Sunday, July 26, 2015

Uber Drivers – A Search for Fools Gold?

There is a lot of continuing controversy over Uber, the worldwide phenomenon that is sending taxi drivers to the brink. The founders have come up with an amazing business model. It's a $50-billion company which generates huge profits by providing generally excellent service at a very low price.
Most of the controversy centers over the tensions between Uber, traditional cab companies and government regulators.
But long term, the Uber story may come down to a fundamental of the business model: Uber works only by creating the chimera of profitability for its "independent contractor" drivers. And drivers appear to be realizing that they are working for little or nothing while the fatcats at Uber get really wealthy.
After driving under the Uber banner for nearly a year, my statistics show me something undeniable: while I have generated thousands in revenue for Uber (and provided safe, low-cost transportation for thousands of riders) I've made virtually no money.
So I'm done.
Yes, I have had some pretty sizeable deposits into my bank account, as much as $1,000 in a week. Most drivers see those big deposits and compare them with the relatively small amount they spend on fuel for their vehicle, and conclude it is a winning proposition.
But the reality is those nice deposits are merely down payments on expenses they will feel down the road.
According to Kelly Blue Book, my car depreciates at a rate of about 6.7¢/mile. So when I go to sell it, the price I get will be depressed because of all of those Uber miles.
Then there's the maintenance which, thanks to Michigan's crappy roads, can be hundreds of dollars at a time (I just put a second new set of tires on the car at a cost of $600, and had a $800 front-end job not long ago).
The IRS, never known for generosity, calculates the total average cost of operating a car for business at 57.5¢/mile. To satisfy the IRS, I keep careful records of how much money I am paid by Uber and how many miles I drive.
The numbers are clear: I was paid a lot of money, but virtually none of it was profit.
In the first seven months of 2015, I put more than 14,600 Uber-related miles on my car. That includes time spent driving to pick up passengers, actually taking them to their destinations, and then returning to a parking location to await my next summons on the Uber app.
My 14,600 miles on my car earned Uber about $3,500 (or about 24¢/mile). My payments from Uber amounted to 64¢/mile. But since a car costs 57.5¢/mile to operate, my net was just 6.5¢/mile. A typical 3-mile, $7 fare is generated a 20¢ profit.
(If you think the IRS allowance is too high because I drive a fuel-efficient car, you can cut it in half and I'm still only making about 35¢/mile, or about $1-to-$2 actual profit per hour.)
Uber doesn't pay you unless there's a customer in the car . So if you are driving to pick someone up, or sitting in the driveway waiting for a rider to show up, you aren't getting paid. Start-to-finish that 3-mile trip actually takes 10-20 minutes. So if I was really busy and jammed three of those trips into every hour, I was taking home a princely 60¢/hour after expenses. That's 60 CENTS, not DOLLARS.
To top it off, while Uber claims drivers are independent contractors (a status being challenged in a California courtroom right now), the company decides how much those "independents" can charge for their services. Uber's pattern is to enter a market by charging relatively high rates. At this level, the driver can make a decent net income.
But once they have built a driver base, they cut prices to maximize system utilization. In my market, the charges were reduced 10% after around 4 months, and another 20% last week (a total reduction of 28%). My operating expenses, of course, did not go down at all.
Uber has a massive database, and knows exactly how to maximize the revenue coming into Uber from each market it inhabits.
Uber recently reported that in Grand Rapids (which had already absorbed a rate decrease) volume and gross fares increased thanks to lower fares. Even so, using Uber's own numbers, the average driver in that market is paid (after Uber commissions) $10.26/hour from which the driver has to pay overhead. To earn at that level would require a minimum of driving 10 miles ($5.75 expense), so the actual profit to the driver amounts to less than $5/hour (well under the minimum wage).
The reason Uber wants more rides (even with lower mileage fees) is because it collects much of its revenue from a $1 fee added onto every ride. (That "safe driver" fee, of course, is never reduced.) And those "dead-head" miles required to pick up customers costs Uber nothing.
Uber has another potential gut-punch awaiting the driver. If he or she is unfortunate enough to have an accident while operating through the company app, it is going to hurt financially. Your regular private auto policy has an exclusion when you are driving for hire. Although Uber carries collision coverage for its "independent contractors" when they are on the clock, there's a $1,000 deductible and a $25,000 cap. So a small collision has little or no coverage, and totalling a newer model car could go well beyond the cap.

* Here's the breakdown for a typical Uber fare in the East Lansing market (the busiest part of the mid-Michigan Uber market):
Drive to pick up rider: 1-2 miles (5-10 minutes)
Waiting time for rider to get into the car: 1-10 minutes (I have waited as much as 20 minutes)
Client trip: 2 miles (5-10 minutes)
Fare charged to the client: $5
Uber fees: $1.80
Paid to driver: $3.20
Car expense (3 miles): $1.75
Net to driver: $1.45 for around 20-30 minutes of their time
Often there is a drive back to downtown from one of the outlying apartment complexes such as Chandler Crossing - another 2 miles of non-revenue driving - which takes the "net" down to around 30¢.

Here's a second example from the other end of the spectrum: the occasional ride from East Lansing to Detroit Metro Airport (it happened for me about once a month):
Client's approximate fare (under current rates): $125
Uber's cut: $26, leaving a net fare of $99
Mileage (round trip, with an empty car back to East Lansing): 180 miles ($103.50)
Net: A LOSS of $2.20 for the three-hour round trip
Before the 28% in fare reductions, the Metro Airport trips were marginally profitable (gross fare around $160, net to driver about $25 after expenses for the three-hour round trip. The fare cuts eliminated all the profit for the driver.

Uber appears to already be feeling the heat, at least in the Lansing market. While the numbers may work for drivers in high density markets like New York, Washington DC or San Francisco, it's a different story in smaller markets and drivers apparently are catching on.
Locally Uber has been offering $250 bonuses to drivers who recruit other drivers (a.k.a. competitors), and recently doubled that bounty to $500. It is encouraging drivers to recruit their spouses as drivers. And it has reinstituted deceptive "guaranteed" fares for drivers during peak demand hours, but structures the "guarantee" so a driver doesn't qualify for it unless they actually snag customers. (Sitting around, waiting for the Uber app to ping a driver into action, still pays nothing.)

So let the controversy over regulation and competition with regular cab companies continue. For the long term, the viability of the Uber model will hinge on continuing to make drivers believe that working for peanuts (while the company makes millions) is "freedom."

More on Uber fool's gold

Thursday, January 29, 2015

The High Cost of Dissing Science

The Curmudgeon finds himself very busy these days with a variety of activities that keep him away from the Macbook Air keyboard a lot, so the frequency of posts is down significantly. Consider yourself blessed: a lower volume of his high-volume rants!

The two top stories on last night's news:
  • A winter hurricane batters New England, causing untold millions in damage and crippling many cities
  • Measles, once thought to be eradicated, is now spreading through the United States
What do these stories have in common? Both are the end result of a refusal on the part of the paranoid and paid-for politicians to accept the consensus of scientific experts.
We begin with the winter hurricane. I don't ever remember hearing about one, let alone seeing it on the nightly news. But it is here.
Climate scientists (or, as I like to call them, experts) have been telling us for two decades that the heating of our planet will inevitably result in greater and sometimes catastrophic weather anomalies.
No single weather event is proof that climate change is severely altering weather patterns. But the pattern is clear: droughts, record-setting temperature extremes, record-setting storms ... they are before more and more frequent, and the costs add up to untold BILLIONS of dollars.
2014 was the warmest year in recorded history. Nine of the 10 warmest years in recorded history came in the last decade.
Yet we have a majority of members of the United States Senate who refuse to accept the idea that pouring tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere has something to do with this. We have a Senate majority leader whose political existence depends, in large part, on protecting one of the two greatest sources of greenhouse gases, coal. They all begin their objections to getting serious about carbon emissions with the phrase "I'm not a scientist" as if that is a badge of honor. They get their talking points from the Koch brothers whose massive fortune is built around the largest privately held oil company in the world.
Many of these same folks also are not doctors who ignore the consensus of the World Health Organization, Centers for Disease Control, National Institute for Health and every professional medical organization on the planet. Instead, they take their cues from actress Jenny McCarthy who has learned through Google that vaccinating children against diseases is bad bad bad.
Larry Wilmore (the successor to Stephen Colbert in Comedy Central's 11:30 p.m. slot) summed it up well in his opening monologue on The Nightly Show earlier this week.

Parents have the right to raise their children as they see fit. But there is also a responsibility, recognized by all civilizations, to protect their children from harm. You have to use a car seat for infants and toddlers, you have to insure they get an education, you have to feed them. If you fail to provide your child with a safe environment, society will take them away from you.
In the view of The Curmudgeon, parents who intentionally fail to vaccinate their children because they think Jenny McCarthy knows more about autism than every doctor on the planet should be branded child abusers.
It is especially insane when you consider the use of vaccines has led to the eradication of small pox and soon will lead to the eradication of polio. (The latter victory is being delayed, ironically, by just three countries which apparently believe in Jenny McCarthy: Afghanistan, Pakistan and Nigeria, where the disease remains endemic.)
Not only are they endangering their own children, they endanger others. Thankfully, rational people are fighting back. Some school districts now will not admit kids who haven't been vaccinated for dangerous contagious diseases like measles, whooping cough, mumps. In San Francisco the father of a boy with leukemia is fighting back against those who would unnecessarily expose his son to the risk of a potentially fatal disease.
The paranoia about "the government" and total distrust of anyone with a degree is costing us huge amounts of money and putting lives in jeopardy. (It also is fueling the epidemic of firearms sales in the United States, but that's a story for a different rant.)
To everyone who says "I'm not a scientist" or "I'm not a doctor" and then makes scientific or medical judgements contrary to the consensus of experts, The Curmudgeon suggests you instead just say "I'm a gullible idiot."

Saturday, January 17, 2015

We're Back for 2015

The Curmudgeon returns from a hiatus during which he enjoyed the two things offered by Florida that is missing from Michigan: warm winter temperatures and pothole-free roads. His marriage even survived the onslaught of same-sex marriages that began with a deluge in most (not all) Florida counties. Despite being exposed to all that gayness, the marriage Mr. and Mrs. Curmudgeon was not destroyed and neither of them caught The Gay.

Climate Change

Lansing started 2014 with the worst ice storm in
memory. Weather extremes are, scientists say,
a symptom of climate change.
Many thinking people in Florida are rightly concerned that their homes will someday be under water as ocean levels rise. Billions of dollars in beachfront property will slowly disappear. In the process, many of those properties will face shorter-term water damage as the result of storm surges which climb higher and higher onto the land.
The specter grows even more grim with the report that 2014 was, globally, the hottest year in recorded history. #1. And it is no fluke: the ten hottest years ever have been recorded since 1997.
Part of the problem with the policymakers in Washington is that we are talking about GLOBAL warming, not American warming. The eastern U.S. actually was a pocket of cooler weather in 2014, but it was an anomaly. (And don't tell drought-plagued Californians that 2014 was a cooler year.)
2014 was also a year in which we seemed to experience more weather extremes than normal, something predicted years ago by climate scientists.
Climate change is a universal, worldwide issue. As the world's number one source of greenhouse gases, the United States must take the lead instead of giving in to the carbon-fuel industry and their shills in the Congress.

Supreme Court to Rule on Marriage Equality

Does the Roberts court have the balls to overturn what is now a recognized right for 70% of Americans? (Map from the group Freedom to Marry.) Will Michigan rejoin the Union, recognizing Equal Justice Under the Law?

Walberg Gets It Right

You can count the number of times I have sided with uber-Conservative Congressman Tim Walberg on one finger (you pick the finger).
But that has changed with Walberg's drive to end the horrific practice of policing agencies seizing property on flimsy suspicions it is related to criminal activity. Seized assets (usually cars and cash) have become a major source of funding for some local police departments.
Walberg, along with Sen. Rand Paul, has been very vocal about stopping this abuse of state police powers. The Obama administration now agrees with them. Eric Holder has basically told greedy police agencies nationwide to cease and desist immediately – at least, in those seizures where the feds are involved. (They are still able to confiscate private property, without a warrant, under some state laws.)
Congratulations Tim! You got this one right.

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Protecting the Millionaires

With a minimum of fanfare Governor Rick Snyder has protected Michigan from the potential disaster of college football players forming unions. Not that any players or unions have said anything about organizing a union, but if they wanted to, they no longer have the option. Snyder signed a bill declaring the football players are not "employees" of a university.
"The bill would ensure that college athletes are students, first and foremost, and should not be treated as employees by their schools," Snyder said in a written statement.
He could just as easily have signed a bill declaring that the moon is made of Swiss cheese. Just because it is enshrined into law doesn't make it true.
Football players are no less "employees" than their peers who sling burgers at the local fast-food joints surrounding their college:

  • They are recruited by the universities for their ability to perform their job
  • They signed a contract with the university, which includes a one-year "non-compete" clause (called a "binding letter of intent")
  • They are compensated for their efforts as athletes (called a "scholarship")
  • They can have their contracts cancelled for poor performance as an athlete
  • They work assigned hours, or risk having their contracts cancelled
  • They generate revenue for their employer

So how is that not an employee-employer relationship?
They truth behind the law is protecting the millionaires who profit from the labor of these "student-athletes."
It is fitting that Snyder signed the law the same day the University of Michigan awarded the supervisor of their football employees, Jim Harbaugh, a contract that pays him a minimum of $40-million over seven years:

  • $35-million base salary
  • Guaranteed 10% raises in years three and five
  • $2-million signing bonus
  • Additional performance bonuses that could add millions (he makes even more if his players perform well on the field)
  • An undefined promise of a deferred compensation package after his first year
  • He even gets a small bonus ($150,000) if his players do well in the classroom.
This isn't a rant against Harbaugh. His salary package is in line with the pay for other first-tier football and basketball coaches at MSU and around the nation (although most of those in the top tier only got the huge money after actually winning some games).
The argument against player unions – and actual salaries for players – is that it would bankrupt college football. The reality is that it would take away from the absolutely ridiculous pay structure that has been built for coaches, assistant coaches, athletic directors and support staff.
The highest paid public employees in Michigan all are college athletics folks. And it isn't just the head coaches and athletic directors. The newly departed defensive coordinator for MSU, Pat Narduzzi, was being the same salary as MSU's president, and around four-times the salary of top-tier professors. Athletic Director Mark Hollis (admittedly one of the nation's best ADs) is also about the same amount as President LouAnna Simon. (All are in the $800,000+ per year category.) All of the assistant football and basketball coaches at MSU and UM make more than many tenured professors at their universities: we value teaching layups more than teaching physics, philosophy or agriculture science.
For her part, Dr. Simon supports the current system of enriching coaches and administrators while
A "student athlete" can lose his scholarship
(i.e., be "fired") for an on-the-job injury.
short-changing the athletes who generate the money. In an op-ed she co-wrote for the Wall Street Journal Simon laments
Our concerns...extend beyond the economic and practical difficulties created by transforming the college-sports relationship into one of employer-employee. To call student-athletes employees is an affront to those players who are taking full advantage of the opportunity to get an education.
Do we really want to signal to society and high-school students that making money is the reason to come play a sport in college, as opposed to getting an education that will provide lifetime benefits?
What a load of double-speak crap. 
Does anyone think the one-and-done basketball players who make up the bulk of Kentucky's top-ranked basketball team really give a damn about their English lit class? They are at Kentucky for one reason, and one reason only: to prepare for the N.B.A. The fact that some kids are able to leverage skills in golf or tennis to pay for their education as justification for not paying the hoops stars is, quite simply, Marxist. Talk about income redistribution!
Defenders of the system quickly point out that the athletic programs at MSU and UM are self-sufficient, and the salaries come from revenues generated by athletics. That is true, but only at a handful of top universities. 
Only 20 Football Bowl Subdivision athletic departments finished in the black in 2013 according to the NCAA. Despite that record of losing money, the average salary paid to coaches at those schools has doubled since 2006. The vast majority of schools dip into their general revenues to subsidize the over-the-top salary structure for coaches. And all schools' salary structures for athletics are impacted by the mega-contracts awarded to the Nick Sabans, Jim Harbaughs and Tom Izzos.
The answer Snyder and the Legislature have provided is one that protects the multi-million-dollar compensation structure for coaches and administrators rather than protecting the "student-athletes" they profess to support. If they truly supported the players, they'd rein in the salaries paid to the coaches. Instead they protect the status quo.
The Curmudgeon once spent several years working with the Michigan State football team and got to know a lot of players. He remembers one in particular: married with two children and, even with his scholarship, dependent on handouts from family and friends to keep his own family fed. They lived in poverty for one reason: so he could work for his dream of playing in the NFL.
He achieved that dream. But repeated concussions ended his career in less than two years. He was a lineman, so he didn't make the big bucks. Today he is totally disabled and impoverished.
The coaches for whom he played, and who won a lot of games thanks in part to his talents, are all multi-millionaires living in luxury.
That ain't right.

Friday, December 26, 2014

Wasting Money So Conservatives Feel Good

Any law stigmatizing the poor and reinforcing prejudices about welfare recipients is music to the ears of The Right. So a new state law, already shown to be a waste of money elsewhere, is being greeted with hosannas by Michigan Republicans including the Accountant who should know better.
The bills set up a three-county pilot program for drug-testing welfare recipients. Ask any conservative and they'll tell you that those huge welfare $350/month checks are being used to buy pot and crack instead of the Ramen noodles and peanut butter for which they are intended.
The Republican image of welfare recipients
Michigan tried this once before with a blanket demand that welfare recipients regularly pee in a cup. That law, like a similar law in Florida, was ruled unconstitutional because it conveniently ignored the constitutional requirement for "probable cause" before searching people. That includes using “an empirically validated substance abuse screening tool.”
So the new law mandates case workers to have reasonable suspicion that one of their clients is living the high life at taxpayer expense before mandating the tests. (The law, by the way, could ensnare people who are legally smoking marijuana for medical purposes. Collateral damage, however, is perfectly O.K. in the Cheneyesque world of "greater good".)
What constitutes abuse? Simply using a controlled substance, or exhibiting anti-social behaviors because of the drug use? How about alcoholism? Too much caffeine?
Most important, though, is what's the point?
Rick Snyder justifies that law, as he does many paternalistic "Father Knows Best" laws, as being in the best interests of welfare recipients.
"This pilot program is intended to ensure recipients get the wrap-around services they need to overcome drug addiction and lead successful lives. We'll then have opportunity to assess effectiveness and outcomes."
If the purpose is to save money by rooting out thousands of drug-abusing welfare cheats, it is probably a waste of money.

A seven-year study by the Ford School of Public Policy at the University of Michigan found that 16%-21% of Temporary Assistance for Needy Families had used illicit drugs in a 12-month period; about 3.5% had a drug dependence or abuse problem. Those numbers are somewhat higher than in the overall population as reported by the Centers for Disease Control. But both a Senate Fiscal Agency study and a short-lived mandatory testing program in Florida two years ago found no significant differences in drug abuse rates between welfare recipients and the general public.
Incidentally, amendments to the bills during debate to expand drug testing to others receiving state government money (like legislators) were defeated on voice votes.
Another problem: DHS caseworkers rarely see their clients, because their caseloads are ridiculously high. If they don't actually talk with recipients, how are they supposed to flag "substance abuse" using "an empirically validated substance abuse screening tool"?
The good news: it is a pilot program, so that multi-million-dollar cost of setting up a statewide program will be avoided once lawmakers face the ugly reality that drug screening welfare recipients costs more money than it saves.

The Double Standard Over Welfare Abuse

Christmas dinner with the extended family is always an eye-and-ear opener. While The Curmudgeon lives and dies politics, the rest of the clan lives in the real world. Listening to them chat about the issues of the day can be most instructive.
They complain about Obamacare even while benefitting from their state-government-funded health insurance. There is anger over immigration, even though the family isn't far removed from immigrants who came over from Europe a century ago. There is outrage over the "anti-gun" Obama administration even though the President hasn't done a damned thing about gun control.
In other words, it sounds like an in-person version of "Fox and Friends."
One conversation thread this year was about people buying "luxuries" with their EBT cards (that's the tech version of Food Stamps), or selling their EBT benefits for cash: people buying steaks and lobsters and junk food instead of kale and peanut butter; others trying to exchange their benefits for cash so they could buy cigarettes or weed or iPhones or whatever. The consensus: there's a lot of abuse of the program. They confuse the exceptions for the ordinary.
But of course there is abuse. Name me anything of value that isn't abused, something where there is 100% compliance with the rules.
The Curmudgeon doesn't condone abuse of government benefits or anything else. We should all play by the rules. But one wonders...

  • Do you pay the state's use tax on your internet purchases? You are supposed to report that on your annual state income tax return.
  • Do you always obey the speed limit? Ever run a red light?
  • Do you stretch the truth on your federal tax deductions, or "invent" some cash charitable contributions or exaggerate your tax-deductible mileage?
  • (This is for just one special person) why don't you pay state excise tax on your cigarettes that you buy from a friend with a "roll your own" machine?
  • Have you ever returned something to a retail store even though you didn't buy it there?
  • Do you report income made at garage sales, or selling on eBay, or reselling stuff you find at estate sales?
  • Do you smoke marijuana without benefit of a medical marijuana card? Or lie to the doctor to get a card?
  • Do you shop merchandise at a local retail store, and then order it (for less) over the internet?
  • Ever text while driving?
  • Ever drive after drinking?

The EBT program serves an important purpose: providing sustenance for people who might otherwise go hungry. Yes, it is abused. It shouldn't be. Human nature being what it is, some people will inevitably take advantage of the generosity of others.
But we shouldn't be judging a program by the exceptions to the rule, anymore than I judge you for fudging other rules that impact your life.
Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.
And the rest of you, shut the hell up.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Merry Christmas!

Gasoline prices peaked at a national average of $4.11/gallon in July, 2008.