Another Race Riot

Note: This is written for my overseas readers mainly. If you live in the US, you will probably find that you already know most of what I am writing about.

A couple of days ago, a police officer shot to death a black man in full daylight in Charlotte, North Carolina, very much the Old South, former home of abject slavery.

This is happening in the last months of the second administration of the first black American president, after more than seven years of his being in charge. “Being in charge” is an exaggeration of sorts though. The President of the United States exercises no constitutional authority over local police forces (or state police forces). His federal Department of Justice only has jurisdiction when a violation of civil rights is at stake and only over that specific putative violation. Homicide is not in itself a civil rights violation. It’s true that Pres. Obama cannot pick up the phone and tell the Charlotte police what to do or how. Yet, Mr Obama is responsible to some extent although indirectly for the violence, an idea I will develop below.

Cop kills black man: familiar story, right?

I forgot to give you important information. The police officer who did the shooting is black and a woman. She answers to a black police chief. He is squarely in charge of training officers and making rules for their behavior, including their use of firearms. The Chief of Police is appointed and answers to the mayor of Charlotte. The mayor is a white woman and a prominent Democrat. She is assisted by a city council of eleven, four or whom are black. As far as I can tell, there are zero, or one, or two Republican city councilors. The rest are Democrats.

The police says the victim had a gun. His family says in was sitting in his car reading a book while waiting for his child to come out of school. Disturbingly different stories, for sure.

There have been three nights or protests in Charlotte, that quickly became riots, with demonstrators throwing heavy objects at police officers and much destruction of property. One demonstrator was shot, apparently not by a police officer. And, of course, there was much looting of stores. It’s nearly always like this: One young black man dies, fifteen young black men acquire brand new mountain bikes.

Watching the riots on TV, I notice something that television channels and printed press journalist don’t comment on: Some of the most aggressive rioters are young white men who seem to me to know what they are doing and who are not distracted by broken store windows. I should use the word cautiously but they seem to me almost professional in their approach to rioting. The white young rioters are not mentioned I think because they cannot be fitted in the prevailing liberal narrative: It’s a race riot, it’s a demonstration against racial injustice by black people who have just had enough. How about the young white guys? Irrelevant, they are just lovers of justice who happen to be there. Yet, I can’t claim that I recognize any of them on TV but there are young white men just like them in every race riot I have watched in the past two years. If they are absent the first day, they are plainly present the second day and the next few days.

The show on my TV looks a bit like a movie because it’s not well connected to reality, the reality that everyone knows: On the whole, young black men don’t die because cops shoot them, they die because other young black men kill them. They also kill the occasional child and lately, even a young mother pushing her baby carriage. The percentage of violent deaths of black men at police hands that are legally unjustified, must be minuscule. No one in Chicago demonstrates against this continuing mass killing by African-Americans. I think blacks and whites alike don’t because it would contradict the main, tired old liberal narrative: Injustice and racial oppression are the source of all evils in American society.

Young black men kill one another in gang wars for turf (for possession of a piece of ground.) The turf, the ground, is an important asset in the retail sale of illegal drugs. I would be curious of what would happen if Congress decriminalized all drug sales to adults and if a rational president signed the bill into law. I would bet that young black men’s death rate would plummet by 90% in a few weeks. I have no explanation as to why this is not done. It’s not as if the 40-year old so-called “War on Drugs” were working in reducing drug use!

After seven+ years of Obama, the economic gap between whites and blacks – however you measure it – has increased. African-Americans are worse off in relative terms than they were under Pres. Bush. This is no surprise to me. It’s a Democratic administration. The worst place for a black man to live in America is in Democratic-ruled big cities. It begins with Chicago, a Democratic city for 85 years. And then, there is Detroit, a war zone with no war. All this being said, we must not forget that most African-Americans lead lives that are both normal and peaceful, in crying contradiction to the narrative of continued racial oppression. There is a large minority of young black men however who have never had a job, who don’t look for one, who may have never known a person with a job except teachers and cops.

Democratic politicians have been promising salvation in the form of “social programs” paid for by those who do work. They have done so for fifty years. They have not implemented them, or the programs have done little good, or even worse. It’s time for a revolutionary new idea, one that’s very old, in fact. When there is rapid economic growth, employers compete for labor, even for the labor of the inexperienced, even for the labor of those usually seen as unemployable. Black Americans in ghettos need the same thing that all Americans need: vigorous and fast economic growth. This may be hard to believe but the United States has few problems that could not be solved by ten years of 3.5% annual GDP growth.

There is no sign of a search for economic development in the Democratic presidential candidate’s program. Donald Trump, by contrast, promises to reduce taxes and to rid business of many regulations. Historically, it’s usually enough to produce growth. Black Americans need less abstract “justice” and more of a fair chance. The left wing of the Democratic Party hates the very idea.

A short note on minorities and the Left

Lately I have been thinking about how minorities affect the Democratic Party here in the US. Basically, all minorities vote for the Democrats in national elections, but minorities tend to be conservative culturally. This has the effect of pulling the Leftist party waaaaay to the center (a fact that makes it hard for me to complain about Democrats’ pandering tactics).

Sure, the GOP will always be the party of old white people, but if the Democrats’ left-wing is essentially neutered due to minority voting blocs within the Party, who cares?

The fact that the Democrats pine for minorities explains why the US has never had a very powerful socialist movement. Socialists will often blame “neoliberals,” “capitalists,” “reactionaries,” and other assorted boogeymen, but doesn’t the minority insight make much more sense?

This minority insight has also got me thinking about demographic changes in Europe over the past 30 years. Basically, Europe has had a huge influx of immigrants since the fall of socialism. In the old days, Sweden was for Swedes, France was for the French, Germany was for Germans, etc. etc. This  mindset helps to explain why European states had such overbearing welfare states and why economic growth was so limited up until the late 1980s.

As immigrants moved into these welfare states, the Left-wing parties began to pander to them. This had the same effect as it did in the United States: culturally conservative voting blocs diluted the Leftism of traditionally Left-wing parties. As a result, these welfare states became less robust and economic growth became attainable again.

A big underlying point about my musings on this subject is that socialism relies on nationalism in the area of popular politics and policymaking. Without Sweden for the Swedes-type sloganeering, socialism becomes ridiculous to the masses. This underlying point, along with the straightforward fact that immigrants dilute socialist power (economic, political, and cultural), suggests to me that libertarians who pay close attention to popular politics should relax when it comes to the fact that minorities don’t find libertarian ideals all that appealing.

Alguns mitos, equívocos e objeções comuns ao capitalismo

No meu último post ofereci uma definição de capitalismo baseada nos conceitos de escolha pessoal, trocas voluntárias, liberdade de competição e direitos de propriedade privada. Em resumo, um capitalismo liberal ou uma sociedade de livre mercado. Neste post eu gostaria de começar a desfazer alguns mitos, equívocos e objeções comuns ao capitalismo (se entendido nos termos que defini anteriormente). A lista não é exaustiva, mas acredito que cobre bastante terreno da discussão. Aí vai:

  1. Ser pró-capitalismo é ser pró-grandes corporações.

Adam Smith observou que empresários dificilmente se encontram para eventos sociais, mas que quando se encontram não conseguem evitar combinar meios de evitar a mútua concorrência. Empresários (especialmente donos de grandes corporações) tendem a não gostar de concorrência. É compreensível. A maioria de nós também preferira não ter colegas de trabalho com quem competir, assim como vários corredores hoje gostariam que Usain Bolt não existisse. O capitalismo liberal, no entanto, é um sistema de perdas e ganhos. Numa economia verdadeiramente livre de intervenção do estado é improvável que corporações se tornem desproporcionalmente grandes. A tendência é ao nivelamento.

  1. O capitalismo gera uma distribuição de renda injusta

Uma das grandes objeções ao livre mercado é a desigualdade de renda. No entanto, nenhum sistema econômico na história foi tão eficiente em retirar pessoas da pobreza quanto o capitalismo. Numa economia verdadeiramente livre a desigualdade existe e é basicamente inevitável, mas não é nada quando comparada a sociedades que optam pelo controle estatal da economia. China, URSS e Cuba são os países mais desiguais da Terra.

  1. O capitalismo é responsável por crises econômicas, incluindo a mais recente

A crise de 2008 foi causada por intervenção do governo norte-americano nos setores bancário e imobiliário. Sem intervenção do governo, instituições financeiras teriam um comportamento mais cuidadoso e a crise seria evitada. A mesma observação vale para basicamente qualquer crise econômica dos últimos 200 anos.

  1. Capitalismo explora os pobres

A livre concorrência, por definição, não é um sistema de exploração. Quando eu pago cem reais por um par de sapatos, isso significa que eu valorizo mais o par de sapatos do que os cem reais. O sapateiro, por sua vez, valoriza mais os cem reais do que o par de sapatos. Isso não quer dizer que não existam vendedores inescrupulosos, ou que não existam compradores injustos. Mas numa sistema de livre concorrência as possibilidades de fraude são mitigadas justamente pela concorrência: se o produto ou serviço não agrada ao consumidor, há sempre a possibilidade de procurar a concorrência. Em resumo, no capitalismo o consumidor é rei. Para concluir este ponto, apenas uma observação: o salário é nada mais do que o preço que se paga pelo trabalho de uma pessoa. E as mesmas observações se aplicam.

  1. Capitalismo é injusto

Algumas pessoas nascem com deficiências. Algumas pessoas nascem em famílias pobres ou desestruturadas. Isso é injusto? Por quê? Uma definição clássica de justiça é “dar a cada um o que lhe é devido”. O que nós é devido? O que nós merecemos? Eu merecia ter nascido com boa saúde? O que eu fiz para merecer isso? Estas perguntas facilmente nos levam a grandes indagações filosóficas e teológicas, e logo demonstram o quanto a acusação de injustiça numa economia livre é superficial. Ainda assim, nenhum sistema político ou econômico permite a ajuda aos desfavorecidos como o capitalismo. Se você considera injusto que existam pessoas sem dinheiro, sem saúde ou sem famílias estruturadas, sugiro que seja coerente e use mais do seu tempo e dinheiro para ajudar estas pessoas. 

  1. Capitalismo não traz felicidade

Pensando num sentido aristotélico, felicidade possui significados diferentes para cada um. Para um cristão significa ter um relacionamento pessoal com Deus através de Jesus Cristo. Provavelmente um não cristão não irá concordar com este conceito de felicidade. Dito isto, a liberdade econômica não tem como objetivo trazer felicidade para qualquer pessoa, e assim é injusto culpá-la por algo que não propõe fazer. Porém, dentro de um sistema de liberdade econômica a tendência é que a liberdade para a busca da felicidade também esteja presente. Além disso, com liberdade econômica é mais provável que consigamos buscar nossa felicidade através da criação de uma família, do envolvimento com instituições religiosas, ou mesmo ficando ricos simplesmente.

  1. Capitalismo não é estético e é poluidor

Os países mais poluidores do século 20 foram URSS e China. Proporcionalmente ao tamanho da sua população, EUA está longe do topo desta lista. Quanto ao fator estético, sugiro pesquisar por imagens da Alemanha Ocidental e da Alemanha Oriental, ou da Coreia do Sul e da Coreia do Norte. Dizem que a beleza está nos olhos de quem vê, mas me parece bastante óbvio que esta acusação estética é simplesmente falsa.

  1. Corporações são cheias de escândalos e extorsão

Com certeza elas são. Mas possuem o mesmo nível de corrupção de governos? A matemática é bastante simples: quanto mais governo, mais corrupção. Além disso, com uma corporação é possível simplesmente levar o dinheiro embora dali. Governos não são tão permissivos com evasão de impostos. A proposta de criação de mais sistemas de vigilância governamental apenas aumenta o tamanho do governo e as possibilidades de corrupção. A ideia de transparência e de consulta popular também é simplesmente falsa: a não ser que possamos passar 24 horas de nossos dias vigiando os governantes, estes sistemas simplesmente não terão possibilidade de funcionar. A solução mais simples continua sendo menos governo.

Há mais alguns tópicos que podem ser acrescentados e que deixarei para um futuro post. Por enquanto basta dizer que capitalismo (definido como livre mercado) pode ser bastante diferente daquilo que popularmente se entende.

Para saber mais:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KGPa5Ob-5Ps

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZgiLF48w7uQ

Immigrants’ Complaints

I can’t watch or listen to the liberal media without hearing reports of immigrants complaining about how badly they are treated by the wider American society. (Yes, I listen to National Public Radio nearly every afternoon. It’s my intellectual duty and also my secret vice.) Something does not add up in the oppressed immigrant narrative though. First, before I explain, forgive me in advance because I am about to transgress on good manners in two different ways.

First transgression first. I spent much of five years of my youth in graduate school learning not much more than the following: My own experience, basically a collection of anecdotes, proves nothing. Point well taken. But the anecdotes within my reach can sometimes pile up to the point that they make some questions unavoidable. Below is one such question.

I know many immigrants, and different kinds of immigrants. First, like everyone else who lives in California, I know many Mexican immigrants. I understand Spanish perfectly. (I mean, as well as English; you be the judge.) I speak it well because, like French, my native language, it’s just a dialect of Latin. I hang around the abundant Spanish language media often. If Mexican immigrants complained, it would have come to my attention. I only remember one such case, a young woman who had come to this country as a child. She confided that she thought my colleagues, her professors, favored “Caucasians” in grading. She was actually failing because her English was poor. I made her do an assignment in Spanish and I understood why she was frustrated. My colleagues were not unfair to her. Her English language self’s IQ was stuck at room temperature  (in F degrees) while her Spanish self must have been jumping around the 120 mark. No one had bothered to tell her the obvious: “You need to learn English better.” Not American society’s fault, except for having tolerated her without adequate language training, and for the university that had admitted her, ditto. (Incidentally that school’s affirmative action program was a success overall, I thought.)

The foreign-born Hispanics I know and meet are all in a wonderful mood in public. Of course earning in one hour what would take you a day in Mexico and two days in El Salvador would put anyone in a good mood. There are three or four bastards of them, Hispanics, who force me to wake at 6 every morning because they walk under my window guffawing and laughing loudly. As I have written elsewhere, on this blog, the evidence for Hispanics’ satisfaction is easy to find.

I also know Asian and European immigrants, who are mostly middle-class, and a handful of Middle Easterners. The latter, mostly Muslims, feel under siege, of course; it would be a miracle if they did not. It’s not really American society’s fault that nearly all the mass murderers of civilians in recent years insisted on shouting “Allahu Akbar.” Yet, even those immigrants sure as hell are not packing their bags, or, if they do, it’s in minute numbers. I would bet there is no exodus out of the country.

The Asian and Europeans I know tend to exult in their American residence; they often act smugly about it although all of them miss something from their country of origin, at least their relatives. (For me, it’s not so much relatives as blanquette de veau; look it up.) Nevertheless, many of those middle-class immigrants find a political home on the left of the American spectrum because they have never been exposed to the ideal of small government. Even the smart ones usually don’t realize that government is a predator. More anecdotic transgression: If I ask myself who seems to be happier, on the average of those I meet more or less daily, immigrants or native born Americans, the answer comes loud and clear: the immigrants.

So, I am seriously beginning to consider if the reporting of widespread complaints by immigrants is not fabricated, with the help of a handful of fairly sophisticated minority members of the media. I mean, for example, the blond, lying CNN Mexican-born anchor who can’t open his mouth without proffering a vicious untruth.

Here is my second violation of convention. I am only doing it because being an immigrant gives me special privileges (and being old also does). If there are really, really many immigrants with serious grievances I don’t worry much because they are all citizens, citizens of some other country, that is. It seems to me, most of them could pack up and leave and go home to where they are citizens. That’s except for the refugees from war. The latter don’t have much of a leg to stand on however. Whatever shortcomings American society has, at least, here, we don’t kill you on purpose unless we know you personally.

That’s a real advantage.

I wish we had a national program to pay for one-way tickets for disgruntled immigrants. It might not even require taxpayer money. There must be tens of thousands like me. I give money voluntarily to save tigers in the wild. Sending back bad immigrants into the wilderness is a good cause too. So, it could be done by free public subscription. Or this country could institute a small tax on in-coming immigrants to constitute a fund that finances one-way tickets on demand. It would be fair, like an assigned risk insurance pool is fair. My guess is that it would be one of the few government programs that does not overspend its budget. It would have, at least ,the merit of putting an end to the BS* in the liberal media.

Ah, but the Democratic Party won’t allow it! It would never permit such practical innovativeness because malcontents are its bread and butter.

Incidentally, the ambitious guy inside me wonders if we couldn’t have a second one-way ticket program, one for native-born Americans who hate America. Of course, I am thinking only about a voluntary program. It would have the merit of ranking all the dissatisfied who don’t avail themselves of the offer of  a one-way ticket as at least moderately satisfied. It would stop some of the implicit blackmail of America. It’s not a cruel proposal, I think the Canadians would take them.

* Note for my overseas readers: B.S. are the discreet initials for “bullshit” a colloquial term for an argument without merit. It’s unfair to bulls  that mostly mind their business and don’t argue much.

Liberals and Conservatives should stop talking about guns

I’ve come across some great journalism on guns and gun control recently. Here’s the key points:

  • Most gun deaths are suicides. Many of these suicides would have happened were a gun not available, but many of them wouldn’t have.
  • Most gun homicides mostly affect young black men.
  • More guns does not equal less crime.
  • Gun accidents affect very few people.
  • Cost-benefit analysis would likely suggest improving safety other places would save more lives, given limited budgets. (e.g. changing attitudes on vaccinations)

A basic theme seems to be that government can do little on the margin to reduce gun deaths. Crime rates are uncorrelated with number of guns, or regulations in place. Upright citizens do not turn into Rambo when they see dastardly criminals mug little old ladies. Guns are actually sort of boring in practice.

It’s possible that the government could affect gun deaths with a comprehensive gun control policy backed by public opinion (the Australian option). But it would likely cost so much that you’d lose the budget and/or political capital to enact other reforms that would be less controversial and save more lives.

MrPB-prince-Cordova-one-of-amendments.png
We don’t torture people in America, Todd. That’s called one of the amendments.

What about the second amendment? The real argument for the second amendment is that having armed Americans around is pretty practical in general, but also important to prevent tyranny. In practice, guns aren’t half as practical, in terms of personal or national defense as back then. The capability of America’s military is so extraordinary that American’s don’t stand a chance of fighting a corrupt American government.

Let’s acknowledge that the Bill of Rights, though surely important, is ultimately a piece of paper that is neither sacrosanct nor a practical guarantee of anything in particular. The founders were brilliant, but fallible. The constitution is frequently ignored by governments, and citizens often do little to discipline such governments. Second amendment advocacy is mostly a symbolic gesture that probably comes at the expense of using political capital to protect the fourth amendment (the one that should protect you when the government decides to take your guns, cold dead fingers or no).

Conclusion

There are weak arguments to made in favor of gun control and weak arguments to be made in favor of protecting the second amendment. But mostly this whole debate seems like a distraction from more important issues. Symbolically valuable? Sure, but at what cost? The cost is the political will to make a bigger difference somewhere else. There are more valuable freedoms to protect, better interventions to pursue, and more lives to be saved.

Most Arguments Against Open Borders Lead to Extremely Un-Libertarian Positions

One thing that strikes me about libertarians who oppose open borders is that they approach the issue of immigration completely different from how libertarians approach nearly every other issue. Arguments against immigration typically go as follows:

  1. Bad effect x will happen if we allow open borders.
  2. Therefore, the government is justified in restricting immigration.

For example, many libertarians claim that because immigrants will increase deficits by using the welfare state, the government is justified in restricting immigration. Of course, this isn’t actually true, but even if it were true this in no way justifies immigration restrictions.

To be clear: immigration restrictions are a form of government intrusion into an individual’s freedom of movement. It is the government using its monopoly on force to restrict someone from doing something they’d otherwise be able to do, that is move across an arbitrary line we call a “border.” As Jason Brennan says:

At first glance, immigration restrictions look like rights violations. When we impose immigration restrictions, we do not simply fail to help would-be immigrants, but rather use violence and threats of violence to prevent them from making life-saving or life-changing trades with willing trading partners. We also harm our own citizens, who would benefit from interacting with those immigrants. We impose ourselves and cut off relationships that otherwise would have formed. We use violence and threats of violence to interfere with people who, if left alone, would work or live or trade together.

So libertarians who make this argument are substantially saying that if it can be shown to reduce deficits, using government force to restrict someone’s freedoms is justified.

If anti-open borders libertarians treated any other issue like they do immigration, it would lead to some pretty absurd, anti-libertarian policy positions. For an example, as long as we have government-provided Medicare programs, allowing people to eat unhealthy foods or smoke will increase the cost of those welfare programs; following the logic of the argument above, the government would be justified in implementing paternalist policies that restrict people’s right to consume what they want to reduce the burden of the welfare state. People with lower incomes are more likely to use welfare programs as well, so the government is justified in reducing their population size by restricting their right to reproduce through forced sterilization.

Obviously, both these positions are absurd from a libertarian perspective. Someone’s freedom from government force in areas of reproduction and what food they consume is more important than the fiscal costs. What makes the freedom of movement any different? Replace “people with lower incomes” with “immigrants” and “sterilization programs” with “immigration restrictions” in the sentence above, and the argument is the same. If the government cannot restrict freedoms in other areas in the name of deficit reduction, what makes freedom of movement in immigration restrictions any different?

Or take another example, many libertarians justify restricting immigration because immigrants are likely to vote for statist policies that will restrict liberty. Of course, this once again isn’t true, but even if it were it by itself is no reason for libertarians to support immigration restrictions. The operating principle here is that government is justified in restricting individual liberty if it increases the likelihood that pro-liberty politicians will be elected.

Again, that principle is not applied to any other issue by libertarians. Let’s say a particular demographic of citizens is more likely to vote for statist policies; by this argument, the government would be justified in reducing their population through sterilization programs in order to increase the likelihood that libertarians would win elections. Citizens who vocally advocate for statist policies through their speech also increase the likelihood that people will vote for those statist policies, so the government would be justified in restricting their freedom of speech. Obviously, both conclusions are absurd.

Further, as Bryan Caplan argues, it must be shown that there are policies that can reduce these ill-effects while violating fewer liberties than an all-out closed border policy. For example, we can eliminate the welfare cost of immigration by allowing for an open borders policy but make it illegal for any immigrant to receive welfare benefits. This allows for freedom of movement but eliminates the alleged ill-effect of open borders. Additionally, there are undisputable benefits from immigration, both in terms of increased liberty of movement and economic growth, and it must be shown that the negative effects outweigh the positive effects. Therefore, premise 2 is also incomplete as stated above.

So, in reality, these types of arguments against immigration are as follows:

1a. The government is justified in restricting someone’s liberties if it can be shown to stop bad effect x.

2a. X will happen if we allow for freedom of movement through immigration and there is no other way to stop x without restricting freedom of movement.

3a. Therefore, the government is justified in restricting immigration.

In reality, very few libertarians accept 1a, particularly if they believe in deontological natural rights. For consequentialists, it would depend on how bad x is. But for most arguments against open borders, they would not say that x is bad enough to allow for restrictions on nearly any other liberty. Further, as pointed out earlier, premise 2a is usually false because the empirical evidence suggests that x will not be a result of open borders, there is some other way to stop x while allowing for free migration, or both.

Another argument is that there is something distinctive about immigrants that justifies the state violating their rights but not citizens. If this is the case then we can replace 1a above with the following argument:

1b. The government is justified in restricting the rights of non-citizens if it can be shown to stop bad effect x, but would not be justified in violating the rights of citizens even if it would stop x.

This isn’t really a premise, but a conclusion; libertarians must justify some argument for why it can restrict the rights of non-citizens but not citizens. On its face, it seems like this principle is pretty absurd. For example, suppose that Greek citizens who use welfare eat unhealthily, and this is harming Germany fiscally because Germany helped bail out the Greek welfare state. The German government, therefore, passes a law restricting what Greek citizens can eat and tried to enforce it on Greek soil. Clearly, nobody, libertarian or otherwise, would call that justified. It is the burden of proof for open borders opponents, then, to prove why citizenship is in any way morally relevant to restricting liberties.

Perhaps there is an argument for why someone’s rights are all of a sudden less valuable because they were born on the wrong side of an arbitrary line that only exists because of state force. However, I doubt that there is such an argument that is in any way consistent with libertarian philosophy.

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.