I have a new Score column at The Nation: Socialize Uber. It’s about Uber and other sharing economy companies as worker cooperatives. Normally I eyeroll when people talk about cooperatives as an economic solution, but I think there’s compelling stuff here. Given that the workers already own all the capital in the form of their cars, why aren’t they collecting all the profits? I’m particularly interested in the comparisons to the Populist movement in this new economy, as back then workers also were amazed by new technologies but also wanted fairness on the terms they could access them.
We’ve also revamped how the Score looks, particularly the online part of it, so I hope you check it out. There’s some commentary already from Will Wilkinson and Brian Dominick. It’s definitely a moment where people are thinking about this, as columns from Nathan Schneider and Trebor Scholz also came out at the same time making similar arguments about worker cooperatives.
Uber is also in the news because they turned on surge pricing during a terrorist hostage situation in Sydney, Australia. This has gotten people talking about surge pricing. I don’t mind surge pricing, but the moralizing way journalists talk about it is really off-putting. Matt Bruenig has a good response to an example of this by Olivia Nuzzi (“How does the world owe you a private car, priced as you deem acceptable, that didn’t exist five years ago? […] you might consider meandering over to a country with a different economic system”).
To expand on Matt, there’s two reasons why people might want to avoid surge pricing that virtually never get discussed.
One is that people care about fairness. As Arin Dube wrote about the minimum wage, “the economists Colin F. Camerer and Ernst Fehr have documented in numerous experimental studies that the preference for fairness in transactions is strong: individuals are often willing to sacrifice their own payoffs to punish those who are seen as acting unfairly, and such punishments activate reward-related neural circuits.” This is why you see high support for the minimum wage among people who otherwise support right-wing economic ideas, as we just saw in the 2014 elections.
People care about fairness; it’s in their utility function if you prefer. It’s a funny economic argument where markets are meant to serve what people want, and producers are meant to meet those needs at the lowest possible cost, but if people want fairness built into the cost model then it’s all sneering all the time. It’s almost as if the moment is about conditioning people to serve market needs, rather than markets to serve people needs. If people demanded a cola beveridge that, say, was less sweet, would we get Daily Beast articles about “how dare you, the world doesn’t owe you a less sweet cola, move to North Korea if you want to see your market demands turn into products.” And there’s a long history of using moral persuasion to try and limit price-gouging – check out Little House on the Prairie.
But the first issue becomes more relevant with a second concern, however, and that’s the increasingly negative view of Uber’s tactics. People don’t have perfect information, and it’s reasonable that they might want to pool the risk that they’ll be targeted for price discrimination. The obvious comparison here was that early moment Amazon turned out to be charging higher prices based on your browsing history, which it promptly shut down after public outcry. (Why don’t you meander over to a different country if you don’t want Amazon data-mining your browser to rip you off?)
Why were people offended? Because in that case the price discimination just transfered the surplus from the customers to the producers – there wasn’t any allocative effect. And the same worry can carry over to surge pricing.
Without perfect information, customers don’t really know if they are getting price surged based on supply-and-demand fundamentals or on their own individual characteristics. Imagine if the algorithm increased the liklihood of price surging based on people’s past willingness to select price surging. Or because a neighborhood is more like to accept price surging. I assume we’d be mad, right? That wouldn’t have an allocative effect – it would just be ripping off those people because the code can tell they’d be willing to pay more.
Are they doing this now, or will they do this in the future? Normally trust is what would help mitigate both these worries, but with stories about “God mode” and their take-no-prisoners approach to everything, trust is in increasingly low supply.