Curious and Cautious Toward the Sharing Economy

Thoughts post reading:

I can agree with some of the major points in the “The Cult of Sharing” article but I would also maintain that there are aspects of these "sharing" businesses that are truly as rewarding as the advertising campaigns make them out to be. I'd like to fuse a few points from the article that stand out with my own understanding and personal experiences of some of the businesses (Kickstarter, AirBNB, Lyft, Task Rabbit, Whole Foods,...) in question.  I will most frequently reference AirBNB since that’s the company with which I have the most experience.

Taxes:  The ways some of these companies have chosen to pay as few taxes as possible is clearly a problem - and even underhanded - though not too surprising based in silicon valley's track record with taxes.  This makes them similar to any conservative profit-seeking entity looking for ways to maximise income even at the cost of keeping essential infrastructure alive.  Uber and Lyft drive on roads; Is it not obvious that tax dollars are necessary to keep the roads in good shape?  This should be apparent in San Francisco of all places where, partially because of Proposition 13 (a long time drain on tax revenue) roads are more worn and pothole-laden than in some developing countries I’ve visited.  I understand that there are many arguments (and excuses) about how tax dollars are used but until private money proves it can keep all our infrastructural needs in good working order (which has not been in the case in California, a place with plenty of private dollars), sales taxes are essential and should not be avoided by these institutions.

Do these businesses actually create community?:  No and Yes.  The “neighbors helping neighbors” facade just sounds silly to me.  If you want to help your neighbor, you don’t need an app.  These are tools that allow people to generate income in new ways not find new ways to "help out a neighbor." The happy side-effect: they do offer many opportunities for connecting with people, often in meaningful ways.  I’ve had inspiring interactions with both Kickstarter and AirBNB members (both as a guest and host). My experiences have been so positive that I almost always look at AirBNB options before I consider any hotel option.  I don’t think I’ve had a hotel experience where I felt like I made some kind of personal connection with the host(s) but I’ve had AirBNB experiences where: I’ve hung out with genuinely good people, I’ve been picked up from a train station at no cost, I’ve received small gifts and valuable advice, and more.  Most recently, some guests staying at our place in San Francisco ended up having wine with our downstairs neighbors and they all had a blast.  These are the stories that AirBNB advertises and they match my experience.  I don’t see fault the company for highlighting these stories as some kind of “cultish” ploy.  I’m definitely aware of emotional manipulation as an advertising method but I feel like there’s a less superficial manipulation of this method on AirBNB’s part.  They may be accused of other underhanded operations but they get a pass from me on this. Maybe I’m brainwashed by their cult-like methods.

Regulation:  It is amazing how these companies seem to be frequented by liberals but support the ideals of the conservatives.  It’s a bit scary, for example, how long some of these companies can work outside any regulatory system.  A “make the rules as you go” feeling lends a wild west atmosphere to what is now a major component to our economy.  As a San Francisco host on AirBNB I was terrified that someone would try to squat / overstay or sue for a hypothetical injury.  I did significant research but found few clear answers to my concerns.  Even though there’s a well documented AirBNB incident in which a host encountered a serious issue with California law, when a man claimed residency after 30 days, AirBNB still seems to have no definitive advice on how to deal with this situation.  In addition, they offer damage insurance but nothing to cover a potentially much more expensive liability issue. I couldn’t really find any good advice online about how to protect yourself.  Even State Farm had to research the issue and get back to me.  A hotel, on the other hand, is surely paying through the eyeballs to make sure it’s protected by a number of insurance mechanisms.  AirBNB should make sure people are as protected with their service as they would be in any accommodation.

Worker (Mis)Categorization:  This is totally underhanded and makes me crazy.  If this isn’t a step back for a healthy society I don’t know what is.  People need stability to perform well in their job.  This is a shortsighted way to make higher profits.  Reading about this makes me feeling like the sharing economy is the latest way to feel good being poor and be without legal rights and health care.

New Opportunities:  Many of these companies do offer new relatively simple ways to facilitate experiences that may not have felt accessible before.  Kickstarter has absolutely allowed for a number of creative projects - some of which might previously never have been made due to lack of funds and connections - to get off the ground. The hard part of this model is its appropriation by larger companies in attempts to launch their own commercial products.  It reminds us how quickly large companies consume smaller successful business models.  It also points out how lucrative these new sharing economies actually are.

AirBNB offers people new opportunities to make some money.  It also offers people an opportunity to stay in a location for more than a few days at more reasonable price   Because of AirBNB I’m able to rent my place in SF and afford to be in NY and attend SFPC.  If not for that fact, I would be borrowing money from some bank and then paying interest.  For me, parts of the sharing economy are wonderful and empowering.

The Pain of the New:  I understand how hotels and taxi industries would be scared by these new tools.  Phone apps have allowed for the latest disruption to what had previously been a long-time static and reliable economic model.  Some individual privileged positions would point out: this is capitalism, evolve or die.  Sadly, many people work long hard hours with little time to ask whether they are participating in the “best, most-efficient system” or whether they should be preparing for a sudden career change.  I see the losers in the new economy not as the industries, but as the employees who are probably not hired by the industries that replace their own.