I suppose I’ve had a hard time articulating exactly why I’m so irritated at the way Uber, Lyft, and Sidecar have been allowed to bully their way into the Seattle market. But fortunately, economist Dean Baker does a much better job:
If Uber and Lyft force a re-examination and modernization of taxi regulation in San Francisco and elsewhere, they will have provided a valuable public service. However it can’t possibly make sense to have a stringent set of regulations for traditional cabs, while allowing Uber and Lyft to ignore them just because customers order these services on the Internet.
If we go the route of ending the requirement that taxies need medallions, there is also the question of what we do about the sunk costs for people like my cab driver, who is currently out $250,000 from buying a medallion. On the current path, these medallion owners will just be out of luck. Their life savings will be made worthless by young kids who are better at evading regulations than immigrant cab drivers; so much for the American Dream.
It is worth considering this issue in light of the larger issue of the growing inequality we have seen over the last three decades. Uber, like Amazon, has allowed a small number of people to become extremely rich by evading regulations and/or taxes that apply to their middle class competitors. Amazon and other Internet-based retailers have used their tax advantage to put tens of thousands brick and mortar stores out of business.
This is a pretty simple story. In a country where rules are enforced or not enforced to benefit the rich and screw the middle class, you will have increasing inequality and a middle class that is seeing few of the benefits of economic growth.
What we are witnessing is a giant transfer of wealth from tens of thousands of mostly middle class medallion owners nationwide into the pockets of a handful of clever, law-evading entrepreneurs and their venture capitalists. Uber’s gambit that local governments would not crack down on its illegal operations has paid off handsomely—it now enjoys an implicit market capitalization of $17 billion.
“This is not supposed to happen in a market economy,” says Baker:
To encourage efficiency, we would want a proper set of regulations and taxes and have them apply equally to everyone. The point is to encourage people to make profits by providing better products or lower cost services, not to get rich by finding clever ways to evade regulations.
There’s much more to Baker’s piece, and you really should read the whole thing.