As NY floods, "Robin Hood" Uber robs from the rich and... Nope, that's about it

By Paul Carr , written on October 31, 2012

Published to the News desk.

Last week, I wrote a few words on Uber CEO Travis Kalanick, his love of Ayn Rand, and how Silicon Valley's growing Randian obsession risks turning "Disruptive" companies into raging assholes.

Judging by the volume of responses -- here on PandoDaily, on Twitter, and by email -- I was far from alone in my concerns. Surprisingly, even people close to the company chimed in, privately of course, to share their mounting alarm at the direction Uber is heading, particularly with regards to Kalanick's war with the NY TLC.

And yet, predictably (given how many copies of "Atlas Shrugged" sell every day in Northern California), there were still a smattering of people who came to Kalanick's defense, casting him as a latter day Robin Hood.

Quoth one commenter: "Travis's job is to improve transportation for millions... I think history is going to side with him as having made a more lasting, positive contribution to the world."

Indeed. Consider the company's response to the devastation caused to New York  by Hurricane Sandy...

The price gouging at a time when New York's entire public transportation system is down would be icky enough, but the company's justification was disingenuous even by its standards...

It's the drivers, you see. The only way to get them to come into the city is by doubling rates. The fact that Uber takes 20 percent of every fare, and so is also making twice as much money itself, is just a happy coincidence.

Downstream in New Jersey, the price hike would be very, very illegal -- the state's anti-gouging legislation outlaws price increases over 10 percent during states of emergency. Said Governor Chris Christie: “The State Division of Consumer Affairs will look closely at any and all complaints about alleged price gouging. Anyone found to have violated the law will face significant penalties."

New York also has anti-gouging laws, although they don't give an actual percentage that is automatically considered to constitute gouging. From the AG's website...

Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman today issued an open letter to vendors in areas forecast to be affected by Hurricane Sandy to warn against price gouging, the inflation of the price of necessary goods and services. General Business Law prohibits such increase in costs of essential items like food, water, gas, generators, batteries and flashlights, and services like transportation, during natural disasters or other events that disrupt the market.

“While most vendors understand that customers are also neighbors, and would never think of taking advantage of others during such disruptive times, these circumstances always require an extra sense of vigilance and preparation,” Attorney General Schneiderman wrote. “As Attorney General, it is my responsibility to enforce the price gouging law, and while my hope is that I will not need to do so, my office is certainly prepared.” To Uber fans, of course, the above is (somehow) just another example of evil lawmakers trying to stop Saint Travis from helping his fellow man. And the fact that, after a few hours of lining its pockets, Uber finally backed down and agreed to pay drivers an increased rate but keep fares at their normal levels, is evidence that market forces work even faster than regulators. (Side note: do check out Business Insider's story about Uber's climbdown which neglects to mention any of the PR disaster that preceded it. Somewhere an Uber PR flack is getting a 100 percent bonus payment of his or her own.)

For the rest of us, though, Uber's response to Sandy gives a useful foretaste of what Travis Kalanick has in mind when he promotes his utopian ideal of a totally unregulated cab market.

Atlas gouges.