A screen shot of “sharing economy” company Airbnb’s smartphone app. (Gustavo da Cunha Pimenta / CC BY-SA 2.0)

“What’s Yours Is Mine: Against the Sharing Economy” A book by Tom Slee To see long excerpts from “What’s Yours Is Mine” at Google Books, click here.

In 1999, I accepted a job in downtown San Francisco and resettled in the East Bay suburbs after a long absence. My mother encouraged me to take the casual car pool to work. For years, she and others lined up curbside, where drivers picked them up on their way into the city. Using HOV lanes, they breezed through the toll booths and metering lights that slowed all other traffic to a crawl.

Friends outside the Bay Area had misgivings about this arrangement. Didn’t it feel weird to ride with (or pick up) strangers? Not really. A rough-and-ready etiquette developed to routinize the pickup, ride and drop-off. We even had customs to govern conversation and radio use.

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Casual car pooling seemed a little kooky at first, but it was nothing if not practical. Given the right incentives, we organized ourselves sensibly, shortened our commute time, reduced congestion and spared the air. It was the Bay Area at its best.

A few years later, a similar impulse lay at the heart of several local startups. One was Uber, which used a mobile application to connect passengers and private drivers. Another was Airbnb, which allowed residents to share their living spaces with visitors looking for bargains. The companies took a piece of the transaction, and customers were delighted by the savings and convenience. These firms weren’t necessarily profitable, but their astonishing growth made them attractive investments. Uber’s valuation now exceeds $51 billion, a little less than Ford’s, even though Uber collects a tiny fraction of the auto giant’s revenue.

Casual commerce was cool, and there was much happy talk about community sustainability. But as Tom Slee notes in “What’s Yours Is Mine: Against the Sharing Economy,” problems arose quickly. As these companies scaled up, they began to change the cities in which they operated. Landlords evicted tenants to convert whole buildings into unregulated hotels. Uber set fares, skimmed tips and imposed strictures on its drivers — even as the company maintained that those drivers were independent contractors, not employees.

Heavily regulated hotel chains and taxi companies complained that Sharing Economy companies were systematically skirting — or encouraging their users to skirt — labor, zoning, tax, insurance, access and public safety laws. The grift played out differently in each sector, and Slee patiently teases out the contrasts. But the big picture is remarkably clear. “The Sharing Economy is a movement: it is a movement for deregulation,” Slee concludes. “It’s not about building an alternative to a corporate-driven market economy, it’s about extending the deregulated free market into new areas of our lives.”

A trained scientist with a long career in the software industry, Slee laments the missed opportunity for building real community through the wise use of technology. His declared motive for writing the book was “a sense of betrayal: that what started as an appeal to community, person-to-person connections, sustainability, and sharing has become the playground of billionaires, Wall Street, and venture capitalists extending their free-market values ever further into our personal lives.” Slee rejects the assumption that technology somehow trumps political economy, and he has no patience for “solutionism,” or the belief that technology can solve complex social problems. “What is called for,” he concludes, “is a little modesty on the part of those who identify with new technologies.”

Slee’s analysis is supported by other observers. Writing for The Nation last year, Doug Henwood described the Sharing Economy as “a classically neoliberal response to neoliberalism: individualized and market-driven, it sees us all as micro-entrepreneurs fending for ourselves in a hostile world.” Likewise, Steven Hill connects the Sharing Economy to the ass-kicking that workers have received in recent decades. In “Raw Deal: How the ‘Uber Economy’ and Runaway Capitalism Are Screwing American Workers,” Hill considers the increasing fraction of Americans who rely on casual and temporary employment to make ends meet. He also recounts the wrangles the Sharing Economy has generated and suggests policies that would reroute gains from higher productivity and new technologies to struggling workers and families.In short, the Sharing Economy in its current form represents an especially untempered version of capitalism. But one wonders where it goes from here. The most successful companies have faced considerable pushback, especially in San Francisco. Last year, Airbnb spent $8 million to defeat Proposition F, which would have placed limits on short-term rentals. It also agreed to collect hotel taxes on those rentals and forked over $12 million to the city last year. The company then waged an advertising campaign trumpeting its tax payments that infuriated many locals. “Dear Public Library System,” some of its signs read, “We hope you use some of the $12 million in taxes to keep the library open later. Love, Airbnb.” Other signs asked the city to use the money to feed all expired parking meters. After years of waxing poetic about community, Airbnb wanted a cookie for paying its taxes. “The intent was to show the hotel tax contribution from our hosts and guests, which is roughly $1 million per month,” a company spokesman said. “It was the wrong tone, and we apologize to anyone who was offended. These ads are being taken down immediately.”

Uber also faces serious challenges. Last year, the California Labor Commission ruled that one of its drivers was an employee, not an independent contractor. Uber tried to thwart a class-action lawsuit on the same point, arguing in San Francisco federal court that it wasn’t a taxi service but merely a technological intermediary between potential riders and potential drivers. The judge called that argument “fatally flawed in numerous respects,” and allowed more than 100,000 drivers to join the lawsuit. The trial date is set for June. Even more than Airbnb, Uber also commits careless media errors. Its executives are notorious for high-profile gaffes, especially sexist ones, leading one public relations professional to suggest a new mobile phone application that would “temporarily ban executives from speaking to the media or public without first seeking professional communications and policy advice.” Another professional opined that “Uber doesn’t need to fix its image; it needs to fix its culture.”

To improve its image, Airbnb hired former Clinton aide Chris Lehane as head of global policy and public affairs. Lehane, whom Karl Rove described as “one of the Democratic Party’s best opposition researchers,” handled damage control during the Monica Lewinsky affair. He immediately pledged to vanquish the opposition. “I am committed to playing to win when it comes to standing up and fighting for the rights of everyday people to share their homes,” Lehane said. As an everyday person myself, I am profoundly unmoved by this vaunt.

For its part, Uber recruited former Obama adviser David Plouffe to serve as senior vice president for policy and strategy. The public announcement, which favored the word “insurgent” and its variants at every turn, also quoted besmirched Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel on Plouffe’s political skills. Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper bragged that his state “has led the way on innovative transportation options like Uber” and declared that Plouffe “brings the same progressive approach.” With progressives like these, who needs reactionaries?

If the so-called Sharing Economy is better understood as the Scofflaw Economy, more grass-roots progressives are likely to find Slee’s critique persuasive. Indeed, many Americans might already agree with him that “the naivete of twenty-six-year-old CEOs [and] the hubris of their venture capital advisers … do not bode well.”


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