It’s now popular in some circles to refer to New York City as a “people’s republic.” No doubt the city’s still relatively new and very progressive mayor, Bill de Blasio, finds the appellation flattering. After all, he fancies himself as leader of a national progressive vanguard. But his bad temper during his recent battle with the internet-based ride-for-hire company, Uber, may have hurt his cause. It has given people a glimpse of the darker side of the progressive agenda—its need to command others and control their lives.
Uber, now a global enterprise, came to New York in 2011. It allows people to use their mobile devices to call for a car at a moment’s notice. Uber uses essentially independent operators as drivers. These people pay a piece of their fare to Uber for the privilege of linking to the company’s network. Not without drawbacks, the model has operated successfully across the country and the world, a record that speaks to the public’s embrace of the service, particularly in places where taxi service is less than satisfactory. In the United States, this area of poor service includes most places.
New York City’s government resisted the firm from the start. Given the municipal bureaucracy’s iron grip over taxi service, Uber’s approach must have seemed altogether too freewheeling. Yet it was hard to deny the company access to the streets, especially given the service’s popularity in New York and elsewhere. Still, the city’s Taxi and Limousine Commission insisted on control. Unlike elsewhere, Uber drivers in New York had to obtain a chauffeur license and had to work from bases instead of home, which they do everywhere else. Uber bowed to the city’s demands and changed its business model for New York. It knew who was in charge, and it wanted to operate in the nation’s largest city.
These impositions failed to satisfy the mayor, however. Accustomed to complete control over fares and the number of taxis on New York City streets, he insisted on limiting Uber’s pricing flexibility and decided to cap the number of cars it could operate within city limits.
De Blasio made three arguments to explain why he had decided to curtail the firm’s ability to do business in New York. He worried, he claimed, about the pollution additional cars would create. He speculated that the additional cars would contribute to the city’s already terrible congestion. And he expressed concern about the unfair competition Uber would bring to traditional taxi drivers. None were very convincing, even to the mayor’s allies.
De Blasio’s supposed concern for the potential plight of cab drivers would have been comical, were it not so cynical. He complained that Uber drivers constitute a form of unfair competition because they are independent operators and so get no employee benefits. Perhaps he missed the fact that traditional taxi drivers are also almost always independent operators with no claim to employee benefits or protections under the country’s labor laws. Nor does their union, The National Taxi Alliance, have standing with the federal government’s National Labor Relations Board.
Traditional taxi drivers, in fact, are famously abused by those who actually own the operating licenses (known as medallion owners because they display their permit as a metal emblem tacked onto each cab). Drivers lease their cars from medallion owners, pay for their own fuel, and pay a 5 percent fee on credit card transactions. The drivers are, some calculate, $100 in the hole before they begin their work day, and have to work long hours before they generate income for themselves. Some estimate that they command an hourly pay of only about $20.00. It would be hard to treat them less fairly.
The mayor’s stated worries over congestion and air quality look equally unconvincing. He had blamed Uber for tie ups on city streets that had reduced average driving speeds from 9.4 miles an hour in 2010, before Uber arrived, to 8.0 more recently. But surely the mayor’s own efforts to cut speed limits from 30 to 25 miles per hour has contributed to this result, as has his decision to allocate numerous bicycle lanes and pedestrian walk ways. These may be wonderful innovations, but they necessarily force vehicles onto less road space.
The population has also grown since Uber entered the city in 2011 and an economic recovery has ensued. Back in 2009 and 2010, the pre-Uber base used by the mayor to make his comparisons, the whole country, including New York City, was still reeling from the 2008-09 financial crisis and recession. The recovery, though slow, has inevitably put more vehicles on the streets. Even if Uber were banned altogether, it would be reasonable to expect average speeds to go on declining for as long as the economic recovery continues. Meanwhile, the data released by Uber show its busiest times are between 9:00 pm and midnight, hardly periods of greatest congestion.
In a moment of some irony, it was during a visit to the Vatican that the good mayor all but confessed his real reason for fighting Uber. It suddenly seemed that he did not believe his own rhetoric, and that his attacks on Uber stemmed from an entirely different source.
De Blasio was in Italy to talk about climate change. When news reached him that that City Comptroller Scott Stringer wanted to ease the limits on Uber, he responded emotionally, thundering: “The people of our cities don’t like the notion of those who are particularly wealthy and powerful dictating the terms to government elected by the people.” It was a strange response. Since he was at a climate conference, one would have expected him to emphasize his pollution concerns.
His language was doubly strange, since Uber never sought to dictate the rules to New York City. It had, in fact, long since bowed to the city’s insistence that it alter its business model. All it wanted was the ability to grow in the city. Rather than Uber, it was Mayor de Blasio who wanted to dictate, and he chafed visibly when anything prevented him from doing so. His outburst made it clear in more than one way that, whatever his stated reasons, command and control occupied the front of his mind.
In the end, deBasio had to back off his attacks on Uber, at least for a while. But the root desire for command and control remains clear. It is now obvious that it played a central role in his earlier attack on charter schools. He seemed to have no other reason to push such schools out of the city than that they had some freedom from city dictates.
This mindset is present in much that progressive politicians do. Why else, if not an obsession with command and control, would another great progressive, President Obama, go on insisting that the Affordable Care Act impose essentially peripheral requirements on people even though their resistance threatens the overall success of this signature piece of legislation? Concerns for the environment, congestion, the poor, struggling workers—sincere though they may be—seem in the final analysis secondary to the desire to give progressive politicians ever more power to control the lives of others. This is why many in this country resist much progressive legislation even when they agree with its ostensible objectives.
Milton Ezrati is a contributing editor to The National Interest and an affiliate of the Center for the Study of Human Capital at the University at Buffalo (SUNY). His most recent book, Thirty Tomorrows, on aging demographics, the challenge it presents, and how the world can cope, was recently released by Thomas Dunne Books of Saint Martin’s Press.