Monday, March 27, 2017
Week of 03/27/2017
The Sad Truth About The Sharing Economy
You’ve heard of the services: Uber, Lyft, Airbnb
They’ve certainly made the news of late, although mostly negative. Governments have been trying to ban them or regulate them or limit their impact on local communities. Uber certainly has gotten its share of bad press these past few weeks with claims of sexual harassment and the resignation of its president, Jeff Jones. But even with the bad press, you can’t deny that these services have made a significant impact on society, not to mention the economy.
Taxi and limo services now have to compete with ordinary people driving their cars around. Want to party without getting busted for DUI? Hire a driver to drive you to where you want to go to get your drink on and then hire another one afterward to drive you home.
Hotels and motels now have to compete with ordinary people putting up their homes and apartments and guest rooms on the market for a limited period of time. Going to be away for a week on vacation? Don’t pay to have someone watch your house, have someone pay you to stay there for that time.
They call it the “Sharing Economy”; the idea that there is a boatload of money to be made by people “sharing” what they already have with others in need. Just develop an app to connect these two groups, and you’re set for life.
And that’s just the tip of the iceberg! You can rent your pets to someone who will take care of them while you’re away. Have a trade you’re good at but you don’t want to make it a full-time job? You can actually rent your trade to someone who needs services done. Not using your bicycle? You can rent your bike to someone who will use it. You can rent out your WiFi access. You can even rent your clothes and appliances. Not sell, rent!
There is even a service in Japan that will let you rent friends and even rent families! No joke! Lonely overworked businessmen needing “friends” for a function or “family members” so they don’t feel left out at events can rent those things. What was once a dumb plot-point to the comedy movie “We’re the Millers” is now an actual business.
And the business world is busy churning out a script that says that these are all great and wonderful things and a sign of the “new normal” for society. The idea that anything and everything can be rented out…
Wait. Scratch that. There is still “one thing” that we’re not allowed to “rent out”. I’ll get back to that.
Anyway… the idea that almost anything and everything can be rented out by ordinary people thanks to technology is supposedly “the way of the future”.
Except that it is not “the way of the future”.
Women have long been able to rent out their wombs as surrogate mothers. It’s a complicated procedure spanning several months and not exactly something that you can put on a phone app, but it has been there.
Crowdfunding? Micro-lending? Not new. Remember Depression-era Wimpy from the Popeye cartoon? “I will gladly pay you Tuesday for a hamburger today.”
Thrift stores and consignment shops have long allowed people to buy and sell used items, except that now it has become trendy to hit up these places instead of getting them off-the-rack at those “named” stores. Book and movie exchanges have been going on for a long time in certain neighborhoods and workplaces. Remember video rental stores like Blockbuster and Movie Stop?
But there is a sad truth that is not being told about the “sharing economy”, and it is one that desperately needs to be acknowledged.
This is not supposed to be normal.
Let’s get brutally honest here… while business wonks can praise the “sharing economy” as a business opportunity for both mobile software developers and ordinary people, it also serves as a counter-productive placebo to the global problem of income inequality.
Sure, it’s okay for people to do a little side-work for some extra money, but in these post-Recession times, it can also be used as another justification to not pay people for what they are worth.
A certain “big box” chain has been notorious for telling its workers how they can apply for food stamps and welfare to supplement the meager wages that they are being paid for the hard work that they put in. It’s no stretch of the imagination to picture those same company managers telling their employees that they should sell themselves out as Uber and Lyft drivers to help make ends meet on top of working those long hours for said low wages.
Taking part in a “sharing economy” out of the goodness of your heart is one thing. But when you’re forced to do so just to keep your bills paid and a house over your head and food on your table, that’s a sign of desperation. It’s no different than if you’re selling blood or reproductive material.
Plus there is also something else that is sacrificed in the “sharing economy”, and that is the sense of true ownership.
You see, that car that you own, that’s not really “yours” anymore, because now you have to share it with others as a Lyft or Uber driver. Your time, your insurance policy, your gas and maintenance charges, they all go into a service that has you in the service of others. And if someone gets sick in your car, that’s on you to clean it. Your home, your talents, your appliances, your tools, even your clothes are not really “yours” anymore.
It would be one thing if you sell it outright, because then it wouldn’t be your problem anymore. But when you rent your guest bedroom as an Airbnb, it’s still yours in name and responsibility. You still pay the taxes and the insurance and you still have to maintain it. And if you have bad renters, the neighbors don’t complain to them; they complain to you. Because it’s still yours.
That’s another thing that people are finding out when they take part in some of these “sharing economy” services: even if the local laws allow them to share their cars and homes, their insurance providers don’t. They’ve been busy re-writing policies so that if they find out you are working for Uber or Lyft or Airbnb or any other kind of “sharing” service, your policy prices could go sky-high or else said policy could be cancelled on a whim. And you wouldn’t know it unless you look carefully at that legalese fine print that they love to shove at us, knowing full well that we won’t read it.
Do you know how to destroy a sense of ownership? You minimize the benefits of having it while either maintaining or increasing its responsibilities and obligations. And that’s exactly what happens when we trade off the pleasures of ownership for some added money without lessening any of the burdens.
And remember what I said about how we can put almost everything up for rent? Well we supposedly can put our homes, our cars, our clothes, our appliances, our talents, our friendships, even our pets and families for rent… but not our intimacy.
But if you think about it, what is prostitution anyway? It is the limited sharing of our intimacy for money. The “girlfriend” or “boyfriend” for the night, or for a couple of hours.
Now consider this: we can prostitute our car and driving skills, prostitute out our homes and rooms, prostitute our talents, prostitute our pets, prostitute our lawn mower and power tools, prostitute our clothes, prostitute our bicycles, prostitute our WiFi access, prostitute our blood and organs and reproductive material, even prostitute out our friendship and sense of family... but only the sharing of our “intimacy” for money is considered illegal. We can put everything else that defines ourselves as individuals on the market, and nobody is batting an eyelash over it, but even remotely suggest making the “world’s oldest profession” legal and people cry foul. Now that is a double-standard worthy of the late Heath Ledger’s Joker from “The Dark Knight”.
Look, I have no problem with new ways to bring commercial transactions to the great unwashed. And I understand that the world of business has an obsessive fixation on squeezing every drop of blood from us turnips. But the idea that almost everything in our individual lives should be up for sale with the right app should be something taken very cautiously. While necessity may be the mother of invention, it’s also the father of exploitation, and it doesn’t matter if we’re talking about Lyft or lust, the exploitation of anything involving the human condition should be wrong, not just the stuff that excites our “naughty parts”.