Renting cars and driving around town simply doesn’t pencil out.
Despite being situated in a roomy part of Burbank, a hotel I just visited charges $35 per night for parking.
Luckily, I give airport rental counters the widest possible berth — a choice which is mainly about saving time for me. As a writer who’s not prone to motion sickness, I’m fully productive in the back seat of a Lyft or UberX. This means every avoided hour of driving is an extra hour of sleep, fun, or (all too often) work. I always kind of assumed this made good economic sense too. But I never bothered to run the numbers on it.
If there is one lesson of this long news-week of business reaction to the Trump immigration ban, it’s that protest can actually work — something Americans once knew but have seemed to forget. Consider:
Yesterday, Uber CEO Travis Kalanick announced that he was quitting the president’s business advisory board in the face of an employee rebellion and a public #deleteuber boycott movement that has cost it a reported 200,000 users (The New York Times). Also, of course, tons of Uber drivers are immigrants. Trump couldn’t have found a more perfect way to infuriate every stakeholder in the Uber ecosystem.
Nordstrom announced that it was dropping Ivanka Trump’s merchandise because of poor sales (Bloomberg). Of course, we can’t know for sure what part the #grabyourwallet boycott that has targetted Trump-related businesses played to drive down those numbers. Maybe Ivanka’s clothing and shoes were just overpriced or underappealing?
Trump cancelled a planned trip to Harley-Davidson’s factory in Wisconsin after an employee tipped off local protest organizers (The Washington Post). The White House said the trip had always been a “maybe.” But the Post found that preparations on the ground for the visit were far advanced.
You can find other examples. The pattern here is important: The most effective collective actions are those that combine outside pressure with internal efforts and then get supercharged by social networks and digital tools.
Friday’s news of Trump’s executive order barring refugees and banning immigration from seven largely-Muslim nations precipitated a weekend-long crisis of conscience in many businesses — mostly but not exclusively in the tech world. As protesters thronged D.C.’s Dulles, New York’s JFK, San Francisco International and other airports across the U.S., executives and employees at a lot of companies realized that they had a new action item demanding immediate attention: Decide where you stand.
The fork in the road lay outside the bounds of normal operations, but this was not a business-as-usual moment. Many companies are framing the issue less as choosing a side in a partisan political battle than as staying true to closely held values and deeply felt identity.
If civilization is about to get hit by a tidal wave of disaster, the one percent are buying luxurious rescue boats. The tech-industry “preppers” that Evan Osnos’s colorful, disquieting New Yorker piece profiles aren’t certain that the end is nigh. But their cash surpluses are so enormous they think it’s a reasonable hedge to splurge on some “apocalypse insurance” — a personal bunker, some New Zealand real estate, or maybe a luxury condo carved out of a decommissioned Kansas missile silo (with a nearby landing strip for private jets, of course).
We’ve been here before, of course, in the nuclear-spooked ’60s and ’80s. But this time around, the doomsday terror is fueled less by geopolitical crises than by vaguer worries about breakdowns of civility and populist pitchforks. Silicon Valley’s nightmare shambles forth from the deranged substrate of libertarianism: If you start by assuming that selfishness trumps all other human motivations, you end up behind barbed wire with an arsenal, fending off the mob.
Could Uber be figuring out that sometimes it’s actually better to seek permission first rather than forgiveness later? Don’t bet on it. But if that is the case, the news that the company has backed out of its controversy-ridden, permit-free deployment of self-driving cars in San Francisco would mark the start of Uber’s humility learning curve (The Guardian).
Uber maintained that it needed no permits since the tech it was testing in 16 vehicles wasn’t truly autonomous: A human driver was always present, and the system was more like the kind of autopilot Tesla already offers in its cars. The company stuck to its “We don’t need no stinking permits” stance even after videos surfaced of the vehicles running red lights and bicyclists complained about a bike-lane blind spot that Uber acknowledged. So the DMV revoked the test vehicles’ registrations.
“Whistleblower” is a peculiarly American term for someone who sees something wrong happening in an organization and calls foul. The problem with the sports metaphor is that, on the athletic field, the person blowing the whistle is empowered — a referee or umpire. In business, however, whistleblowers are usually vulnerable employees who face retribution and blackballing.
Government regulators at agencies like the Securities and Exchange Commission and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration have programs in place to encourage whistleblowers to step forward and reward and protect them. Businesses typically resent that and charge that it encourages fraud. But a new study by a business professor at the University of Iowa shows that whistleblowing has a clear and valuable deterrent effect (Gretchen Morgenson in The New York Times).
The titans of tech pay a call to Trump Tower tomorrow. Visitors will include Tim Cook, Larry Page, Jeff Bezos, Sheryl Sandberg (but not Mark Zuckerberg), Elon Musk, and Satya Nadella, along with leaders of Oracle, Intel, Cisco, and IBM. (Bill Gates had his own private call with the president elect on Tuesday.) Jobs are the top agenda item, The New York Times reports. But presumably other issues — little things like encryption and privacy, immigration, climate change, free trade, free speech, and hate speech — might come up, too.
Or will they? Are tech’s leaders ready to stand up to the president-elect? Or are they going to provide him with one more photo-op? During the campaign, Trump called for a boycott of Apple, promised to tax trade with China, and said the Internet needs to be “in certain areas closed up in some way.” As president, Trump will carry lots of carrots and wield lots of sticks. But tech companies are rich and powerful, too.
Clean energy development will continue whether the White House supports it (as it has for the past eight years) or not. President-elect Trump may doubt the reality of climate change and favor fossil fuels, but a small army of his fellow plutocrats — led by Bill Gates — just announced a new billion-dollar fund to seek technology fixes for global warming (Quartz). Other initial investors in the new Breakthrough Energy Ventures fund include Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, Bridgewater’s Ray Dalio, and Softbank’s Masayoshi Son.
The fund has a 20-year life and will begin making investments next year in a wide variety of clean-tech areas: electrical generation, batteries, industrial processes, farming, and energy efficiency. An earlier wave of clean energy investments a decade ago failed to pay off. But it did speed deployment of solar panels, electric cars, and other foundations of a new energy economy that might be riper today — readier to provide returns in profits as well as reduced greenhouse-gas emissions.
Every maker of change in the business and technology world today fancies him or herself a disrupter. But Jack Bogle, the Vanguard founder who made index funds the dominant feature of today’s investment landscape, was disrupting things long before that word came into fashion. In an interview with Bloomberg, Bogle recalls how hard it was to round up support for the first-ever index fund in 1976.
Indexing is bad for the brokerage business and the mutual fund managers, but retail investors love it. Today the low-cost passive-investing approach Bogle pioneered has won nearly $3.5 trillion in assets at Vanguard and lots more elsewhere. He says the transformation unleashed by index funds is still gathering momentum, steadily “shifting the allocation of stock market returns away from Wall Street and toward Main Street.”
Facebook has developed software tools to help governments suppress posts they don’t like, Mike Isaac reports in The New York Times. In the past the social network, like other U.S.-based internet services, has removed content in some countries to comply with local laws. But this new approach — aimed at helping Facebook re-enter the huge China market it left seven years ago — would allow third parties to preemptively ban stories and topics from users’ news feeds.
The censorship tools haven’t yet been deployed or offered to China, according to unnamed Facebook employees who confirmed their existence, and they might never be. That depends on how badly the company wants to operate in China, where rivals like Google and Twitter have also been locked out — and how satisfied the Chinese authorities are with Facebook’s ability to stifle dissent. But anyone working at Facebook must be wondering, as the Times story does: How can you square this project with the company’s mission to “make the world more open and connected”? Or does the mission just get tossed out the window in the face of a massive market opportunity?