Massachusetts to let cabs tax Uber: The seen, the unseen, and the minor nuisance

There’s a simple alternative to regulation: liability. We don’t need to tell companies how to be safe if we make them legally responsible for negligence.

It’s as though Mass’s government decided that back-to-school season calls for creating real-life rent seeking examples for my class. They’re going to start taxing ride-sharing customers $0.20 per ride with five cents of that going to the taxi industry.

“The law says the money will help taxi businesses to adopt ‘new technologies and advanced service, safety and operational capabilities’ and to support workforce development.”

New technologies like an app that gets more use out of otherwise idle cars? Or an app that makes it easy to hail a ride with little wait? Or an app that brings supply into harmony with demand when demand surges? Oh wait! We’ve already got that and it’s the thing that’s being taxed!

There are a few important economic lessons that Massachusetts’ electorate is evidently in need of. Let’s start with taxes.

Taxes don’t stick

“Riders and drivers will not see the fee because the law bars companies from charging them.” They won’t see the fee, but that doesn’t mean they won’t pay it. A business only exists by collecting money from customers and paying some portion of that to suppliers. The government cannot tax a business without taxing that business’s customers and suppliers.

Granted, part of the cost will be reflected in lower profits (although profits aren’t as big as people think) which means Uber’s shareholders will face part of the tax. But what does that mean? It means 1) a little less money in pensions, and 2) potential investment capital is moved from the people who gave us the best version of taxi travel to the people who gave us the worst version of it.

Money is fungible and I don’t know how to run a cab company

Safety, new technology, and workforce development all sound good, but taxi companies (at least those that deserve to stay in business) will already be doing these things. Safety is important because accidents are costly (especially if your fleet size is limited by regulation). New technology is being adopted by every other (competitive) industry without government support. Other companies invest in their employees.*

Supporting workforce development is part of a larger trend of people supporting specific fringe benefits without appreciating the tradeoff between monetary and non-monetary compensation. And all these ideas reflect a faulty logic: just because something is good, doesn’t mean we need to force people to do it.

Voters simply aren’t in the right position to know if some good thing is good enough relative to other options. If you go into the backrooms of any industry you aren’t already familiar with you will surely learn about techniques and tools you had no idea existed before. So why should we expect that cab companies need regulators to tell them what to do? Let them learn from their trade magazines.

But there’s good news. If we mandated that cab companies use this new revenue stream to pay for new tires, they wouldn’t simply waste the money by buying superfluous tires. They’d stop buying tires out of their own revenues and start buying them from Uber’s. Telling someone to pay from their left pocket simply leaves more money in their right pocket for everything else.**

Extra money in cab company coffers could allow them to invest in better service, happier employees, “and help so taxi owners could buy ‘flagship’ vehicles like a 1940s Checker or a Porsche.” But cab companies are already free to reinvest their profits if they think doing so would create value (i.e. greater future profits). The more likely outcome is that they will simply have more money than before.

Competition is not the problem, it’s protectionism

When we see problems in the world we need to look for their root causes if we want to actually make things better. More often we act like a doctor diagnosing cancer is the cause of the cancer. Don’t want cancer? Outlaw doctors!

Cab companies aren’t as successful as they previously expected and the apparent culprit is Uber. But they only exist because an inefficiency in the market created a profit opportunity. Cab companies are doing poorly because they don’t provide as much value per dollar. And that’s largely because of regulation that prevents competition. Much of it was put in place specifically to protect incumbents from competition.

A lot of these regulations sound nice enough, but they still created the market niche that Lyft and Uber filled. And they protected cab companies from competition right up until ride-sharing became feasible.

Regulation is not the answer

Let’s give cabbies the benefit of the doubt for a minute. Let’s assume that they aren’t really in it for the cash-grab and that they just want to help people get around safely and conveniently. Let’s even assume that NYC’s medallion system is about congestion rather than competition.

If that’s the case, then there are better ways to address the root causes of the problems cabbies tell us to worry about. We don’t need to address each of these problems individually if we can find a few key causes at the root of each of them.

never-half-ass-two-things-whole-ass-one-thing

Cabs have medallions but civilians don’t, so congestion will still be a problem in cities until congestion fees are implemented that balance the demand for road access with its limited supply. Safety is important, but mandating extra inspections for only some types of cars is a half-assed way of dealing with it.

There’s a simple alternative to regulation: liability. We don’t need to tell companies how to be safe if we make them legally responsible for negligence. This is an important lesson for how we think about regulation in all industries. The basic logic is also why economists vastly prefer pollution taxes to specific regulations; it’s usually better to name the outcome we want and create a cost for failure to meet it rather than mandate specific behaviors.

Perhaps this means we should modify the laws that require all drivers to be insured so that some drivers have higher minimum liability coverage. That would be far less invasive and do far more to alleviate the concerns Uber’s critics raise than mandating specific behaviors.

Concentrated benefits dispersed costs

Okay, so maybe this is too small an issue to be concerned with. If that’s not by intentional design, then it at least reflects an evolutionary logic. This policy is likely to survive because the people it taxes will face a cost so small it isn’t worth doing anything about. Yes, Uber and Lyft have incentive to lobby against it, but it’s so close to invisible that they’ll probably be able to pass it almost entirely on to drivers and passengers.

This is going to cost millions… with a tiny little m. At first I read it as a 5% tax and quickly realized that Uber rides are so cheap that I won’t even notice it. And 20 cents a ride is even less than 5%.

So why worry? Precedent. The problem with death by a thousand cuts isn’t any one cut.


*Of course we can argue about whether they do enough of that. There may be a tragedy of the commons if there’s asymmetric information between people looking to make human capital investments and businesses looking to gain access to specific human capital. Such a situation might create an opportunity for government to do some good by investing in public goods or subsidizing on-the-job training. But if that’s the case, it calls for very different programs (education reform, etc.) than taxing successful companies to subsidize their competition.

**Why is this good news? Because if cab companies did change their behavior it would imply they’re doing something where cost exceeds benefit. It would destroy value. Remember those stories of WWII rationing? Imagine that situation but with cab companies buying twice as many tires and just storing extras in the garage. It would clearly be a bad thing. Scarcity isn’t so urgent nowadays, but the basic logic remains the same.

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