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Author's Response - Debating the Sharing Economy

Juliet Schor


Since I submitted my essay, conflicts over the “sharing economy” have intensified. District Attorneys in San Francisco and Los Angeles threatened to take action against Uber, Lyft, and Sidecar on the grounds that they were operating illegally. New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman reported that three-quarters of Airbnb rentals in New York City are illegal. And I came across an excellent new term to describe the for-profits in this space, coined by Sebastian Olman: platform capitalists.

Given the emergent and rapidly changing nature of this sector, I find that my understanding advances with every essay, blog post, and conversation. The responses of this wonderful group of commentators are no exception. I am grateful for them all.

Dean Baker rightly raises issues of regulation and taxation. These are essential for the sharing economy to operate in the public interest—we do need regulation, and my sense is that most of the companies accept that. The question is what kind of regulation. Consider Airbnb. In my view, it is essential to differentiate between an individual renting out a bedroom in a home on a periodic basis and someone who is operating at such a level that they are effectively operating a significant business. The regulators should treat those cases differently. And so should the platforms—they can segregate those two types of “hosts,” thereby validating the relevance of the P2P (peer-to-peer) and B2P (business-to-peer) categories I discussed. In addition, it may be worth considering that the B2P case may be the future’s version of some of the small family businesses about which Baker is concerned. Is there a reason not to encourage them? Finally, on how to organize regulation, I suspect that the big data collected by the platforms could provide some of the informational basis which regulators could use for compliance. Anti-regulation folks in this space sometimes portray the need to investigate so many small units as infeasible, but I think the technology could make that information gathering much easier.

Andrés Monroy-Hernandez raises a very important concern about the monetized platforms, namely that they are “crowding out” authentic (or altruistic) sharing: people abandon Couchsurfing (which has no payment) for Airbnb. His qualitative results are extremely interesting. If these two companies would share their data (which they currently do not), there would be a good quantitative study to be done to see how widespread that trend is. I think the point about local adaptation as the model goes global is an important one, which Maurie Cohen’s piece also raises. On Cohen’s contribution, I would highlight two points. I think his interpretation of Zipcar’s history supports my view that the B2P model is different, and less amenable to genuine sharing. Zipcar never had a P2P structure and was very easily absorbed. Would Marriott be as interested in taking on hundreds or thousands of peers on the provider side? Maybe, but maybe not. Additionally, the point about a second round dynamic is interesting. Certainly many of us are hoping for that!

On the labor side, one thinks about two directions. One is broad protections that apply beyond the platforms: wage floors, basic incomes, and/or welfare supports. The other is collective action (e.g., organizing and unionization) by providers. We need both. Chris Tittle and Milicent Johnson’s contributions speak to these issues. Johnson asks how we ensure that the inefficiencies and faults of the old economy (discrimination, exploitation, inequality) are not replicated in the new one. It is a crucial question. The for-profit platforms are not paying attention to it, and the results are problematic. In our research we find that providers on the for-profit, monetized platforms such as Airbnb or Task Rabbit do well if they already have substantial assets (either physical or reasonably highly valued skills). They do not do so well if they lack those assets. As I noted in the essay, one Harvard Business School study found that there is considerable racial discrimination on Airbnb—e.g., black hosts get 12% less for their offerings, controlling for apartment quality and location. Tittle’s piece, which describes a set of sharing principles put together by the Sustainable Economies Law Center, is an important beginning of an answer to Johnson’s question. But how we can make progress installing these principles? A key question, which I raised but did not elaborate on in my essay, is monopoly power. If the platforms scale and dominate their respective markets, it is going to be nearly impossible to empower consumers and users. That is an issue about which groups should be making demands and to which federal regulators should be attending.

Finally, Julian Ageyman and Duncan McLaren raise the question of municipal level sharing. Whether they are right that this is where the “biggest possibilities” of these technologies lie remains to be seen. I look forward to reading their forthcoming book. But wherever the growth comes, I think we agree that sharing should be expanded in multiple realms. Indeed, if there is a theme across these contributions, it is enthusiasm for innovations in genuine sharing. With the business-as-usual paradigm failing on multiple fronts, it is time to build a new economy. And what better way to do that than reinforcing long-standing practices of sharing and inventing new ones?


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Juliet Schor

Juliet Schor is Professor of Sociology at Boston College and is currently serving as the Matina S. Horner Distinguished Visiting Professor at the Radcliffe Institute, Harvard University. Her current research topics include consumer culture, sustainable lifestyles, and the relationship between time use and carbon emissions. She is a member of the MacArthur Foundation Connected Learning Research Network for which she is leading a six-year project on the sharing economy.

 




Cite as Juliet Schor, "Author's Response to 'Debating the Sharing Economy,'" Great Transition Initiative (October 2014), http://www.greattransition.org/commentary/author-response-debating-the-sharing-economy.




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