When New York’s Taxi and Limousine Commission held a public hearing last week to consider whether to raise taxi fares by 20 percent, cabdrivers pled poverty and passengers argued that fares are too high. Paradoxically, both groups were right. This lose-lose scenario is only possible under the taxi medallion system, a regulatory scheme in which the right to operate a taxi is thoroughly divorced from the actual work of driving one. It’s a classic example of the perils of financialization, the process through which economic potential is turned into a liquid and leveraged asset. By converting a portion of cabbies’ future revenue into a freely tradable asset, New York, Chicago, San Francisco, and a host of other cities have created a powerful investor class, medallion owners and financiers, whose interests routinely compete with those of drivers and passengers.
Financialization also makes what should be a trivial deregulation nearly impossible as it would make the Medallion owners very upset. They would be willing to spend big bucks to prevent any attempt at deregulation.