About a year ago, Uber co-founder and CEO Travis Kalanick told Vanity Fair he had had an important realization: “What we maybe should’ve realized sooner was that we are running a political campaign and the candidate is Uber.” It helped explain why a few months earlier Kalanick had brought Barack Obama’s former campaign manager, David Plouffe, into the company as senior vice president of politics and strategy.
Like any good campaign manager, Plouffe has been working hard to try to recast the debate around Uber and the controversy it has kicked up around the taxi business, regulation, and the so-called “on-demand economy.” On Tuesday, in an interview with Vox editor Ezra Klein, Plouffe continued the campaign by arguing that the real problem isn’t Uber and its aggressive strategies–it’s the politicians and their inability to understand the pace of technology.
“There needs to be more understanding of the speed of things. Technology is changing–and what can be done with that technology is changing,” he said, noting that it is a useless exercise to have a “discussion of how Uber or Lyft fits into 60-year-old transportation regulations.”
Politicians need to understand that the desires of startups to see regulatory change is “not driven by greed or by 25-year-old hipsters sitting on exercise balls,” Plouffe told Klein at a Washington, D.C.-based incubator and venture fund called 1776. (Plouffe’s role at Uber changed in May of this year; he’s currently on the company’s board of directors and bears the title “chief advisor.”)
He spoke primarily about the rise of the on-demand workforce and Uber’s role in the advent of piecemeal work. He touted Uber driving as a part-time job in the extreme sense of the word–saying for 90 percent of drivers they’ve surveyed, the most beloved thing about driving for the company is the flexibility. “They decide when to turn on the app and when to turn it off,” noting that for more than half of the 400,000 drivers in the United States, Uber driving is a fewer-than-10-hour-a-week activity.
“Some only take one or two trips a month–making an extra $20 or $40 to get through the month,” he said. “What we hear from Uber drivers time and time again is that they do it to give themselves a pay raise after being denied it for years.”
Klein suggested that all this part-time driving and wage-supplementing may not be the true aim of Uber for the long term. He asked Plouffe how a future with driverless cars looks from Uber’s perspective in the next 30 years.
“Some have even suggested there will be AI in journalism!” Plouffe quipped. In lieu of talking about the emphasis the company is putting on driverless car research, he concluded: “It’s going to be a very long time” before those vehicles become mainstream.
Plouffe expended a considerable amount of energy calling to mind “progressive” politics, and couching Uber’s goals within them. Uber, he said, is boosting the middle class, and helping low-income individuals afford to buy their child a laptop or get home in time to read a book to their child. Klein wasn’t exactly buying it. He immediately asked, why then do conservative politicians, such as Marco Rubio and Jeb Bush love Uber, and liberals–remember the spat in New York with Mayor Bill de Blasio?–don’t?
“[Uber] is not moving people from Wall Street up to bars in Soho. I’m puzzled by it a little bit,” Plouffe said, noting that Uber not only helps decrease transportation-inequality, but also provides lots of work for the underemployed. “The New York debate showed there is a lot of powerful passion around this on the grassroots level, which is why the mayor had to back down from his position.”
Without a pause, he seemed to want to cap the political debate there, as if to keep it from escalating: “I don’t think this will be a huge debate for the presidential election. We need to do a better job, though.”