Reviewed by Ruth Latta
What’s Yours is Mine
Against the Sharing Economy
by Tom Slee
Between the Lines Press
Feb 2016, ISBN 978-1-55380-455-0, 216 pages
In calling his new book What’s Yours is Mine, Tom Slee takes aim at a 2010 work by Rachel Botsman and Roo Rogers, titled What’s Mine is Yours: The Rise of Collaborative Consumption (Harper Business, 2010) Slee, a Ph.D in theoretical chemistry, with a long career in Canada’s software industry, claims that the so-called sharing economy is having a bad effect on our cities and on workers’ rights. Slee’s subtitle is: Against the Sharing Economy.
The sharing economy is made up of new businesses that use the Internet to match customers with service providers. The companies have software platforms, websites and mobile apps to match consumers with providers and handle payments, in return for a percentage of the proceeds. Supporters of the sharing economy, such as Botsman and Rogers, see it as community building, as people helping people: a way for individuals to make a bit of money by reaching out to other human beings, doing their errands, renting out a bedroom to tourists, or giving people rides. Why pay money to a giant impersonal hotel corporation or an oldfashioned taxi company, they ask, when there is a more personal alternative? Ride-sharing instead of car ownership reduces your environmental footprint.
Tom Slee sees the sharing economy as an extension of the unregulated free market into new areas of our lives. Companies that make up the sharing economy (also known as “collaborative consumption”, “peer-to-peer platforms”, and “the on-demand economy”) are making fortunes for their investors, executives, software engineers and marketers while “creating riskier and more precarious forms of low-paid work.”
Contractual temporary work lowers labour costs for the company, since, by calling its employees “independent contractors”, it is not responsible for holiday leave, sick leave, health care coverage, workers’ compensation or unemployment insurance. “Independent contractors” have no grievance procedure and can be dismissed arbitrarily.
Uber and Airbnb are the two companies we first think of when we hear “sharing economy”. Airbnb matches tourists with accommodations, and in so doing, according to Slee, they harm ordinary people and local economies. Airbnb believes that the right of property owners to do what they want with their property should be come before city rules and regulations about houses and residences. In New York City, many Airbnb hosts were found to be violating a city law banning renting an apartment in a multiple-dwelling building for less than thirty days. Almost half of Airbnb’s business comes from “hosts” with multiple listings rather than from everyday homeowners renting out their spare bedrooms for a little bit of money. Tenants have been turned out of their apartments because the building owners can make more money renting on a short term basis at a higher rate. Small, traditional bed and breakfast businesses that abide by the rules of their community suffer more from Airbnb than large hotel chains do. “Living like a local” on vacation, as the ads for accommodation-sharing say, loses its meaning when the locals have been driven out.
Uber, which dominates the ride-sharing business, began in 2009 as a limo company, but in 2013 began to market itself as part of the shared economy. The company is still privately owned but has market capitalization of $50 billion, more than Hertz, Avis and Enterprise put together. Its success, says Slee, comes not from its technology but its ability to externalize costs. Although it claims to be ending the era of poorly paid cab drivers, its drivers often find themselves earning a low hourly wage once their expenses for car maintenance, gas and the company’s cut are subtracted from their gross earnings. Slee quotes an American journalist who netted around nine dollars an hour after the company’s cut and her own expenses were taken off.
Slee points out that Uber users pay electronically to Uber BV in the Netherlands, so Uber pays no taxes and is parasitic on local economies. Traditional taxi companies pay taxes, buy commercial insurance and must pass vehicle inspections. They are also required to provide universal access, accommodating people in wheelchairs and people with service dogs. Slee cites instances of complaints against Uber by the disabled. He also notes cases of Ubers engaging in price gouging – increasing fares in emergencies like snowstorms. During a 2014 hostage situation in the centre of Sydney, Australia the company engaged in “surge pricing” as people sought rides to get out of the middle of the city. This practice is the antithesis of community spirit in which people pitch in to help their neighbours during crises.
With traditional taxis, regulations provide a way for people and communities to hold them to account, but because Uber drivers are independent contractors, not employees, Uber is not responsible for “what happens on the ride.” Rules for protecting customers,” Slee writes, “have been replaced with algorithmic regulation; that is, ratings and software algorithms.” Customer ratings are is no substitute for city regulations. Tourists using Airbnb can comment on friendliness and cleanliness, but cannot judge whether, for example, their accommodations are properly protected in case of fire. Clients of ride-sharing companies cannot tell whether the brakes of the car they are riding in are sound.
Slee sees the roots of the sharing economy in the much-lauded notion of openness via the Internet. At its inception, he points out, the Internet was non-commercial and decentralized and the early software shared. The commercial element began in 1992 when the U.S. National Science Foundation was allowed to interconnect with commercial users. Openness on the Internet has harmed writers and musicians who hoped to make a living from their artistic creations, and businesses that helped them, such as editors and small booksellers. Thanks to the “openness” ethos, it is now widely accepted that artistic creation is amateurism and should be free to the public, and that exposure of creative work gratis on the Internet publicizes and thus benefits the creators. “Openness” began as an appeal to egalitarian ideals versus powerful business and government. As the movement grew, the “smart money” learned how to work with it, and now the “open commons” has been taken over by other large, powerful companies.
In a world where the so-called sharing economy seems to be the wave of the future, Slee’s look at the downside is much needed. He might have written more about the rise of the sharing economy from widespread unemployment, underemployment, and the weakening of the social safety net; however, his clear style, knowledge of his subject, and comprehensive bibliography make What’s Yours is Mine a must-read.
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