Topic: Regulatory Studies

UberX Launches in South Carolina

Yesterday Uber launched its ridesharing service, UberX, in four cities in South Carolina, offering residents of Charleston, Greenville, Columbia, and Myrtle Beach five free UberX rides each until July 24th. Unfortunately, the San Francisco-based technology company’s move into South Carolina could lead to conflicts with Palmetto State regulators.

According to reporting from Charleston’s newspaper, The Post and Courier, the executive director of the SC Office of Regulatory Staff believes that the main issue is whether the Uber business model would fall under the jurisdiction of the Public Service Commission’s regulatory authority. The Post and Courier mentioned that a taxi company in Charleston has developed its own smartphone app to compete with Uber. However, instead of just trying to offer a better rival service, the company, Yellow Cab of Charleston, is one of several taxi companies in South Carolina that are reportedly discussing calling for legislative action against Uber.

Uber and Lyft, another ridesharing company, have run afoul of regulators in numerous jurisdictions, including Virginia, Pittsburgh, and Ann Arbor, MI.

Lyft, which does not currently operate in South Carolina, announced this week that it would begin operating in New York City despite not having permission from the city’s Taxi and Limo Commission (TLC). Uber is now licensed by the TLC, although like Lyft it did not have TLC approval when it launched in NYC.

Companies in the so-called “sharing economy” do not fit well into existing regulatory frameworks. While Uber and Lyft are competitors to traditional taxi services, they are not taxi companies. Rather, they are technology companies that reduce the transaction costs of a familiar task (giving rides for money). It should not be surprising that existing regulations cannot keep up with such changes in technology.

It remains to be seen how regulators and taxi companies respond to Uber’s expansion into South Carolina. Regulators and lawmakers should consider removing already existing regulations in order to allow for Uber and taxis to compete in a fair and free market. Unfortunately, the history of Uber’s expansion is full of examples of regulators favoring out-of-date legislation over the necessary pro-consumer reforms. 

Google Co-Founders Sergey Brin & Larry Page: Health Care Regulation Is Blocking Innovation

At a forum sponsored by Khosla Ventures, Google co-founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page discussed the burden of health care regulations in the United States. When asked, “Can you imagine Google becoming a health company?”, Brin responded:

Health is just so heavily regulated, it’s just a painful business to be in. It’s just not necessarily how I want to spend my time. Even though we do have some health projects, and we’ll be doing that to a certain extent. But I think the regulatory burden in the U.S. is so high that I think it would dissuade a lot of entrepreneurs.

Page agreed:

I am really excited about the possibility of data also to improve health. But I think that’s what Sergey’s saying. It’s so heavily regulated, it’s a difficult area…I do worry, you know, we kind of regulate ourselves out of some really great possibilities.

But surely, the United States does not have government-run health care.

The discussion begins at about 29:00.

Subsidies Make Businesses Weaker

The technical arguments against the Export-Import Bank are provided in this excellent summary by Veronique de Rugy. However, one argument against Ex-Im and other business subsidies is not stressed enough in policy debates: subsidies weaken the businesses that receive them.

Subsidies change the behavior of recipients. Just like individual welfare reduces work incentives, corporate welfare dulls business competitiveness. Subsidies give companies a crutch, an incentive not to improve efficiency or to innovate, as I noted here.

Yesterday, I looked at Chapter 1 of Burton and Anita Folsom’s new book, Uncle Sam Can’t Count, which examines federal fur trading boondoggles of 1795-1822. 

Now let’s look at Chapter 2, which focuses on the steamboat industry of the 19th century. The historical lesson is clear: subsidies make companies weak, inefficient, and resistant to innovation.

Here is a thumbnail sketch of the Folsoms’ steamboat story:

  • In 1806 New York gives Robert Fulton a legal monopoly on steamboat travel in the state. Breaking this misguided law, a young Cornelius Vanderbilt launches a competitive service in 1817.
  • The U.S. Supreme Court strikes down the New York law in 1824. The effect is to usher in an era of steamboat innovation and falling prices for consumers.
  • Vanderbilt launches many new steamboat routes whenever he sees an opportunity to drive down prices.
  • With subsidies from the British government, Samuel Cunard launches a steamship service from England to North America in 1840. In response, Edward Collins successfully lobbies Congress to give him subsidies to challenge Cunard on the Atlantic route. With this unfortunate precedent, Congress proceeds to hand out subsidies to steamship firms on other routes.
  • By the 1850s, Congress is providing Collins a huge annual subsidy of $858,000. Irked by the subsidies and Collins’ inefficient service, Vanderbilt builds a better and faster ship and launches his own Atlantic service.
  • In 1856 two of Collins’ inferior ships sink, killing almost 500 people. Collins builds a new ship, but it is so shoddy that it is scrapped after only two trips.
  • Congress finally realizes that the aid to Collins is damaging, as it has spawned an inferior and mismanaged business. Congress cuts off the subsidies in 1858. Without subsidies, Collins’ steamship company collapses.
  • Vanderbilt also out-competes subsidized steamship companies on the East Coast-to-West Coast route through Central America.
  • In England, an unsubsidized competitor to Cunard—the Inman Line—is launched and begins out-competing and out-innovating the subsidized incumbent.
  • The subsidized Cunard and Collins aim their services at the high-end luxury market. The more efficient and unsubsidized Vanderbilt and Inman focus on driving down prices for people with more moderate incomes.
  • Government subsidies “actually retarded progress because Cunard and Collins both used their monopolies to stifle innovation and delay technological changes in steamship construction.”

Government subsidies have similar negative effects today, whether it is subsidies to energy companies, aid to farm businesses, or the Ex-Im program.

The difference is that in the 19th century Congress eventually cut off subsidies when the damage became clear, as it did with steamship subsidies in 1858 and fur trading subsidies in 1822. Maybe I’m overlooking something, but I can’t think of a business subsidy program terminated by Congress in recent years, or even in recent decades.  

New York Caps Uber “Surge” Pricing

Yesterday the New York attorney general reached a deal with the company Uber to cap its “surge” pricing during emergencies. The company, which uses an app to summon cars via a user’s smartphone, uses an algorithm that increases prices during periods of high demand, including emergencies and bad weather, to encourage more of its drivers to work. The agreement was reached in accordance with the City of New York’s law against price gouging, passed in 1979.  

Was the agreement a good idea?  In the cover story of the Spring 2011 issue of Regulation, Texas Tech researcher Michael Giberson examines the role of high prices and the resistance to them during emergencies.

Many people object to high prices during emergencies. The use of high prices by Uber after Hurricane Sandy prompted a Time writer to describe Uber’s pricing as “economically sound, ethically dubious.”  Michael Sandel, professor of government at Harvard, is quoted in the Regulation article saying “A society in which people exploit their neighbors for financial gain in times of crisis is not a good society… . By punishing greedy behavior rather than rewarding it, society affirms the civic virtue of shared sacrifice for the common good.”

In response, Giberson argues “If it is admitted that giving merchants the freedom to pick their own prices does a better job than alternative ways of getting goods and services to where they are needed, then interference with that pricing freedom … harms precisely those persons who have been already harmed by the disaster, a result that suggests neither shared sacrifice nor promotion of a common good.”  In addition, he argues it is unfair to “place a particularized obligation to sacrifice on a discrete segment of society, namely merchants. Addressing the particular hardships faced by the poor during emergencies is a task better left to government agencies or charities.” 

Price gouging laws are an attempt to deny the economic realities of emergency situations. Price gouging laws reduce the incentives to provide needed goods and services in areas affected by emergencies and disasters. The cap on Uber’s surge pricing may make its customers happy now, but they may not be so happy when they wait hours for an Uber during the next blizzard, thunder storm, or other disaster. The writer concluded that “Price gouging might, at least in theory, help shrink lines and reduce shortages. But I think most people would rather wait in line than have someone make a windfall profit off their desperation.”  With this agreement we will conduct the experiment to test his theory.

For more on Uber, see the recent blog posts by Cato’s Matthew Feeney and this article from the Summer 2013 issue of Regulation. 

Federal Follies 200 Years before Ex-Im

Anyone who thinks that Washington waste is something new should examine the history of the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA). This essay discusses the mismanagement, corruption, and failures of the BIA since it was created in 1824.

As early as 1828, Indian expert H. R. Schoolcraft concluded: “The derangements in the fiscal affairs of the Indian department are in the extreme. One would think that appropriations had been handled with a pitchfork … there is a screw loose in the public machinery somewhere.”

By the 1860s and 1870s, New York Times editorials were railing against the “dishonesty which pervades the whole Bureau,” and arguing that “the condition of the Indian service is simply shameful.”

In their recent book, Uncle Sam Can’t Count, Burton and Anita Folsom describe the failure of a major Indian policy even before 1824. Here is the basic story:

• Unhappy that British fur traders were out-competing American traders, Congress appropriated $50,000 in 1795 to create frontier posts stocked with American goods to trade with the Indians for furs.

• These government-run fur “factories” were supposed to earn a return, but they “were so poorly run that many Indians held them in contempt and refused to trade there.” Congress had to heavily subsidize the system to keep it operating.

• Rather than respond to the market demands of the Indians, as private traders did, the official running the government system, Thomas McKenney, tried to push products on the Indians that he thought they ought to have.

• The government set up its trading posts at substantial distances from Indians. By contrast, private fur trader John Jacob Astor had his agents build close relationships with Indians, and he made trading easy for the tribes.

• Astor instituted pay for performance, while the government paid its fur bureaucrats fixed salaries.

• Astor watched international fur markets closely and adjusted his operations and marketing accordingly. The government ignored markets, and simply dumped furs in Washington for auction.

• Thomas McKenney was embarrassed by the government’s falling market share and the huge success of Astor. So, in 1818, McKenney began lobbying Congress to ban private fur traders. When that attempt at monopolization failed, McKenney lobbied to impose large fees on private traders and to boost taxpayer subsidies for the government system.

• Despite a new fee on private traders in 1820, the government system was falling apart because of plunging sales. An official report exposed the huge inefficiencies of the government system, and Congress finally voted to end it in 1822.

Long before Solyndra and the Export-Import Bank, politicians should have learned some basic lessons about why Washington ought to stay out of business. Unfortunately, each new generation of politicians are tempted to believe that enlightened federal planners can run the economy better than businesspeople and markets. Rather than wasting hundreds of thousands of dollars as it did two centuries ago, Congress blows billions of dollars today on new versions of its fur-trading folly.

London Transport Regulator Gives Uber the Green Light

Today London’s transport regulator, Transport for London (TfL), said that Uber can legally operate in the U.K.’s capital. The news comes after drivers of London’s black cabs deliberately congested traffic last month in protest over how Uber, the San Francisco-based transportation technology company, was being regulated.

The Licensed Taxi Drivers Association (LTDA) said that it believed Uber was operating in violation of the Private Hire Vehicles (London) Act 1998, as I explained when writing about the protest last month:

The Licensed Taxi Drivers Association (LTDA) believes that Uber, the San Francisco-based transport technology company, is operating illegally in London. Thanks to the Private Hire Vehicles (London) Act 1998, it is illegal for a London vehicle with a private hire vehicle license to have a taximeter. Up until yesterday Uber’s website stated that anyone who wanted to be an Uber driver in London must have a private hire vehicle license. Today those requirements remain the same, however in response to the London protest Uber has opened to licensed black cabs.

TfL does not, unlike the LTDA, consider the smartphones used by drivers using Uber to be taximeters:

TfL’s view is that smart phones that transmit location information (based on GPS data) between vehicles and operators, have no operational or physical connection with the vehicles, and receive information about fares which are calculated remotely from the vehicle, are not taximeters within the meaning of the legislation.

TfL said it intended to have the High Court rule on the legality of Uber’s operation in London. However, TfL noted in its statement that the High Court would not consider the issue while separate criminal proceedings involving Uber drivers brought about by LTDA were being dealt with in the Westminster Magistrates’ Court, although it did say that the High Court would probably rule on the issue eventually:

… the LDTA (sic) has issued summonses in the Westminster Magistrates’ Court against a number of Uber drivers under s.11 of the 1998 Act. This now prevents TfL proceeding as we had intended as the High Court will not consider the issue whilst there are ongoing criminal proceedings on the same issues of law.

TfL is therefore now unable to seek early clarification from the High Court. In due course the LTDA summonses will be heard in the Magistrates’ court. The Magistrates’ decision is not binding, will almost certainly be appealed (by someone), which inevitably means the matter will end up, rather later than sooner, in the High Court.

It looks as if the LTDA has scored at least two own goals in its dealings with Uber. Firstly, the protest it supported was great free advertising for Uber, which reportedly enjoyed an 850% increase in sign-ups in the U.K. thanks to the demonstration. Secondly, LTDA’s actions against Uber drivers have prevented the High Court from considering Uber’s legality.

Virginia DMV Reportedly Reversing Uber and Lyft Ban

Yesterday the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA) issued a news release praising the Virginia DMV and Gov. Terry McAuliffe for reversing the ban imposed on Uber and Lyft last month:

We are encouraged by reports that the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) is taking steps to allow innovative transportation network providers Uber and Lyft to operate in the Commonwealth.

CEA’s news release comes ahead of an official announcement, but if confirmed the news would mark a victory for Uber and Lyft, both of which offer rideshare services via their apps. The DMV had issued both companies cease and desist letters, saying that they were violating Virginia law.

Towards the end of the news release CEA urges lawmakers to pass legislation that would allow ridesharing companies to operate in Virginia in the long term. Perhaps Virginian lawmakers will look to ridesharing legislation passed in Colorado earlier this year, which was praised by Uber and Lyft.

Although a repeal of the ban should be welcomed, it does not mean that Uber and Lyft do not still face problems in Virginia, as Eric Hal Schwartz explained in InTheCapital:

Uber and Lyft aren’t totally out of the woods yet. Talks are ongoing about finding a solution to the regulatory issues presented by how the companies operate, but it’s definitely a positive sign for those who are fans of the ride-share app system.

As I noted shortly after the Virginia DMV sent cease and desist letters to Uber and Lyft, lawmakers should consider repealing regulations related to taxis:

Rather than hinder the growth of innovative livery companies that are taking advantage of new technology, lawmakers in Virginia and elsewhere across the country should consider repealing current taxi regulations that restrict innovation, strengthen established market players, and stifle competition.

Although the CEA news release is encouraging, it comes soon after Uber and Lyft were ordered to halt operations in Pittsburgh.

I spoke to Caleb Brown about the Virginia Uber and Lyft ban on the Cato Daily Podcast, which you can listen to below.

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