High tech hyper-libertarians, and increasingly right wing politicians who love both their money and their vision of marketplaces with no regulations, love to sell the virtues of the "sharing economy", as they call it. Others slightly less enamored might call it the gig economy or the on-demand economy (which might be the most descriptive term, as I will write more of below), but whatever you call it, there are real concerns with having marketplaces with no rules to govern them.
Check out this great rant by Bill Maher to get the funniest take on these problems:
What the hyper-libertarian dreamweavers of Uber and AirBnB are spinning is a world where anyone can earn a little extra money on the side driving people around or sharing their extra room, and all of the rest can have more convenience besides. No need for rules: just some sharing among the new friends you meet through the app, right? The problem with no rules between new app-friends is that the old norms of safety and reliability and fairness go out the window- not to mention the stable jobs all those industries companies like Uber and AirBnB are competing with provide. Worried about safety on your trips? Stories like this. Worried about what AirBnB is doing to housing prices as it becomes a bigger and bigger business? Studies like this sure drive me to wonder. Do you have a disability and want to rent from AirBnB or ride with Uber? I'm hearing a lot of bad stories from my friends in the disability community. Want to stay in a building where the fire codes are done right? No guarantees at all with your new friend you just found on AirBnB.
And now AirBnB is starting to partner with the apartment industry, which will lead further away from individuals renting out their spare room, and more toward what would essentially be illegal hotels with no health and safety rules.
The issues go on and on, but at the center of it all is what kind of society are we trying to build. As the video my organization American Family Voices put out yesterday, I want an economy that is built around a prosperous and expanding middle class, where there is some stability in jobs, wages steadily rise, and most of the nation's income is going to the bottom 90% of people rather than the top 1%. How does an on-demand economy get us to those goals? The whole idea of "on-demand" in corporate America was to have goods delivered exactly when they were needed. The problem with doing that in services is that you turn your workers into expendable cogs in your giant corporate wheel. That doesn't lead to stability or higher wages or better benefits or economic security for anyone but the extremely wealthy executives at a few tech companies with clever apps.
There's also an issue with these companies quickly joining the small number of firms- the big banks on Wall Street, Wal-Mart, a few big energy and food companies, etc- that have such incredible power in the economy and in politics that they can bully or bribe politicians into doing anything they want them to do.
So you know what? Let's keep some basic ground rules in our economy. I want to stay at a place on my trips that has some health safety regulations they have to abide by; I want there to be an even playing field so that Uber and AirBnB have to live by the same rules that taxi companies and hotels do. If Uber drivers are full time, if AirBnB hosts are renting out apartments most of the time, they ought to be treated like employees and have their payroll taxes paid.
Today, there is a hearing in the House about the on-demand economy. The Republicans love the idea of the app-driven wild, wild west economy. Their answer to leveling the playfield for everyone else is to just de-regulate everything so there will be no rules that anyone has to live by in the modern economy. Not sure that works for anyone but the very wealthiest, but that is fine by them. In the meantime, the rest of us ought to keep a wary eye out for the on-demand libertarians: their vision could impoverish, and make unsafe and unfair, the entire society in the years to come.