To share or not to share rides: that’s not the question

If you’re a law professor, I guess you don’t need to worry about logic

Take an op-ed piece by M. Todd Henderson published on June 30 by the Chicago Tribune. It had some surprisingly fuzzy thinking, given that Henderson is a professor of law at the prestigious University of Chicago Law School.

Henderson sets out to convince us that unregulated “ride share” companies like Uber are the wave of the future that will give us better service at better prices than the traditional taxi companies they are now competing with.

Rather than regulate Uber and its ilk to ensure safety and prevent future price gouging, Henderson says, in typical U. of C. fashion: “Chicago should let the marketplace decide.”

In his first departure from logic, Henderson sets up a bewilderingly weak analogy to show that ride shares and taxis are not the same thing, and thus shouldn’t be regulated similarly:

“Think about your choice to eat out. You can go to a restaurant that is open to the public, and therefore licensed or inspected by the government; or, you can eat at a friend’s house, which is not. In both cases you are relying on someone else to cook for you. But no one would think these are the same service (emphasis added), and it would be fanciful to imagine government imposing the same level of regulation by inspecting private kitchens that serve others.”

The most glaringly obvious problem with this analogy is that you pay for both ride services, but you don’t pay to eat at your friend’s house. Your relationship to both Uber and the cab companies is as a customer.

Henderson himself acknowledges his logical flaw and abandons the earlier analogy for this one, arguing that Uber’s built-in rating scheme obviates the need for regulation:

“Imagine two restaurants, one with hundreds of Yelp reviews and one with none. Restaurant inspections seem far less necessary for the business with positive feedback from online reviewers. So while the two restaurants, like Uber and the cab companies, offer a similar service in one sense, the risks are sufficiently different to justify different regulatory treatment.”

Now he’s admitting that it’s the same service, when in the first instance he tried to convince us it wasn’t.

For those of us who are concerned about the workers who drive cabs, he goes on to say, in another leap over logic, that we don’t have to worry about cab drivers — they can all go to work for Uber. Of course a cab driver might not be able to afford to buy a car capable of safely pounding the pavement day in and day out. And we don’t really know yet how many Uber drivers could actually earn a living wage by “sharing” rides.

But let me depart from the professor’s article. Whether or not to regulate ride-share companies is not the question at all, I would argue, because both Uber and taxis mostly burn gasoline to get their customers from place to place: a highly carbon-intensive way of getting around.

What we need is to get as many cars as we can off the road, so buses can be fast and frequent, streets safe enough for the average bicycle rider to do errands and get to work without being intimidated and our air won’t be heavy with the carbon dioxide and other toxic crap that autos spew.

To do all that, we have to “put a price on carbon” – as former Vice President Al Gore’s oft repeated prescription goes.

Of course cars aren’t the only problem. “In the United States, electric power plants emit about 2.2 billion tons of carbon dioxide (CO2) each year, or roughly 40 percent of the nation’s total emissions,” according to a paper issued by the National Resources Defense Council.

Nonetheless, if we want to avoid the worst catastrophes of climate change, we just can’t burn gasoline at anywhere near the current rate.

If you want to read Henderson’s op ed piece, click here, though the Trib website might not give it to you, if you aren’t a subscriber.

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