Sharing Economy's Sunset?

The Sharing Economy: The End of the Summer of Love

The Summer of Love – early 1967, to be precise – was a high point in 60s-era ideology, when reality seemed to match the hype. Shortly after, things began to fall apart. 1967 was also the summer of riots in Newark, Detroit and 126 other US cities. Drugs and violence popped up.

By late 1969, the Altamont Festival heralded an end to the 60s; but the seeds were sown well before.

The Sharing Economy Summer of Love

The high priestesses of the sharing economy – Lisa Gansky and Rachel Botsman – were early promoters, long on utopian idealism. They spoke about trust, and about transforming business, consumerism, and the way people related to each other. And there’s still a lot to like about that story.

It’s all based on vastly under-utilized resources. How often do you use your video camera, anyway? Your bicycle? Table saw? Your car? Your apartment? What if there were a way other people could use them, and you could get paid for that use? And, amazingly, there were apps for that.  Lots and lots of apps. And so the “sharing economy” got its name.

With karma and economics moving in parallel, what could possibly go wrong?

Disintermediation by Any Other Name…

The sharing economy was originally rooted in peer to peer sharing. But we temporarily forget there are two kinds of peer-to-peer situations.

In Type A, mi camera es su camera (or gardening tool, or bicycle, etc.), all through the miracle of an app that connects us – peer to peer. Directly. No intermediary, no middleman.  Works great, and we don’t mind paying the app-producer a bit, or even more than a bit, for arranging and facilitating the serendipity.

Of course, there was that pesky issue of trust.  But in fairness, outfits like eBay figured that one out to a great extent – reputation, track records, public shaming. And it works pretty well.

It worked well enough that we could vacation on AirBnB at half the price – partly because the owners didn’t have to deal with irksome regulations and taxes on hotels. Ditto rides on Uber and Lyft – who needs all that regulation, and taxes, and for that matter all those lazy taxi drivers waiting in queues.

But then another Fact of Life showed up. In this day and age of Thomas Picketty’s best-selling book Capital, we have re-learned the word for an important phenomenon: it is, indeed, capital.  When the peer supply of the good in question falls short of the peer demand of the good in question, capital emerges to fill the gap. These are Type B peer situations – where intermediaries, or middleman, have a role to play. In e-babble, it’s called scaling.

Type B works like this. Not everyone has a spare apartment to rent out when they’re on vacation; maybe because they hardly ever go on vacation, or maybe because their condo in central Pennsylvania doesn’t sound all that attractive in February anyway.

Not everyone has a car with a backseat you’d want to ride in, much less the time to drive around waiting for people to call their app.

The solution: The app-makers team up with capital-owners, integrate downstream into buying assets, then hire cheap labor to manage the pool. Buy a bunch of apartments; buy a bunch of cars. Hire freelance maids and drivers.

Suddenly, there are lots of people who own multiple apartments and rent them out as a business. Of course, they’re not in the hotel business, they’ll tell you, hence they shouldn’t be taxed by cities or subjected to safety or labor regulations.

What just happened? Maids just got disintermediated, and returns to capital just went up, while aggregate wages just went down.

If there aren’t already, there very shortly will be people who get the idea of hiring their neighbors to run the family car for hire in their own off hours; and maybe of buying a few more cars, for more neighbors. But don’t call it a taxi service, because those services are regulated and pay taxes.

What just happened? Taxi drivers just got distintermediated, and returns to capital just went up, while aggregate wages just went down.

With Uber sporting an implied $17B valuation, and AirBnB at $10B, don’t forget to ask yourself to whom these returns accrue. The answer is not you and your car, or you and your apartment. It’s capital.

Economic Change is Fast: Economic Justice Takes Longer

To be clear, there’s nothing immoral going on here. Nor is this anything economically unique (though it may be dysfunctional).  The legal and regulatory status of these new capital intensive businesses is under review through the normal legal and regulatory channels, and will proceed quickly; see, for example, the insurance industry is taking aim at Uber and Lyft.

But let’s be clear – this is not the second coming of peace, love and understanding. While there are lots of small-scale apps and programs that link peers directly to peers, the big money, as always, will be found where capital joins labor. Where there’s room to scale, you will find capital. That’s precisely the case in Big Businesses like transportation and lodging.

And while capital owners in big scale businesses are delighted to continue the “little guy against the corporation” myth, in truth it’s nothing more than another round of disintermediation. It’s important to note that while you may save a bit on a vacation room or a trip to the airport, there are also jobs at stake – jobs staffed by real people whose unions and representatives took decades to hammer out economic agreements with employers.

At the risk of grossly over-simplifying Picketty’s core dictum: absent world wars and a booming economy, capital grows faster than wages. This is a prime case in point. What looks like technological progress driving social integration with the lights dimmed down, looks a whole lot more like traditional disintermediation in the harsh light of day.

We do ourselves and society an injustice if we let new economy happy-talk blind us to the social effects of the same-old same-old economic shifts.

  • Team Carma

    Excellent article! The ‘sharing economy’ in it’s present form has very little to do with sharing. As you say, instead we have taxi drivers and hotels in all but name, flouting regulations and undercutting those who play by the rules, earning a pittance while the Ubers and AirBnBs make a fortune.

    The only people this is good for in the long run is the company with its billion dollar valuation.

    If people actually want to share their car or their ride, Carma (http://carmacarpool.com) is real ridesharing. Our users don’t make a profit, they only split the cost of journeys, such as their morning commute, that they were making anyway.

  • Rich Sternhell

    Charlie,
    Great piece! But “eliminating the middle man” has been a core philosophy of business efficiency for a very long time. What I hear you objecting to is the pretense of serving a greater “moral” good while establishing businesses that are mere covers for evading regulation. While I think you’ve got Pikettey right, I believe this points more directly to market forces reacting to the increasing cost of regulation. I’m not convinced this is really about jobs…we are merely shifting them around. Perhaps of greater interest is the “greater fool” theory of investing….Uber’s valuation looks to good to be true and most likely is. I doubt there is long term value there, but since disruption is the theory of the moment there will be no shortage of buyers until there aren’t any left.
    Rich