Bill Maher on the sharing economy

On last week's episode of Real Time, Bill Maher issued a well-targeted comedic rant at the "sharing economy." This particular trend, most prominently exemplified by the taxi service Uber, is one by which companies match people who have something (a car, an empty bedroom, etc.) with people who want to use that thing. The individuals conduct the transaction and the service that hooked them up takes a (substantial) cut.

That process seems like it is using technology to increase market efficiencies, getting a larger number of people more things that they want. Adam Smith should be proud. But the reality is that this is merely the latest example of the trend by which employers dump all the risks and responsibilities of conducting a business onto their employees (who they typically label as "independent" contractors), while retaining the benefits and most of the money for themselves.

And businesses have been doing this my entire adult life. I graduated from college and began working full-time in the early 1990s. Back then many people were touting the forward-thinking nature (they didn't call it "disruption" then) of temporary employment agencies. (Manpower was the largest employer in the United States for part of this period.) The boosters of the day claimed not only that temp work allowed firms to be more flexible, but that they were an advantage to employees. The thinking went that these Gen-Xers hated to be tied down, and just wanted to work long enough to save money to go backpacking in Thailand. Of course, this was a self-serving fantasy. I was a temp throughout much of the 1990s and had lots of friends in the same position. Every single temp that I knew was better understood as an unemployed person looking for a job than a free-spirited commitment-phobe.

Today, I am an adjunct college instructor. The dynamics are much the same as the temp industry or sharing economy: little control, low pay, no benefits and a complete lack of security or stability.

So this dynamic has characterized nearly all of my working life. I have not participated in the sharing economy and hope that I will not have to. But I have seen the same rhetoric justify the same kinds of exploitation for a long time. Maher hits the nail on the head, in my view, when he says that the sharing economy is better understood as a "desperation economy." Check it out.