The phone rang. It was someone from TV news channel CGTN asking me to be on their show The Link the next day to talk about the new Costco in Shanghai. I agreed, they booked me a spot at a studio downtown, and we confirmed everything via email. Class ended at 9:05, and I told them I would be at the studio by 9:45 for a 10:00 a.m. broadcast. Not a problem.
The morning of the broadcast I was driving to work when I thought through the logistics again. Parking on campus is always a nightmare for the first few days of a new semester, and we were on day 3. I’d had to hustle to make it to my 1 p.m. on day 1 because parking was pretty chaotic. Having arrived early on day 3, I hesitated to give up the prime parking spot I had secured and burden myself with the task of finding on-campus parking again and then remembering where I had parked.
That’s not all. Generally, Birmingham is a pretty easy place to get around; however, there are a lot of construction projects going on right now. That means a lot of closed streets, and finding parking in any major city can be an adventure of its own. I also couldn’t recall what it would cost me to park in one of the decks near the studio’s location at the Birmingham-Jefferson Convention Complex.
There’s an alternative, though: I could call a cab or use a ride-sharing service like Uber or Lyft. To have someone drive me would cost about $30-$35 for a round trip. As luck would have it, it was our first day of really exploring the big ideas in economics, and I thought it might be useful to bring them to bear on this knotty issue. I decided, therefore, to put the question to my students: how should I get to the studio? Should I drive myself? Or should I take an Uber?
At first glance, it seems obvious: drive yourself. It’s about a 15-minute drive, according to Apple Maps, and by driving myself I wouldn’t have to shell out for someone to get me there and back. There are a lot of hidden costs that are easy to overlook, though. There’s the gas I’d burn. It would probably be about a gallon going round trip to downtown. There’s what I might have to pay for parking. There’s the stress that comes with driving (which I hate), which could deplete the precious reserves of willpower that might keep me from making terrible choices about what I would eat at lunch. There’s the depreciation on my car. There’s the fact that I can rip through my email and other bits of correspondence if I have someone else doing the driving for me. There’s also the possibility of causing an accident as I probably would have been marginally more distracted than my Uber driver. There are costs, and there are benefits, and if we are going to choose wisely, we need to be very clear about what all of the costs and benefits are — or at least the costs and benefits that were worth paying attention to.
The students voted. By a slim majority, they chose Uber.
Navigating construction-carved downtown Birmingham was, as I expected, a bit of an adventure, but my Uber driver was able to pick me up at the door of Cooney Hall on Samford University’s campus and drop me off exactly where I needed to be. Then, on my way back to Samford, I was able to have an Uber driver pick me up near the door and then again drop me off exactly where I needed to be. This allowed me to process email and a few other tasks while en route in both directions and saved me the stress that might have made me capitulate when I passed a plate of delectable-looking brownies at the cafeteria.
It was the right choice in that context. It’s not the right choice in every context, though. I asked my afternoon class whether I should pick up my kids from karate myself or send Uber to get them. My afternoon students voted overwhelmingly in favor of me going and picking up the kids myself. There’s the obvious reason that I’m not sure Uber would have picked them up, and I’m not sure their karate teacher would let them in the car with a seemingly random person who says, “I’m their Uber driver.” It’s also on my way home, and as one student pointed out, having Uber pick them up would cut into the time I get to spend with them.
To be honest, asking whether I should ask Uber to pick up and deliver my kids this evening was kind of absurd. It was an exercise in asking them to apply some of the big ideas we had considered so far like incentives, trade-offs, and thinking at the margin. Importantly, my brief interactions with Uber this morning are an important illustration of all the ways in which markets help us care for one another without necessarily caring that much about one another. I certainly don’t wish any ill of the drivers, but I don’t care about them in the same way I care about my children. They don’t care about me in the same way they care about their own loved ones.
A market, in this case a market made bigger and more functional by innovative use of technology, made it a lot easier for us to cooperate. I was able to care for the loved ones of my drivers and the people who work for Uber by paying them for a ride and hence giving them something they no doubt find useful. The strangers at Uber cared for my loved ones by making it easier for me to get to and from the studio safely — and markets made it possible for them to do it without explicitly intending to do so.
And, by the way, the title of this essay is taken from the old joke: you practice.