Steve Randy Waldman makes one of the more persuasive arguments against surge pricing (a term which may have existed before Uber—the practice certainly did—but which now seems inextricably intertwined with their brand).
I don’t care all that much about Uber’s “surge pricing” — its practice of increasing its usual fare schedule by multiples during periods of high demand. I do, however, care about the damage done by a kind of idiot dogmatism that hijacks the name “economics”. Uber’s surge pricing may or may not serve Uber’s objectives of profit maximization and world domination. It may or may not increase “consumer welfare”. But it is not unambiguously a good practice, either from the perspective of the firm or as a matter of economic analysis. Its pricing practices impose tradeoffs that must be addressed with reference to actual, on-the-ground circumstances. Among prominent academic economists there may well be a (research-free) consensus that surge pricing promotes consumer welfare (ht Adam Ozimek), but that reflects the crude selection bias of the profession much more than actual analysis of the issue. The dogmatism which has arisen in support of Uber’s surge pricing is quite analogous to the case of urban rent regulation, a domain in which there is incredible heterogeneity across localities and nations, both of circumstance and policy, and a wide range of legitimate values that conflict and must be reconciled. (Here’s an interesting case in the news today, in Spain, ht Matt Yglesias.) Almost as a right of passage, economists drone in every intro course that rent controls are bad. By preventing price signals from working their magicks, they prevent the explosion of real-estate supply that a truly free market would deliver. This is stated as uncontroversial fact even while economists who research and opine prominently on housing policy have endlessly documented that housing supply is not in fact price-elastic in the prosperous cities where rent controls are typically imposed. None of this is to say that rent controls are good or bad, or that non-price barriers to construction are good or bad. These are complex questions involving competing values textured by local circumstance. They deserve bespoke analysis, not pat dogma imposed by distant central planners economics professors.
As in the case of rent control, the stereotyped economist’s case for surge pricing is based on a conjectured elasticity of supply. With higher prices, the reasoning goes, more drivers will hit the road, more customers will be served, and the world will be better off. And that’s a good case, as far as it goes. But it doesn’t go very far, without some empirical analysis. It doesn’t justify Uber’s actual practice of surge pricing, which is far from the transparent auction our stereotyped economist seems to imagine. It doesn’t account for the trade-offs imposed by price-rationing (as opposed to time- or lottery- rationing), both between customers and for the public at large.
First, how price elastic is driver supply? If we presume that Uber is a Walrasian auctioneer, a disinterested matchmaker of supply and demand, apparently supply is not very elastic. Uber surges prices by multiples, two, three, even four times “typical” pricing in periods of high demand. That’s extraordinary! If supply were in fact elastic, small increases in price would lead to large increases in supply. The supply-centered case for dynamic pricing is persuasive in direct proportion to actual elasticity of supply. Uber’s behavior suggests that the supply-based case is not so strong. Of course, we cannot make very strong inferences about driver supply from Uber’s behavior, because they are not in fact a disinterested Walrasian auctioneer. When Uber surges, it dramatically raises its own prices and earns a lot more money per ride, whether ride supply increases not at all, or whether it spikes so much that drivers end up competing heavily for riders and suffer long vacancies. As a profit maximizer, Uber’s incentives are to impose surges primarily as a function of demand, and say nice things about supply to con economists and journalists.
This is one of the paradoxes of surge pricing. It is supposed to attract more drivers to the road, but if you live in SF as I do and have tried to call an Uber at the end of the workday (say 5-8pm), or on a weekend night, you know that Uber will inevitably be in surge pricing. And yet it still happens every day. If surge pricing worked, you'd expect drivers to learn that those are great times to drive to maximize their earnings, and that as more drivers did so surge pricing would wane as supply matched demand.
Perhaps there are still not enough drivers in total to match these spikes in demand. Or perhaps driver supply isn't as price elastic as claimed.
Or perhaps the cost of maintaining even the normal supply of drivers on a Friday night is just higher. Driving in rush hour in San Francisco isn't exactly pleasant work, and more importantly, drivers want to go out on Friday nights, too. The price to get them on the road may just permanently be higher on that night, like how evening movie tickets cost more than matinee tickets, or dinner costs more than lunch at restaurants even if the food is the same, or how Monday morning flights with Friday evening returns cost more to target business travelers. Completely plausible, but different from the story that ride sharing PR departments continue to put out, which is that surge pricing attracts more drivers until supply matches demand.
If that were the case, from a brand perspective, it would be better to just put those higher rates into effect permanently and call them peak rates and call the pricing at other times off-peak rates. Surge pricing is already a dirty word. If for some reason demand was even higher than normal peak demand, then put in surge pricing, and if for some reason it happened to be lower, you could offer a discount off of peak rates (ebb pricing?) and gain some consumer goodwill.
The other argument for surge pricing is, of course, price rationing. That is, by raising prices, we ensure that the scarce resource of Uber drivers goes to those who most need it.
Unfortunately, the argument for price-rationing (as opposed to lottery-rationing, or queue-rationing) of goods as being welfare-maximizing depends (at the very least) upon a rough equality of wealth so that interpersonal dollar values can stand in for interpersonal welfare comparisons. In an unequal society, price rationing ensures disproportionate access by the rich, even when they value a good or service relatively little. There is no solid case that price-rationing is optimal or even remotely a good idea when dispersion of purchasing power is very large. I’ve written about this, as has Matt Yglesias very recently. Matt Bruenig has two excellent posts relating this point to Uber specifically (as well as another post on ethical claims about Uber’s pricing).
The service is still scaling (incredibly), so it may not be fair to judge the validity of the price-rationing argument. However, based on the three times I've seen crazy surge pricing multiples for Uber (I'm talking 8X to 9X, for example during a blizzard in NYC the day after the Super Bowl two years ago), price rationing meant Uber was only available to price-insensitive wealthy folks. Great for maximizing Uber's profits, but not exactly what people claim when they say the market is the best way to allocate scarce resources during times of peak demand, for example an emergency. Unless you want to argue that because the wealthy were willing to pay more, they deserved or needed the service more than poorer folks. Pursue that line and next thing you know, you're dancing with a woman in a mask at your masquerade ball and she's whispering in your ear:
There's a storm coming, Mr. Wayne. You and your friends better batten down the hatches, because when it hits, you're all gonna wonder how you ever thought you could live so large and leave so little for the rest of us.
Matt Bruenig explains this with a very clear example:
Suppose that, in a given location, 10 people will normally hail an Uber cab, and 10 drivers will normally be cruising about to accept them. Now suppose that, because of an emergency, the number of people trying to hail a cab shoots to 100 people. In response, Uber jacks up prices very high, which has the effect of bringing 10 additional drivers on to the road. That means there are now 20 drivers (a doubling of supply) and 20 of the 100 people trying to hail an Uber cab succeeds in doing so.
Under Econ 101 analysis, you say that there was a welfare increase here. See, there were 20 people who got Uber cabs rather than 10 people. But, as I keep pointing out, this argument is not determinative if we assume the 100 people vying for Uber cabs have unequal economic resources. Further, the more unequal the resources are among those people, the more likely using prices like this actually decreases aggregate utility.
To see why, consider these two scenarios:
Rider Demand: 100
Cab Supply: 10
Chance of Getting a Cab: 10% for all 100 riders
Rider Demand: 100
Cab Supply: 20
Chance of Getting a Cab: 100% for wealthiest 20 riders, 0% for other 80 riders
From a glance, you can immediately see that for the bottom 80 riders, the rational preference should be the Non-Surge. In Non-Surge, their odds of getting a cab are 10%. In Surge, their odds of getting a cab are 0%. Don’t let stupid journalists confuse you on this point.
Did more cars hit the road in response to the 8x or 9x surge pricing that snowy night in NYC? Without data from Uber, it's impossible to say. Given that Uber has been under a bit of a public relations siege, at least in the tech press and locally here in the Bay Area, if surge pricing increased supply of drivers in any meaningful manner in times where demand outstrips supply, I would've thought they would've released data proving that point.
This isn't to say I'm not a fan of Uber and other ride-sharing services. I love ride sharing, I use Uber and Lyft all the time. They've undoubtedly produced a great deal of surplus consumer and societal welfare, especially in this time of a heavily subsidized price war for market share. What taxi drivers and the government are doing in Paris to fight off Uber is just one more reason I've fallen deeply out of love with what was once one of my favorite places in the world.
And I don't doubt some of the grumbling about surge pricing is just the usual consumer noise greeting any price increases, however reasonable. It would be more bizarre if consumers didn't complain simply as another signal to suppliers of their preferences.
But the argument that surge pricing always maximizes consumer welfare is a more complex one, and not a premise that should be accepted at face value.