Follow the money. That's been a truism in American politics since the Nixon era, though the principle goes back at least to Judas Iscariot: If you want to find the underlying reason something is happening, follow the money. Where's it coming from, where's it going, what's it being used for?
Austin has been stunned by the amount of cash that Uber and Lyft have dropped into the Prop 1 campaign over the past weeks: surely over $10,000,000 by now and rising, and by the time the dust settles, it'll likely be way more than what's been spent on all the City Council campaigns of the past decade, combined. It's such a big number, it hasn't really sunk in on anyone just what's going on – just what a watershed moment we're going through.
Why have these tech giants seen fit to dump such a wad of cash into what the Houston Chronicle calls their "bizarrely specific pet issue"? And why did the issue so quickly take on a sharp partisan tone, with the pro-Prop 1 Ridesharing Works for Austin (led by Travis Considine, a campaign spokesperson for Rick Perry's 2016 presidential run, and before that for Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, and for a failed Tea Party candidate for U.S. Senate in Ohio) arrayed against the entire Democratic establishment, save a few out-of-work hacks, bought and paid for? To some extent it's just political expediency, but that doesn't explain the presence of Americans for Prosperity and other national ultra-right groups who've come in to help the fight against these seemingly mild city regulations. So, what gives?
Great battles are often precipitated around seemingly inconsequential events. It's said that the battle of Gettysburg was fought because rival skirmishers from the two armies wanted a supply of boots that was stored in town. And so it is in Austin. The fight isn't over fingerprinting or stopping in traffic lanes, it's about who gets to write the rules.
The Silicon Valley libertarians have been looking for this showdown for a while. Here's TechCrunch, as quoted on Chris Castle's MusicTechPolicy.com: "The fact that the Austin lawmakers felt they could take action against ridesharing harkens back to the weaknesses that tech companies have faced in dealing with political bodies. But the actions of Uber, Lyft and various supporters to repeal the law and remove at least one official shows that this may be the start of a new day for tech companies in the political world."
But the political world is ready to fight back. Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner gave a blistering speech last week, in response to an Uber announcement (via social media, without any direct contact with the city) that they might pull out of Houston, where they've been operating with background checks, unless the city changes its ordinance. "That's not how we do business in Houston," Turner thundered, blasting Uber for their belligerence, reiterating that the system the city has in place is working, and concluding that, "I want them to stay, I hope they will stay, but if I have to choose – and I believe this city will choose – between public safety on one hand and Uber staying on the other, I don't think it'll be close."
"I hope Houstonians will understand," he went on. "If we allow this type of tactic to take place by this particular entity today, others will be doing the same thing down the road." The Houston Chronicle followed up with an editorial Monday: "In the world of political carrots and sticks, Uber deserves a good bop on the nose for its tone-deaf and entitled attitude towards our city. And if the company decides to leave? We're sure someone else will fill the niche in the open vehicle-for-hire market. Houstonians are willing to pay for a clean, quick ride across our sprawling city, and it's good work if you can get it."
So, there it is. And here we are back in Austin, and back to why all that money is flowing into this campaign, to try to convince Austin voters that this is about freedom for consumers, rather than monopoly for one of the largest corporations in the world. And back to the choice in front of voters this week.
If Prop 1 fails, Uber and Lyft may leave town, just to make their point. But clearly, as in Houston, "someone else will fill the niche in the open ... market." Three other companies are already in place, open-source software has just been introduced, and the drivers are obviously available. And a precedent will have been set: In Austin at least, elections cannot be bought, and public policy is still in the hands of public officials.
If Prop 1 wins, a different precedent is set, and a different path is laid out going forward. If elections can be bought openly in Austin, one of the most liberal cities in the country, then it's truly open season everywhere, which is ugly on a broad scale. But more specifically, competition is quashed, the "disruptors" remain undisrupted, and in a very few years, when drivers are replaced by driverless cars (Google already has a strategic investment in Uber, and Uber CEO Travis Kalanick has called getting rid of drivers "the magic" that can take his company to the next level), there will be only one provider, which has already shown its power to beat down regulatory efforts by brute force. At that point, a paltry $15 million investment in a minor city election will have been the best money they ever spent.
Please go vote Saturday.
Meanwhile, Uber CEO Travis Kalanick faces antitrust charges in a New York District Court, where plaintiffs are claiming that Uber's surge pricing algorithm amounts to a conspiracy to commit price-fixing. District judge Jed Rakoff ruled on March 31 that the suit could go on, according to The Guardian, because "the plaintiffs 'plausibly alleged a conspiracy' to fix prices in this manner, and could also pursue claims that Kalanick's actions drove out rivals such as Sidecar."
Walk the Talk - Tour and Panel Discussion of "Missing Middle" Housing in the Clarksville and Old West Austin neighborhoods. Imagine Austin and AIA Austin present the third in a series in neighborhoods across Austin. The panel "will touch on the history of Clarksville and Old West Austin, fair housing, historic preservation, and the role CodeNEXT and the new land development code has in advancing our city's growth through sustainable and, when appropriate, denser models of housing." Sat., May 7, 1:30-3:30pm at St. Luke United Methodist Church, 1306 West Lynn.
Meanwhile, city staff has released Code Prescription No. 2: Developing Complete Communities for all Austinites, the second of four documents that will form the basis of the CodeNEXT rewrite of the Land Development Code. www.austintexas.gov/department/codenext.
The Mayor's Book Club: Path to the Presidency. Austin Mayor Steve Adler presents this year's selection, A Friend of Mr. Lincoln, by Austinite Stephen Harrigan. There's a panel discussion on the evolution of the presidency since Lincoln, with a truly all-star cast: LBJ Presidential Library director Mark K. Updegrove, UT history professor and author H.W. Brands, and political strategist Matthew Dowd, plus a closing reception and booksigning. Free. Tuesday, May 10, 7-9pm at the Bullock Museum, 1800 Congress. www.thestoryoftexas.com.
Austin Don't Rush Mayor Steve Adler challenges Austin commuters to find a way to work on May 11 that avoids rush hour traffic. In support, Capital Metro offers free service on all of their buses and trains all day.
Amy Boone, longtime Austin musician with the Damnations and others, was hit by a car and sustained serious injuries to her legs and feet. She's facing multiple surgeries and skin grafts and, while she should make a full recovery, it'll be a quite a while before she can work again. Friends have set up a GoFundMe account to help defray costs while she does the hard work to get back on her feet – literally. Any amount will help. Look for Amy Boone at www.gofundme.com.
Technology and a Movie: AISD Innovation Summit. Demonstrations, sessions on technology, student performances, and a screening of the film Most Likely to Succeed, a documentary about the imperative for change in schools, followed by a student panel discussion. Members of the AISD Facilities and Bond Planning Advisory Committee will attend. 8:45am-4:30pm. Sat., May 7, at McCallum High, 5600 Sunshine.
The Guadalupe Street Corridor Improvement Program is an Austin Transportation Department initiative to identify and recommend transportation improvements along the Guadalupe Street Corridor, from MLK up to 29th Street, between Rio Grande Street to the west and a block into the UT-Austin campus to the east. They're holding a two-part meeting on Wed., May 11 – Business Open House, 3:30-5:30pm; Public Meeting, 6-8pm – at University Presbyterian Church, 2203 San Antonio St. See www.austintexas.gov/guadalupe.
Parking Strategy Community Workshop. The Downtown Austin Alliance is undertaking a comprehensive strategy to develop short- and long-term solutions to the Downtown parking crunch. Drop in Wed., May 11, at Google Fiber Space, 201 Colorado. Open house from 5:30-7:30pm, with a short presentation at 6pm. Free. More info at www.downtownaustin.com/daa/parking-strategy.
The West Austin Studio Tour runs May 14-15 and 21-22, and the Austin Public Library serves as the official pickup location for the lovely EAST and WEST catalogs, available at all locations starting May 9 while supplies last. Bonus: There's already art up at five West Austin branch libraries and Recycled Reads:
Thomas Hooper: Yarborough, 2200 Hancock Dr.
Gabriel Frampton: Little Walnut Creek, 835 W. Rundberg
Michele Hogan: Twin Oaks, 1800 S. Fifth
Zane Scheible: North Village, 2505 Steck
Vicki Harris: Recycled Reads bookstore, 5335 Burnet Rd.
George Brainard: Faulk Central Library, 800 Guadalupe
See library.austintexas.gov for more info.
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