,” and others peddle their predictions and policy prescriptions, as if they are letting the rest of us in on a secret rather than following in a long history of over-enthusiastic predictions and misplaced priorities. Others view automation as a panacea for social problems. Either way, mass unemployment is usually at the center of this narrative and how workers, especially poorer workers, will become outmoded in the age of robots. In the waning days of the Obama administration, the White House joined the frenzy, publishing a report warning about the dangers automation posed to workers as well as the benefits of technology.

This report cited (and further legitimized) a 2013 report that boldly claimed that 47 percent of occupations were at risk from automation in the next two decades. Since its release, this study has been cited close to 900 times. Other predictions are just as bold. One is that the entire trucking industry will be automated in the next ten or so years. “Visionaries” like Bill Gates, Stephen Hawking, and Elon Musk use their stardom to add to the fears of these claims — and push for policies that don’t make much sense, like taxing robot workers or creating a basic income that is an excuse to eviscerate our other social programs and do other bad things. Still others blame automation for causing past problems, like the loss of manufacturing jobs in the U.S., when they are easily explained by political decisions, not economic realities.

Continue reading in The Minskys.

Uber and Lyft Are Threatening to Expose Poor and Elderly to Predatory Practices

An Uber driver with a fare

A driver using the Uber app at night (via Noel Tock on flickr).

This post appeared in Truthout.

Ride-hailing companies like Uber and Lyft have grown increasingly popular in the last few years. During this time, both companies have faced numerous challenges to their business models, including lawsuits involving passenger safety and the misclassification of their drivers as independent contractors, as well as accusations that both drivers and passengers discriminate based on race and other factors.

Despite these problems, ride-hailing companies are being further enmeshed with social life. Uber and Lyft are often preferred transportation partners for events and businesses, and cities are even integrating the companies into their transportation systems — some via privatization. Services that use ride-hailing companies for social purposes have also developed. My Ride to Vote provided promo codes for no-cost Uber and Lyft rides to and from polling places in the recent presidential election.

As this process happens, it’s important to point out who is being left behind: mainly, those who cannot use these services, or who can only use them via intermediaries (which are sometimes predatory). For example, in the United States, both Uber and Lyft generally require a smartphone and a credit card to use the service. This leaves out people who don’t have, or cannot obtain, a smartphone and a credit card, as well as those who don’t want to use either for their transportation. (These services have a record of their passengers’ trips.) While the My Ride to Vote service was probably well-intentioned, it likely didn’t target people who actually needed to use the services to cast their vote, i.e., poorer people who are the least likely to vote. The problem? It used promo codes, which meant that passengers needed a smartphone and an active Uber account tied to a credit card to make use of the service. And as Helaine Olen points out at Slate, it also made the companies involved some money.

Continue reading at Truthout.

Robert Reich Tries to Educate a Trump Supporter, but Instead Reveals the Shortcomings of Liberal Rhetoric

Robert Reich's unproductive conversation with a Trump supporter is indicative of larger problems that liberals must confront.

Robert Reich's unproductive conversation with a Trump supporter is indicative of larger problems that liberals must confront (via juggernautco and victoriabernal on flickr).

Public policy wonk-person Robert Reich shared a Facebook post a few days ago about his encounter with a Trump supporter, which garnered 250,000 likes and 80,000 shares. The Trump voter says: Trump’s a winner, being clearly rich. Reich chides him: Don’t you know that Trump is actually a failed entrepreneur, only rich because he inherited a huge sum of money, and actually his business has been publicly subsidized by New York City? He’s not a winner, and you’re not voting for one. Drop the mike, educated.

This illustrates the most popular liberal, anti-Trump rhetoric that I see around me, especially because it’s making use of facts while avoiding the tacit ground underneath: If only you knew the facts, if only you were educated, then you would choose Hillary Clinton over this con artist. I sometimes see this with people who connect with education studies without being within them (sometimes, folks who find out I’m in education studies): Education is vastly important, they say, and those people who are going to vote for Trump are doing so because they haven’t gotten enough of it.

Continue reading

Cities Need More Public Transit, Not More Uber and Self-Driving Cars

A SEPTA bus in Philadelphia.

A SEPTA bus in Philadelphia (via Jarrett Stewart on flickr).

This post appeared in Truthout and Moyers & Company.

New transportation technologies — self-driving cars, electric vehicles and ride hailing services like Uber — promise to revolutionize transportation, especially in cities. While there are certainly potential benefits to these technologies, they have been called “solution[s] in search of a problem” because many of the benefits touted by advocates of these technologies are benefits that public transportation, walking and cycling already offer in abundance.

One thing rarely mentioned in the enthusiastic boosterism of these technologies is how their widespread adoption will affect the poor. Like other expenditures (especially those on necessities), the poor often pay a large portion of their income on meeting their transportation needs.

Continue reading at Truthout.

If “Socially Responsible Investing” Is Garbage, How Should You Invest Your Money?

The New York Stock Exchange on Wall Street. Trying to find investments in the financial industry that are truly "socially responsible" is a losing game.

The New York Stock Exchange on Wall Street. Trying to find investments in the financial industry that are truly "socially responsible" is a losing game (via Jarrett Stewart on flickr).

A version of this post originally appeared at Truthout.

There is considerable discussion about how people on the left should invest their money. For those who are socially conscious or who are anti-capitalists, this is usually an inherently distasteful endeavor. Stock markets are a central institution and symbol of capitalism after all, and they would not exist in the moneyless and classless society that many want to build.

It’s not surprising that so-called “socially responsible investing” (SRI) would seem attractive. In SRI mutual funds (bundles of stocks or bonds), fund managers screen companies based on their labor, environmental and social practices, depending on the fund. The result is an investment that is supposed to be socially responsible and while still generating a healthy return for its investors.

Continue reading

Voting Is Nothing Special (and It Shouldn’t Be)

Long lines to vote early in Ohio in 2012.

Long lines to vote early in Ohio in 2012 (via chrisgold on flickr).

A version of this post originally appeared at Common Dreams.

Political rhetoric in the U.S. is often characterized by sickly sweet appeals to democracy. Voting is held up as the foundation of democracy, or as the most useful or necessary method of political participation or expression. Judging by that rhetoric, and by the image of the U.S. that is exported around the world, one would think that the U.S. would be able to execute the actual practice of voting well.

But the disenfranchisement that routinely happens — to those convicted of crimes, those without IDs, those that need to work, those that can’t find childcare, those that can’t travel, etc. — together with the voter suppression that happened recently in Utah, Idaho, Arizona, and Wisconsin, suggest that voting in the U.S. is undemocratic and limited as a means for political participation. The reality is many people are directly and indirectly prevented from casting a vote, and much of the time that disenfranchisement is purposeful.

Continue reading

Hillary Clinton, and Praising Nancy Reagan for Her Support of Alzheimer’s and Stem Cell Research

The Reagans and the Clintons

The Reagans and the Clintons in 1987 via Wikipedia.

A version of this post appeared at Truthout.

Hillary Clinton recently credited late First Lady Nancy Reagan, as well as her husband President Ronald Reagan, with starting “a national conversation” about HIV and AIDS. She was quickly rebuked for these comments, and her staff issued an apology. The reality is that Nancy and Ronald Reagan were silent about the HIV/AIDS crisis going on around them and treated it as a joke. The result is that the Reagans are complicit in the deaths of tens of thousands of people.

While Clinton did probably think that the Reagans were leaders on HIV/AIDS advocacy, she instead said that she intended to talk about the Reagans’ commitment to stem cell and Alzheimer’s disease research. But this also deserves scrutiny. Neither Nancy Reagan nor her husband started a “national conversation” on either Alzheimer’s disease or stem cells by any charitable interpretation. Alzheimer’s disease was reasonably well-known when Ronald Reagan was diagnosed with it in 1994; supporting stem cell research was a mainstream Democratic Party plank when Nancy Reagan spoke favorably of it in 2004.

The Reagans did become interested in both issues after Ronald Reagan was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s though, and there is an important and obvious point to make about this advocacy: the Reagans’ personal experience with Alzheimer’s disease catalyzed it. Ungenerously, an argument could be made that it was directly in their interest to fund research to find a cure for the disease; generously, one could argue that their experience made them believe that the disease merited more attention than they had previously assigned to it.

Continue reading

Further Thoughts on How to Address the Ridiculous Cost of Diapers

Share of household income spent on diapers

Share of household income spent on diapers via Washington Post.

I did some research on the costs of diapers back in the fall of 2015 using data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Consumer Expenditure Survey.1 I found that, of those who buy diapers, the poorest quintile by income spent nearly 14 percent of their after-tax income on them.

Read the rest of the post here.