The Morality of Surge Pricing
Russ Roberts
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The biggest, most glaring issue you chose not to bring up here is class. Suppose a bomb exploded in a Southie neighborhood (I live in Boston, so I’ll be using it for my argument here). South Boston is a great example of a place with drastically different groups of populations; recently, it’s becoming more gentrified and “upscale” because wealthier people are taken in by its sense of community. There’s still a huge number of people living below the poverty line — a whopping 11% received food stamps/SNAP in the past 12 months.

Consider: the wealthy people are capable of paying surge prices to get out of their unsafe neighborhood, prices the poor people can’t afford at all since they can’t even afford to feed themselves. It’s unlikely that the poor people at this level would use Uber except in extreme emergencies, choosing instead public transportation or walking. Suppose the T is down because it was bombed. In this extreme emergency, suppose these people would be willing to spend five or ten bucks to get somewhere they know is safe. Ten may be stretching it for some of these folks, but safety is the priority at the moment, and they’ll do the financial gymnastics required to make this work later. 
 
Then surge prices push it to $25, $30, maybe even close to $50, given the demand, and suddenly, the only option they have is walking, or begging anyone with a car to let them bum a ride. And you have the nerve to suggest these people are merely “offended” by high pricing and should call a taxi? Since you’re familiar with Uber, you must be familiar with how exponentially more expensive taxis are than Uber, even considering surge prices. That’s a callous thing to say.

Another issue is the dilemma suddenly thrust upon the Southie Uber drivers, many of whom likely grew up in the poor community, even if they’ve made themselves a decent life with the Uber model. Their family is poor. Their friends are poor. These are all people they know and love who are trapped in their unsafe neighborhood. The driver has a car and could help friends get out, but they also have mouths to feed and it would be financially irresponsible not to take advantage of the surge pricing. There’s not necessarily a “right” answer here, but that’s the kind of decision an average person should not have to go through during a crisis in their community. And it’s true, too, for every Uber driver who were to decide their family and friends were more important than the extra money, that drives the demand up and prices surge even higher.

This is just considering Uber’s surge pricing in times of emergency or crisis. It could just as easily be 5pm rush hour and the T isn’t running for whatever reason (as it is wont to do from time to time), and the single mother without a car needs to get from her shift at Starbucks to the steakhouse across the river to pick up her dinner shift at 6. She’s already been late a few times this month, and this would be her last strike before she’d lose her job. She doesn’t make enough at Starbucks to pay for rent and food to feed her children, so if she loses this job, it’s the end for her. But it’s just a regular Tuesday, and every other suit and tie want to get home to eat dinner and watch TV and don’t want to sit and wait for the T to get back running, so suddenly, Uber is out of that single mother’s price range, and she has no way of getting to work on time.

This is not a good and moral system, like you’d have us believe. I’d actually clicked on this article expecting it to decry the capitalist and classist model of surge pricing as prioritizing the needs of people with money over those without. You did bring up morality, after all. But perhaps in all my studies of ethics I missed the theory that human rights should be distributed according to financial means.