Uber Uber über alles

27 October 2017

This TWOG is co-authored with Leslie Breitner, Director of McGill University’s International Masters for Health Leadership (www.imhl.org)

(Image source: www.cbc.ca)

Until 1945, the German people sang their national anthem beginning with  the line “Deutschland Deutschland über alles” (“above all else”).  Today many people sing “Uber Uber über alles”, whether for or against. 

One of us sings for, the other against. The two of us live in Montreal, work together, and leaving Uber aside, are good friends. Leslie lived her life in the United States, with a brief time in France, until she moved to Montreal in 2010. Henry is a born and bred Montrealer, with years spent in England and France as well as some in the U.S. This may help to explain our differences over Uber.

Leslie on Uber über the competition
I love technology, innovation, convenience and novelty, when it makes sense. Uber came on the scene with attractive pricing, but it was more about convenience and ease of use…no phone call, no confusion about where to pick up, and, best of all, no money exchange in the car. Upon arrival, a simple “thank you” and you’re on your way.

Is Uber a “disruptive innovation”? Does it matter?  What matters is that Uber and other ride-sharing companies have been disrupting the taxi business for the sake of better service, around the world, for almost a decade. Surely by now the taxi companies have had time to get their apps together.

I believe in a lawful society. I pay my taxes in two countries. But I also understand the time-honored tradition to avoid taxes by all legal means available. Beyond this, laws are regularly flouted when they are patently foolish, or exist to support monopolistic practices. This form of civil disobedience brings attention to the need for change. Along with Uber in transportation, Airbnb competes with traditional hotels, and Turo with traditional car rental companies. Hotels gouged people on personal phone calls, and then on Internet services, until mobile phones and Airbnb came along.  Turo avoids excessive airport taxes by enabling people to rent cars just offsite or from private owners who pick you up at the airport.

Governments must make laws that protect us, but that are also in our best interests. A level playing field and fair competition are important but, as we may be seeing now with Uber, an equilibrium can eventually be achieved through cooperation, negotiation and collaboration, allowing the type of choice one expects in a democracy.

Henry on Uber über the workers, the regulations, and governments
The dominating song today is really that of globalization: “Investors Investors über alles”—über the workers, über the rules and regulations, über national sovereignty. Make no mistake about it: Uber is just the latest version of the worker-busting practices that for some years have been driving middle class wages toward the minimum wage, to the delight of shareholders and customers alike. First the unions were busted, then job security was busted together with worker benefits, and with the resulting reduction of earnings has come busting of the social fabric of societies. No wonder so many people have had it with an economic globalization that is riding roughshod over decency and democracy.

People who operate real taxis had to buy that right from their municipal governments, and abide by various regulations designed to protect the public. Then Uber waltzed in and ignored all this while city administrations turned their backs. Better not mess with globalization. But certainly, mess with local workers. Why shouldn’t they too be earning minimum wage, so that we well-paid people, including those who run our governments, can cash in on the convenience? And as the taxi drivers fight back, they get labelled the bad guys, who are rude and drive dirty cars. (If this happens more often now, perhaps it’s because they are tired of being screwed.)

Uber claims it is not a taxi service. (Just as I claim that this is not a blog because I call it a TWOG.) Funny, because Uber picks up people and ferries them around the city for a fare. Sure sounds like a taxi service to me. No, they say, it’s a ride-sharing service. Maybe originally, but when was the last time you shared an Uber car with a stranger? OK then, Uber drivers are self-employed. Well, what are the taxi-drivers who own their permits and join a co-op? We live in a world of fake words too.

Apple has succeeded by competing with better products. Uber succeeds by cheating with a better service. It is the ultimate pit bull in a globe of pit bull corporations—apparently in its management and corporate culture too. The following sentence appeared in a recent article in The New York Times, about London’s efforts to rid itself of Uber: “There is a feeling in the air that regulators should stand up to businesses that simply ignore any regulations they don’t like.”  Really? Stand up to global corporations, holding them to the rule of law? What a novel idea! This is not a feeling in the air; there’s a sledgehammer striking the ground.

Leslie and Henry: Synergy über alles? 
Maybe we are both right. Our differing perspectives might just be a matter of context. Leslie cites corruption in the taxi industry, which has been especially so in New York City with its medallions — there are now fewer than in 1937, when they were first introduced, at $10! Certain people made fortunes on these – the price went to well over a million dollars before Uber became prominent — while some of the drivers who rented their cars struggled. In other words, in New York at least, this decimation of earnings preceded Uber, although it has hardly abated. So why shouldn’t the overwhelming proportion of NY drivers who don’t own medallions switch to Uber?

Henry points out that in Montreal, taxis are plentiful, many of them driven by polite owners who earned better incomes, at least before Uber came along. The city has tight restrictions on the number of permits that can be owned, tied to the individual ownership of the cars themselves. In other words, contexts do vary. Montreal may be closer than New York to what happens in cities elsewhere that have been challenging Uber.

Is what we have here, therefore, a solution to a corruption problem in New York City being applied to cities where that problem doesn’t exist? Is this, in other words, a case of the American exceptionalism, forsaken by Donald Trump in foreign policy, only to be carried on by American corporations in the global marketplace? That’s at least how many Canadians see the world today, and many Europeans too. Americans love novelty, and the competition that brings it, while Canadians tend to be more suspicious of aggressive multinationals, and more concerned about the underdog and fair play.

It seems to us that our positions can be reconciled—synergistically, if you like. Keep the benefits of the Ubers, but force them to play by the rules, at least sensible rules. This may be happening in Montreal right now. When the government of Quebec recently sought to impose restrictions on Uber, the company said it would leave by a certain date. The government didn’t cave, and Uber didn’t leave. Now on the table is a proposal to have Uber buy a certain number of permits, to collect and pay taxes as well as fees per ride, and to ensure that its drivers are properly licensed and insured while the cars are regularly inspected. In other words, act like the taxi company Uber is. The company is not exactly signaling its delight with this proposal, but it could be one way to maintain the innovations while ending the indecencies. Will this throw the Uber baby out with the taxi bathwater? Who knows?

Established taxi businesses certainly need to wake up—more quickly. They can do a better job of replicating many of Uber’s innovations. (Prepaying by credit card, for example, is hardly under patent.) Meanwhile, other variations are popping up all over the place. In London, using Gett, some of the legendary black cabs provide service via a mobile phone app. The rider can choose to pay a fixed fee up front or go by the meter. In the U.S., governments are now scrambling to strike a balance between the growing need for flexible urban transportation and protecting the interests of the taxi drivers.

Even Leslie has her own hybrid service: she met a licenced driver who prefers to drive his own customers. So, for certain needs, she arranges directly with him, at taxi rates. Yes, she actually pays more than for Uber. But in the bargain, she is assured that his car will always be clean and well-maintained, and most important, that she has a safe driver she can trust—indeed, someone who has become almost a friend.  Leslie has struck her own blow for decency.

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© Henry Mintzberg and Leslie Breitner, 2017.

Administered by Tanya Sardana

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¹Apparently, this line originally referred to a unified Germany over its parts, but the Nazis presumably had something else in mind. This line is no longer officially sung.

²“Why Clayton Christensen is Wrong About Uber and Disruptive Innovation”, by Alex Moazed and Nicholas L. Johnson, Techcrunch.com (27 February 2016)

³“London and Über: It’s Complicated” by Helen Lewis (23 September 2017)