Technological change, culture, and a “social license to operate”

Technological change is disruptive, and in the long sweep of human history, that disruption is one of the fundamental sources of economic growth and what Deirdre McCloskey calls the Great Enrichment:

In 1800 the average income per person…all over the planet was…an average of $3 a day. Imagine living in present-day Rio or Athens or Johannesburg on $3 a day…That’s three-fourths of a cappuccino at Starbucks. It was and is appalling. (Now)… the average person makes and consumes over $100 a day…And that doesn’t take account of the great improvement in the quality of many things, from electric lights to antibiotics.

McCloskey credits a culture that embraces change and commercial activity as having moral weight as well as yielding material improvement. Joseph Schumpeter himself characterizes such creative destruction as:

The fundamental impulse that sets and keeps the capitalist engine in motion comes from the new consumers’ goods, the new methods of production or transportation, the new markets, the new forms of industrial organization that capitalist enterprise creates. […] This process of Creative Destruction is the essential fact about capitalism. It is what capitalism consists in and what every capitalist concern has got to live in.

Much of the support for this perspective comes from the dramatic increase in consumer well-being, whether through material consumption or better health or more available enriching experiences. Producers create new products and services, make old ones obsolete, and create and destroy profits and industries in the process, all to the better on average over time.

Through those two lenses, the creative destruction in process because of the disruptive transportation platform Uber is a microcosm of the McCloskeyian-Schumpeterian process in action. Economist Eduardo Porter observed in the New York Times in January that

Customers have flocked to its service. In the final three months of last year, its so-called driver-partners made $656.8 million, according to an analysis of Uber data released last week by the Princeton economist Alan B. Krueger, who served as President Obama’s chief economic adviser during his first term, and Uber’s Jonathan V. Hall.

Drivers like it, too. By the end of last year, the service had grown to over 160,000 active drivers offering at least four drives a month, from near zero in mid-2012. And the analysis by Mr. Krueger and Mr. Hall suggests they make at least as much as regular taxi drivers and chauffeurs, on flexible hours. Often, they make more.

This kind of exponential growth confirms what every New Yorker and cab riders in many other cities have long suspected: Taxi service is woefully inefficient.

Consumers and drivers like Uber, despite a few bad events and missteps. The parties who dislike Uber are, of course, incumbent taxi drivers who are invested in the regulatory status quo; as I observed last July,

The more popular Uber becomes with more people, the harder it will be for existing taxi interests to succeed in shutting them down.

The ease, the transparency, the convenience, the lower transaction costs, the ability to see and submit driver ratings, the consumer assessment of whether Uber’s reputation and driver certification provides him/her with enough expectation of safety — all of these are things that consumers can now assess for themselves, without a regulator’s judgment substitution for their own judgment. The technology, the business model, and the reputation mechanism diminish the public safety justification for taxi regulation.

Uber creates value for consumers and for non-taxi drivers (who are not, repeat not, Uber employees, despite California’s wishes to the contrary). But its fairly abrupt erosion of the regulatory rents of taxi drivers leads them to use a variety of means to stop Uber from facilitating mutually beneficial interaction between consumers and drivers.

In France, one of those means is violence, which erupted last week when taxi drivers protested, lit tires on fire, and overturned cars (including ambushing musician Courtney Love’s car and egging it). A second form of violence took the form last week of the French government’s arrest of Uber for operating “an illegal taxi service” (as analyzed by Matthew Feeney at Forbes). Feeney suggests that

The technology that allows Uber to operate is not going anywhere. No matter how many cars French taxi drivers set on fire or how many regulations French lawmakers pass, demand for Uber’s technology will remain high.

If French taxi drivers want to survive in the long term perhaps they should consider developing an app to rival Uber’s or changing their business model. The absurd and embarrassing Luddite behavior on French streets last week and the arrest of Uber executives ought to prompt French lawmakers to consider a policy of taxi deregulation that will allow taxis to compete more easily with Uber. Unfortunately, French regulators and officials have a history of preferring protectionism over promoting innovation.

Does anyone think that France will succeed in standing athwart this McCloskeyian-Schumpeterian process? The culture has broadly changed along the lines McCloskey outlines — many, many consumers and drivers demonstrably value Uber’s facilitation platform, itself a Schumpeterian disruptive innovation. The Wall Street Journal opines similarly that

France isn’t the first place to have failed what might be called the Uber Test: namely, whether governments are willing to embrace disruptive innovations such as Uber or act as enforcers for local cartels. … But the French are failing the test at a particularly bad time for their economy, which foreign investors are fleeing at a faster rate than from almost any other developed country.

Taxi drivers are not the only people who do not accept these cultural and technological evolutions. Writing last week at Bloomberg View, the Berlin-based writer Leonid Bershidsky argued that the French are correct not to trust Uber:

The company is not doing enough to convince governments or the European public that it isn’t a scam. … Uber is not just a victim; it has invited much of the trouble. Katherine Teh-White, managing director of management consulting firm Futureye, says new businesses need to build up what she calls a “social license to operate”

He then goes on to list several reasons why he believes that Uber has not built a “social license to operate”, or what we might more generally call social capital. In his critique he fails to hold taxi companies to the same standards of safety, privacy, and fiduciary responsibility that he wants to impose on Uber.

But rather than a point-by-point refutation of his critique, I want to disagree most vigorously with his argument for a “social license to operate”. He quotes Teh-White as defining the concept as

This is the agreement by society or a community that an organization’s practices and products are acceptable and aligned with society’s values. If society begins to feel that an industry or company’s actions are no longer acceptable, then it can withdraw its agreement, demand new and costly dimensions, or simply ‘cancel’ the license. And that’s basically what you’re seeing in Europe and other parts of the world with Uber.

Bershidsky assumes that the government is the entity with the authority to “cancel” the “social license to operate”. Wrong. This is the McCloskey point: in a successful, dynamic society that is open to the capacity for commercial activity to enable widespread individual well-being, the social license to operate is distributed and informal, and it shows up in commercial activity patterns as well as social norms.

If French people, along with their bureaucrats, cede to their government the authority to revoke a social license to operate, then Matthew Feeney’s comments above are even more apt. By centralizing that social license to operate they maintain barriers to precisely the kinds of innovation that improve well-being, health, and happiness in a widespread manner over time. And they do so to protect a government-granted cartel. Feeney calls it embarrassing; I call it pathetic.

Texans should pay higher taxes

From Breitbart, “Drumbeat to raise gas tax extends to conservative event“:

Texans should pay higher gasoline taxes, a Texas Tech University professor advocated at a policy conference organized by the conservative Texas Public Policy Foundation in Austin on April 16. He acknowledged that how transportation dollars are spent must also be carefully considered.

Generally, I’m a “starve the beast” proponent, but I endorse the view expressed above. In fact, I said it.

“Fuel taxes serve as a road ‘user fee’,” said Michael Giberson, who serves on the faculty at Texas Tech’s College of Business. “Those who use the roads, pay for them.”

Giberson told the TPPF conference attendees that the tax should be increased to a level that brings in the same revenues as in 1991–when the tax was last increased.

Texans currently pay 20 cents per gallon, but to meet the 1991 spending power Giberson said the rate would need to be 33.7 percent. He also recommended tying the gas tax to inflation, so that it would increase automatically.

Giberson acknowledged that more fuel efficient engines and electric-powered cars mean the gas tax will continue to be a declining revenue source. He said other options, such as charging Texans on the basis of their miles-driven, should be considered even as he acknowledged concerns about privacy and practical implementation.

I’d quibble just a bit with the characterization of my presentation. I didn’t recommend a 33.7 cents/per gallon tax, but rather was illustrating the toll that inflation had taken since the state gasoline tax was last raised. I did suggest tying the tax to inflation, but commented that the current method allows the tax to diminish over time and forces the legislature into direct action to raise it. I like that latter idea better the more I think about it.

In Texas two things stand between the fuel taxes and the user fee concept. First, about half of the gasoline tax is federal, 18.4 cents/gallon for gasoline, and Texas gets only about 80 percent of the Texas-sourced federally-collected fuel taxes back from Washington DC. The money comes back with some federal strings attached and some of the money is diverted from projects that benefit fuel taxpayers. Second, the feds 20 percent cut off the top is actually better for Texas fuel taxpayers than the state’s cut. By law, 25 percent of fuel taxes collected in Texas go to state government educational funding, so Texas road users only get about 75 percent of the Texas-sourced state-collected fuel taxes back from Austin. The 25 percent cut of fuel taxes for education is enshrined in the state’s constitution (a holdover, I suspect, when fuel taxes were paid primarily by the wealthy).

In response I favored proposals circulating in Congress to radically cut the federal fuel tax and related spending, and shift the responsibility for revenue collection and spending to the states. Congress has a duty to protect interstate commerce, but that need not involve a massive federal overhead to manage. I’d like to claw back the 25 percent fuel tax take from state educational funding, too. We amend the state constitution in Texas just about every other year, so that is no big deal, but because the amendment would appear anti-education I see it as a hard sell.

I also urged more use of toll roads, which have become much more efficient these days, and congestion-based tolls on roads where congestion is a frequent issue. (Nothing annoys me more than some denizen of east coast metropolitan areas saying federal gasoline taxes ought to be higher because it will reduce congestion. For example. No amount of taxing my cross-Texas drives is going to speed your east coast metropolitan commute.)

In the Breitbart article TPPF Vice President Chuck DeVore pushed back against my tax-raising views. He hasn’t changed his views, but recently in response to President Obama’s transportation spending proposal, DeVore’s views and mine seem pretty close: cut the federal role dramatically and let the states decide the mix of taxes and tolls needed to fund transportation infrastructure for themselves.

The Texas Public Policy Foundation put together a great event, with a program organized largely by TPPF staff economist and recent Texas Tech econ PhD Vance Ginn. Happy to be part of it.

Links to video from the conference and presentations are posted, along with links to other media coverage of the event (mostly focused on the Dallas Fed chairman’s lunchtime remarks, not the “gasoline tax controversy”, but I tried). My presentation is second in the panel 1 video.

ADDED: After my presentation I had two promising suggestions from conference attendees. One is that, given that almost all of the actual wear and tear on the roads in Texas come from heavy trucks rather than cars and light trucks, we should tax large commercial vehicles more–probably on a vehicle-miles traveled basis–and the “user fee” for personal vehicles likely falls to something reflecting the modest consequences of driving relatively lightweight vehicles. Trucking companies would complain, and the political prospects of the idea are probably not good. Otherwise makes a lot of sense to me. The other suggestion was to employ certain oil and gas drilling fees currently in surplus for road work, at least for the road improvements needed in the parts of the state experiencing significant increases in commercial traffic due to the oil and gas drilling boom. The suggestion seems a bit kludge-y to me, but comes with enough symmetry between the payers and the beneficiaries to be plausible. Good enough for government work, as is said.

Virginia Postrel on Delta’s refinery purchase

Lynne Kiesling

Just a quick note to accompany the discussion in the comments on Mike’s post about Southwest Airlines, Delta Airlines, and fuel price hedging: a couple of weeks ago Virginia Postrel had a very good analysis of the reasons why the Delta-Conoco transaction is not a good idea, in her regular column at Bloomberg View. Virginia’s analysis emphasizes the extent to which vertical integration is only profitable when transaction costs make markets and contracting more expensive ways to accomplish the transaction. In this case, markets do not have substantial transaction costs.

But what about fuel price risk? Here Virginia quotes friend of Knowledge Problem Craig Pirrong:

The proposed purchase “doesn’t make a huge amount of economic sense — in fact quite the opposite,” says Craig Pirrong, a finance professor and director of the Global Energy Management Institute at the University of Houston’s Bauer College of Business.

You might think that owning a refinery would at least protect the airline from price fluctuations. But, Pirrong notes, crude oil prices affect the profits of airlines and oil refineries exactly the same way. When oil prices go up, their profits go down. Owning a refinery would simply magnify the effect. “If anything,” he says, “it increases the risk exposure that has bedeviled the airline industry for years.” …

Delta simply seems to be falling for the great fallacy of vertical integration: the belief that the inputs you get from an in-house supplier are cheaper than those you buy in the open market. There’s no markup. You’ve cut out the middle man!

But this story misses the real cost of those inputs.

Basically, if fuel prices are high, Delta will still not fly those costly half-full flights, but will instead sell their fuel in the low-transaction-cost markets. So what’s the point of owning the refinery when it’s not their comparative advantage and refining is such a low-margin business?

Southwest Airlines’s hedges

Michael Giberson

“We don’t know where the price of crude is going to be,” says [Southwest Airlines’s Chris] Monroe. But, he adds, “I think we have to be generally bullish just because we’re trying to protect against an increase … So we have a little bit of a bias that prices may go higher.”

He chuckles that he and [former SW treasurer Scott] Topping, longtime colleagues and friends, used to describe themselves as the “most conflicted” managers in the building — although low fuel prices would benefit Southwest overall, it would mean their carefully crafted hedging strategy wouldn’t pay off as well….

Still, “In my heart, I would love lower prices,” says Monroe. “Lower prices are good for everybody in our country, and especially good for an airline.”

From, “The ‘Fixer’ at Southwest Airlines,” CNBC.

Notice that Southwest trades crude oil options and other derivatives even though they are not in the physical crude oil market. Proposals that aim to limit trading to parties with “true” commercial interests in the underlying commodity could inadvertently trip up quite reasonable hedging strategies such as pursued by Southwest. (Presumably they find the liquidity available in the much more heavily traded crude oil markets attractive compared to trading in the less liquid jet fuel markets even though the crude oil price is an inexact proxy for the price of jet fuel.)

In related news, Delta Air Lines is buying a refineryfrom the Phillips 66 unit being spun off of ConocoPhillips. According to Dana Blankenhorn at SeekingAlpha, “Delta Refinery Deal All About Southwest.”

(I’m still with the skeptics on this deal. Is is really going to be cheaper for Delta to own a refinery and make jet fuel than just buy jet fuel in a reasonably competitive market? Another way of asking the question, why does Delta think it can do a better job of running the refinery than ConocoPhillips did? Surely contract-based cost management as practiced by Southwest will be more flexible and adaptable to changing conditions than Delta’s ownership of an aging refinery near Philadelphia.)

Be indomitable. Refuse to be terrorized.

Lynne Kiesling

This week we have many introspective analyses of the consequences of an evil act perpetrated 10 years ago. Those consequences are a mix of good and bad, ranging from no successful coordinated attacks in the U.S. to foreign wars with gruesome human and financial costs. The consequences in which I am most interested, and about which I am most concerned, are those attached to the growth of the surveillance state toward a police state.

For most of the past decade the federal government has implemented, and the American people have accepted, invasive search, extensive surveillance, and increased militarization of law enforcement, and have done so with little or no analysis of whether or not the benefits of reduced attacks are large enough to justify the enormous financial, social, and cultural costs of, in my opinion, the military-industrial complex that President Eisenhower warned us about in 1961. I wrote about this in May in the context of the TSA’s increasing use of untested x-ray radiation scanners that are ineffective at identifying weapons and explosives and invasive criminal-style frisks of airline passengers, referring to John Mueller’s and Mark Stewart’s performance of the benefit-cost analysis that the GAO repeatedly recommended that the Department of Homeland Security should do and has refused to do.

I think we should all be more concerned about, and pay more attention to, the consequences of our increasingly authoritarian/submissive society (can’t have one without the other!). Glenn Greenwald has been a stalwart voice, doing investigative analysis of the growth of the surveillance state, with this recent omnibus and link-filled post as a thorough compendium of the information- and data-related surveillance and secrecy authority and control that the federal government is exerting. I also wrote in May about how the Patriot Act has reduced our civil liberties, including economic liberties as an important component of our civil liberties. The government’s enforcement of the Constitutional protections of our rights to be free from unreasonable government search have evaporated into near-nonexistence (both at the airport and elsewhere), which increases our general uncertainty and reduces our productive and valuable social-economic engagement and interaction with others. In the process it also dehumanizes those who are in positions where they can exert this coercive authority and control, as anyone familiar with the Milgram experiment on obedience to authority and the Zimbardo Stanford prison experiment knows too well. Actually, one of my favorite quotes about authority is from Stanley Milgram:

The disappearance of a sense of responsibility is the most far-reaching consequence of submission to authority.

I fear that we have witnessed some disappearance of a sense of responsibility and individual moral agency in American culture, and that is one of the greatest costs of the evil act of a decade ago.

And to what end — how justified is this fear? High financial, human, cultural costs, to avert events that are one-quarter as likely as being struck by lightning. Some may criticize the performance of relative risk assessments between accidents and deliberate attacks, but it’s precisely these crucial relative risk assessments that enable us to recognize the unavoidable reality that neither accidents nor deliberate attacks can be prevented, and that to maintain both mental and financial balance we cannot delude ourselves about that, or give in to the panic that is the objective of the deliberate attacks in the first place. Thus the title of this post, which comes from two separate quotes from Bruce Schneier — the first from his excellent remarks at EPIC’s January The Stripping of Freedom event about the TSA’s use of x-ray body scanners, the second from his classic 2006 Wired essay of the same title:

The point of terrorism is to cause terror, sometimes to further a political goal and sometimes out of sheer hatred. The people terrorists kill are not the targets; they are collateral damage. And blowing up planes, trains, markets or buses is not the goal; those are just tactics.

The real targets of terrorism are the rest of us: the billions of us who are not killed but are terrorized because of the killing. The real point of terrorism is not the act itself, but our reaction to the act.

And we’re doing exactly what the terrorists want.

Other than the above links, I have found two recent essays on the subject exceptionally good. The first, from a symposium in the Chronicle of Higher Education, is from Alex Gourevitch on fear, in which he notes

The great lie of the war on terror is not that we can sacrifice a little liberty for greater security. It is that fear can be eliminated, and that all we need to do to improve our society is defeat terrorism, rather than look at the other causes of our social, economic, and political anxiety. That is the great seduction of fear: It allows us to do nothing. It is easier to find new threats than new possibilities.

A decade after 9/11, we look backward and find ourselves in all-too-familiar surroundings. We have, in fact, accomplished very little. We have yet to do any of the serious thinking that might carry us beyond the banal, stifling quest for security. That kind of thinking would require us to have a different relationship to fear: a willingness to accept it, even cause it.

The second is by American writer Paul Theroux, but is not to be found in an American publication, interestingly enough, but in the Telegraph. It is outstanding and thoughtful in its entirety, but this part really resonated with me:

Of all the agencies created by the panicky response to 9/11, the Transportation Security Agency [sic.; it’s Administration–ed.] (TSA) is the most visible and to me one of the most obnoxious for its obstinacy, its clumsiness, its inefficiency and its ubiquity. There was a time when bag searches and interrogation of travellers was purely a feature of travel in eastern Europe. Now such searches and screenings are a common feature of life in America; and that we have become habituated to it, submitting without complaint, is one of the saddest consequences of 9/11. I think of it as the Gestapo-with-a-grin, Stasi-with-a-smile method of intimidation, a species of security theatre that has redefined what a weapon is (a small bottle of liquid, a nail file, a hat pin, a shoe) – it has redefined the notion of privacy, of travel, of freedom.

Heck, even Business Week is arguing that it’s time to rethink counterterrorism spending.

So let’s get on with it. Be neither authoritarian nor submissive. Be indomitable. Refuse to be terrorized.

Raising MPG standards, part 2: Morris well explains the relative advantages of raising the gasoline tax

Michael Giberson

At the Freakonomics blog, transportation scholar Eric Morris favors President Obama’s recent deal to dramatically raise CAFE standards (Corporate Automobile Fuel Economy standards) by 2025. A gasoline tax would be far superior public policy, he said, but it won’t work politically. Because he thinks CAFE standards do work, technically and politically, he said we should go with this “second-best solution.”

To keep the discussion here in manageable chunks, I’m responding in two posts. In part 1 of “Raising MPG standards,” I explained why I wasn’t persuaded by Morris’s evidence that CAFE standards actually work. In this post I highlight what Morris explained well: why a gasoline tax can be the superior regulatory approach.

Here’s Morris:

[E]conomists generally prefer to do things with price signals as opposed to regulatory standards. Why?

Price signals inflict pain on consumers, but let them figure out what form they want to take it in. They in turn force producers to respond to their (altered) demand, but allow producers leeway in how that demand is met. This allows consumers and producers to change behavior in the most efficient possible manner.

Instead of CAFE, why not just raise the gas tax and let drivers figure out whether they want smaller cars, lighter cars, less powerful cars, more expensive cars, shorter-range cars, or, crucially, cars that are just as heavy, powerful, and cheap—but which get driven less?

This raises the true problem with CAFE. It misses out on a potentially key part of the solution to reducing fuel use: driving less. In fact, ironically, increased CAFE standards will have a perverse and unwelcome effect; better fuel economy will increase the fixed cost of driving (i.e. vehicle prices) but will actually reduce the marginal cost (i.e. fuel expenditures). To a degree, less thirsty cars will actually cause people to increase the number of miles they drive (as I’ve written about here).

With increased gas taxes, on the other hand, less driving will be part of the consumer’s toolkit. Some who absolutely need vehicles with poor fuel economy will have the option of avoiding the tax by driving less instead. As long as their fuel use goes down, why not give them that choice? Greater economic efficiency would result. In fact, the Congressional Budget Office ran the numbers in 2004 and found that cutting fuel use through taxes was considerably cheaper in the long run than raising CAFE.

Reducing driving through a higher gas tax would have other important benefits that improving fuel economy does not, like congestion relief and accident reduction…

Another advantage of a gas tax increase is that it would start working today. Since the car fleet takes so long to turn over (according to the US Department of Transportation, automobiles these days stay on the road an average of about 12 or 13 years), it will be a very long time before the new CAFE standards actually translate into meaningful changes in emissions. But increasing the gas tax would have immediate effects.

Sure, we can counter a call for higher gasoline taxes with a long list of negative consequences. The point is that an energy tax is relatively speaking transparent and efficient. However harmful a higher gasoline tax is, a CAFE regulation aiming at the same effects would be ten times (rough guess) more costly.

The social costs of raising CAFE are surely greater than the social benefits, so “second best” policy or not, we ought not to do it.

RELATED: In part I, I criticized the evidence that Morris put forward in favor of the view CAFE actually works.

Raising MPG standards, part 1: Morris is not persuasive in his claim that CAFE works

Michael Giberson

At the Freakonomics blog, transportation scholar Eric Morris favors President Obama’s recent deal to dramatically raise CAFE standards (Corporate Automobile Fuel Economy standards) by 2025. A gasoline tax would be far superior public policy, he said, but it won’t work politically. Because he thinks CAFE standards do work, technically and politically, he said we should go with this “second-best solution.”

To keep the discussion here in manageable chunks, this first post argues that Morris is not persuasive in his claim that CAFE works. A second post will highlight Morris’s more insightful discussion concerning gasoline taxes.

The evidence Morris offers that CAFE standards work is, to put it politely, weak. Here is his chart and accompanying explanation:

 This is not because CAFE doesn’t work; it does. In 1975, a few years before CAFE was implemented, average MPG for new cars and light-duty trucks was 13.1. In 2010 it was 22.5. Can this be attributed to CAFE? To a large degree, yes, as this graph makes clear:

Source: Eric Morris, Freakonomics blog.

CAFE standards were aggressively increased from 1978 to 1984, and, as the chart above shows, fuel economy responded. However, from 1985 until 2007 CAFE standards were no longer raised meaningfully—and MPG flatlined. The table makes it pretty clear that the CAFE standards created a floor under MPG for a 25-year period, when low gas prices (remember those?) rendered consumers otherwise indifferent to fuel economy.

Yes, gas prices, remember them? Beginning around 1976, gasoline prices jumped from about $1.73 (EIA data, annual average price per gallon of unleaded regular gasoline in constant 2005 $) to about $2.65 by 1981, then they drifted back to around $2.00 in 1985. In 1986, gasoline prices dropped under $1.50 and stayed around that level until about 2003. From 2003 to 2008 gasoline prices moved up with crude oil prices, in 2009 they started coming down again.

The big moves in measured CAFE came when gasoline prices were high. The long low-price period saw both measured automobile and light truck CAFE levels drifting downward.

Now look at the chart again: the average of measured “car” and “truck” CAFE levels (labelled “both” in the chart) fell faster than either the car or truck level.

How is it possible that the average of two data series fell faster than either of the component data series? Because “both” is a weighted average, and as gasoline prices stayed low consumers limited by their options in the more-tightly-regulated automobile category simply switched into light trucks (i.e., minivans and SUVs). Automakers, too, feeling constrained by CAFE standards, pushed consumers to make that shift. What exactly are the policy benefits from driving consumers out of station wagons and into SUVs and minivans of similar fuel economy performance?

CAFE “worked” when it has a supporting high gasoline price environment, but I suspect that the gasoline prices were doing most of the heavy lifting.

RELATED: In part II, I highlight what Morris explained well about gasoline taxes.