Gotham Diary:
Taxi!
25 July 2012

The other day, I rattled on to Kathleen about an insight that I’d had during the day. It came to me to make a distinction between the problems that exist among human beings, on the one hand, and the problems that exist between human beings and the rest of the world, on the other. The problems in the latter set are serious, but almost impossible to deal with until those in the first set have been cleared up. Because otherwise you just make the problems already existing among human beings worse. The Protestant Reformation was the last sympathetic example of how trying to make people behave better (less sinfully) with regard to a force outside of humanity (God) so easily leads to persecution and atrocity. In the French Revolution, God was replaced by La Patrie; the Holocaust carried this obsession with abstraction to a point that (happily?) we cannot imagine exceeding.

There are two ways of dealing with the problems that exist among human beings, and the right way is to make sure that everybody’s dignity figures in the calculus. The wrong way is to devise solutions that impair dignity. Dignity isn’t the easiest thing in the world to understand (or, for that very reason, to respect), but I would venture a definition that comprised the right to sustain one’s life unmolested by human violence and unburdened by degrading conditions. (The main thing to bear in mind is that dignity is not an abstraction.) My sense of dignity is pegged to the dignity of others, as a result of which currency I sometimes have trouble looking at myself in the mirror.

And for a simple reason. It’s not that I spend a lot of time imagining the hard lives of people who live in the slums of Mumbai or Rio. But I do take a lot of taxis. And the system governing taxis in New York City has aptly been described as “feudal.”

“Now, taxis,” I said to Kathleen, “taxis are a problem that I have to read up on. I need to find out what to read.” “Let me check it out for you,” said Kathleen.

The next day, checking in at the computer, I was amazed to find 20 new items in my inbox. All from Kathleen, each one containing a link. Yesterday afternoon, I copied all the links onto a page that I then posted at my Web Site (but without navigational linking); this made following the links on the iPad a lot easier. I worked my way through about half of them, and even found one on my own. (Actually, I’d come across the New York Taxi Workers Alliance before.) I learned a few things. Simple repetition hammered home the number of medallions in New York’s taxis system: 13,237. I also learned, from Felix Salmon, why the price of a fleet medallion recently climbed to a million dollars. The most that a medallion owner can make in a year — this is set by law — is in excess of $80,000, but of course there are expenses.

But even if you bring the income down to $50,000 a year, that’s still a pleasant 5% yield on your money, and what’s more it’s a yield which behaves much more like a real yield than a nominal yield. Paying $1 million for such a thing doesn’t seem silly to me, especially when there’s a lot of room for capital gains as well. 

In today’s interest-rate environment, 5% is a lot of safe return. It makes a lot more sense to buy a medallion than it does to buy a bond. 

And of course I learned that the new rate increase was not accompanied by a raise in the lease rates. That means that the drivers are going to pocket the increased revenue, which is all for the good. The next improvement ought to enable drivers to do just as well with shorter shifts; in addition to making a more humane day for the drivers, it would end the maddening late-afternoon shift change.

Meanwhile, I continue to tip heavily.

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