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.

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

  1. We might have to call it the Seinfeldian-McCloskeyan-Schumpeterian paradigm, after this episode of ‘Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee’ with Julia Louis-Dreyfuss

    http://comediansincarsgettingcoffee.com/julia-louis-dreyfus-ill-go-if-i-dont-have-to-talk

    Though I was disappointed that Julia didn’t respond to that crack about Cleopatra with, ‘Yeah, well every man can buy a better car than James Bond drove, by walking into any Toyota dealership.’

  2. 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.

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