Monday, September 3, 2012

Dostoyevsky, Orwell, the Sunshine Ordinance & the Politics of Taxis

A character in one of Fyodor Dostoyevsky's stories loved humanity but couldn't stand any individual person. The great Russian writer used this figure to satirically underline the potential distance between a noble ideal and an actual human being.

George Orwell (photo) looked into the corrupting effects that such thinking can have on action in his 1946 essay Politics and the English Language.

He thought that the writing of his time had become sloppy and decadent and that "the decline of language must ultimately have political and economic ..." effects. "In our time," Orwell wrote, "political speech and writing are largely in defense of the indefensible."

"Things like the continuance of British rule in India, the Russian purges and deportations, the dropping of the atom bombs on Japan, can indeed be defended, but only by arguments which are too brutal for most people to face, and which do not square with the professed aims of the political parties." People defending such acts can't say, "'I believe in killing off your opponents when you can get good results by doing so’" and instead cloak their true thoughts with euphemisms.

Bombing helpless people from the air is named "pacification." Robbing millions of peasants of their lands becomes "relocation." In Orwell's time, imprisoning and torturing people, shooting them in the back of the head was called the "elimination of unreliable elements." 

What I'm about to do is examine recent statements of the SFMTA Board using Orwell's scope. Justifying the extraction of "income streams" from taxi drivers may seem minor in comparison to the above but major corruption starts small. Hitler began by beating people up in beer halls. More to the point, cab drivers were one of the first groups to lose benefits and workers rights by being forced to sign "independent contracts." Millions of other workers have since suffered the same fate.

The simple fact is that a government agency has targeted workers in a private industry as a source of revenue and justifies its actions with the following double talk.

"The medallions are our assets and we can do what we want with them."

Director of the MTA Board Malcolm Heinicke makes this sound like an eternal principle of law or nature but in fact the statement is what Orwell would have called "doublethink."

1. The medallions became "assets" because of laws that the MTA wrote.
2. These "assets" only have value because of the cab drivers who work the medallions.
3. The idea that you can do what you want with an "asset" without regard to the effect that it would have on the people who give it value runs contrary to the moral principles that have characterized western civilization for the last one hundred and fifty years.
4. Only extremists of the left or right would agree with Heinicke's political stance on this matter (i.e. communists, fascists, dictators, tea party fanatics, etc).

"We're doing this for the public good."

Right! A "public" that does not include cab drivers or, indeed, the public that uses cabs.

What the MTA really plans to do is take millions of dollars that cab drivers have earned and use it to cover a budget shortfall. But it goes beyond that - these proposals will stay in effect whether there is a shortfall or not.

And, the percentages that the MTA intends to take from drivers in the form of "transfer fees" are three to ten times higher than 5% that is charged by New York and most other cities in the country.

In effect, the MTA intends to tax San Francisco cab drivers at a higher rate than any other group of the people in the country. Heinicke, I suppose, would call this collateral damage.

The only "public" being served by MTA's plans are the wealthy individuals and corporations that the city (and the country) are under-taxing or not taxing at all; as wall as, of course, Heinicke and his personal ambitions.

Is it Alice in Wonderland or the White Rabbit?

I don't know how else to characterize the following fantasies.

Medallion sales revenue will go to improve illegal vehicle enforcement.

The Heinicke plan projects $14 going to the MTA.  The Pilot Plan gave the city $10 million a year. Taxi Services got permission from the MTA to hire two new investigators over a two year period. Only one works regularly in the field. The other works enforcing regulations in the taxi industry. Meanwhile unregulated "car services" Sidecar, Uber and the new pink mustache cars proliferate like rabbits while the MTA does nothing.

The cost of medallion enforcement over the last two yeas has come solely from a 100% increase in medallion holder renewal fees. Of the $20 million that the MTA has taken in from the Pilot Plan in medallion sales revenue, the taxi industry has yet to see one red cent.

We intend to improve taxi service.


What better way to improve service than to turn cab driving into a dead end job that will pay even less in the future than it does now?

What better way to improve service than to ignore the reports, proposals and plans of the TAC and other driver/experts in the industry?

What better way than to show callous disregard toward several hundred professional taxi drivers (who worked and followed the City's own rules) by killing the waiting list?

What better way to attract new quality drivers than to ignore the ideas, needs and wishes of the ones who are already here?

"The great enemy of clear language is insincerity," George Orwell.

And, I might add - insincerity is the great enemy of pure action as well.

Vice Chair Cheryl Brinkman initiated the vote on Heinicke's Plan at the last Board meeting by saying,

"we've heard enough,"

when she couldn't possibly have read so much as a word of the Taxi Advisory Council report.

In a strange way, of course, she was right. There was no point in listening to anything cab drivers might say or think. Brinkman and the rest of the Board members clearly had already voted before they walked into the meeting room.

Or, as Director Malcolm Heinicke wrote in a May 17, 2012 e-mail that went to Roberta Boomer, Tom Nolan and Cheryl Brinkman with a Cc to Ed Reiskin:

"... most of all we all need to come to agreement on this (the MTA's plan) as best we can BEFORE IT IS FORMALLY PROPOSED." (my capitalization)

"If that means we need to move this piece of the overall package to a latter meeting, so be it, but we need to get our agreed plan and then sell the Mayor and the Supes."

Earlier in the same e-mail Heinicke showed sincere feeling when wrote,

"... Chris is significantly limiting the revenue to the MTA and sending more to the amorphous Drivers's fund. I understand why she is doing this but it is not good policy in my view. The MTA should get revenue. And, if we do not push for that, we are sacrificing the needs of the City to placate a few cab drivers."


  1. So the City takes the regulated drivers' medallions, but fails to stop unregulated drivers so the medallions soon become worthless and the City's income stream goes away. Soon after, someone notices that more and more passengers are suffering uninsured accidents and worse, so MTA commissions a task force to study the crisis. They determine, after months or years of hearings, that *hitchhiking can be dangerous* and propose to regulate the driving industry. MTA probably wins an award for improving public safety. And round and round we go.

  2. Heinicke said:

    "And, if we do not push for that, we are sacrificing the needs of the City to placate a few cab drivers."

    I was waiting for that. In other words "we can screw a few drivers that have waited 10-15 years for their medallion but look how much of the almighty dollar we get to pay for the $500 jackets for Bus drivers, retirement programs, dental, clerks making $60k a year, restoring old street cars at a million a pop and on and on."
    It should be noted that they could have just taken the medallions away from the old and sick as Heinicke wanted to do in 2007 but they elected to buy them out or should I say let drivers buy them out. However, given the fact that we got the medallions free I think industry standards for transferring are not exactly relevant.

  3. The medallions are the licenses through which the City extends a specific version of the driving privilege granted by the State to a limited number of cab drivers working within its purview. It is proper to require qualifications for the exercise of privilege, and to do less than that is bad government, as in the case of drivers with less experience being allowed to buy medallions.

    It is outrageous to sell privileges. It is a contradiction in terms to "sell" a "privilege." The MTA is running the cab industry like a Rotten Borough in old England. A simpler way to say this would be "it is outrageous to sell favors." The MTA Board is quite morally challenged, evidently unable to distinguish business from prostitution.

    Ed Healy is correct when he points out that the medallions accrue value only from the work the drivers do with them. They are business licenses. They are only "property" of the City the sense that City Hall itself is "property" of the City, that is, only if they are NOT sold. Malcolm Heinecke reminds me of the boy at 2958 Mills Park Drive in Rancho Cordova when I grew up. He thought that the intersection was his property, so he would beat up boys who wouldn't pay a quarter to walk on the sidewalk near his house. Cab medallions are "City property" to just about the same degree. And only with the complicity of their higher-ups is this kind of pathetic and jejune "reasoning" going on. Paraphrasing Lewis Carroll I say that the City medallion policy is nothing but a house of cards.

    Heinecke and company think they get to charge by the card to be dealers in the game. They are not even supposed to be players. The game just doesn't work they way they are trying to make it work. Sure, if they continue to act like bullies, and ignore common sense about how to treat people, they could prevail. But it is an evil that is prevailing.

    Medallion sales is a form of indentured servitude. It is a mere workaround of the rights we are all supposed to enjoy in America. Ed Healy is again correct when he suggests that cab drivers were dispossessed long ago.

    On another point, I note that everyone who has had to drive to get one has not gotten a "free" medallion, but an EARNED medallion. The only "free" medallions were those issued without a driving requirement. It is dangerous for industry people to speak of "free" medallions, since under the circumstances it is playing into the MTA Board's claim that medallions are somehow "city property."

  4. Johnny Walker sez,

    Well Healy, you're finally coming around, better late than never, the simple fact of the is this, the city bureaucrats for the most part,

    Are parasites to the system and in my opinion they will do absolutely nothing in regard to Lyft, Uber, Sidecar ect until of course cab

    Companies are bankrupted by their selfish and reckless policy's.

    If anyone cares to read the pension blog " Pension Tsunami " they will come to understand, in short order the city is out for

    Themselves and will stop at nothing no matter how irrational, to achieve their end, which in my opinion is............bankruptcy.

  5. Is there any legislation pending or being drawn up to address whether Uber and others are really charging a metered rate and therefore acting as taxis? And whether or not getting an order over a smart phone is really a street hail. If not, I suggest the SFMTA Board read a very good book entitled 'The Bunker'. It is a detailed history of the last days inside the Furher's bunker as the Russians are pounding on the gates. The final players like Martin Bormann and Goebbels are dividing up Germany and squabbling over which of them will rule after the war. We know how that ended up. About the same place a tin taxi medallion will end up if they don't find a way to stop Uber and the newly launched UberX which are taking over. I see their gleeful drivers popping up everywhere now. Driving their newly GTU certified hybrids ready to enter SFO. I spoke with one guy who owns 5 new Nissan Altima Hybrids. He told me he can't keep up with the orders and has many former taxi drivers working for him.

    Does director Heinicke and the SFMTA board realize that while they were spending time figuring out how to suck more out of the taxi industry, key players within the industry were hedging their bets and joining UberX. That's right. This should tell you everything you need to know about the future of medallions if something isn't done. I suspect it's already to late.

  6. Johnny Walker sez,

    Did anybody read today's article regarding these services, Uber, Lyft, Sidecar ect............

    In response to Eric's comments, I think it's far to late for the cab companies to react, they have angered the gas & gate drivers and

    The public for far to long, the trust is gone and both parties now have alternatives, the cab companies have really boxed themselves

    Into a corner and their either too stupid or corrupt to change, but look on the bright side, bankruptcy is always an option, so I don't

    Know about you guys but IF I was a medallion owner, I would sell the medallion and buy say 5 cars lease them at 3k per month

    And call it a day, much better than getting paid py yellow cab and getting nickeled and dimmed to death!

    1. So now we have motors going around with big pink mustaches taking away business apart from Ubber and towncars and limos and everything else, at least 200 more cabs comming, wiggling room is winding down, such high gates and rising gas prices, Hinnike and his crooks want to crucify us, Ive spent 25 years stuck behind a muni bus trying to get an earned medallion and now they want me to buy one for 300.000, are they out of there friggin minds. They have condemed me to a mouth without teeth and a life of eating Mc Donalds and my retirement plan gone. Im now 60 years old with a recurring ilness. Yes indeed I would say the MTA have taken the taxi business to Hell in a hand basket.

  7. Johnny Walker sez,

    I heard Hara and Assocites will recommend, that the SFMTA puts out an additional 500 more taxis, in addition to the 200 corporate
    Medallions already approved, has anyone else heard about this?
    If this rumor is true, then drivers can expect this to have a HUGE deflationary effect on their wages, now how the will the SFMTA be able to justify 300k per medallion and expect anyone to ever purchase these medallions in the face of sliding revenues?
    If the increase in cabs is in response to services like Sidecar, Lyft and Uber, the SFMTA is sadly mistaken.
    Only when dispatch service is at the level of these companies, cabs will be able to take out their competition however by just increasing the taxi fleet without improving dispatch service in a meaningful way will create a financial hardship on the people who can least afford it, the drivers, and without a pool of reliable drivers, the taxi business model will surely collapse!

  8. Slavery has not bin abolished, just redefined.