Archives For Sharing Economy

In a recent long-form article in the New York Times, reporter Noam Scheiber set out to detail some of the ways Uber (and similar companies, but mainly Uber) are engaged in “an extraordinary experiment in behavioral science to subtly entice an independent work force to maximize its growth.”

That characterization seems innocuous enough, but it is apparent early on that Scheiber’s aim is not only to inform but also, if not primarily, to deride these efforts. The title of the piece, in fact, sets the tone:

How Uber Uses Psychological Tricks to Push Its Drivers’ Buttons

Uber and its relationship with its drivers are variously described by Scheiber in the piece as secretive, coercive, manipulative, dominating, and exploitative, among other things. As Schreiber describes his article, it sets out to reveal how

even as Uber talks up its determination to treat drivers more humanely, it is engaged in an extraordinary behind-the-scenes experiment in behavioral science to manipulate them in the service of its corporate growth — an effort whose dimensions became evident in interviews with several dozen current and former Uber officials, drivers and social scientists, as well as a review of behavioral research.

What’s so galling about the piece is that, if you strip away the biased and frequently misguided framing, it presents a truly engaging picture of some of the ways that Uber sets about solving a massively complex optimization problem, abetted by significant agency costs.

So I did. Strip away the detritus, add essential (but omitted) context, and edit the article to fix the anti-Uber bias, the one-sided presentation, the mischaracterizations, and the fundamentally non-economic presentation of what is, at its core, a fascinating illustration of some basic problems (and solutions) from industrial organization economics. (For what it’s worth, Scheiber should know better. After all, “He holds a master’s degree in economics from the University of Oxford, where he was a Rhodes Scholar, and undergraduate degrees in math and economics from Tulane University.”)

In my retelling, the title becomes:

How Uber Uses Innovative Management Tactics to Incentivize Its Drivers

My transformed version of the piece, with critical commentary in the form of tracked changes to the original, is here (pdf).

It’s a long (and, as I said, fundamentally interesting) piece, with cool interactive graphics, well worth the read (well, at least in my retelling, IMHO). Below is just a taste of the edits and commentary I added.

For example, where Scheiber writes:

Uber exists in a kind of legal and ethical purgatory, however. Because its drivers are independent contractors, they lack most of the protections associated with employment. By mastering their workers’ mental circuitry, Uber and the like may be taking the economy back toward a pre-New Deal era when businesses had enormous power over workers and few checks on their ability to exploit it.

With my commentary (here integrated into final form rather than tracked), that paragraph becomes:

Uber operates under a different set of legal constraints, however, also duly enacted and under which millions of workers have profitably worked for decades. Because its drivers are independent contractors, they receive their compensation largely in dollars rather than government-mandated “benefits” that remove some of the voluntariness from employer/worker relationships. And, in the case of overtime pay, for example, the Uber business model that is built in part on offering flexible incentives to match supply and demand using prices and compensation, would be next to impossible. It is precisely through appealing to drivers’ self-interest that Uber and the like may be moving the economy forward to a new era when businesses and workers have more flexibility, much to the benefit of all.

Elsewhere, Scheiber’s bias is a bit more subtle, but no less real. Thus, he writes:

As he tried to log off at 7:13 a.m. on New Year’s Day last year, Josh Streeter, then an Uber driver in the Tampa, Fla., area, received a message on the company’s driver app with the headline “Make it to $330.” The text then explained: “You’re $10 away from making $330 in net earnings. Are you sure you want to go offline?” Below were two prompts: “Go offline” and “Keep driving.” The latter was already highlighted.

With my edits and commentary, that paragraph becomes:

As he started the process of logging off at 7:13 a.m. on New Year’s Day last year, Josh Streeter, then an Uber driver in the Tampa, Fla., area, received a message on the company’s driver app with the headline “Make it to $330.” The text then explained: “You’re $10 away from making $330 in net earnings. Are you sure you want to go offline?” Below were two prompts: “Go offline” and “Keep driving.” The latter was already highlighted, but the former was listed first. It’s anyone’s guess whether either characteristic — placement or coloring — had any effect on drivers’ likelihood of clicking one button or the other.

And one last example. Scheiber writes:

Consider an algorithm called forward dispatch — Lyft has a similar one — that dispatches a new ride to a driver before the current one ends. Forward dispatch shortens waiting times for passengers, who may no longer have to wait for a driver 10 minutes away when a second driver is dropping off a passenger two minutes away.

Perhaps no less important, forward dispatch causes drivers to stay on the road substantially longer during busy periods — a key goal for both companies.

Uber and Lyft explain this in essentially the same way. “Drivers keep telling us the worst thing is when they’re idle for a long time,” said Kevin Fan, the director of product at Lyft. “If it’s slow, they’re going to go sign off. We want to make sure they’re constantly busy.”

While this is unquestionably true, there is another way to think of the logic of forward dispatch: It overrides self-control.

* * *

Uber officials say the feature initially produced so many rides at times that drivers began to experience a chronic Netflix ailment — the inability to stop for a bathroom break. Amid the uproar, Uber introduced a pause button.

“Drivers were saying: ‘I can never go offline. I’m on just continuous trips. This is a problem.’ So we redesigned it,” said Maya Choksi, a senior Uber official in charge of building products that help drivers. “In the middle of the trip, you can say, ‘Stop giving me requests.’ So you can have more control over when you want to stop driving.”

It is true that drivers can pause the services’ automatic queuing feature if they need to refill their tanks, or empty them, as the case may be. Yet once they log back in and accept their next ride, the feature kicks in again. To disable it, they would have to pause it every time they picked up a new passenger. By contrast, even Netflix allows users to permanently turn off its automatic queuing feature, known as Post-Play.

This pre-emptive hard-wiring can have a huge influence on behavior, said David Laibson, the chairman of the economics department at Harvard and a leading behavioral economist. Perhaps most notably, as Ms. Rosenblat and Luke Stark observed in an influential paper on these practices, Uber’s app does not let drivers see where a passenger is going before accepting the ride, making it hard to judge how profitable a trip will be.

Here’s how I would recast that, and add some much-needed economics:

Consider an algorithm called forward dispatch — Lyft has a similar one — that dispatches a new ride to a driver before the current one ends. Forward dispatch shortens waiting times for passengers, who may no longer have to wait for a driver 10 minutes away when a second driver is dropping off a passenger two minutes away.

Perhaps no less important, forward dispatch causes drivers to stay on the road substantially longer during busy periods — a key goal for both companies — by giving them more income-earning opportunities.

Uber and Lyft explain this in essentially the same way. “Drivers keep telling us the worst thing is when they’re idle for a long time,” said Kevin Fan, the director of product at Lyft. “If it’s slow, they’re going to go sign off. We want to make sure they’re constantly busy.”

While this is unquestionably true, and seems like another win-win, some critics have tried to paint even this means of satisfying both driver and consumer preferences in a negative light by claiming that the forward dispatch algorithm overrides self-control.

* * *

Uber officials say the feature initially produced so many rides at times that drivers began to experience a chronic Netflix ailment — the inability to stop for a bathroom break. Amid the uproar, Uber introduced a pause button.

“Drivers were saying: ‘I can never go offline. I’m on just continuous trips. This is a problem.’ So we redesigned it,” said Maya Choksi, a senior Uber official in charge of building products that help drivers. “In the middle of the trip, you can say, ‘Stop giving me requests.’ So you can have more control over when you want to stop driving.”

Tweaks like these put paid to the arguments that Uber is simply trying to abuse its drivers. And yet, critics continue to make such claims:

It is true that drivers can pause the services’ automatic queuing feature if they need to refill their tanks, or empty them, as the case may be. Yet once they log back in and accept their next ride, the feature kicks in again. To disable it, they would have to pause it every time they picked up a new passenger. By contrast, even Netflix allows users to permanently turn off its automatic queuing feature, known as Post-Play.

It’s difficult to take seriously claims that Uber “abuses” drivers by setting a default that drivers almost certainly prefer; surely drivers seek out another fare following the last fare more often than they seek out another bathroom break. In any case, the difference between one default and the other is a small change in the number of times drivers might have to push a single button; hardly a huge impediment.

But such claims persist, nevertheless. Setting a trivially different default can have a huge influence on behavior, claims David Laibson, the chairman of the economics department at Harvard and a leading behavioral economist. Perhaps most notably — and to change the subject — as Ms. Rosenblat and Luke Stark observed in an influential paper on these practices, Uber’s app does not let drivers see where a passenger is going before accepting the ride, making it hard to judge how profitable a trip will be. But there are any number of defenses of this practice, from both a driver- and consumer-welfare standpoint. Not least, such disclosure could well create isolated scarcity for a huge range of individual ride requests (as opposed to the general scarcity during a “surge”), leading to longer wait times, the need to adjust prices for consumers on the basis of individual rides, and more intense competition among drivers for the most profitable rides. Given these and other explanations, it is extremely unlikely that the practice is actually aimed at “abusing” drivers.

As they say, read the whole thing!

On March 31, a federal judge gave the city of Boston six months to rectify the disparities between the way it treats Transportation Network Companies (“TNC”) (such as Uber and Lyft) and taxicab companies. This comes pursuant to an order by US District Court Judge Nathaniel M. Gorton in a suit filed by members of the Boston taxi industry against the city and various officials. The suit is an interesting one because it reveals unusual fault lines in the ongoing struggle between taxi companies, local regulators, and the way that federal law recognizes and respects property and economic rights.

The three chief claims by the Boston taxi medallion holders are that the city had wronged them by by devaluing their medallions in violation of the Fifth Amendment’s prohibition on regulatory takings, by discriminating against them in favor of TNCs under the equal protection clause (“EPC”) of the Fourteenth Amendment, and by violating Massachusetts law under a theory of promissory estoppel.

On the federal claims, the court seems to get it half right, and half wrong.  In sum, Judge Gorton seems to get the takings argument more or less correct. He notes:

The exclusivity of medallion owners’ access to the market prior to the arrival of TNCs existed by virtue of the City’s regulatory structure rather than the medallion owners’ property rights.  Medallion owners have no property interest in the enforcement of Rule 403 against others  … If a person who wishes to operate a taxicab without a medallion is prevented from doing so, it is because he or she would violate municipal regulations, not because he or she would violate medallion owners’ property rights.

Indeed. The plaintiff’s takings argument essentially amounts to a claim that the government, by virtue of creating the medallion system, is thereby disabled from ever regulating in a way that disrupts medallion owners from making a profit. Efficiency concerns, consumer safety concerns, and the like be damned! takings can be a fairly complicated body of law, but it seems highly unlikely that the plaintiff’s view is right—for one thing, a medallion is much more like a business license subject to health and safety considerations than it is like a property right— and Judge Gorton handily disposes of the plaintiff’s claims.

However, on the EPC analysis Judge Morton’s analysis goes off the rails. He first properly notes that, as an economic rights claim, the EPC analysis is controlled by rational basis review. As the legally trained reader will already know,  “[r]ational basis review simply requires that there be “any reasonably conceivable set of facts justifying the disparate treatment.”

According to the Supreme Court:

[B]ecause we never require a legislature to articulate its reasons for enacting a statute, it is entirely irrelevant for constitutional purposes whether the conceived reason for the challenged distinction actually motivated the legislature.

And as Clark Neily, a constitutional litigator from the Institute for Justice, has noted: “Not only is the government invited to dream up entirely post hoc rationalizations for challenged legislation, it has “no obligation to produce evidence” in support of those rationalizations either.” (citing Heller v. Doe).

In short, rational basis review is an exceedingly easy burden for the government to meet when one of its regulations is challenged.

In this case, Boston offered a number of reasons that it decided to regulate TNCs and taxi companies differently, including a very strong one that doing so “enhances the city’s interest in increasing the availability and accessibility of cost-effective transportation[.]” Nonetheless, Judge Morton disagreed, holding that

[T]he Court finds persuasive plaintiffs’ argument that many of the obvious differences between taxis from TNCs, such as the kind of vehicle used and the fact that taxicabs must be clearly labeled, are caused by the City’s application of the requirements of Rule 403 to taxi operators but not to TNCs.  The City may not treat the two groups unequally and then argue that the results of that unequal treatment render the two groups dissimilarly situated and, consequently, not subject to equal protection analysis.  Such circular logic is unavailing.

The judge pegged his opinion to the fact that Rule 403 — which regulates “hackney carriages” — defines the subject of its regulations as “used or designed to be used for the conveyance of persons for hire from place to place within the city of Boston.” Both TNCs and taxi cabs arguably fit into this definition, thus for Judge Morton, despite the fact that the city offered at least two policy goals for its differential regulations, “[n]either objective is … rationally related to any distinction between taxi operators and TNCs.”

This just has to be wrong under current federal law. As I noted above, rational basis review requires “any reasonably conceivable set of facts”  and, even though the city created the distinctions itself through its regulations, the reasons it states for doing so — including increasing availability of transportation for its citizens — are definitely rationally related to its distinction between the two types of consumer carriers. Sure, Rule 403 provides a scope of regulatory power for the city that sweeps in both TNCs and taxicabs, but within that regulatory scope the City then has the power to “rationally” assign rules as it sees fit (unless someone comes up with a fundamental right here that is more important than economic interests, of course).

I get it, rational basis review of economic regulations is frustrating and often just provides a free pass to protectionist regulators. Nevertheless, it is the law, and I think that Judge Morton got the equal protection claim wrong.

The real lesson here? Don’t get into bed with government and expect a virtual monopoly to protect you indefinitely. It’s no secret that federal law provides scant little protection for economic liberty, so when the government decides it wants to do something that harms the industry that it was previously cozy with it’s just too bad. Maybe there is a future world in which courts will recognize the right to earn a living is as deeply important as the right to speak or practice your religion or vote — but that is not the world we live in today.

Moreover, when an industry depends upon the government to explicitly protect it from competitors it is the worst kind of cronyism, and, at least in this case, represents an economic mindset that is badly aging. As upstart competitors like Uber and Lyft discover new ways to deploy cost-effective (and generally just more effective) technology to manage different industries, the fig leaf of legitimate government intervention is stripped away and revealed for what it often is: protectionism.

So to some extent, I sympathize with  Judge Gorton’s instinct in the equal protection claim: it should be the case that the government is not allowed to pick winners and losers in the economy based on its own taking of the political temperature. But the larger lesson is the opposite of the plaintiff’s intention, in my opinion. The government should roll back the regulations that created the medallion industry in the first place, and find a way to strike a politically feasible deal that eases the taxi companies out of their well-painted corner. We need more competition and more service in pursuit of consumer choice, and we need much less industry control guided in a top-down manner by state fiat.

Today, thirty-nine different companies and policy experts from a wide swath of the political spectrum signed a letter urging lawmakers to create a “portable benefits” platform that will enable sharing economy companies to continue innovating while simultaneously providing desirable social safety net benefits to workers. This is well timed, as there is a growing consensus among lawmakers (such as Senator Warner) that “something must be done” to provide benefits to workers in the so-called “gig economy.”

In total, the thirty-nine signatories to the letter are pushing for changes to existing law based on a set of principles holding that benefits should be:

  1. Independent;
  2. Flexible and pro-rated;
  3. Portable;
  4. Universal; and
  5. Supportive of innovation

In a nutshell, this would effectively mean that there is some form of benefits available to gig economy workers that follows them around and is accessible regardless of who employs them (or, ostensibly, whether they are employed at all).

Looking past the text of the letter, this would likely entail a package of changes to existing law that would allow individual workers to utilize some form of privately created platform for managing the benefits that are normally obtained in a traditional employee-employer relationship. Such benefits would include, for instance, workers’ compensation, unemployment, disability, professional development, and retirement. A chief advantage of a portable benefits platform is that–much as in an underlying justification of the ACA–workers would no longer be tied to particular companies in order to enjoy these traditionally employer-based benefits.

Although platform-based work facilitated by smartphone apps is cutting edge, there is historical precedent for this approach to the provision of benefits. Unions have long relied upon multi-employer plans for providing benefits, and the healthcare industry developed portable health savings accounts as a means to free individuals from employer-bound health insurance plans. And the industry has been seeking fully private solutions to these sorts of problems for some time. For instance, Uber recently partnered with Stride Health to provide health insurance benefits to verified drivers.

There will, of course, be some necessary legislative changes in order to make these portable benefits platforms a reality. First, there probably needs to be a provision in the tax code that allows for workers’ contributions to their own plans to receive the same tax-favored treatment that traditional employer-based benefits receive (or, even better, the political give-away would need to be removed from employer-based benefits). Additionally, companies would need to be able to make optional matching contributions with a similar tax treatment. And lurking in the background of all of this is the specter of a large number of employer obligations. Thus, a necessary quid pro quo to get sharing economy companies to pay into these platforms will be some form of safe harbor shielding them from further obligations.

This is a win for both companies and workers. The truth is that our labor market is very fractured–labor force participation rates are at a low, and those who are working remain chronically underemployed. Coupled with this reality, the technology that enables work is becoming ever more flexible and, as shown by their expressed preferences, individuals are clearly interested in the gig economy as a means of easily obtaining work as needed. A portable benefits platform could provide the sort of support to make flexible work a viable alternative to employee status.

And for many employers–sharing economy and non-sharing economy alike–removing antiquated legal strictures from the employment relationship promises a number of increased efficiencies. Particularly in the context of sharing economy companies, this will include the ability to exert some form of control over platform workers without being sucked into an onerous employer-employee relationship.

For instance, Instacart recently moved a number of its platform workers to part-time employee status. Although the decision was very likely multi-faceted, a big part of it had to be Instacart’s desire to give training and guidance to the shoppers who provided services to the platform’s consumers (for instance, instructing them on the best sequence in which to pick groceries in order to ensure maximum freshness). However, to provide any modest degree of oversight would likely mean that Instacart would move from empowering contractors to directing employees, and thereby run into a thicket of labor laws.

Yet why should this particular employee classification be necessary? Platform-based work is a revolutionary way to defeat the traditional transaction costs that justified large, centrally-organized firms. Companies like Uber and Instacart enable what otherwise would have been fallow resources–spare labor, unused cars, and the like–to be fitted to consumer demand.

Moreover, forcing rigid employee classifications upon sharing economy workers will only reintroduce inefficiency into the worker-company relationship. Instead of allowing workers to sign on just for the amount of work they are willing to do, and allowing consumers just to purchase the amount of work they desire, an employee classification essentially requires companies to purchase labor in blocks of hours. At scale, this necessarily introduces allocation and pricing errors into the system. If a smart safe harbor is included in any legislative push for a portable benefits platform, companies could have much more flexibility in directing platform workers.

I am excited to see this development emerging from the industry and from policy makers, and I look forward to the response of our lawmakers (although, this being election season, I don’t expect too much from that response — at least not yet). There is understably a lot of concern about the welfare of workers in the new economy. But it’s important not to lose the innovative new ways of working, producing, and consuming that the modern digital economy affords by resorting to ill-fitted legal regimes from the past.