It May Be Uber Soon
Manuel Quezon III on Uber, Grab, the LTFRB...and how success seems to constantly be punished in this country
(SPOT.ph) Welcome to my parlor, said the spider to the fly. That, in a nutshell, is the thought that goes through the head of anyone “invited” to testify before Congress. Over two days, first in the House and then in the Senate, a parade of public and private executives took turns answering questions “in aid of legislation.” The topic was that newfangled, successful, and obviously lucrative (hence interesting to our elected representatives) thing known as ride-sharing services. We are here, representatives and senators alike purred, because we love the people, all the people, including the people who need people, though we wonder why Uber and Grab people seem to be the luckiest people in the world.
Not so, the peanut gallery (that is, we, the people, following the story on Twitter, Facebook Live, the papers, and in the news on TV) said: we are the lucky people because what we like about Uber and Grab is that they treat us like real people. Unlike taxi drivers who are evil people who don’t treat us like people. And here, online in particular, was, on full display, one of the most cherished beliefs of we, the Filipino people: I think most people are of the belief that success is punished in our country. When our fellow citizens aren’t doing the punishing (our infamous crab mentality, which is really about the culture of extortion), the role of chief punisher goes to government.
But it’s all an act—all around, on the part of everyone. Even on the part of we, the people, as we sing the praises of Grab and Uber purely on the grounds of efficiency and convenience, ignoring the many other reasons besides we love their apps. In a class-conscious society, it is an affordable luxury for those with enough extra means to use the services but who have not yet reached the point where they can afford their own vehicle, or who already own vehicles but do not own an extra car for their coding days, or who do not have a driver. It also provides dignity in the sense that drivers, whether those who are hired (an increasing number) or middle-class car owners, are not seen, and do not consider themselves, on par with the drivers of taxis.
So it is about status as much as it is about comfort, efficiency, and convenience. But this is highly pardonable selectiveness on the public’s part. We are a nation which does not operate on merit, where there are constant reminders of how one’s place in the pecking order is permanent.
Ranged against the sort of prestige conferred by having a smartphone loaded with apps, is the humiliating reality that government’s actions represent: middle-class opinion does not matter. Or, to be accurate, the moment a government is elected into office, the middle-class rage that helped elect a government inevitably takes a back seat to the demands of bigger, more organized, groups and the claim that one sector cannot dictate on government acting on behalf of the whole.
Passengers and drivers angry over what they consider the dismissive attitude of the LTFRB need to consider, in turn, that jeepney operator unions, tricycle Todas, taxicab fleet operators, and bus line owners are organized. They can deliver votes. They can donate logistical support when there’s a rally, or a campaign parade, since a big part of what makes them possible are the jeeps and tricycles. In some cases, the owners of franchises are either political families themselves or are officials sitting in local and national government positions. They know how to lobby and can always play the native versus foreign capitalist card.
And this is what they did—the taxi operators, with their spokesmen, and allied congressmen purring about the public good—with their own acting in the meeting rooms of the House and the Senate. We are lousy because of you, they wept, winking at the congressmen and senators who happen to be in business with them; it’s so difficult to make a dime, they moaned, saying this explained (but did not excuse, mind you, because you have to say such things for the benefit of the peanut gallery) why their underpaid and overworked drivers were nasty and their taxis so ratty, smelly, and creaky.
If only we enjoyed such things as surge pricing! Imagine how wonderful it would be if you, our lords and masters in the Congress, would allow us to raise our rates every two years! Why, imagine the benefits not only for our pockets but the national budget if you taxed the foreign app imperialists every bit as thoroughly (theoretically) as you do us—we, the poor huddled taxi-driving masses, yearning to breathe LPG-free. You could almost hear the saliva dripping, at this point, from mouths of the sort of legislators and bureaucrats who live to tax.
Which is not to say the gallant knights of modernity of Grab and Uber weren’t beyond doing a little acting, too. Why, we have not seen data to suggest there are more cars and thus, more traffic, because of the popularity of our apps, they said, eyes bulging and eyelashes fluttering with sincerity. We love our drivers, we live for them, we feel for them, which is why we let them drive even if, as it turns out, many of them lack the paperwork they—looking mournfully at the bureaucrats, with their bulging stomachs and gusot-mayaman polo barongs—are too inefficient to process in time. We give them incentives! We deny them everything else, to be sure—an actual employer-employee relationship, with its accompanying rights—but they are empowered! Happy! And many!
But there is something that lurks in the hearts of app providers and it isn’t happiness, but hate. If a broad generalization can be made about Silicon Valley, there is an ideological component to setting up and providing such a service: it considers government, its regulations, and those who obey them, dinosaurs that deserve to go extinct at the hands of more evolved mammals armed with digital technology. In a word, Libertarian. Among the most-beloved buzzwords of such believers is “disruption.”
The original promise of companies like Uber was that it provided the opportunity to earn extra money for people who already had cars. At least, that was supposed to be its unique selling proposition: to enable the more efficient (and lucrative) use of vehicles that otherwise stood idle. Companies like Uber describe themselves as providers of a means (their app) to connect vehicle owners with people who need a ride.
But disruption results in winners and losers, and not just the obvious ones. To critics of companies like Uber, disruption is code for the ruthless exploitation of both drivers and passengers, and an unfair assault on older models of providing transport for a fee. These critics argue that while operators of fleets of taxicabs and other vehicles have to pay all sorts of taxes and obtain various permits, and are, furthermore, bound by labor and other laws, companies like Uber excuse themselves from these requirements because they claim they only provide an app. Not just that, but Uber as a global tech giant has deep pockets to enable it to invade and take over markets, which individual, local companies can’t do.
At this part of our drama, this is where the stage directions in any congressional hearing bear the note, “Enter the bureaucrat, stage left." No one acts better than a bureaucrat, knowing when to be humble (before legislators, wink, wink) and haughty (before everybody else). They harrumphed, they shuffled papers, they brought out charts made with the help of Clippy (who continues to cheerfully help in what passes for I.T. in government) and Comic Sans. They spoke, like any priesthood, with all the right combinations of big words forming incomprehensible incantations, pointing to laws and rules, the public good and the leveling of the playing field, of definitions, exclusions, and inclusions. But it was all code. If there’s anything governments in general, and bureaucracies in particular, hate, it’s disruption. Governments and their bureaucracies exist to enforce order, impose and implement rules, and to keep all the complicated moving parts of a country moving, which requires intervening from time to time, on the basis of ensuring fairness. All of that requires money, the collection of which is what the rules exist to make possible. In India, referring to the era of colonial rule which was called the British Raj, they have what Indians call the License Raj: the ability of government to impose its will by means of the permits it requires.
And so we have what we have: the battles between these services and government authorities who have their own bone to pick with such services, even as other groups lobby government to confront these services. These battles have been frequent, global, and fierce. Consider France, Germany, the United States and now, the Philippines. In all these places, Uber (and Grab) has not been having an easy time of late.
Back to the peanut gallery, which has been alternating between being entertained and angered by the unfolding drama that began in the LTFRB and has now graduated to the halls of the House and the Senate.
For the consumer—the passenger—it’s a simple equation. Uber = Happiness. It means convenience, comfort, and a lot of other things besides, to be sure. Even something like surge pricing is acceptable—up to a point—because it is determined by an algorithm and not the mood of an individual driver, and thus not based on whimsy but mysterious God-like “market forces.” And while there are drivers who cancel on passengers, passengers can retaliate by means of ratings and reports—empowering formerly utterly powerless passengers. At one point, during the Senate hearing, one of the bright inquisitors of the ride-sharing app providers dramatically asked, but what of the many complaints? To which one of the app providers reasonably replied, they’ve been a little over eighty in two years, which is pretty good when you think of it. At which tens of thousands in the peanut gallery sighed, recalling every instance when a taxi said no or asked for more than was on the meter, and no one could do a blessed thing about it.
Which leads to that other firmly held belief that unites the citizenry in the face of the powerful of this land: not only do you punish success, but turn successes into excuses for your own failures. But the mighty have spoken, the future is on full display for everyone to see, and as people turned away from their Twitter and Facebook feeds as the hearings closed, many a mind made the mental note: expect not to find a ride when it’s raining tomorrow.