It has many names.
Some call it “collaborative consumption.” To others it’s a “peer-to-peer” economy. People who deem it the enlightened financial foundation of tomorrow’s Global Village like to think of it as a “Peoples’ Economy.” Call it what you will, it’s a hot and heavy marriage of convenience between the ancient concept of communal resource management and the awesome connective power of smart-phone technology, with cyber-switchboards like Airbnb, Uber and TaskRabbit officiating.
Benita Matofska, “Chief Sharer” down at “The People Who Share”, describes it as “…a socio-economic ecosystem built around the sharing of human and physical resources” that includes “the shared creation, production, distribution, trade and consumption of goods and services by different people and organizations.”
Put into shorter words, it’s them what ain’t gots putting the touch on them what gots. Car on the fritz? A neighbor will be happy to drive you. Not up for another night at the Airport Hilton? Sack out in somebody’s spare bedroom. Too busy to pick up the dry cleaning? There’s a peer out there who’ll grab your garbardines and snag your supper while they’re at it. Need a gas-powered shingle froe but don’t want to buy one just to froe, like, two shingles? It’s a safe bet there’s a guy nearby who’ll let you use his.
“The Sharing Economy encompasses the following aspects,” Matofska intones. “Swapping, exchanging, collective purchasing, collaborative consumption, shared ownership, shared value, co-operatives, co-creation, recycling, upcycling, re-distribution, trading used goods, renting, borrowing, lending, subscription based models, peer-to-peer, collaborative economy, circular economy, pay-as-you-use economy, wikinomics, peer-to-peer lending, micro-financing, micro-entrepreneurship, social media, the Mesh, social enterprise, futurology, crowdfunding, crowdsourcing, cradle-to-cradle, open source, open data, and user generated content.”
Anyway, the Sharing Economy is all about private citizens doing for other private citizens. But one thing it’s absolutely not about is sharing. It’s about money, and lots of it.
Largely untaxed and unregulated, the Sharing Economy is gloves-off laissez-faire capitalism for the Age of Aquarius, a Libertarian’s free-market feast served on a bed of crisp collectivist ideology. Because if that Lyft driver will get you home from the recycling center for less than Yellow Cab can, he’s sure not going to do it for nothing. And while that privately-owned one-bedroom loft only blocks from dining and entertainment is a steal at just $125 a night, it’s, um, $125 a night.
The completely reasonable theory behind the Sharing Economy is that folks with unused, or under-utilized, resources such as cars, beds and gas-powered shingle froes can make them available to folks who need them, thereby maximizing economic efficiency for all. Whatever their political perspectives, most people will agree that letting the Little Guy put his assets to work without a lot of fuss and flack from Uncle Sam is a good thing. The thing is, the bridges connecting the resource-full with the resource-less are a growing number of online “platforms”, essentially passive brokers that take a generous slice of every peer-to-peer transaction that flashes across their out-stretched electronic palms.
How generous? In the 10 years since the peer-to-peer (P2P, in the lingo) economy started moving beyond eBay and into areas of commerce from lodging to lending and from dry goods to desk space, no fewer than 17 self-styled Sharing Economy platforms have grown into billion-dollar businesses on the strength of a 10- to 30-percent piece of the action . True, there are a handful of peer-to-peer exchanges that don’t charge for introductions, but they represent a drop in the collaborative bucket alongside cash-flush companies like $1 billion FundingCircle, $2 billion Instacart, $4 billion Airbnb, and transportation giant Uber, which does business in more than 100 cities in 35 countries and was lately valued at a whopping $40 billion for doing exactly what Metro Taxi does, except not actually doing it. Fact is, in many cases the only people not getting rich off of the Peoples’ Economy are the people directly involved in it.
Uber drivers, for example, are essentially freelance laborers who must conform to the company’s equipment requirements, often requiring a substantial capital investment, and do all of their own maintenance. They have to charge Uber-approved fares that are considerably less than those charged by conventional taxi services, meaning they consistently earn less per mile than traditional hacks. And as independent “entrepreneurs” they get none of the corporate driver’s benefits and wage-security while bearing all of the job’s attendant risks.
“It’s true that, in many ways, sharing-economy jobs can offer more autonomy than traditional employer-employee relationships,” writes Washington Post columnist Catherine Rampell. “But there’s a dark side to these work arrangements that gets considerably less press: the shifting of risk off corporate balance sheets and onto the shoulders of individual Americans, who may not even realize what kinds of liabilities they’re taking on.”
For that matter, the wholesale replacement of middle-class transportation jobs with lower-paying Uber and Lyft drivers is a sure-fire short-cut to crashing tax revenues and rising individual economic instability. But it would be unfair to pick on P2P transportation companies without exploring the unintended consequences of the Sharing Economy’s thriving hospitality trade. It would be perfectly fair, on the other hand, to pick on San Francisco’s recent experiences, seeing as how the City by the Bay is widely recognized at the cradle of collaborative consumption as we now know it.
In concept, platforms like Airbnb, FlipKey and Roomorama connect private citizens seeking an inexpensive place to flop with private citizens willing to rent out a spare bedroom or temporarily unoccupied personal living space on a short-term basis. It’s all very informal, of course, and completely non-commercial, and guests enjoy a cheap and perhaps interesting accommodation while John and Jane Q. Property-Owner are spared the burdensome regulation and taxes to which professional innkeepers are subject. Thing is, there’s a loophole there big enough to swallow the Orchard Hotel, pool, parlor and penthouse. By listing a long-term rental on Airbnb instead of “trivago”, many a penny-pinching apartment, condo and house owner are happily and profitably leasing their dedicated income property under the table, as it were, and John and Jane Q. Everbody-Else are paying for it with crippling housing shortages and soaring rents.
“The (San Francisco Chronicle) found nearly 5,000 apartments, houses and rooms listed for rent (on Airbnb) during one random day in May,” writes Dara Kerr of CNET. “Of these short-term rentals, nearly two-thirds were entire houses or apartments, and 160 of these were rented full time.”
Presumably thanks in no small part to the Sharing Economy, the average two-bedroom flat in San Francisco currently rents for about $3,500. Airbnb, on the other hand, would not so presume.
“The overwhelming majority of Airbnb hosts in San Francisco share only the home in which they live,” Kerr quotes a company spokeswoman as saying, “and use the additional income they earn to pay their rents or mortgages and pursue their dreams.”
Despite the naysayers who insist the Sharing Economy is killing middle-class jobs and putting countless essential skilled workers behind the wheel instead of behind a desk, the concept is sound and getting louder all the time. At last count, something like 250,000 Uber drivers are hauling something like 1 million fares every day, and both numbers are predicted to double before Christmas. Airbnb lists more than 1.5 million rental properties – including 1,400 castles – and with more than 40 million mints on 40 million pillows and counting, the service recently surpassed both InterContinental Hotels Group and Hilton Worldwide to become the planet’s biggest hotelier. And that, says Matofska, is only the beginning.
“Whilst the Sharing Economy is currently in its infancy,known most notably as a series of services and start-ups which enable P2P exchanges through technology, this is only the beginning,” intones the Sharer in Chief. “In its entirety and potential it is a new and alternative socio-economic system which embeds sharing and collaboration at its heart and across all aspects of social and economic life.”
In any case, journalist Susie Cagle has her own name for Matofska’s “new and alternative socio-economic system.”