DRI-416: ‘Recession Ride Taxi’ is the Epitome of Capitalism

“We are all of us teachers,” was Nobel laureate-economist Milton Friedman’s thumbnail sketch of his profession. Teachers are continually on the lookout for real-life illustrations of their subject. Last week, National Public Radio (NPR) provided a dandy.

Apparently NPR saw no need to interpret its facts with the use of economic logic. Fortunately, we can remedy that monumental oversight.

Eric Hagen’s “Recession Ride Taxi”

In a June 26, 2012 story, NPR introduced its audience to Eric Hagen, a taxicab owner-operator in Burlington, VT. Like many a taxi driver, Hagen traveled a roundabout route to his profession. Laid off his job as a Wall Street banker during the Great Recession, Hagen next worked for the American Red Cross – a job that would presumably earn the approval of Barack Obama and the NPR audience. Unfortunately, it didn’t earn enough money to pay Hagen’s mortgage.

So, like millions of Americans before him, Eric Hagen found himself pushing a hack to pay his bills. But unlike his predecessors, Hagen had both the institutional freedom and the native instincts to sell himself and his service to the public.

For upwards of a century, taxis have priced their services using taxi meters that recorded both mileage and time. Eric Hagen’s method for determining his taxi fares is: “Whatever the passenger can afford.” He names his business “Recession Ride Taxi.” Not surprisingly, his stated business rationale is that many people can’t afford to pay traditional taxi rates because they are experiencing hard times. Listeners are cordially invited to the conclusion that he is being kindly and altruistic by letting each passenger set the fare.

But don’t passengers double-cross him by low-balling their rates – or even stiffing him completely? “People know there’s value in a service,” Hagen replies, “and they’re generally not going to try to get over on you.”

Never has NPR accepted a businessman’s rationale so unblinkingly. “At a time when former colleagues on Wall Street continue to feel public scorn,” the station intoned piously, “Hagen says Recession Ride Taxi is running on trust.”

And Now for the Rest of the Story…

At this point, the late Paul Harvey might have intervened with: “…and now it’s time for the rest of the story.” It begins with the recognition that Hagen is not practicing altruism, but rather the most calculated kind of economic logic. His technique dates back at least to 19th-century railroads and country doctors. Airlines have used it for decades. It underlies the success of Priceline, among other online companies.

It is called price discrimination. A seller charges different prices to different buyers (or groups of buyers) for the same good or service at the same point in time. The different prices are not functionally related to different costs of serving the different buyers or buyer groups.

Why would a seller choose this strategy in preference to the simper one of charging a uniform price to all? To earn larger total revenue and profit. It won’t always be either feasible or desirable to discriminate on the basis of price, but the potential advantage in doing so lies in the possibility that different buyers differ in their sensitivity to price. The term economists use to denote sensitivity to price is price-elasticity of demand.

Two prime sources of demand for taxis in large urban markets are out-of-town visitors (tourists and business travelers) and low-income natives. The visitors have fewer and less satisfactory substitutes for taxi travel and tend to have higher incomes. Thus, they are less sensitive to price and more willing to pay higher prices than are natives, who can acquire their own cars or beg a ride, take a bus or subway or simply walk. In the vernacular, we say that visitors’ demand is more price-inelastic (less price-sensitive). Thus, it is in a taxi owner’s interest to charge differential prices, the higher one being assigned to visitors.

Even within groups of buyers whose price sensitivity is broadly similar, there will still be individual variations in price elasticity. The dream of a taxi owner would be to somehow charge each rider the highest price he or she would be willing to pay for the trip – what the economist calls the reservation price. That would constitute the practice of perfect price discrimination and would result in the maximum collection of revenue. Of course, this is only the stuff of dreams; no seller has enough individualized information about customers to realize their dream.

Now the method in Eric Hagen’s seeming madness starts to take form.

Crazy Like a Fox

The knee-jerk response of most people would be that a seller who allowed his customers to set the price is crazy. But Eric Hagen is really allowing individual customers to tell him what price they will accept – information he can’t get any other way. His modus operandi has the general appearance of a system of perfect price discrimination, except for one thing – he can’t be sure that the price they pick will be their reservation price. In fact, he can be pretty sure it isn’t.

Still, he has gained a great deal compared to the standard, taxi-meter-determined, single-price model. Consider the comments of one regular customer, sous chef Alan Flanders. “I’d be walking to work this morning if it weren’t for Eric.” That sounds pretty extreme, but NPR pointed out that “in most cabs, this ride would cost more than $20.” But because “Hagen takes whatever amount Flanders can afford, today it’s $12.” From the consumer’s standpoint, a 40% discount on a daily commute is a stunning saving.

We have a reflexive tendency to compare the $12 Hagen collects with the $20+ he “could” have collected from a regular taxi-metered ride. Wrong, wrong, wrong. Mr. Flanders makes it clear that at a price of $20, he was walking to work, not taking a taxi. Hagen’s alternative take was $0, not $20+. The genius of Recession Ride Taxi is that it brings customers into the market who otherwise wouldn’t ride taxis at all. A taxicab driver’s competition consists not merely of his fellow cab drivers, if there are any. It also includes subways, buses, shuttles, walkers, self-drivers, people who oblige hitchhikers – every alternative means of transportation. (In Burlington, VT, the second-most-popular commuting method is walking.) His most expensive input isn’t gas or repairs – it is time. His worst enemy is an empty cab.

No wonder that the motto of veteran cab drivers has always been “keep the meter running.” In this case, Eric Hagen has taken that excellent axiom to its logical extreme. He has realized that the best way to keep the meter running is to throw the meter away.

The Implications of Profit Maximization

Not long ago, President Barack Obama made headlines by stating that profit maximization by business owners served their interests at the expense of the general societal interest. This has long been an article of faith and a general principle on the left wing. Adam Smith founded the modern study of economics in 1776 by observing that trade proceeded on the principle of mutually beneficial voluntary exchange. The left has treated this concept with a mixture of incredulity and disdain, but mostly as if it were a deus ex machina invented to excuse the excesses of capitalism.

Members of the right wing and economists have responded by citing the role played by profit in allocating resources. It is fluctuations in profit, the argument runs, which allow consumers to direct the activities of producers – increasing profits cause producers to redirect resources toward goods and services in high demand, falling profits draw resources away from things for which demand is waning. This thinking is correct and conclusive, as far as it goes. But, as the example of Recession Ride Taxi suggests, it doesn’t go nearly far enough.

Eric Hagen is admittedly and avowedly utilizing a particular pricing technique. An economist recognizes this technique as price discrimination, which is practiced by sellers expressly to increase their total revenue and profit. In the great American tradition of motivational deception, he disavows a desire for personal gain while seeking exactly that. But the overarching significance is that his customers gain from his pursuit of profit maximization and his gains in total revenue and profit.

A layman will be persuaded of this result by hearing the testimonials of Hagen’s customers. The economist is used to hearing people lie about or rationalize their actions, but expects people to act in their own interests; the proliferation of Recession Ride Taxi’s customers means that buyers are better off riding it than not. Hagen claims that he averages 20 trips per day, the average fare running somewhere between $10 and $15. That works out to an annual income in the $50-75,000 range. Not Park Avenue territory, but not bad for low-skilled labor.

The presumption that the interests of buyer and seller are inexorably at odds is utterly false. Adam Smith’s dictum has found its practical expression – unwittingly unearthed by NPR, the unlikeliest of sources.

The Implications for Regulation

The agency of NPR isn’t the only improbable feature of this case. Economists would have quoted heavy odds against the taxi business being the locus of innovative entrepreneurship. For nearly a century, in most cities and towns of the U.S., taxicabs have been stifled under a choking blanket of regulation.

Early in the 20th century, the taxicab began to threaten the streetcar as a means of commercial passenger transport. Because of relative easy of entry into the business and low labor-skill requirements, taxis were plentiful, cheap and competitively attractive to riders. Streetcar companies combined with the largest taxi companies – usually Yellow Cab – to cartelize the taxi market by tightly regulating taxi fares and entry into the business. Fare schedules – soon replaced by taxi meters – and strict limitations on the number of taxi licenses issued combined to prevent effective competition among taxi firms. This raised profits for incumbent firms but harmed consumers. In New York City, where the number of taxi licenses has not increased since World War II, the monopoly profits capitalized into the price of a (transferable) taxi license (called a medallion) have raised its value to over six figures.

Strict regulation has been another hallmark of the Obama administration. The tacit premise has been that markets are not self-regulating, beneficial mechanisms, but rather treacherous, double-edged swords that cut safely only when their every move is guided and supervised by appointed regulators. (Where these regulators acquire the moral wisdom and practical knowledge required to manipulate markets is never specified.) One might have supposed, then, that a story on NPR about mutually beneficial success in the taxi industry would have featured regulators as the prime movers and market principals as passive reactors.

The truth is just the opposite. Eric Hagen is a lone entrepreneur who succeeded by discarding the most sacred tool of taxi regulation – the taxi meter. Indeed, in most American cities, what he did would be illegal. Even if it were technically permissible, owners of airport buses, municipal buses, shuttles, and competing taxi firms would throw a fit about it – which leads us to still another field of significance.

Implications for Antitrust

Traditionally, the practice of price discrimination is viewed with ambivalence by economists. On the one hand, when different consumers within a particular geographic market face different prices for the same good, this is inefficient. Each consumer will maximize his or her utility by arranging consumption so as to equate personal willingness to sacrifice alternative consumption with the objective rate of tradeoff offered by the marketplace, where the latter is embodied in the price paid. Suppose, for example, that one consumer faces a $5 price for good X and another consumer faces a $3 price. The first consumer’s personal marginal valuation of X is $5; the second consumer’s personal marginal valuation of X is $3. Give each the opportunity to trade in X at a price of $4 and both will do so – the first would gain by buying more X and the second by “selling” (consuming less) X. That tells us that the initial position was inefficient.

Carrying this logic to its ultimate end requires that all consumers in a given market face equal prices of a good or service, in order for consumption to be efficient – that is, for all consumers to get the most satisfaction.

The theory of equilibrium price formation studied by students in their college price theory courses brings about just this outcome. The problem is that the underlying assumptions behind this theory are seldom spelled out fully enough for the students to appreciate its highly abstract character. In fact, it often seems that economists (and lawyers) are often unaware of it. Goods are assumed to be homogeneous; each seller is assumed to supply an infinitesimal fraction of the total market amount; all buyers and sellers are assumed to possess all relevant information about available goods, costs and future contingencies.

Undoubtedly, this accounts for the prima facie structure against price discrimination in the Clayton Act, one of the earliest antitrust enactments. Price discrimination is inefficient, according to the textbooks. Those same textbooks also describe a perfectly competitive industry as one in which no seller possesses any power over price – but price discrimination couldn’t exist in this environment.

A price-discriminating seller must have some discretion over price. He must also be able to segment or divide his market into identifiable groups or individual buyers and prevent them from re-selling the good or service – otherwise, the low(er)-price buyers could themselves re-sell the good to the high(er)-price buyers at a slightly lower price, thereby spoiling the would-be discriminator’s party.

Real-world markets are a good deal messier than textbook ones. The information assumed by textbooks can only arise from a market process, and the equilibrium outcome proudly touted is an ever-receding goal. Recession Ride Taxi displays the opportunistic tenor of true capitalism – regulation strands sous chefs without a ride to work and the free market comes riding to the rescue with an improvised solution – imperfect, but a major improvement on the status quo.

This has always been true. Consider our early historical examples. A railroad often provided the only timely means of getting farmers’ crops to market, and the railroad magnate would sometimes charge farmers more for a short haul on which he faced no competition than for a long haul served by one or more competing roads. Outrageous! The first federal regulatory agency, the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC), was created to remedy just such excesses. And so it did – by raising the long-haul rates into equality with the short-haul rates! This ended the price discrimination but it worsened the exercise of monopoly pricing power.

Country doctors often served sparse, strung-out populations that were unattractive markets. In order to increase their total revenue, country doctors charged much higher rates to wealthy patients, whose price-elasticity of demand was much lower than their poorer neighbors’. Communities encouraged this as a means of attracting physicians. Doctors rationalized it as favoring the poor; this inaugurated the practice of treating physicians as noble, self-sacrificing healers rather than ordinary businesspeople.

Clearly, price discrimination could be a good thing when it promoted competition and enabled consumers to enjoy a good or service that otherwise would not be provided. And regulations against it were no panacea for improved consumer welfare. Economists took this lesson to heart by qualifying their disapproval of price discrimination to cover only those cases where it harmed competition and promoted monopoly. It is perfectly obvious that Eric Hagen has enhanced both competition and consumer welfare with his Recession Ride Taxi.

Can We Generalize the Example of Recession Ride Taxi?

It may occur to the reader to wonder: If Eric Hagen’s Recession Ride Taxi is a boon to consumers and a specimen of marketing genius, where has it been all our lives? Why hasn’t it swept all before it over the course of one century of taxicab-industry history?

The short answer is two-fold. First, it’s been there all along, right under our noses. Second, it is right for some market circumstances and wrong for others. Most American cities represent intermediate cases, in which a mix of Hagen’s technique and conventional techniques are currently optimal. But the best approach would be to junk all forms of taxicab regulation and give the “Hagen System” full scope to operate.

Veteran taxicab drivers in virtually all American cities have utilized a species of the Hagen System by engaging in informal negotiation for taxi fares. Although variation of fares by time of day is typically illegal, it is common practice among business travelers and longtime drivers to vary airport fares by time of day. This helps travelers by securing passage and gaining discounts. It helps drivers by increasing capacity utilization during slack periods of demand.

A more comprehensive allegiance to Hagen’s methods is practiced by drivers who develop a personal clientele, which they service to the exclusion of radio calls and street hails. This tends to evolve naturally into a system of tailored fares, negotiated informally between driver and customer. (Depending on circumstances and the letter of the law, the taxi meter may or may not be engaged during the trip, but its reading is irrelevant.)

The central principle of Hagen’s Recession Ride Taxi – customer-chosen fares – practically requires this kind of repeat-customer format. Hagen may give lip service to “trust” in his customers, but he wants and needs the freedom to drop the occasional customer who stiffs him or intends to repeatedly shortchange him. He undoubtedly does this not by explicitly refusing to carry, which is illegal in most cities, but by “inadvertently” lengthening his response time to the deadbeats until they drop him. (This highlights a subtle but important aspect of the business – that the taxi fare is determined not just by the monetary fare but also by the time taken for the cab to show up.)

Why hasn’t this approach – developing a personal clientele – utterly overshadowed the visible taxi market of radio calls and street hails? Much taxi business is opportunistic, arising from unique and unforeseeable circumstances that cannot be handled in a personal, repeat-customer framework. Even more telling is the fact that the repeat-customer system requires the driver to incur substantial dead mileage and time wastage in servicing what often amounts to a predetermined route. In densely packed cities with large, continuous taxi demand like New York City, Las Vegas and Washington, D.C., drivers can operate much more efficiently “on the radio” and the street by taking their next call at the closest location.

But small towns like Burlington, VT face a taxi problem not unlike the old country doctor scenario. With around 40,000 people and no other close metropolitan areas, Burlington needs to generate a critical mass of driver income in order to get any taxi service at all. Price discrimination is the tried-and-true means of accomplishing this. Economic theory predicts that the Hagen System will predominate in this setting.

Most American cities fall in between these two clear-cut cases. They are oppressed by taxicab regulation and high meter rates that have suppressed or virtually killed off demand among low-income and minority populations. (Sometimes this demand is services by informal car or bus service provided by jitneys – vehicles owned by private individuals not affiliated with a business.) The climate is favorable for the Hagen System, but it is employed only at the cost of violating the law. Big government has created so many laws, almost all of which are counterproductive and contain innate incentives for violation, that governments cannot begin to enforce most of them. Thus, enforcement is lax to non-existent.

Nonetheless, the case of Recession Ride Taxi sharpens the case against taxicab regulation. Taxi meters are not valuable ipso facto; neither are newer computer systems for automatic dispatch that have largely replaced human taxicab dispatch. Technology should be judged according to the economic value it creates for consumers. The only way to do that is to allow the market to value technology and govern its use. The illusion that sellers set price is just that – an illusion, a mirage. Pricing is a negotiation between buyer and seller and either should be free to initiate the process. When regulation interferes with that freedom, it harms those it is ostensibly set up to protect.

Thanks, NPR

We have discovered that the simple case of a single taxicab driver in Burlington, VT is, in reality, a microcosm for capitalism at work. How much of the panorama we unfolded above was dealt with by NPR in their report on Eric Hagen’s Recession Ride Taxi?

None of it. NPR ignored every relevant economic issue, presenting the case as if it were nothing more than what the late Richard Nadler satirically called “caring and sharing.” Still, we should be grateful to NPR for at least reporting the news. There is no precedent for expecting this station to produce an incisive interpretation.

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