The political economy of Uber’s multi-dimensional creative destruction

Over the past week it’s been hard to keep up with the news about Uber. Uber’s creative destruction is rapid, and occurring on multiple dimensions in different places. And while the focus right now is on Uber’s disruption in the shared transportation market, I suspect that more disruption will arise in other markets too.

Start with two facts from this Wired article from last week by Marcus Wohlsen: Uber has just completed a funding round that raised an additional $1.2 billion, and last week it announced lower UberX fares in San Francisco, New York, and Chicago (the Chicago reduction was not mentioned in the article, but I am an Uber Chicago customer, so I received a notification of it). This second fact is interesting, especially once one digs in a little deeper:

With not just success but survival on the line, Uber has even more incentive to expand as rapidly as possible. If it gets big enough quickly enough, the political price could become too high for any elected official who tries to pull Uber to the curb.

Yesterday, Uber announced it was lowering UberX fares by 20 percent in New York City, claiming the cuts would make its cheapest service cheaper than a regular yellow taxi. That follows a 25 percent decrease in the San Francisco Bay Areaannounced last week, and a similar drop in Los Angeles UberX prices revealed earlier last month. The company says UberX drivers in California (though apparently not in New York) will still get paid their standard 80 percent portion of what the fare would have been before the discount. As Forbes‘ Ellen Huet points out, the arrangement means a San Francisco ride that once cost $15 will now cost passengers $11.25, but the driver still gets paid $12.

So one thing they’re doing with their cash is essentially topping off payments to drivers while lowering prices to customers for the UberX service. Note that Uber is a multi-service firm, with rides at different quality/price combinations. I think Wohlsen’s Wired argument is right, and that they are pursuing a strategy of “grow the base quickly”, even if it means that the UberX prices are loss leaders for now (while their other service prices remain unchanged). In a recent (highly recommended!) EconTalk podcast, Russ Roberts and Mike Munger also make this point.

This “grow the base” strategy is common in tech industries, and we’ve seen it repeatedly over the past 15 years with Amazon and others. But, as Wohlsen notes, this strategy has an additional benefit of making regulatory inertia and status quo protection more costly. 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. Creative destruction and freedom to innovate are the core of improvements in living standards. But the regulated taxi industry, having paid for medallions with the expectation of perpetual entry barriers, are seeing the value of the government-created entry barrier wither, and are lobbying to stem the losses in the value of their medallions. Note here the similarity between this situation and the one in the 1990s when regulated electric utilities argued, largely successfully, that they should be compensated for “stranded costs” when they were required to divest their generation capacity at lower prices due to the anticipation of competitive wholesale markets. One consequence of regulation is the expectation of the right to a profitable business model, an expectation that flies in the face of economic growth and dynamic change.

Another move that I think represents a political compromise while giving Uber a PR opportunity was last week’s agreement with the New York Attorney General to cap “surge pricing” during citywide emergencies, a policy that Uber appears to be extending nationally. As Megan McArdle notes, this does indeed make economists sad, since Uber’s surge pricing is a wonderful example of how dynamic pricing induces more drivers to supply rides when demand is high, rather than leaving potential passengers with fewer taxis in the face of a fixed, regulated price.

Sadly, no one else loves surge pricing as much as economists do. Instead of getting all excited about the subtle, elegant machinery of price discovery, people get all outraged about “price gouging.” No matter how earnestly economists and their fellow travelers explain that this is irrational madness — that price gouging actually makes everyone better off by ensuring greater supply and allocating the supply to (approximately) those with the greatest demand — the rest of the country continues to view marking up generators after a hurricane, or similar maneuvers, as a pretty serious moral crime.

Back in April Mike wrote here about how likely this was to happen in NY, and in commenting on the agreement with the NY AG last week, Regulation editor Peter Van Doren gave a great shout-out to Mike’s lead article in the Spring 2011 issue on price gouging regulations and their ethical and welfare effects.

Even though the surge pricing cap during emergencies is economically harmful but politically predictable (in Megan’s words), I think the real effects of Uber will transcend the shared ride market. It’s a flexible piece of software — an app, a menu of contracts with drivers and riders, transparency, a reputation mechanism. Much as Amazon started by disrupting the retail book market and then expanded because of the flexibility of its software, I expect Uber to do something similar, in some form.

Building, and commercializing, a better nuclear reactor

A couple of years ago, I was transfixed by the research from Leslie Dewan and Mark Massie highlighted in their TedX video on the future of nuclear power.

 

A recent IEEE Spectrum article highlights what Dewan and Massie have been up to since then, which is founding a startup called Transatomic Power in partnership with investor Russ Wilcox. The description of the reactor from the article indicates its potential benefits:

The design they came up with is a variant on the molten salt reactors first demonstrated in the 1950s. This type of reactor uses fuel dissolved in a liquid salt at a temperature of around 650 °C instead of the solid fuel rods found in today’s conventional reactors. Improving on the 1950s design, Dewan and Massie’s reactor could run on spent nuclear fuel, thus reducing the industry’s nuclear waste problem. What’s more, Dewan says, their reactor would be “walk-away safe,” a key selling point in a post-Fukushima world. “If you don’t have electric power, or if you don’t have any operators on site, the reactor will just coast to a stop, and the salt will freeze solid in the course of a few hours,” she says.

The article goes on to discuss raising funds for lab experiments and a subsequent demonstration project, and it ends on a skeptical note, with an indication that existing industrial nuclear manufacturers in the US and Europe are unlikely to be interested in commercializing such an advanced reactor technology. Perhaps the best prospects for such a technology are in Asia.

Another thing I found striking in reading this article, and that I find in general when reading about advanced nuclear reactor technology, is how dismissive some people are of such innovation — why not go for thorium, or why even bother with this when the “real” answer is to harness solar power for nuclear fission? Such criticisms of innovations like this are misguided, and show a misunderstanding of both the economics of innovation and the process of innovation itself. One of the clear benefits of this innovation is its use of a known, proven reactor technology in a novel way and using spent fuel rod waste as fuel. This incremental “killing two birds with one stone” approach may be an economical approach to generating clean electricity, reducing waste, and filling a technology gap while more basic science research continues on other generation technologies.

Arguing that nuclear is a waste of time is the equivalent of a “swing for the fences” energy innovation strategy. Transatomic’s reactor represents a “get guys on base” energy innovation strategy. We certainly should do basic research and swing for the fences, but that’s no substitute for the incremental benefits of getting new technologies on base that create value in multiple energy and environmental dimensions.

Ben Powell on drought and water pricing

Ben Powell at Texas Tech has an essay on water scarcity at Huffington Post in which he channels David Zetland:

But water shortages in Lubbock and elsewhere are not meteorological phenomena. The shortages are a man-made result of bad economic policy.

Droughts make water scarcer, but by themselves they cannot cause shortages. To have a shortage and a risk of depletion, a resource must be mispriced.

With the freedom to choose, consumers can demonstrate whether it’s worth the cost to them to water their lawn an extra day or hose dust off of their house. Realistic pricing also incentivizes them to take account of water’s scarcity when they consume it in ways that aren’t currently prohibited. Have your long shower if you want . . . but pay the real price of it instead of the current subsidized rate.

Of course Ben is correct in his analysis and his policy recommendation, although I would nuance it with David’s “some for free, pay for more” to address some of the income distribution/regressivity aspects of municipal water pricing. Water is almost universally mispriced and wasted, exacerbating the distress and economic costs of drought.

ICLE letter to Gov. Christie opposing direct vehicle distribution ban: Over 70 economists and law professors

Geoff Manne of the International Center for Law and Economics has spearheaded a detailed, thorough, analytical letter to New Jersey Governor Christie examining the state’s ban on direct vehicle distribution and why it is bad for consumers. Geoff summarizes the argument in a post today at Truth on the Market:

Earlier this month New Jersey became the most recent (but likely not the last) state to ban direct sales of automobiles. Although the rule nominally applies more broadly, it is directly aimed at keeping Tesla Motors (or at least its business model) out of New Jersey. Automobile dealers have offered several arguments why the rule is in the public interest, but a little basic economics reveals that these arguments are meritless.

Today the International Center for Law & Economics sent an open letter to New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, urging reconsideration of the regulation and explaining why the rule is unjustified — except as rent-seeking protectionism by independent auto dealers.

The letter, which was principally written by University of Michigan law professor, Dan Crane, and based in large part on his blog posts here at Truth on the Market (see here and here), was signed by more than 70 economists and law professors.

I am one of the signatories on the letter, because I believe the analysis is sound, the decision will harm consumers, and the law is motivated by protecting incumbent interests.

I encourage you to read the analysis in the letter in its entirety. Note that although the catalyst of this letter is Tesla, this law is sufficiently general to ban any direct distribution of vehicles, and thus will continue to stifle competition in an industry that has been benefiting from incumbent legal protection for several decades.

Information technology has reduced the transaction costs that previously made vehicle transactions too costly relative to local transactions between consumers and dealers. Statutes and regulations protecting those incumbents foreclose potential consumer benefits, and thus do the opposite of the purported “consumer protection” that is the stated goal of the legislation.

See also comments from Loyola law professor (and fellow runner and Chicagoan!) Matthew Sag.

Rent-seeking diary: It’s only Tennessee whiskey if it’s Jack Daniel’s

Today’s Wall Street Journal has an article, Jack Daniel’s Faces a Whiskey Rebellion, that highlights how politically powerful industries can use industry-protecting regulation to raise their rivals’ costs:

At the company’s urging, Tennessee passed legislation last year requiring anything labeled “Tennessee Whiskey” not just to be made in the state, but also to be made from at least 51% corn, filtered through maple charcoal and aged in new, charred oak barrels.

So there are three dimensions on which JD’s competitors could vary, at least slightly, and still make something that consumers could recognize as Tennessee whiskey (not bourbon, not whisky).

Who are the rivals in the Tennessee whiskey market, in which Jack Daniel’s has a 90+ percent market share? Dickel is the largest rival,

Diageo says the George Dickel brand is in compliance with the new law, and that it has no plans to change the way it is made. But the liquor giant says last year’s law puts a lid on innovation and that Brown-Forman shouldn’t be allowed to define the only path to high-quality Tennessee Whiskey.

“We’re in favor of flexibility that lets all distillers, large and small, make Tennessee whiskey the way their family recipes tell them,” said Alix Dunn, a Diageo spokeswoman.

 

… but unless you’ve been under a rock for the past two years you’ve surely noticed the craft distilling revival in the US. Some craft distillers agree with Diageo that such legislation stifles innovation.

But others see a clear legislative definition of what constitutes Tennessee whiskey as providing a strong focal point around which distillers can coalesce, and compete. Although one of these is quoted in the article, I don’t see the argument. Perhaps I’ll mull it over while enjoying a cocktail.

Rent-seeking diary: State dealer franchise laws and Tesla

By now you’ve probably heard that last week the New Jersey Motor Vehicle Commission passed a rule stipulating that automobile sales in the state cannot be direct-to-consumer, and must instead take place via dealer franchises. Tesla Motors was the clear target of this regulation, with its innovative electric vehicles and direct-to-consumer sales model. New Jersey is not the first state in which this regulatory tangle is occurring; last summer Tesla ran into dealer franchise law hurdles in Virginia and New York, as I discussed here in July.

The SF Gate blog post above notes:

Tesla said the administration had “gone back on its word,” claiming two top Christie aides had agreed not to move forward with the regulation. …

But a Christie spokesman rejected the accusations of a double-cross. The regulation, he said, won’t prevent Tesla from seeking legislation to allow direct sales in New Jersey.

Note that the political establishment response is to engage with the political process to get legislation passed to allow direct sales. What would such engagement entail? Will it entail the kind of crony relationships that have led to the entanglement of so many businesses and politicians in the past — will Tesla have to find its own politicians to fund in the hopes of a favorable legislative outcome? If so, that will vindicate my sad statement last July:

When innovative and environmentally correct meets the crony corporatism of existing legislation, is the entrenched incumbent dealer industry sufficiently politically powerful to succeed in retaining their enabling legislation that raises their new rival’s costs?

In New Jersey, it appears that the answer is yes, at least for now, as established car dealers cling to their old business model and hope to avoid being disintermediated. Tesla has thus far avoided the crony trap, and has instead focused on relabeling their New Jersey showrooms as “galleries” while encouraging customers to purchase the vehicle online. Will that legalistic sleight of hand suffice to enable an end-run around status-quo-protecting obstacles?

Alex Tabarrok discusses the Tesla-New Jersey case today, and analyzes it very usefully with a brief history of the evolution of state dealer franchise laws and how they served as a Coasean solution to an incentive problem:

Franchising rules evolved in Coasean fashion so that manufacturers could not expropriate dealers and dealers could not expropriate manufacturers. To encourage dealers to invest in a knowledgeable sales and repair staff, for example, manufactures promised dealers exclusive franchise (i.e. they would not license a competitor next door). But with exclusive franchises dealers would have an incentive to take advantage of their monopoly power and increase profits by selling fewer units at higher profits. Selling fewer units, however, works to the detriment of the manufacturer and the public (aka the double marginalization problem (video)). Thus the manufactures required dealers buy and sell a minimum quantity of cars, so-called quantity forcing. Selling more units is exactly what we want a monopoly to do, so these restrictions benefited manufactures and consumers.

Here Alex’s account dovetails with the history that Elon Musk provided in his open letter to the people of New Jersey on Friday:

Many decades ago, the incumbent auto manufacturers sold franchises to generate capital and gain a salesforce. The franchisees then further invested a lot of their money and time in building up the dealerships. That’s a fair deal and it should not be broken. However, some of the big auto companies later engaged in pressure tactics to get the franchisees to sell their dealerships back at a low price. The franchisees rightly sought protection from their state legislatures, which resulted in the laws on the books today throughout the United States (these laws are not present anywhere else in the world).

Musk’s letter is well worth reading in its entirety, as an eloquent and well-argued statement about regulatory and legislative entry barriers that enable incumbent firms to raise the costs of their rivals. He also provides a thoughtful and economically sophisticated (and accurate, I think) explanation for why they don’t want to sell Tesla vehicles through established dealers.

Here Alex adds another political economy detail of the economic leverage of the franchise dealers in the states — they provided jobs and their sales generated a large share of a state’s sales tax revenue, so politicians found it in their interest to shore up the state-level dealer franchise laws to protect the dealers. Thus a set of laws that initially benefitted both producers and consumers has evolved into industry-protecting regulation.

One other theme I’ve noted in the discussion of Tesla’s reaction to New Jersey cronyism is to criticize Tesla for the benefits it derives from government protection. Tesla’s business intersects with government programs in three areas: (1) taking a DOE-guaranteed loan of $465 million during the financial crisis, which has been paid back in full (and was smaller than the multi-billion-dollar loans to the Big Three); (2) the federal $7,500 income tax credit to individuals purchasing electric vehicles, from which all manufacturers of electric vehicles benefit and which is probably not decisive at the margin for Tesla’s high-income target customers; (3) revenue arising from the existence of a regulation-generated market for vehicle emission credits (ZEV) credits in California, in which Toyota and Nissan also sell ZEV credits to GM and Chrysler. I expect that being practical and not leaving money on the table is a sufficient motive to induce Tesla’s management to engage in those programs. But these benefits from government social engineering and regulation differ in kind from the kind of industry-protecting regulatory cronyism evident in New Jersey (and Texas, and other states forbidding direct-to-consumer car sales).

Saving the elephants and World Wildlife Day

The United Nations has declared March 3 to be World Wildlife Day. It’s a good opportunity to reflect on the problems of wildlife poaching, which, as Ashok Rao wrote recently, is a moral, social, and political problem.

But, as Virginia Postrel pointed out in her then-NYT Economic Scene column in 2000, it’s also an economic problem, a problem of institution-driven misalignment of incentives. The challenge is to have local community-based institutions that create long-run economic incentives to preserve, or even increase, the wildlife population:

Institutional experiments that give local people a financial stake in wildlife have had some striking successes, particularly in Zimbabwe. There, the government in the mid-1980’s began the Communal Areas Program for Indigenous Resources, better known as Campfire. The program gave local districts wildlife-management authority in communal areas outside the national parks. In some cases, the local districts devolved control further, down to groups as small as 200 villagers. …

Under Campfire, the local authorities worked with outside experts to determine, for instance, that the area could maintain a sustainable elephant population by hunting two elephants a year. Residents would then contract with a safari operator and split the fee of around $25,000 an elephant paid by the hunter. In most cases, the villagers also got the meat from the elephant.

But even such innovative economic thinking has its limits. Both neoclassical and institutional conservation models share an underlying assumption: that the government respects the rule of law and the goal of conservation.

Along the same lines, Arancha Gonzalez writes in today’s Wall Street Journal that Legal Trade Can Save Endangered Wildlife:

Giving rural communities the right economic incentives is critical to protecting wildlife. This is difficult in countries with weak governance and high levels of poverty. Trade bans are often undermined by strong incentives to supply the market demand for the animals and the products that can be harvested from them. Bribes and intimidation from poachers and illegal wildlife traders erode such incentives even further.

And, as Doug Bandow observed in The Freeman last week, a legal market for ivory may be the best way to maintain elephant populations, by creating incentives for people to have elephants around:

Some activists appear to believe that it simply is morally wrong to trade in animals, or at least elephants. But markets have been used elsewhere to help save endangered species.

CITES points to a number of examples. Once-endangered vicunas “are managed through captive breeding and non-lethal harvests from wild populations.” In China, “tigers are being farmed with the intention of supplying tiger parts in the future.” Moreover, “The legal trade in crocodiles is one of the success stories in CITES history which shows species recovery as a result of trade.”

Why not elephants too?

The current system formally treats elephants as sacred, thereby leaving them for dead. Markets would treat elephants as commercial, thereby keeping them alive.