Cartel, Consumer Surplus, Creative Destruction, Human capital, Lyft, Mark Perry, Ride sharing, Taxi Medallions, Taxi Monopoly, Uber, Warren Meyer
It would be odd to argue that innovation is not unequivocally positive, that its costs will exceed its benefits. Certainly there are downsides: human capital invested in the methods and technologies supplanted by an innovation is devalued, jobs may be lost, retraining becomes necessary, and even consumers must get used to new ways of doing things, which is not costless. But most of these costs are temporary. And when an innovation eliminates an incumbent’s monopoly, the former monopolist’s profit ends up back in the pockets of consumers.
People do seem to focus excessively on the downside of innovation without carefully tallying the benefits. For example, this article focuses on the loss of New York City taxi pickups since ride sharing services like Uber and Lyft began to have an impact in 2014. Mark Perry reproduces a chart from that article, which is featured above. The number of monthly taxi rides in NYC has fallen by about one-third since then, from an average of 13+ million to about 9 million in 2017. In fact, Perry reports that the market for taxi medallions has tanked since then as well, with plunging medallion prices and many medallions sold out of bankruptcy and foreclosure. But don’t be too quick to shed tears for a monopoly lost.
The same chart shows the massive upside to ride sharing, as discussed here by Warren Meyer. The size of the total market has nearly doubled, from about 13 million per month to roughly 24 million (adding the two lines together). And it was a quick transition! That’s what happens when real competition is introduced to a market: prices fall and quantity increases, with an attendant increase in the welfare of consumers. That increase always exceeds the loss suffered by the former monopolist or cartel (as the case may be), which was earning excessive profits at the expense of consumers before the innovation had a market impact. And many former taxi drivers have made the switch to ride sharing providers, and they seem to prefer it for the flexibility and autonomy it offers. Yes, the best innovations benefit workers as well as consumers.
Competition can bloom when government opens markets to competitors or when an innovation creates new alternatives for consumers. In the case of ride sharing, both were necessary. For many years, NYC restricted the supply of taxi medallions, which kept taxi fares artificially high. The formal approval of ride sharing services in the city was not uncontested. But once it was approved, consumers took advantage of superior dispatching and payment technologies enabled by their smart phones, as well as security features and rating systems, not to mention lower fares. Again, these developments have contributed massively to consumer well-being, which is ultimately the point of all economic activity. Traditional taxis have to try to keep up. The ride sharing industry has inflicted the kind of creative destruction for which consumers are quite grateful.