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.