Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Neal Pollock and and the terrible, horrible, no good, very bad city

http://rikuwrites.blogspot.com/2014/01/a-morning-commute-starting-in-post.html
Austin, Texas, after the departure of Uber (artist's representation)
It turns out that the voters of Austin, Texas have amazing powers to distort time: according to Neal Pollock, "Austin has gone back in time 20 years" by ditching Uber, even though Uber was in Austin for just two years and the company was only founded in 2009. (It didn't even have an app until 2012.)

Pollock's chief complaint is that the absence of Uber will lead to price-gouging, something that of course Uber itself would never do. Without Uber Austin is left with a "bizarre ecosystem of random auto-barter" and — you're going to think I'm making this up, but I promise, it's in the post — an "insane transit apocalypse." Only Uber can save us from certain destruction! It's like in superhero movies when the general public hate and resent superheroes but then when they're faced by alien invasion or something they come begging. Only in Austin it'll be Travis Kalanick before whom they abase themselves, not Captain America.

Oh, and: "Also, the city allows cab drivers to smoke in their cars."

Speaking of people abasing themselves, I've gotten very, very tired of bare-faced shilling for enormous tech companies passing itself off as journalistic reflection. You'd never learn from Pollack why Austin rejected Uber — or rather, demanded that Uber and Lyft follow some basic legal guidelines which Uber and Lyft pulled out of the city rather than follow. If you want to understand the facts of the case, start with the always-excellent Erica Greider. Maybe the voters of Austin are wrong, but let's try to find out what they were thinking, shall we, instead of screeching about "insane transit apocalypse." And let's try to bear in mind that companies like Uber aren't charitable organizations, sacrificing themselves for the common transportation good.

In short, we need people writing about big business — including big tech business — who have a strong moral compass that's not easily discombobulated by the magnetic fields of media-savvy companies with slick self-promotion machines. Recently I was reading an interview with the journalist Rana Foroohar in which she said this:

One of the things I wanted to do in this book was get away from a culture of blaming the bankers, blaming the CEOs, blaming the one percent. I cover these people on a daily basis. Nobody’s venal here. They really are doing what they’re incentivized to do. It’s just that over the long haul, it doesn’t happen to work.

Really? Nobody is venal? There are no venal people on Wall Street or in executive boardrooms? I guess Michael Lewis has just been making up stories all these years.... 

But also look a little closer: "Nobody’s venal here. They really are doing what they’re incentivized to do." For Foroohar, if you're just "doing what you're incentivized to do" that's a moral pass, a get-out-of-jail-free card. But for me that's the very definition of venality. 

If you're not willing to apply a moral standard to writing about big business that comes from outside the system of "incentivization," outside the pious rhetoric that thinly veneers sleaze, then I'm not interested in your opinions about the effects of business decisions on society. 


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