Thursday, August 27, 2015

Bill Maher Does Not Understand the Sharing Economy

In a segment during his most recent episode of HBO’s “Real Time with Bill Maher,” Bill Maher stated that the sharing economy is the result of Americans adapting to income inequality in a “greed is good world.” He also called the sharing economy the “desperate economy,” because as a millionaire himself, Bill Maher apparently thinks it is sad that people are so desperate for money that they would share their home or car. He finished the segment by saying: “The one thing we’re not sharing are the profits. Somehow they forgot to make an app for that.”
It is clear from this segment that Bill Maher does not understand how the sharing economy operates. He even called it a “barter economy” at one point.

The sharing economy incentivizes entrepreneurial activity. While “profit sharing” may not be the apt term to describe how the sharing economy makes people better off, workers in the sharing economy are contractors; therefore, they create their own work, display their own skills, and are compensated directly for their own services. Each worker is essentially operating his or her own business. The sharing economy empowers workers and consumers through the use of reputational feedback mechanisms and peer-to-peer transactions, so the profits are being spread among the millions of users every single day. (See this recent Perspectives from FSF Scholars for more on the importance of reputational feedback mechanisms.)
Bill Maher claimed that the sharing economy is increasing income inequality and that workers have no choice but to engage because of a stagnant labor market in the U.S. If this is true, it makes the sharing economy a solution for workers, not the problem Maher claimed it is. He even made the following misguided statement about Airbnb: “Do you really think anyone wants to have total strangers living in their apartment for a week?” Well, clearly some people do want this, considering that Airbnb has had over 1.5 million listings in 190 countries around the world. Maher never explained how he thinks the sharing economy is harming the poor or exacerbating income inequality. But I can tell you he is wrong.
In May 2015 Free State Foundation scholars submitted comments to the Federal Trade Commission regarding the sharing economy. In the comments, we discussed the results of a March 2015 paper entitled “Peer to Peer Rental Markets in the Sharing Economy,” which empirically found that, for a couple reasons, sharing economy markets have an even greater beneficial impact on low-income persons than high-income persons.
As we explain in our FTC comments, the sharing economy raises the standard of living for poor consumers by creating access to goods and services that they would not have otherwise:
Due to the accountability and transparency that many sharing applications provide about their users, the emergence of trust between individuals to share their goods and services has shifted consumer preferences from owning to renting. People who could not afford to own a house, car, or even a power saw can now more easily rent them from others and ultimately enjoy a higher standard of living than they would have otherwise. Additionally, people who would have owned a car or power saw in the past might now rent them instead, saving a significant portion of their income.
Of course, consumers with high-incomes gain from the sharing economy as well. But the savings accumulated from a shift in owning to renting is more valuable to consumers with lower incomes. In economic terms, this is the law of diminishing marginal returns. All else being equal, each dollar earned is valued less than the previous one.
We also explained how the sharing economy creates entrepreneurial opportunities for poor people that would not exist otherwise:
Similarly, low-income consumers who already own goods that can be rented out stand to gain more from these transactions than high-income consumers. The extra income from sharing a car with someone is much more valuable to a poor college student than it is to a wealthy professional. Airbnb, for example, makes traveling less expensive, not only because it provides competition – and often lower prices – to traditional hotels, but also because travelers can share their living space while away. In other words, as a result of the sharing economy, the same traveler on the same trip may realize economic benefits in his or her capacity as both a lessor and lessee.
If Bill Maher were to stop criticizing successful businesses, maybe he would be able to appreciate the real economic benefits that the sharing economy enables, especially the benefits it brings to low-income individuals. But the fact that Bill Maher thinks the sharing economy exacerbates income inequality makes it clear that he has no idea how the sharing economy actually operates – through reputational feedback mechanisms which enable bisymmetrical trust and enhance welfare between consumers and workers.