This year at Liberal Currents we started going in for book reviews fairly seriously. I picked up two books with the intention of reviewing them together, but am having trouble producing anything worth publishing. So, as is my way, I’m going to spitball a bit here.
I was happy with how pairing two books turned out for my review of Daniel Okrent’s Guarded Gates on the immigration restriction battles and eugenics at the end of the 19th and turn of the 20th centuries. I reviewed it together with Thomas Leonard’s Illiberal Reformers, which, published in 2016, was the source of my interest (some would say obsession) with Okrent’s topic. The two books take very different approaches and the subject matter does not line up one to one; Leonard is an academic historian whose topic is primarily the history of economics as a discipline. Okrent is a popular writer who, while diligent in his research, is focusing on telling a compelling story about interesting characters. More importantly, Okrent’s net is much wider. The more I read Okrent’s book, the more I worried that the approach of pairing the books would prove unfeasible for a review. But I found the right angle and I’m happy with how the piece has turned out.
My experience with my current pair was, if anything, the opposite. I had a specific goal in mind when I obtained a copy of Super Pumped, Mike Isaac’s book about Uber: I wanted to see if there was anything to my father’s framing of the primary intraelite conflict being between tech entrepreneurs on the one hand and east coast establishment types on the other, and Uber seemed like a good lens for that. The best lens; no one has thrown down harder against established elites who have gotten in their way than Uber.
I then learned (through conversation with my father, as it happens) of the book Conspiracy, by Ryan Holiday, about the destruction of Gawker by Peter Thiel. I thought, vaguely, that I could deepen my investigation by adding another tech elite’s activities. My first surprise here was to find that Thiel/Uber did not make a very meaningful parallel at all, whereas Gawker, as described by Holiday anyway, basically operated like a media version of Uber without the deep VC pockets to bail it out of any problem.
But there the parallels largely run dry. I wanted to make some general point about the exercise of power and how hard it can be to tell, in the moment, who really has it—Holiday has a great line, after describing an incident in which Gawker ignored an injunction from a Florida judge:
We asked earlier who the underdog was in the dynamic. It is probably not the party that can defy an order from a judge and get away with it.
ignoring legal orders is the benchmark for power, then Uber is in a league of its own. In October of 2010, just four months after the first Uber user hailed a ride, officials from the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency showed up at their headquarters to serve them a cease and desist order. The company, then known as UberCab, was in violation of local regulations, and could face fines up to $5,000 per trip, while the company’s management faced up to ninety days of jail time per day they remained in operation.
Isaac sets the scene:
Graves was scared. “What are we supposed to do here? He said aloud, reading his name on a piece of paper that said he could be going to jail. Hayes, the venture capitalist, wasn’t sure what to say. He was used to investing in consumer tech companies, but rarely (if ever) did they run afoul of the law. Geidt, just a few months out of college, stood quiet and nervous, too. This was her first foray into the professional world. Now she was looking a jail time.
Kalanick didn’t miss a beat. “We ignore it,” he said to the room.”
And that was that. They dropped “Cab” from their name and moved on.
This was their first year. Over the next seven years, Uber would not only break numerous local laws with impunity, they would develop a whole playbook for doing so effectively. In Philadephia, where the battle with local authorities was especially fierce, they would rack up 120,000 violations adding up to a $12 million fine. Uber is available in Philadelphia to this day—and in a settlement they managed to get that fine cut down by more than two thirds, to $3.5 million.
The proximate source of Uber’s power in this regard is quite simple: investors had given them an unbelievable amount of cash with basically no strings attached other than the mandate to grow, grow, grow. This allowed them to hire top talent, of course; talent which allowed them to develop sophisticated strategies for staying ahead of local enforcers, among other things. But far more important and not sophisticated by any stretch was their ability to simply throw money at problems. This included paying for expensive lawyers, of course, but also being able to promise drivers that “all costs associated” with run-ins with local regulators would be covered by Uber. During their doomed play for the Chinese market, Uber spent $40-50 million a week in subsidies alone, to entice drivers away from competitors.
Gawker did not have that kind of war chest, though it had very good liability insurance. Thiel, of course, did have the money to burn trying to take Gawker down, and that’s precisely what he did.
But here I find myself dissatisfied with where a potential review would go. Will it really boil down to “money = power”? The halo around tech “disruptors” and being part of the “rude” (but specifically rude and lefty) press plays an important role too, but this amounts to little more than pointing out that money and status are power. Hardly Earth-shattering stuff; not much meat to sink your teeth into.
Ultimately the books are incompatible in the lessons I would want to draw about them. Conspiracy raises some important questions about a court system too expensive for even, as Thiel put it, “single digit millionaires” to afford, as well as the tension between privacy and freedom of expression, and other press-and-judiciary related questions. Super Pumped, on the other hand, is simply a book I would want to give to all my old libertarian buddies, as well as anyone in finance, and anyone too enthusiastic about disruption per se as an approach to creating progress. I think the end of replacing taxi cartels with services like Uber is a good one in principle; I also think one would be hard pressed to square the means Uber employed to that end with even the rule of law as an ideal, even in the most minimal conceivable formulation.
Rather than deepening the material for approaching the same set of questions, pairing these two books seems simply to multiply the set of questions to be addressed. So I think I’m going to have to bite the bullet and drop one of them, probably Conspiracy, which offers a more unique and therefore less generalizable scenario.
Anyway, that’s what I’ve been failing to write this Thanksgiving break. Hope you all had an enjoyable one.