The D.C. Cab Payback


A famous quote, widely but apparently inaccurately attributed to Otto von Bismarck, says that “Laws are like sausages – it is best not to see them being made.”  Today we take a look into the sausage factory of Washington, D.C.’s local government, courtesy of the Washington Examiner:

A vote is set for Tuesday, led by the D.C. mayor’s hand-picked taxi commission chairman, that would nearly double cab fares for an industry that backed Vincent Gray’s mayoral bid and gave free rides to get his supporters to the polls.

The proposal in front of the D.C. Taxicab Commission would raise the per-mile rate for cab rides from $1.50 to $2.75. In 2010, the industry lobbied hard for Gray. One cabbie wondered Monday why it took so long for Gray to keep his campaign promise.

He was supposed to get us the fair increase,” said longtime cab driver Carolyn Robinson, who said she was one of the drivers the Gray campaign called for help during last year’s primary and general elections.

“All we wanted him to do was to follow the law — the D.C. code and Taxicab Commission Establishment Act — [and] he said he would,” Robinson said.

(Emphases mine.)  Actually, I think that’s a typo in the original, and Mayor Gray was supposed to deliver a fare increase to his loyal taxicab armada.  Its “fairness” is a matter of honest debate, although I suppose it’s not hard to guess where D.C. cab customers looking at an 80% price hike will come down.

This rather naked example of tit-for-tat has reduced the distance between floor and jaw for some observers:

“Certainly any politician is going to work to reward his supporters once they’re in office,” said Jack Jacobson, spokesman for DC Taxi Watch, which is asking for a consumer voice on the taxi commission. “I would hope that’s not the case here but it certainly looks that way.”

Jacques Patterson, a candidate for the Ward 8 council seat, said the fare hike will hurt residents east of the Anacostia River who rely on transit to get around — and whose support helped Gray win the election.

“In Wards 7 and 8, when you can drive them to the polls, that’s huge,” Patterson said. “That’s what gives [the taxi industry] that type of lobbying advantage.”

What’s everyone so surprised about?  This is how a politically controlled economy works.  If the permission of politicians is required to adjust fares, what else are the cab drivers supposed to do but lobby them?  The free cab rides for Mayor Gray’s supporters might make you a little queasy, but how would you go about stopping that sort of thing… without passing even more laws, subject to even more lobbying?

This fee increase might be the most reasonable thing in the world – the old, lower fares might be squeezing cab drivers and taxi companies into the poorhouse.  Or it could be a greedy cash grab that will vacuum out the wallets of hapless taxi customers.  It doesn’t really matter anymore, because it will be implemented through the purchase of political influence, unless some massive public outcry prompts local authorities to betray the taxicab interests.  That would probably make them very angry.

In his confirmation hearings, D.C. Taxicab Commission Chairman Ron Linton said the elderly and lower-income passengers would be excluded from the rate hike, which would be precisely calibrated to provide “drivers and owners with high-enough income to make it worthwhile to provide [a premium] level of service.”  Only in a politically controlled economy can the price of a service be unfairly adjusted based upon nothing but the income level of the buyer.

If all of that sounds unappetizing, maybe it would be a good idea to reduce government control over economic systems.  The big national legislative sausages are even less appealing than the small local varieties.