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Scott Bruun: Portland’s Uber-Control Over Free Markets

Wednesday, December 17, 2014


Uber, the wildly successful and controversial ride sharing service, does many things well.  It effectively and efficiently brings people together.  It provides access to a valuable service at a convenient time and place for both the consumer and the provider.  It enables market equilibrium, so that the price someone is willing to pay matches the price someone else is willing to sell. And let’s be honest, Uber is cool.  It takes advantage of the latest technologies to help propel an old service, the cab ride, into the modern world.

All good, and all valuable.  But where Uber absolutely excels is at exposing Portland City Hall’s Herculean hypocrisy.

In an Oregonian opinion piece last week, Charlie Hales wrote, “I know many of us are eager for new technology to take effect in Portland.  And it will.  But I am unwilling to rush to market simply to satisfy the arrogance and greed of any one particular company.”

Alright, well what about a “rush to market” to cure a disease or provide a life-saving new drug?  And if that comparison is too much of a stretch (we are only talking about car rides, after all), then how about simply a “rush to market” so that Portlanders can enjoy a higher quality of life? Or even just an available and safe ride home after a New Year’s Eve Party? 

And after reading the mayor’s piece, maybe I’m not alone in needing to channel my inner Ricky Bobby from Talladega Nights:  Mr. Mayor, with all due respect, and remember I'm sayin' with all due respect, your analysis is not only totally wrong, it’s also slightly embarrassing and laughably patronizing .  It’s the kind of ethos that would always make Portland a second-best kind of city.

In his piece, Mayor Hales also wrote of Portland’s long history as a “sharing economy.”  The mayor then mentions several examples to support this. Of course the example he uses are all city or government provided services.  Public services paid for by taxpayers and managed centrally by governing bodies.  

Under a sharing economy, Hales’ proudly mentions Portland’s library system, Waterfront Park, and light rail.  Well, libraries and parks are great.  And while light rail continues as a massive money loser, it has by now at least engrained itself into Portland’s transportation culture.  But despite the merit of these things individually, none qualify as leading-edge hotbeds of 21st century technology and creativity.  For that, we need free markets.  

And that’s the challenge, because Portland’s political elite do not embrace free markets. They haven’t for decades.  In fact it seems like they can barely stomach the kind of hybrid, highly-managed, and often kowtowed market that does exist in Portland.  A market that goes along to get along, because playing that game seems to be the only way commerce can survive in Portland.

To Uber’s credit, they don’t want to play that game.  They want to compete, fairly.  They are looking to facilitate a service that many Portlanders want, with a price-point and availability that currently doesn’t exist.  And they are successful and profitable without having to rely on the protected-labor, quasi-monopoly government cronyism that defines most big city taxi regimes.  

Uber is a disruptive technology.  Meaning sooner or later, the old way of doing things will change.  And with that disruptive technology will come more choice, more options, more availability, more customization, and a lower price.

Don’t these all sound like things that a truly “progressive” city should embrace?

Scott Bruun is a fifth-generation Oregonian and recovering politician. He lives with his family in the 'burbs, yet dutifully commutes every day to Portland, where he earns his living on the fifth floor of Big Pink.  

Banner Photo Credit: visualpanic via Compfight cc


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