Why Uber might be making a mistake in paying by the hour

There’s a little technical detail about incentives that suggests that Uber might be making a mistake in their policy of paying minicab drivers by the hour. That mistake being not quite getting the difference between the income effect and the substitution effect as it affects pieceworkers (those two effects together being what gives us the Laffer Curve of course).

The point is mentioned here:

I’ve been chatting to local minicab drivers about Uber’s operation in Manchester. They don’t feel threatened, or tempted. Prices here start at £1.50, and wages are hard for even those VC types to undercut. Uber have allegedly been trying to do this with the bogus guarantee technique: drivers around here are apparently on £10.00 an hour, anything above that gets kicked back to Big Minicab. They don’t fancy the deal. Even in slack times, when they’re not being robbed of their reward moments, there’s always the hope that a fare to the airport will show up, and that’s part of what keeps you ferrying people around all day. It means you can (XXXX) toddle off home a bit early, which you can’t do if you’re on Uber’s clock.

Uber, Lyft, Hurnya and whatever don’t seem to realise that there’s such a thing as a minicab work culture, intensely local and adapted both to the people who work in it and their customers.

Re those incentives: the income effect is the idea that we have a mental model of how much we want to earn in a day (or week, whatever). If we achieve that then we’ll go home: or if taxes rise then we’ll work more hours to make that target, if taxes on incomes fall then we’ll work fewer hours. The other is the substitution effect where if taxes fall we’ll work more hours as work now becomes more valuable to us than leisure and vice versa when taxes rise.

In general, across the economy, neither applies to us all all the time and both apply to some of us at least some of the time. It’s the mixture of both, according to personal preference, that gives us that Laffer Curve.

However, detailed empirical studies have shown that pieceworkers (and taxi and minicab drivers are one of the groups that have been studied) tend to be more subject to that income effect. There’s a definite mental model of how much they want to earn in a day and they’ll keep going until it is earned then toddle off to do something more interesting. This is why you can never get a cab when it’s raining of course: higher demand for cab rides means they earn their target earlier in hte day and thus, amazingly, an increase in demand leads to a reduction in supply.

Uber has thought this through with their surge pricing: in bad weather they increase prices and thus earnings to overcome this effect. But offering drivers a flat rate per hour is precisely and exactly the opposite and almost certainly isn’t the correct response to that known propensity to the income effect.

This isn’t the most amazing observation about the world, obviously, but it’s an interesting little application of the microeconomics we know to be correct. Piece workers are more subject to the income effect than the substitution: thus hourly pay for them might not be quite as effective in attracting them as one might originally think.

As Herb Stein said, if something cannot go on forever then it won’t

It’s the Daily Mail that brings us the news that property prices have been rising by 8.6% a year for many decades now. This is of course a nominal number, not a post-inflation one, but projecting it outwards we see that there’s going to be something of a problem in the future:

Children born today looking to buy their first home in 2048 will be required to pay a staggering £3.4million, according to new research.

The remarkable figure was revealed in a study showing how decades of property value rises will affect a baby born today should the price increases continue on their currently trajectory.

The study was based on average annual increases of 8.6 per cent a year since 1954 and then uses this to pinpoint a cost for those buying their first home at the average age of 35.

Obviously, unless there’s rather more inflation than we currently think is going to happen, that’s not going to happen. Herb Stein will be right, something will happen to make this not happen.

But what will happen is the interesting bit. We hope that the solution will be a change in the way we plan housing in this country. For it’s worth noting that this house price inflation really only started as the effects of the 1947 Town and Country Planning Act started to bite. In effect the government said that no one should build houses where people would like to go and live.

No, really, the 1930s were a time of an almost laissez faire attitude to who could build what where. And where people wanted to be able to buy should not be a surprise, they wanted to live in the countryside surrounding the towns and cities. That’s how towns and cities had grown in England for centuries. We ended up with those ribbon developments across the South East, suburban semis along the major roads, little estates added to villages and towns within reasonable distance of London.

That’s what people actually wanted, something we can see from the way people flocked to purchase these speculatively built homes. So what did the government do? Banned building what people actually wanted to live in. For of course we can’t let the ghastly proles actually enjoy their lives, can we?

The solution to housing becoming too expensive is of course to reverse course on what it is that makes housing so expensive. Allow people to build houses where people actually want to live: in short abolish the Town and Country Planning Acts.

We’ll get there, of course we will, for Stein was and is right. The only question is how long will the Nimby’s be able to frustrate the desires of their fellow citizens?

This train fare question isn’t difficult you know

The Guardian rather jumps the shark here:

The Guardian view on rail fares: unfair
Travelling by train produces benefits for everyone – less air pollution, lower greenhouse gas emissions, fewer traffic jams. Passengers should not have to pay two-thirds of the cost

Actually, a small engined car with four people in it has lower emissions, lower pollution, than four people traveling by train. So it simply isn’t true that everyone benefits from more train travel.

There are indeed some truths there though. It simply would not be possible to fill and empty London each day purely by private transport: some amount of commuting public transport is going to be necessary. And there’s no reason why those who benefit from that should not pay for it: as they largely do through the subsidy of London Transport paid for by Londoners.

But on the larger question of who should pay for the railways of course it should be those who use the railways that pay for it. Some City fund manager who commutes in from 50 miles outside London should not have his lifestyle choice subsidised by the rest of us. We should not be taxing the man who cycles to work at minimum wage in order to pay for wealthier people top travel longer distances.

The Guardian is, once again, forgetting that there is no magic money tree. If rail users do not pay for the railways then there is no unowned cash that can be diverted to doing so. Either the rest of us put our hands in our pockets or we don’t. And why should the poor pay taxes so the middles classes can live in the greenbelt?

A simple point on railway nationalisation

One point people bring up when they advocate renationalising railways (or renationalising stuff in general) is that when private companies run something they take a chunk of the total surplus in profit, but if the government were in control, that could go to them. But there’s a very basic reason why this isn’t the case: opportunity cost.

A firm, in doing business, puts capital to use. It uses a mix of physical and human capital and devotes it toward achieving tasks in order, usually, to turn a profit. The best way to measure the amount of capital tied up in a project is the market’s assessment thereof—the firm’s market capitalisation—although of course we know that market prices are never perfectly accurate, since they are only on their way to an ever-changing equilibrium, and they may not have got there yet. And what’s more, not all the relevant information will always be in the public domain.

For rail franchises—or TOCs (Train Operating Companies), as they seem to call themselves—it is relatively hard to pinpoint the exact amount of capital they are using, as they are usually subdivisions of a larger structure. But suffice to say, running trains involves tying up money on the order of billions, whoever does it (i.e. it includes Directly Operated Railways, the state body that is currently running the East Coast Mainline pretty well). You have to rent the rolling stock (trains), pay the staff, buy the fuel, pay to use the track and so on.

From this capital you get a return. TOC margins average about 4% over the last ten years. The average company got more like 10%. FTSE100 companies seem to enjoy higher returns. Of course, operating profits are not share returns, but they tell more or less the same story. The extra couple dozen billion the government would need to spend on trains could equally be spent on equities or anywhere else for more or less the same risk-adjusted return. The return they got here could be put into trains.

But even doing this makes no sense. If the government returns that couple dozen billion to the population at large, the government can tax the income that the private citizens make on the wealth, at a glance dealing with the problems of governments holding wealth—principally: they are not very good at picking winners. Or they could pay off debt and reduce their repayment costs—since the risk-adjusted return of gilts is priced in just the same way as other assets.

Either way, and whether or not rail re-nationalisation makes sense from any other perspective, it is simply not the case that government, by nationalising rail, could get a bit of extra cash to put into our network.

What would we consider a successful railway system?

Under many measures, the railways have performed remarkably since privatisation. It is not surprising that the British public would nevertheless like to renationalise them, given how ignorant we know they are, but it’s at least slightly surprising that large sections of the intelligentsia seem to agree.

Last year I wrote a very short piece on the issue, pointing out the basic facts: the UK has had two eras of private railways, both extremely successful, and a long period of extremely unsuccessful state control. Franchising probably isn’t the ideal way of running the rail system privately, but it seems like even a relatively bad private system outperforms the state.

GBR_rail_passenegers_by_year

Short history: approximately free market in rail until 1913, built mainly with private capital. Government control/direction during the war. Government decides the railways aren’t making enough profit in 1923 and reorganises them into bigger regional monopolies. These aren’t very successful (in a very difficult macro environment) so it nationalises them—along with everything else—in the late 1940s.

By the 1960s the government runs railways into the ground to the point it essentially needs to destroy or mothball half the network. Government re-privatises the railways in 1995—at this point passenger journeys have reached half the level they were at in 1913. Within 15 years they’ve made back the ground lost in the previous eighty.

But maybe it’s not privatisation that led to this growth. Let’s consider some alternative hypotheses:

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