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Loving Uber Less

A Commentary by Froma Harrop

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Some Uber customers are reportedly deleting the car-hailing service's app from their cellphones. Here is the reason, which may come on top of other reasons:

An Uber exec talked about hiring an investigative team to find dirt on journalists writing unflattering things about the company. Emil Michael, a senior VP, told BuzzFeed News that he might spend $1 million to dig deep into their "personal lives" and "families."

Some Uber deleters said they feared leaving their personal information -- credit cards, trips taken, etc. -- with a company so casual about privacy. But many saw this as the final deal-killing blemish on a corporate image growing less attractive by the month.

Full disclosure: I've sung love songs to Uber and its streamlined driving service. But yes, I'm irritated.

Michael has distanced himself from the raw remarks, saying that they were attributed to him "at a private dinner party." (He didn't deny making them.) But the bigger problem for Uber is the perception that its boy wonders can mouth off outrageously without demotion or other consequence.

Uber founder Travis Kalanick recently told GQ magazine that the success of his company has made it much easier to score with women. He called the company Boob-er -- perhaps not a firing offense but a profoundly shtoopid  remark.

Some tech fortunes rest on disrupting a traditional business. In Uber's case, it's the regulated taxi industry. So let's not be deceived. Under their owners' messy hair and T-shirts lies the capitalistic aggression of a J.P. Morgan.

The Republican Party recently praised Uber in a petition. "Taxi unions and liberal government bureaucrats are ... issuing strangling regulations and implementing unnecessary red tape" to stifle Uber's entrepreneurial spirit, it said.

Wall Street has valued Uber at an optimistic $18 billion, but investors' sense of humor goes just so far. Bad-boy talk can hurt the bottom line. After all, other companies (Lyft, Sidecar) do what Uber does.

Though unimaginably rich, Uber's top guys are not at all into sharing the wealth. Uber has bragged that its UberX drivers in New York rake in a median salary of about $90,000. But drivers told Business Insider that when expenses are subtracted, the pay is closer to the minimum wage. For UberX, the non-luxury option, drivers own their cars and must pay for gas, insurance and maintenance.

Uber cut its rates in New York City by 20 percent, which meant the drivers made 20 percent less money. At first, the company said that the discount was temporary and then, in September, announced it would continue indefinitely.

Boosting demand for the service, Uber told the drivers, would result in more business and more money. In other words, they'd get back to making what they did before by working longer hours.

The California App-Based Drivers Association says it calculated that a five-minute 2-mile trip in Los Angeles results in a $4 fare -- out of which the driver makes only $1.25. That's what left after Uber takes out a $1 "safe rides fee" and its 25 percent of the remainder. From that, drivers must subtract their cost of running a vehicle, about 50 cents a mile.

Uber's Republican fan base may be pained by the company's recent declaration that it adores the Affordable Care Act. "The democratization of those types of benefits (allows) people to have more flexible ways to make a living," Kalanick said. "They don't have to be working for the Man." Isn't he cool?

Less worshipful coverage of the young tech stars has been most welcome. It's not good for the boys when hipsters still using their service coin the term "Uber shame."
Disrupters, meet the deleters.

Follow Froma Harrop on Twitter @FromaHarrop. She can be reached at fharrop@gmail.com. To find out more about Froma Harrop and read features by other Creators writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Web page at www.creators.com.

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