Uber

Nathan for You Tackles Uber, Finds the Free Market Always Wins

A taxi driver upset by Uber's effect on his business realized it was actually a good alternative for him.

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Comedy Central

Last night's episode of Nathan for Youthe reality show where Nathan Fielder tries to help struggling businesses by coming up with zany ideas to reinvigorate them—tackled the effect of Uber on the taxi business.

"Love massive corporations," Nathan tweeted before last night's show, "but tonight I make an exception and help cabbies take on Uber."

(Spoilers ahead.)

The episode revisited Andy, a taxi driver Nathan first tried to help back in 2014. Even then, Andy was struggling to compete with Uber. Nathan's idea was to find a pregnant woman to give birth in Andy's cab, reasoning that such publicity would be good for business. It didn't work.

Three years and countless Uber expansions later, Andy was still chugging along, barely, as a cab driver. Nathan returned to Andy because, a few months after the first episode aired, Uber started a promotion where babies born in the back of Uber rides received Uber onesies. Nathan was convinced the idea was cribbed from his show. Last night's episode sought revenge.

As in every episode of Nathan for You, Fielder's plan is needlessly complicated and over-the-top. Nathan and Andy try to form a "sleeper cell" of cab drivers within the Uber network who could sabotage it at any minute. With that leverage, Nathan hoped to force Uber to stop its pregnant woman promotion.

Recruiting cab drivers was easy—most of them resented Uber and blamed it for steep revenue drops. At a group meeting, many of them called Uber "unfair competition," while a few pushed the myth that Uber was less safe than a taxi. (Given that you know the identity of your Uber driver and they yours before the ride starts, that the ride is tracked on GPS, and that each ride ends with a rating for both driver and passenger, this common claim stretches credulity.)

Nathan ended up signing up more than 60 cabbies. They didn't know his ultimate aim was to end an Uber pregnancy promotion, just that they were supposed to provide subpar service to lower Uber's reputation. But at the end of the episode, after Nathan had produced a video of demands for Uber that almost certainly would've been flagged to federal authorities, he hit a big road block: Andy had realized that Uber was a viable alternative for him to make a livelihood.

Nathan signed Andy up for Uber for a day to test the system and see which strategies (farts in a bag, Mambo #5 on blast, getting lost) could yield the lowest ratings in the fastest times. Andy performed admirably, earning a series of one-star reviews. But at some point after that, unbeknownst to Nathan, Andy gave Uber a try for real. In his last days as a cabbie, Andy installed a karaoke machine in his taxi, claiming it was the first karaoke cab. He was so sold on Uber he moved it into his personal car, claiming he was now the first karaoke Uber.

Andy asked Nathan not to proceed with their plan, since he was worried it would affect his rating. Nathan reluctantly agreed, deciding that just as telephones replaced telegraphs and cars replaced horse and buggies, Uber was replacing taxis.

"The free market had again chosen a winner," Nathan said in the wrap-up narration of the show. "The real enemy wasn't Uber. It was progress."

Andy's experience reveals the futility of the taxi industry's fight against ride-sharing services. There's nothing inherently unfair about Uber's competition—if anything, Uber is making the playing field fairer by breaking up the old cartel. And the idea that an Uber is less safe than a taxi is not held by anyone who isn't already anti-Uber. And so Uber's share of the marketplace grows.

Uber is not guaranteed to last forever, of course, but ridesharing apps are here to stay. As when the car displaced the horse and buggy, there's no going back for taxis. Cabbies who hold on to their old business models because they've spent money on licenses, medallions, and so forth are falling for the sunken cost fallacy: Instead of making rational decisions based on future values, their decisions are being driven by emotional investments that are hard to abandon. They should take up the motto "if you can't beat 'em, join 'em" instead.

It's worked out well for Andy.

Nathan for You airs Thursdays at 10 p.m. on Comedy Central. You can watch last night's episode online here.

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  1. They should take up the motto “if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em” instead.

    To drive for Uber you have to own a car and it has to be a nice one. One of the reasons why being a cab driver has always been the haunt of new immigrants is because it was a job you only needed a driver’s license and a willingness to work to get. The end of taxis will mean the end of that.

    Such are the fortunes of commerce. But there is something a bit disgusting about the upper-class hipsters at Reason being so gleeful about the whole thing. The death of paid journalism cannot come too quickly.

    1. Uber has an option for drivers who need a car but nice strawman!

      1. Yeah, and it’s called “debt slavery.” Come on people.

        1. Oh god shut up.

          1. All debt is “debt slavery” to these people. I really wish people would stop using the word “slavery” so much. It’s straight out of Marxist philosophy, that we’re all slaves to capitalism.

      2. The Uber option is horrible, or it was the last time I looked into it. But – if you live in a reasonably uber/lyft friendly city, have decent credit, and are able to work full time you can make a car payment in about 3-4 days so it isn’t out of reach of immigrants in any way. It’s certainly less than the cost of a Subway franchise.

    2. Crocodile tears for cabbies.

    3. Uber does have an option where they provide the car, for drivers who don’t have one. Just how the revenue is split I don’t know, obviously Uber keeps more of it than it does for drivers who use their own cars. Oh, and Uber sometimes cooperates with more traditional car services. There is a car service in Upper Manhattan that my family often uses, they arrange rides by normal voice calls, but half the time the car that shows up is actually an Uber.

    4. “”But there is something a bit disgusting about the upper-class hipsters at Reason being so gleeful about the whole thing.””

      Yeah, being gleeful about the demise of a government enforced cartel is just so un-libertarian. Do you know how much baksheesh those cabbies had to fork over for their medallions?

    5. Not a hipster, but I’m totally gleeful.

      A ride to the airport from my house costs $38.00 in a taxi, and $25.00 in an Uber. The Uber is at my house within five minutes of summoning him/her via phone app. Wait time for a taxi is half an hour, and to do that, I make a phone call, wait on hold briefly, then get “Address!” yelled in my ear by a surly dispatcher. The surly dispatcher might or might not type the address correctly into his computer. There is no app-dispatched taxi in my area. The taxi reeks of old man ball sweat and stale smoker. The Uber smells like vanilla and new Prius.

      A ride between my office and the dealership that services my car is $18 by taxi and takes a half hour to arrive. The same ride is $9 in an Uber and takes 4 minutes to arrive. I can actually have picked up my car from the mechanic’s and returned to work with it by the time a metered cab can show up.

      It’s not even a contest at this point.

    6. This makes no sense. To be a cabbie you need a car often a medallion.

      Guess who gets the profits? The guy who owns the car and the medallion. There is a reason medallions once sold for hundreds of thousands of dollars. Eliminating that barrier doesn’t make it harder for immigrants to drive.

    7. John, a nice car costs 20k. A nice *used* one, less.

      A *medallion so that you don’t get locked in a cage’ can cost 10 times a new luxury car at a minimum. New immigrants aren’t getting medallions, they’re *leasing* them from rich people who have already bought one. Then they lease the cab itself. The advantage they had is that they were the only game in town. So you get massive overhead costs from ‘exploiting’ these new immigrants – where more of the money taken in is paid out to the ‘landlord’ – but ‘Reason’ are the ones we should be disgusted with?

      There are tons of jobs outside the taxi industry where all you need is a driver’s license and a willingness to work.

  2. Andy asked Nathan not to proceed with their plan, since he was worried it would affect his rating. Nathan reluctantly agreed, deciding that just as telephones replaced telegraphs and cars replaced horse and buggies, Uber was replacing taxis… “The free market had again chosen a winner,” Nathan said in the wrap-up narration of the show. “The real enemy wasn’t Uber. It was progress.”

    Heh. I bet there were an office-full of production staff who REALLY didn’t want that outcome. By then, though, with so much $$$ sunk into the episode they had to hold their noses and let the chips fall.

    1. It is genuinely hard to say. I don’t know if you have seen Nathan For You, but I’m not sure it’s easy to apply a philosophical label to the show.

      1. but I’m not sure it’s easy to apply a philosophical label to the show.

        You are correct, sir.

    2. Honestly, I think the only thing the production crew is concerned about is making the show look good.

      And, frankly, having the cabbie change his mind at the last minute – and the ability to incorporate that into their narrative – makes the show look better than if they had been successful as ‘sabotaging’ Uber and the cabbie liked that outcome.

  3. Uber’s ultimate aim is to replace all their drivers with robots, and that will probably happen.

    It’s not about the benefit to labor. Look at it from the customer’s perspective. Show me how a traditional taxi can be better than a ride sharing service from the customer’s view.

    Buggy whip manufacturers are not better off because of the automobile, but so what? The customers are.

    Tractors replaced trained oxen teams–but the benefit was to farmers because they were consumers of tractors. Oxen team trainers got screwed.

    I’ve had more than one receptionist and executive assistant try to reorganize our process so as to make her job as easy as possible. Any company that’s organized with a primary goal of benefiting labor as much as possible is doomed to failure.


    1. Uber’s ultimate aim is to replace all their drivers with robots, and that will probably happen.

      Probably not as soon as you might think.

    2. Enter the market for human drivers. They will probably go for a premium. Just like horse drawn carriages in Central Park. On the flip side though, all those poor poor unemployed drivers will have to commiserate with all those poor poor unemployed liverymen.

  4. You’ll never convince me to take Uber, what with their subpar pay, no benefits for their employees, and total disregard for the taxi laws that really make this country civilization.

    I mean, what: you get in someone’s car? A stranger? How could that possibly be safe?

    I’ll take a yellow cab, stand in line, wait around, and like it, thank you very much.

    1. Tip the hotel doorman. That’s the only way to get a taxi in New York.

  5. That’s one of the things Marx was right about, by the way–he just misunderstood the implications. Marx is the source of our modern idea of “creative destruction”. That’s an excellent observation he made, but he thought that since capitalism relies on creatively destroying what came before, displaced labor would keep providing additional impetus for unions and socialist revolution. He didn’t understand that the benefit to consumers was the dominant force in that calculation.

    Productivity gains = increases in the standard of living.

    All those Uberdrivers made unemployed by robots will take robot rides to their next job and save a bundle not needing to own a car anymore–like a farmer who no longer needs to devote land to feeding oxen and can raise cash crops on that land instead. But they won’t remember the good old days from the displaced before–back when horses and buggies left city streets ankle deep in shit and people died from cholera and typhoid.

    Those displaced Uber drivers will get together via robots and commiserate about the good ol days It’ll be like cowboy shooting contests, where everyone drives a car to get there–because taking care of horses is an expensive pain in the ass.


  6. Cabbies who hold on to their old business models because they’ve spent money on licenses, medallions, and so forth are falling for the sunken cost fallacy:

    Yeah, it’s not a sunken cost fallacy when you paid something to the tune of a million f’ing dollars (bilked out of your by the government itself) in order to be ‘permitted’ to do x, y, or z. That’s just rational behavior, because how long do you think it would take someone to pay that off? Not that there are many, if any, independents ponying up that cash in the first place but it’s a non-insignificant mandatory cost for their business. (Using New York as the example here, FYI)

    If anything they should sue to get that investment back from the government, because they were screwed. It just took Uber to show them how screwed they were. (Although, also, it is true it gave them an inherent advantage as well. So perhaps it’s a wash, but I take issue with the government doing this to people in both directions.)

    1. It’s called a bad investment, and it happens all the time.

    2. And now you don’t understand the sunken cost fallacy.

    3. Suing them won’t work – if they’re harmed by changes to the current rules that means they benefited from the rules as they were. So it ends up a wash short of them showing how the damage from the rule changes was (and exactly how much) greater than the benefits they could have reaped from those rules if left alone.

      Plus, there’s no expectation of a specific economic outcome.

  7. I can’t wait to read about this in The Diarrhea Times.

  8. Next episode: Nathan helps Viacom executives fight cord cutting.

  9. My problem with this whole debate is that there doesn’t seem to be any difference in the talkativeness of the driver or the chance of molestation in either an Uber or a regular cab.

    1. Tony really looks forward to his molestations.

    2. Molestation in cabs? Surely you mean false allegations against cabbies. On that note, I hope most Uber drivers are smart enough to have video cameras in their cars.

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