What Tom Friedman Doesn’t Understand About the Economy, Part 72

“Average is over,” New York Times columnist Tom Friedman likes to proclaim, and in at least one particular, he’s right. Friedman no longer writes average columns. With each passing week, his efforts become steadily more moronic.

His latest, in Sunday’s paper, is entitled “Welcome to the Sharing Economy,” and in it, Friedman mistakes economic marginality and desperation for innovation and opportunity. The subject of this particular essay is Airbnb, a website where travelers go to rent bedrooms in other people’s homes.

“There’s an innkeeper residing in all of us!” Friedman effuses, as he recounts how Airbnb may have as many as 200,000 people per night this summer plopping down in some stranger’s kid’s bedroom. Enthralled by the sheer techno-innovation of it all, Friedman doesn’t pause to ponder just what would impel a parent to turn over junior’s room for a few bucks. Could it be that the factory closed? That Wal-Mart pays so little? No matter: “Ordinary people can now be micro-entrepreneurs,” Brian Chesky, Airbnb’s founder, tells him.

Ordinary people would probably trade the thrill of hosting strangers in their kid’s room for the bucks that an ordinary job used to bring in. Friedman, though, sees this glass not just half full but overflowing. “Just think how much better all this is for the environment—for people to be renting their spare bedrooms rather than building another Holiday Inn,” he writes. Why stop there? Just think how much better it would be for the environment if they lost their homes altogether and lived the eco-friendly lives of hunter-gatherers.

Though Friedman even cites data suggesting that Airbnb is an expedient to which people turn when they’re hard up, he seems to unable to understand it. “More than 50 percent of Airbnb hosts depend on it to pay their rent or mortgage,” he notes. The company, in other words, is what people turn to when their jobs or 401ks don’t pay enough to keep them in their homes. It’s a hard-times innovation, not a portent of a bright future.  And its appeal is chiefly to the young, as the column’s references to rented tree-houses and the one-square-meter pad in Berlin (which goes for $13 a night) makes clear. This is how young people travel and cope in a horrific job market. Like the new part-time car service drivers whom riders summon with a phone-app, and those smiling young people who show up at your house at the touch of a button to cook your dinner, the Airbnb hosts use our new network technologies to scrounge the part-time gigs that help them make the rent. All Friedman sees is the techno-whizziness of the client-server matchmaking—not the undercompensation of American workers, young workers in particular, that compels people to become “micro-entrepreneurs.”

Good thing young Nate B. Forrest didn’t develop an algorithm that enabled prospective renters and buyers to match available slaves to their specific needs. Friedman would have proclaimed average slaving to be so over.  

Comments

Here's the anomaly, the country produces yearly after-taxes income of $38,008 per capita (per human being) according to the BEA.gov web page. Yet half of all workers, about 76 million of 151 million) earn less than $27,000 a year. There is enough income and wealth to make sleep-over motel rooms affordable to all -- at the least. Since there are 118 million households and $11.468 trillion in income yearly, then there's almost $100,000 per household income per family, on average. Double the median household income. I'd like Mr. Meyerson to look at my blog and publish an article about inequality: http://benL8.blogspot.com. I argue that 7% of all personal income is the amount earned yearly by half of all U.S. workers.

In general I have no argument with your evaluation of Tom Friedman, but wow. You don't seem to understand the allure of airbnb at all. Obviously, renting a place on airbnb is no substitute for a good job, but who would expect it to be that? I'm a regular, middle class guy lucky enough to own a decent home in a good location near a university. I also happen to be a computer programmer who can work remotely without much trouble.

Since I discovered airbnb, I am now able to travel easily any time I want. I put my house up to rent and I find someone else's to rent where I want to go. Presto, I can spend a week or a month or two in a new place, whether to visit with friends or formerly-distant family, or just discover a new city or even a new country. The rental of my home generally pays for the rental where I want to go, and often covers the travel costs as well.

Before airbnb, this kind of lifestyle would have been completely unaffordable, not to mention logistically much harder, because only by renting my place short-term can I make enough to pay for short-term rentals elsewhere (since short term rentals naturally cost more than long-term ones). Prior to airbnb, it wasn't nearly so easy to find people interested in renting a residential home short-term. Often you'd have to pay a guest "house-sit." Airbnb succeeded in creating a vibrant market for most people's most valuable asset where one barely existed before.

Airbnb provides insurance, so I'm not risking much, and all the people I've met as either a host or a guest have been a delight. Maybe the parent "turning over junior's room" is doing it for fun, conviviality and even generosity more than for a few bucks. I'm certainly grateful for all the great places I've found on airbnb to stay.

Now I leave my house posted on airbnb for rent all the time, and whenever someone inquires about a stay, unless I need to be in town at that time for some reason, it's "Hey honey! Where would you like to take a trip to this time?"

And comparing all the joy and opportunity that abound in this marketplace to abusive exploitation such as slavery? You must have made the honor roll at Grinch school!

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