Thoughts On The Sharing Economy

Thoughts On The Sharing Economy

Lately a day rarely goes by without headlines about Airbnb, Uber and the so-called sharing economy — social-media, app-driven services that, for better or worse, are transforming modern travel.

As I considered the phenomenon from a Jewish perspective, it occurred to me that while Airbnb may be a hot new thing in America, the sharing economy has a century-old history in Israel.

The kibbutz movement was founded just over 100 years ago, promoting a collectivist, agrarian lifestyle that is based on, and dedicated to, shared values. The maximum common good is at the core of the kibbutz, where members pool their time and skills for the benefit not only of each other, but also of the society at large.

That ethical vision feels very different from the radically capitalist ventures driving the digital-age sharing economy. But from my perspective, the ethics of participation in the new sharing economy depend on the economic calculus of the local market. So while that may be complicated, as Jewish travelers, we ought to consider those implications as we navigate these options.

I first tried Airbnb about five years ago in Spain. Oggi and I longed to explore the unspoiled coast north of Barcelona, but the few area hotels were very expensive.

There were plenty of appealing Airbnb lodgings under $100, however. Within days of creating a profile, we scored a lovely, private suite in the core of a tiny medieval village in the countryside, about 15 minutes from the beach. The owners, a young Catalan couple with a friendly dog, had converted the ancient stone building into a bed-and-breakfast; the husband — a chef — even cooked us dinner for our near-midnight Friday arrival.

We have since enjoyed numerous Airbnb stays in villages around Europe. Mostly, they were like that first place — rustic-chic guestrooms in homey bed-and-breakfasts run out of historic, one-of-a-kind old buildings that our hosts called home. They were not only cheaper than hotels; they offered the kind of quintessentially local character that no chain ever could.

In many rural areas like the Catalan coast, Airbnb is an all-around win. Hosts earn much-needed cash in a tough labor market; they can therefore afford to maintain historic properties, and their very presence contributes to the viability of regions where work is scarce and younger people might otherwise leave.

Guests have opportunities to stay in lodgings that are more distinctive, more local in feel and often better value. And hotels — with their prime locations, guest services and comfortingly predictable formality — will still find plenty of customers.

But in big cities with already-high rents and residents struggling to afford decent housing, Airbnb in practice looks decidedly less ethical. Some hosts are making extra cash by opening up their homes. But it’s been well-documented that many landlords are converting resident housing to vacation rentals, since they can earn far more at $200 a night than $1500 a month, which further limits the housing supply and pushes up rents. This is happening not only in New York, but also in Berlin, Paris and many other cities where tourism is booming.

Likewise, when it began in San Francisco, Uber — a service in which riders use a smartphone app to hire their neighbors as freelance taxi drivers — looked like a very ethical response to a terrible situation.

San Franciscans have historically faced poor transit options, a paucity of parking spots, high costs for vehicle ownership, and a taxi shortage. Essentially, it was a tough city to get around until Uber showed up and gave people a way to get around quickly, cheaply and efficiently. And people with marginal incomes suddenly had a way to make money. That’s a common good.

But in places like Barcelona, where licensed taxi drivers are protesting the incursion of Uber-style apps, Uber seems kind of mean and unhelpful to anyone other than Uber. As is the case in cities across Europe, Barcelona public transit is comprehensive and affordable, and taxis are plentiful and cheap. Many drivers were already sitting idle during slow hours; as more unemployed workers turned to driving as a way to earn cash, the union had already considered restrictions on the number of drivers who were permitted to work a given shift.

In such markets, Uber doesn’t give riders any significant advantage, but it does undermine the livelihoods of licensed drivers who are already struggling. That feels more like poaching than sharing.

Here in the U.S., I have yet to stay at an Airbnb property. I’ve searched the listings for several West Coast and South Florida trips, but U.S. listings tend to be expensive, and I’ve always found it cheaper to stay at a motel.

The bottom line: what can be a positive force for social good in one market can be an exploitive, even pernicious, phenomenon in another. As Jews, we would do well to travel in the spirit of our kibbutznik brethren and consider how to participate in the sharing economy as a part of the solution, not part of the problem.

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