Uber and conservative activists on campus

by Henry on May 8, 2017

This new Chronicle article by Michael Vasquez on a surreptitious effort by a non-profit organization to get conservatives elected to student government positions is worth reading throughout. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with conservatives organizing to get elected – what’s fishy is the stark contradiction between the organization’s private self-understanding (a “rather undercover, underground operation” to change politics on campus) and its public self description. See further this Amy Binder piece for a description of the background politics – what is happening, more or less, is that bomb-throwing conservative campus organizations are sparring with the more sedate and traditional ones for the money and attention of donors, and winning.

But what I wanted to single out was this bit, which very much reads to me as one of those ‘the journalist strongly believes that there is something interesting going on, but hasn’t nailed down interview or documentary evidence’ hanging observations that you sometimes see in news articles (I understand from talking to journalists that such paragraphs are often a way of shaking the tree – if you put something out there, it may encourage others to come forward with more evidence).

Yet there is one policy proposal that almost always shows up with Turning Point’s candidates: promoting Uber.

The ride-sharing service has long been touted by conservative politicians as an example of free-market innovation. Student government can push for Uber in two important ways: lobbying local municipalities to allow Uber service on campus, and setting aside student-government funds for late-night “safe ride” programs that provide free or discounted Uber service to students.

In Mr. Kirk’s book, a group of “Turning Point USA activists” are credited with helping the University of Southern California’s student government reach its free-ride arrangement with Uber. Mr. Kirk’s book mentions Uber 42 times.

… At the University of Alabama at Tuscaloosa last year, the student-government president at the time, Lillian Roth, was an outspoken supporter of bringing Uber back to campus. She even met with Tuscaloosa city officials on the issue, and the city allowed Uber to resume service last summer.

Ms. Roth was endorsed by Turning Point’s student chapter at Alabama. Her father, Toby Roth, has long been active in Alabama politics and is a registered lobbyist for Uber. Mr. Roth said his daughter didn’t have a conflict of interest in advocating for Uber.

“She was not a decision maker in the process,” he said. “Whether or not Uber came to campus was not in her discretion. If she was on the City Council in Tuscaloosa, if she was the mayor of Tuscaloosa, then yes, I think recusal would be in order.”

Notably, Vasquez shows that it isn’t just activists at the University of Alabama at Tuscaloosa that have been pushing the pro-Uber perspective. Perhaps the elective affinity between conservative campus activism and promoting Uber is just so compelling that pretty well everyone whom Turning Support has helped fund independently sees this as a core issue. Perhaps not.



Dr. Hilarius 05.09.17 at 4:53 am

No comments here but 159 on the Hypatia affair.

It’s probably unfair for me to compare the two issues but it alarms me that so much fuss can be kicked up over whether an academic paper, among other alleged sins, used the word “transgenderism” when discussing that very topic, but nobody seems interested in the right wing’s continued seizure of policy and power.

The stealth Uber campaign is just another aspect of the right’s decades long project of building a partisan infrastructure to recruit and groom a leadership cadre. The Federalist Society comes to mind; an initial presence on three campuses in 1982 and now with three sitting US Supreme Court justices among it membership. Think tanks and foundations provide student internships, publication opportunities and credentials as experts.

The left in the US can’t seem to do much other than savaging its own. Why can’t we have nice things?


John Quiggin 05.09.17 at 5:26 am

Given that things like this usually leak out in the end, this looks like a high-risk strategy for Uber in several respects

1. AFAICT, the core of Uber’s customer base consists of young urban people. Becoming known as a funder of rightwing activism hardly seems likely to do them much good. The backlash over the handling of the Muslim ban is an example

2. Uber seemed to invest quite a bit in the cuddly notion that it is in the business of ride-sharing and part of the “sharing economy”. A more accurate, but often less salable, defense of Uber’s operations would be “taxi licensing is bad, so we are operating an unlicensed taxi service”. Tying up with conservatives makes sense for the second, not the first.

3. Even aside from taxi licensing, a business like Uber’s interacts with government at lots of points. Pushing anti-government activism seems unlikely to help.

4. For lots of things Ubder wants, the people it’s funding will look silly doing the advocacy. For example, advocacy of “safe ride” subsidies sticks out like the kind of thing conservatives would normally scorn.


Tabasco 05.09.17 at 5:51 am

I use Uber all the time. Does this make me ideologically unsound?


reason 05.09.17 at 8:41 am

Tabasco @3
Do you own a bicycle?


DavidtheK 05.09.17 at 1:22 pm

Dr. Hilarius #1 – Great comment!

John Q #2 – Uber is not really a “sharing” economy, that’s a a propaganda point. It’s really a monetization economy. In an economy in whitch labor is devalued, and money is prioritized as the scarcest resource; Uber is encouraging people to accept this by monetizing aspects of their lives (AirBnB their residence, become an Uber driver with your car, take your craft hobby and gig it on Craigslist or Angie’sList etc..).

I think you may have criticized it in another thread, but the left side really needs to bring MMT into the conversation in a much stronger way. In a fairly abundant economy, money should not be the scarcest resource.


Ogden Wernstrom 05.09.17 at 3:13 pm

Uber needs government.

Uber gains a competitive edge from the regulations that apply to competitors, which Uber strives to avoid, possibly illegally.

Uber needs the government to protect their patent claims on ride-hailing, er, um, -sharing software. (Though it appears that they’re throwing everything at the Patent Office, and hoping some things stick.)


H Horan 05.09.17 at 8:40 pm

The link between Uber and the pro-corporate/libertarian wing of movement conservatism is much larger and long-standing than what’s implied here.
In the 1990s there was a massive propaganda campaign on behalf of taxi deregulation in dozens of cities written by a range of Koch funded think tanks (such as the Institute for Justice) that appeared in a wide range of Koch funded publications(e.g. Reason). Most falsely claimed to be fighting for the rights of struggling immigrants to be able to enter the business more easily, and most falsely claimed that they were simply advocating the same type of reforms seen when airlines were deregulated. The real agenda (easily discernable if you read enough of them) was not liberalized entry and pricing but the complete elimination of any government oversight over urban taxi services (including rules about insurance, commercial licensing, and requirements to serve all passengers on a non-discriminatory basis). The real agenda had nothing to do with taxis or urban transport, but was part of the larger war on any regulations that might ever constrain the total freedom of capital accumulators.
This propaganda campaign went nowhere initially—there wasn’t a shred of legitimate evidence that any form of taxi deregulation (much less this very extreme version) would improve industry efficiency or provide any benefits to consumers or cities. Efforts (driven by earlier versions of the same Koch funded efforts) had achieved partial deregulation of taxis in 17 cities in the 80s, and was repealed in every case as it didn’t produce benefits for anyone.
But when Uber started in 2010, their (very massive) PR program adopted the 90s Koch propaganda messaging—almost word for word. The media who had completely ignored the 90s think tank claims, reported the identical worded Uber claims as if they were rigorously established truths.
All of this story is laid out in summary form in a March Naked Capitalism post:

and in a longer, meticulously footnoted version “Will the Growth of Uber Increase Economic Welfare” which is soon to be published but is available in draft form at SSRN 2933177.

If you search the various Koch affiliated websites and publications you will find they have been rabid Uber supporters throughout its existence. Not in a “we like free markets so it’s nice to see increased taxi competition” sense but in an explicit “we are active advocates for this specific private company and really want them to drive every other taxi operator out of business and achieve monopoly power” sense. Last year, Jared Meyer of the Manhattan Institute published an entire book (“Uber-Positive: Why Americans Love the Sharing Economy”) which is totally devoid of any factual economic evidence and is nothing but a compendium of Uber’s PR/propaganda claims. Uber represents the wet-dream ideal of the completely unfettered freedom for capitalists that this wing of movement conservatism has been seeking for decades. If you ever need to document how these folks never wanted the kind of “free market capitalism” the textbooks associate with optimal resource allocation and consumer welfare, and only wanted “utter freedom for capital accumulators to screw everyone else without constraint” you won’t find a better example than their Uber advocacy.
A bigger issue is how the Koch/Uber propaganda platform—developed by and designed to serve the interests of extreme laissez faire types—was swallowed whole and aggressively promulgated by just about the entire mainstream media, and most liberal Democrats (especially the Clinton/neoliberal wing). Uber is a fundamentally unprofitable company (lost $3bn last year), its is much less efficient than a typical Yellow Cab company, it hasn’t introduced any economically meaningful innovations, and all its growth is entirely driven by multi-billion dollar investor subsidies designed to drive everyone else out of business so they can establish anti-competitive market power. (All of which is documented in detail in my journal article and the overall Naked Capitalism series). But everyone has swallowed the PR kool-aid and sees them as the avatar of progress, and the next big Amazon/Facebook tech success story. And thus can’t understand that recent issues like systemic sexual harassment and obstruction of law enforcement aren’t the aberrant behavior of a few Silicon Valley bros, but are absolutely integral to the business model and what inevitably happens under a Koch laissez faire world.


Tabasco 05.10.17 at 1:32 am

all its growth is entirely driven by multi-billion dollar investor subsidies designed to drive everyone else out of business so they can establish anti-competitive market power.

Not going to happen. Uber already has competitors with the same or similar business models, such as Lyft. There’s as much chance of Uber establishing a monopoly as there is of Anthony Flynn being appointed by Emmanuel Macron as his adviser on Kremlin affairs.

Reason @4
I presume owning a bicycle the sine qua non of ideological soundness. But what of those people who own a bicycle but still uses fossil fuel-power to get from point A to point B? Or even worse, use that vehicle (in both senses) of Koch ideology, Uber?


J-D 05.10.17 at 5:12 am


all its growth is entirely driven by multi-billion dollar investor subsidies designed to drive everyone else out of business so they can establish anti-competitive market power.

Not going to happen. Uber already has competitors with the same or similar business models, such as Lyft. There’s as much chance of Uber establishing a monopoly as there is of Anthony Flynn being appointed by Emmanuel Macron as his adviser on Kremlin affairs.

The statement ‘They will never succeed in doing X’ is entirely compatible with the statement ‘Doing X is their whole objective’.


Z 05.10.17 at 3:33 pm

Horan’s series at Naked Capitalism contains many very interesting points; highly recommended reading.

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