The new issue of Forbes has a cover story, headlined “Who Wants to Be a Billionaire,” about the new “economic revolution” of “peer-to-peer sharing.” Fueled by a proliferation of personal asset-rental clearinghouses on the web, run by companies like Airbnb, Lyft, and DogVacay, this revolution, says Forbes, is “quietly turning millions of people into part-time entrepreneurs, and disrupting old notions about consumption and ownership.”
As its prime example, the magazine points to a 63-year-old photographer named Frederic Larson. He was laid off from his full-time job at the San Francisco Chronicle in 2009 and since has only been able to find some part-time work, without the benefits he once enjoyed. But now Larson is a micro-entrepreneur in the “gig economy”:
Twelve days per month Larson rents his Marin County home on website Airbnb for $100 a night, of which he nets $97. Four nights a week he transforms his Prius into a de facto taxi via the ride-sharing service Lyft, pocketing another $100 a night in the process. It isn’t glamorous–on nights that he rents out his house, he removes himself to one room that he’s cordoned off, and he showers at the gym–but in leveraging his hard assets into seamless income streams, he’s generating $3,000 a month. “I’ve got a product, which is what I share: my Prius and my house,” says Larson. “Those are my two sources of income.” He’s now looking at websites that can let him rent out some of his camera equipment.
It’s good that Larson has found ways to make ends meet. I’m not entirely sure what makes his new income streams “seamless” (they seem pretty stitched together to me), but he’s clearly better off with them than without them. I find it hard, though, to celebrate a phenomenon — I mean, revolution — that, in Larson’s case, seems more a manifestation of a failure in the economy than some grand new breakthrough.
I’m reminded of that Raymond Carver short story “Why Don’t You Dance?,” where a nameless “middle-aged” guy sets all his furnishings out on his front lawn. He’s in bad straits, and he needs to sell his stuff to make some money — or, as we might say today, he has to transform his possessions into assets in order to monetize their residual value. He carefully arranges everything to mimic the way it had looked inside his house:
A rattan chair with a decorator pillow stood at the foot of the bed. The buffed aluminum kitchen set took up a part of the driveway. A yellow muslin cloth, much too large, a gift, covered the table and hung down over the sides. A potted fern was on the table, along with a box of silverware and a record player, also gifts. A big console-model television rested on a coffee table, and a few feet away from this stood a sofa and chair and a floor lamp. The desk was pushed against the garage door. A few utensils were on the desk, along with a wall clock and two framed prints. There was also in the driveway a carton with cups, glasses, and plates, each object wrapped in newspaper. That morning he had cleared out the closets, and except for the three cartons in the living room, all the stuff was out of the house. He had run an extension cord on out there and everything was connected. Things worked, no different from how it was when they were inside.
There are plenty of good things that can be said about making it easier for people to rent or barter or share stuff that they own. There are also troubling things about the trend, particularly when the companies skimming the profits try to position themselves as pure-hearted do-gooders battling the sad benighted bureaucrats with their outdated zoning laws, licensing requirements, and consumer-protection regulations. As Tom Slee recently wrote, in response to a Tim Wu op-ed, “The Randian, simplistic free-market thoughtlessness behind the wave of ‘peer-to-peer’ companies, and especially those who are trying to uproot regulations that protect consumers, is far from the wave of the future: it’s hucksterism masquerading as progress, hubris as vision, callous selfishness as community-mindedness, and it’s a disaster waiting to happen.”
Maybe that’s an overstatement. But it’s no greater an overstatement than the one peddled by those who seek to portray peer-to-peer sharing as an unalloyed good, a populist economic revolution. “Who Wants to Be a Billionaire”: That would have made a good title for a Carver story.
Photo by Julia Manzerova.