Do risk preferences account for 1.4 percentage points of the gender pay gap?

A few days ago, this study of gender pay differences for Uber drivers came out. The key finding, that women earned 7% less than men, was stunning because Uber uses a gender-blind algorithm. The figure below was the most interesting one from the study as it summarized the differences in pay quite well.

DataUber

To explain this, the authors highlight a few explanations borne out by the data: men drive faster allowing them to have more clients; men have spent more time working for Uber and have more experience that may be unobserved; choices of where and when to drive matters. It is this latter point that I find fascinating because it speaks to an issue that I keep underlining regarding pay gaps when I teach.

For reasons that may be sociological or biological (I am agnostic on that), men tend to occupy jobs that have high rates of occupational mortality (see notably this British study on the topic) in the forms of accidents (think construction, firemen) or diseases (think miners and trashmen). They also tend to take the jobs in further removed areas in order to gain access to a distance premium (which is a form of risk in the sense that it affects  family life etc.). The premiums to taking risky jobs are well documented (see notably the work of Kip Viscusi who measured the wage premium accruing to workers who were employed in bars where smoking was permitted). If these premiums are non-negligible but tend to be preferred by men (who are willing to incur the risk to be injured or fall sick), then risk preferences matter to the gender wage gap.

However, there are hard to properly measure in order to assess the share of the wage gap truly explained by discrimination. Here with the case of Uber, we can get an idea of the amplitude of the differences. Male Uber drivers prefer riskier hours (more risks of having an inebriated and potentially aggressive client), riskier places (high traffic with more risks of accidents) and riskier behavior (driving faster to get more clients per hour).  The return to taking these risks is greater earnings. According to the study, 20% of the gap stems from this series of choices or roughly 1.4 percentage points.

I think that this is significantly large to warrant further consideration in the future in the debate. More often than not, the emphasis is on education, experience, marital status, and industry codes (NAICS code) to explain wage differences. The use of industry codes has never convinced me. There is wide variance within industries regarding work accidents and diseases. The NAICS codes industries by wide sectors and then by sub-sectors of activities (see for example the six-digits codes to agriculture, forestry, fishing and hunting here). This does not allow to take account of the risks associated with a job. There are a few study that try to account for this problem, but there are … well … few in numbers. And rarely are they considered in public discussions.

Here, the Uber case shows the necessity to bring back this subtopic in order to properly explain the wage gap.

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.

Of Uber, cab drivers and compensation

What a title for a blog post right? Where am I going with this? A few days ago, I debated a few of my academic colleagues who tend towards libertarianism in the predominantly left-leaning province of Quebec. The topic? How the rise of Uber is killing the taxi cartel? I authored a paper on ride-sharing a year ago and I cannot be more enthusiastic towards such technologies that are allowing consumers much more choices at lower prices than with the taxi cartel. Thus, we were all in agreement. The point of contention appeared when the topic of compensation was raised. I favor partial compensation of the owners of taxi licences. Instantly, I was cast in the minority position and branded as a statist. A debate ensued and I made the case that it was not acceptable to right a wrong by committing another wrong (how Christian of me).

First, let me lay out some facts first and some assumptions

  1. A taxi licence restricting competition is a subsidy. But it is a strange type of subsidy that occurs through a redistribution of property rights (limiting the right to use one’s own car to carry individuals in exchange for payment to those who buy the transferable right to do so). Unlike cash subsidies, quotas, trade barriers and tax credits, it is the only form of income transfer that exists that is a property. You can abolish any cash subsidy, tariff, quota, tax, tax credits or legal monopoly without having to compensate since no one has property of such things. That is the source of the odd nature of the taxi licence – a subsidy with a property deed.
  2. The two benefits from these licences occur through limiting competition and thus allowing higher prices/quality ratios and through higher asset value (the permit’s value). The extent of those benefits depends on the extent of the curtailment of the liberties of other to compete. The more restrictive the policy, the greater the redistribution from consumers to producers in the long-run.
  3. However, new drivers have to pay a high price and they must have some time to recoup the acquisition of the asset. Their recovery will take some time as they also hike prices and lower quality.

So, if you want to abolish a taxi licensing scheme, is it acceptable not to compensate? According to my colleagues, yes it is. Since the benefits of higher prices were so considerable to those drivers (at the expense of consumers), compensation is not necessary.

Yet, the drivers do own property don’t they? The licence is worth many thousands of dollars, basically the value of a small house. Many drivers rely on this asset for their retirement. Now, let me make another presumption which is crucial to this discussion: the change is caused by legal changes, not technological changes.

I believe that, in the presence of the technological change, there is no case for compensation. Nobody would compensate telecoms companies for the rise of Skype since it is a process of entrepreneurship. However, the case is different if a government decides to abolish the licences. So here, my entire reasoning for compensation is contingent to a case where the state abolishes the licences, not a situation where technologies render the licences worthless like the car killed the street horses.

Clearly, it was unjust for consumers to deal with a cartel that gouged them and which was legally sanctioned to do so. But can you right an injustice by committing another injustice (the de facto dispossession of an asset)? Normatively speaking, I simply believe that using the monopoly of violence of the state to right the abuses caused by past uses of the monopoly of violence of the state is not that productive. Why? Because I have this assumption lodged firmly in my head as a result of my training in public choice theory: rent-seeking matters.

Rent-seekers will always exist. They are the social-science equivalent of gravity in physics. You just have to deal with their existence. Rent-seekers are basically political entrepreneurs who have very concentrated benefits from applying policies whose costs are not that obvious or that important for a large population. These political entrepreneurs are very alert to opportunities and they will seize them. Sometimes, they discover that their preferred course of action leads to resistance. They will automatically shift gear and find another way to obtain an unearned reward thanks to the complicity of those they bargain with (politicians and bureaucrats). Their rhetoric will change, their narratives will change, their arguments will evolve, but at the core, they will continue to rent-seek. True, you can conceive constitutional rules that limit rent-seeking (I am a big fan of that). However, one way or another, it will remain and some will find ways to connive with politicians and bureaucrats to obtain undue rewards. And even if there was such a utopia free of rent-seekers (I just won’t buy that for a dollar) where a constitution would ban their activities or even a stateless utopia (again, I am not buying it), is it acceptable to justify all means possible to reach such a destination?

What if associations of cab drivers lobby for special tax discounts on gasoline since they provide a public service? What if they lobby for stricter security checks on drivers (needless security checks) which end up having the same effects? What if they convinced regulators that only certain types of vehicles (less than 5 years old for example) should be allowed to operate? What if they mandated association with a dispatcher to better avoid traffic jams? How could a politician oppose special tax treatment for drivers, better security for consumers or all these other bogus motives? In the end, they will find a way to rent-seek. However, by dispossessing them of an asset worth many hundred of thousands of dollars, you are basically creating the certainty that they will aggressively rent-seek to recuperate their losses. Thus, you don’t end up breaking a vicious policy cycle, you end up encouraging its continuation in stranger, hidden and subtle manners whose perniciousness continues equally.

Hence my case that you can’t right a wrong by committing a wrong. Respect the rule of law, liberalize the market and compensate and attempt to rewrite constitutions to prevent arbitrary redistribution of property rights.

Garbage could be beautiful

And I don’t mean in the artistic sense, though that’s an option and one that sheds light on the larger question of what to do with garbage. I recently heard a podcast on garbage incineration; how it’s widespread in Europe as a way to generate electricity and reduce the need for landfills. The discussants were wondering why America doesn’t do more of that and concluded that progress was barred by a combination of NIMBYism and the fervor of recycling enthusiasts. Whether you agree with the producer of that segment or not, they are certainly correct that this industry is stagnant, and this rigidity results in plenty of unnecessary inefficiencies. But I think the real low hanging fruit is in waste collection.

The other day I saw a garbage truck and it struck me that the institution of “garbage day” is just a hold-over from the days before apps and algorithms were available to efficiently route garbage trucks to where they’re needed. For that matter, the trucks could be different; the service level could be different, and surely resources could be saved.

There are plenty of ways garbage could be picked up, and they could all coexist next to one another. Different towns and different neighborhoods

This sort of competition would be beautiful. The results would be better service, less room for corruption, clean trucks taking away your garbage when it’s necessary and saving resources* in the process. Rich neighborhoods would have sleek electric wagons grabbing their trash cans from the side of the garage in the middle of the night. In poor and rural neighborhoods something more like Uber would give the out-of-work construction worker a  way to pay for his truck.

The problems are surely due to regulations that limit innovation and competition. So, how could we open up this market? Debate and committees is the correct response, but it’s not the only one. “If I were a Silicon Valley millionaire,” I thought while driving past that truck, “I could change this, and probably make a buck doing it.”

So here’s the exciting part: A wealthy libertarian-type benefactor (or even a non-profit funded through a Kickstarter campaign (don’t forget to comment on this article!) could make a bet with the mayor of some city (which would need certain features to be a viable first candidate) that privatization would work. The bet goes like this:

  1. Pass legislation that opens up genuine competition in trash collection in one year.
  2. Private garbage companies spring into existence and do a better job at a better price (as determined by a study we will pay for by a consultant you will pick).
  3. If (2) does not happen, we will pick up the tab at your current provider for one year.

Obviously, our first hurdle is structuring the bet property to avoid problems like Waste Management from abusing their position. And that’s probably a big problem. But here’s the thing: if someone can figure this out, and motivate the right people to contribute, it will:

  1. Make it easier for an electorate/politicians to face the risk that something will go horribly wrong, and
  2. Create a profit opportunity for the (probably) tech billionaire backing this.

Opening up waste collection to competition allows for the possibility of the next Uber or AirBnB being in the garbage business. And for that matter, this betting approach might be used for other industries. For Uber to use this approach would be even easier. They would have to pay for a study on transportation in some city, and could offer to bet some lump sum to the city if competition doesn’t work.

*”Saving resources” has practically become a verbal tic with me. I use it as a synonym for the much less evocative “reducing costs.”