AirBnB and Discrimination, Part II
December 11, 2015 1:14 PM   Subscribe

A working paper by three Harvard Business School researchers shows evidence of "widespread" discrimination against African-American guests by Airbnb hosts.

Previously on MetaFilter, a paper by two of the study's authors, Benjamin Edelman and Michael Luca, found a similar effect involving the prices African American hosts could command on the service.

The paper notes that
If a hotel lists a room on Expedia, platform rules effectively prevent the hotel from rejecting a guest based on perceived race, ethnicity, or almost any other factor. But if the same hotel lists a room on Airbnb (which some hotels have begun to do), it could reject a guest based on these factors or others.
In the past, Airbnb has responded swiftly to cases of individual bias, but these studies point to a systemic effect: "Just as racial discrimination was robust across host characteristics, we find that discrimination does not vary based on the cost or location of the property."
posted by kewb (60 comments total) 34 users marked this as a favorite
 
This is exactly what you expect to happen with services like Airbnb and Uber which exist more or less solely to circumvent regulation.
posted by Justinian at 2:32 PM on December 11, 2015 [71 favorites]


I'm shocked, shocked, to find that discrimination is going on here. Maybe it doesn't make sense to totally deregulate and 'disrupt' economies with zero oversight? Call me crazy I know.
posted by Carillon at 2:35 PM on December 11, 2015 [8 favorites]


AirBNB is a morally creepy company in and of itself - it should be completely obvious after their "what were they thinking" SF advertising campaign. They are a company that prides itself on flouting the law, similarly to Uber.

And this specific problem isn't even directly their fault - instead, it is logical consequences of laundering responsibility away from one central company into a million subcontractors. Instead of having one central racist organization that you can combat and prove racism, there are a million "somewhat-racists", each of which is marginally less likely to rent to a person of color, and so you get the effect of systematic racism without any individual having to be a Kluxer or even perceive themselves as biased.

This whole "disruptive" thing is, unlike Clean Skies, No Child Left Behind, the Healthy Forests Initiative or the PATRIOT Act, remarkably accurate in its name. What I fail to understand is why disrupting society is a good thing. The people who have the most to lose - the poor, of course - also are most likely to have their livelihoods disrupted by these disruptive technologies, and are less likely to have any hope of getting the tiny number of "good jobs" created by them.

We've had two decades of disruption, and the net result has been systemic unemployment and far greater insecurity for almost all categories of workers. Why is it that "conservatives" never want to actually "conserve" anything at all, whether it's ecosystems, animals, jobs or workers? And why are Democrats hand-in-hand with the conservatives' successful "disruption" of the working class?
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 2:40 PM on December 11, 2015 [37 favorites]


Justinian and Carillon: why should evading hotel or taxi regulations imply a propensity to discriminate? I don't see it.

The study's authors point out that the legal system shields services like Airbnb from liability for discrimination by hosts. Perhaps that should be changed—a law explicitly establishing liability might be a good idea. But it's not like there's some rule here that Airbnb is evading.
posted by andrewpcone at 2:43 PM on December 11, 2015 [2 favorites]


Instead of having one central racist organization that you can combat and prove racism, there are a million "somewhat-racists", each of which is marginally less likely to rent to a person of color, and so you get the effect of systematic racism without any individual having to be a Kluxer or even perceive themselves as biased.

But isn't that a good thing? Like, now we can't hide behind the claim that it is only corporate evildoers or a boogeyman elite that is racist. It is, in fact, the population at large. We have met the enemy and he is us. It's a harder problem than fighting de jure segregation, but I would think a more worthy one.

Services like Airbnb allow that to be identified, measured, statistically vetted. So the authors propose solutions, and their paper gets written up in the NYT, and Airbnb is pressured to respond, and possibly (I hope) legislators to craft appropriate policy.

If Airbnb didn't exist, and nothing provided a platform for this particular racism to show itself, those same "somewhat-racists" would still exist, and I doubt their somewhat-racism would be any better contained.
posted by andrewpcone at 2:55 PM on December 11, 2015 [3 favorites]


Justinian and Carillon: why should evading hotel or taxi regulations imply a propensity to discriminate? I don't see it.

Because once you've evaded one regulation, why not evade them all?

The study's authors point out that the legal system shields services like Airbnb from liability for discrimination by hosts. Perhaps that should be changed—a law explicitly establishing liability might be a good idea.

The problem is that you're running smack dab into one of the Internet's sacred cows - Section 230.
posted by NoxAeternum at 2:57 PM on December 11, 2015 [3 favorites]


This reminds me of a study I read about where researches created an algorithm that modeled self-segregation by creating a map of randomly scattered dots colored black or white and assigning each dot a very slight preference to be near at least one other dot that was of the same color. And then within a very few "rounds" where the dots could move positions, you ended up with black dot neighborhoods and white dot neighborhoods. Even "weak" racism had strong effects. It's a much bigger and much harder problem than cartoonishly undiluted Extra Strength racism.
posted by prefpara at 2:59 PM on December 11, 2015 [21 favorites]


>why should evading hotel or taxi regulations imply a propensity to discriminate?...
...but it's not like there's some rule here that Airbnb is evading.


Some of the regulations that AirBnB and Uber are avoiding are anti-discrimination regulations, and anti-discrimination laws in housing/hotels and transit were some of the most contentious parts of the Civil Rights struggle in the 60's. The "structures" and "inefficiencies" that Uber and AirBnB are "disrupting" aren't arbitrary things without motivation. Regulation of transit and housing is innately tied up in anti-racist policy.

Federal Regulation: You can't discriminate against disabled passengers.
Uber: Fuck you.

> isn't that a good thing? now we can't hide behind the claim that it is only corporate evildoers or a boogeyman elite that is racist

(A) no one is making that argument
(B) the problem with there being spread out, low level racism is that there's no one to prosecute or regulate to make things better. It's just not worth the time to go after each individual taxi or room owner one by one by one. The cost is huge per case, the rewards are tiny, and the individual can just close up shop instead of comply.

The DoJ can go after Yellow Cab, and investigate their practices. They can't do that for individual taxi drivers- the cost/benefit is all wrong.
posted by DGStieber at 3:00 PM on December 11, 2015 [51 favorites]


I've argued with libertarians about why certain businesses should not be allowed to discriminate a million times. Hey libertarians, look here. The market isn't fixing it!
posted by Drinky Die at 3:01 PM on December 11, 2015 [19 favorites]


why should evading hotel or taxi regulations imply a propensity to discriminate? I don't see it.

Not wanting to comply with regulation doesn't make a person racist, but not having to comply with regulation certainly enables the racism that already exists. The oversights exist to correct the base level of racism that everything contains.
posted by neonrev at 3:02 PM on December 11, 2015 [10 favorites]


More grist for the mill of the values of white supremacy (or more specifically, of non-black supremacy) are deeply rooted in American culture. One doesn't need to be racist to make racist decisions when cultural transmission has conditioned one to do so under rationales which are deniable even to one's conscious mind.

See also: the section on race and dating in Christian Rudder's Dataclysm, which shows, using OKCupid data, that merely being black in America reduces one's perceived value as a romantic partner by a large amount. Perhaps America has too much continuity with the old slave-owning nation it used to be, in a way that, say, the Federal Republic of Germany doesn't have with the Third Reich.
posted by acb at 3:03 PM on December 11, 2015 [7 favorites]


prefpara:
This sums up the result of a similar study: http://ncase.me/polygons/
posted by andrewpcone at 3:03 PM on December 11, 2015 [4 favorites]


>I've argued with libertarians about why certain businesses should not be allowed to discriminate a million times. Hey libertarians, look here. The market isn't fixing it!

There are libertarians that look at the racism that the market allows and they call it a bug. Then there's libertarians that see the same thing and call it a feature. The problem is their rhetoric sounds identical.
posted by DGStieber at 3:03 PM on December 11, 2015 [8 favorites]


Uber has a lot of problems, but it does try pretty hard to prevent racial discrimination. Drivers can't fail to pick too many people up before getting noticed.

AirBnB, on the other hand, pretty much requires an active social media account with a head shot, and there's absolutely no penalty for failing to accept a guest (and in fact most hosts DON'T respond to requests, even for white guests -- so it would be difficult to penalize anyone). It's pretty much a perfect setup for discrimination.
posted by miyabo at 3:27 PM on December 11, 2015 [4 favorites]


The "structures" and "inefficiencies" that Uber and AirBnB are "disrupting" aren't arbitrary things without motivation. Regulation of transit and housing is innately tied up in anti-racist policy.

Innately tied up in anti-racist policy? That sounds like quite an exaggeration. I defy you to find a single source that says that the medallion system, fare-fixing, insurance requirements, pickup constraints, etc which are the primary regulations Uber is "disrupting" have anything to do with anti-racist policy.

Same with Airbnb. Regulation of hotels has mostly been about safety, particularly from fire. To the extent it has touched on race/class, it has mostly been about zoning SRO's out of existence, which is hardly anti-racist. I likewise defy you to identify any hotel-specific regulation from which Airbnb profits from flouting that has its origins in anti-racism. Zoning and land use policies MUCH more often have their origins in racism than anti-racism—I don't believe the history of hotels differs.

Federal law prohibits discrimination in many settings, including transit and housing (title II, etc). But I have seen no evidence that Uber or Airbnb's business model in any way benefits from flouting that. Like, maybe if people couldn't discriminate by race, they'd take their listing off Airbnb. But the FPP-linked study suggests (though does not directly state) that there is a net loss of total revenue due to discrimination.

As far as disability with Uber versus cabs, my wife, who was in crutches was once forced by a taxi driver to exit into traffic with her damaged, splinted leg out first, declaring that it was not his problem. She has, to my knowledge, not taken a taxi since (though she did reverse the charge). Everything I've heard about or read suggests that taxi discrimination against the disabled in rampant. This, for example. Uber might be trying to squirm out of liability, and that sucks, to be clear, but I see no evidence they are making things worse for the disabled.
posted by andrewpcone at 3:29 PM on December 11, 2015 [8 favorites]


Uber might be trying to squirm out of liability, and that sucks, to be clear, but I see no evidence they are making things worse for the disabled.

The nature of their business model means that they won't mandate equipping a portion of their fleet with equipment to make their cabs accessible. Instead, they partner with the cab companies to provide those services, while happily taking away more profitable runs for them. They also don't train their drivers in the ADA, and claim that ADA non-compliance is on the head of the driver, not the company. Also, when cities like a Toronto regulate to force accessibility, Uber argues that their drivers should be exempted.
posted by NoxAeternum at 3:44 PM on December 11, 2015 [14 favorites]


There are libertarians that look at the racism that the market allows and they call it a bug. Then there's libertarians that see the same thing and call it a feature. The problem is their rhetoric sounds identical.

It's what happens when people mistake what is more efficient, or pareto optimal, or other similar mathematically valid economic concepts and consider the behavior of the market ipso facto the optimal moral good.

The problem isn't the idea that markets aren't (generally) efficient, but the idea that efficiency is morality. Modern soi disant Libertarians are nothing of the sort. They're fetishists of non-linear accumulation of power, money, and influence, and rightfully deserve the more accurate epithet dark enlightenmentists.
posted by chimaera at 3:49 PM on December 11, 2015 [19 favorites]


probably not overt discrimination. more passive bias, which is not at all the same thing.
posted by nickrussell at 3:55 PM on December 11, 2015


"Justinian and Carillon: why should evading hotel or taxi regulations imply a propensity to discriminate? I don't see it."

This is very much "a see no evil, hear no evil thing"... after hearing anecdotes, I had the chance to ask a regional manager of AirBNB if they tracked denial rates across racial groups to see if such discrimination was happening. His response was that "they take claims of discrimination seriously,," and kick people who they catch doing it off the service.

I was like BUT ARE YOU MEASURING THIS... I insisted that it would be really easy to compare denial rates by race, especially if they have a decent statistician or data science team (which they do).

So it's clearly something that they COULD measure (as other academics have) and could devise ways to prevent discrimination by their hosts *but have chosen not to.*

This is akin to statistical "disparate impact claims" brought to the Supreme Court.
posted by stratastar at 4:04 PM on December 11, 2015 [18 favorites]


Regulation is like vaccination. You don't think you need it because you've never been a victim of circumstances where they failed to previously exist.

All of these regulations we have were put in usually for a good reason. Things like a transparent and open pricing system meant that drivers got a decent rate negotiated with the taxi board, they got a monopoly on hailed fairs and in return they were expected to fill certain obligations like picking up any passenger that requests it. If they failed in these obligations they would lose their licence to operate which is a pretty huge Sword of Damocles hanging over their head.

Ditto hotels.

Pop quiz. What was the last year that ten or more people were killed in a single hotel fire in the United States? It was 1986. Nearly thirty years we've been without a mass death hotel fire. Why? Because we regulated the hell out of it. Previously to the massive hotel safety regulation overhaul after the MGM Grand went up in 1980 killing 85 people there was one every year or two. But the MGM Grand? It was the final straw. The hand of the free market was too busy jacking itself off so we regulated the absolute fucking hell out of it.

The "sharing" (read: gilded age) economy is so attractive because we've lived without disaster and the regulations seem overburdensome because of that. But it's because of those regulations that disasters, discrimination and such are all kept to a minimum.
posted by Talez at 4:10 PM on December 11, 2015 [103 favorites]


It's more like, the depredations of the financial industry and the resulting fallout from the 2008 financial crisis has widened income inequality to the extent that more and more people are seeking odd jobs as supplemental income streams, which startups involved in the sharing economy are more than happy to give them, at a pittance.
posted by Apocryphon at 4:14 PM on December 11, 2015 [1 favorite]


"Innately tied up in anti-racist policy? That sounds like quite an exaggeration."

It's absolutely not. Particularly regarding housing policy (cf. redlining, and mortgage lending - a practice that continues TO THIS DAY.)

With respect to transportation the active racism mostly went like this: we're going to build a highways through minority neighborhood across all our cities.
posted by stratastar at 4:19 PM on December 11, 2015 [8 favorites]


The problem isn't the idea that markets aren't (generally) efficient, but the idea that efficiency is morality.

As the paper discusses, discrimination against potential black customers is inefficient.
posted by jpe at 5:06 PM on December 11, 2015 [3 favorites]


The problem isn't the idea that markets aren't (generally) efficient, but the idea that efficiency is morality.

It seems that in this instance, though, the market isn't efficient either. According to the study, hosts who reject African-American guests are able to find a replacement guest only 35% of the time and as a result a host incurs a cost of roughly $65-$100 in foregone revenue by rejecting an African-American guest. But the market correction that libertarians would promise--those based not on morality, but on efficiency, don't kick in. experienced hosts (hosts with a long history of reviews as well as hosts with multiple properties) were just as likely to discriminate as others. These findings dim hopes of competition preventing discrimination.

But if the study provides evidence against a libertarian shibboleth, it provides some against a progressive shibboleth as well, the claim that only white people can be racist. Empirically, we find that discrimination occurs regardless of the race of the host, and the point estimate of discrimination is roughly the same for White and African-American hosts.

It may be true that individual African Americans can't discriminate against whites in a way that's supported by broader institutions in a way that's characterism of racism, but this report indicates that the can (and do) discriminate against other African-Americans in a way that's part of the machinery of white supremacy. That's a result I didn't expect.
posted by layceepee at 5:12 PM on December 11, 2015 [10 favorites]


it provides some against a progressive shibboleth as well, the claim that only white people can be racist.

I'm really not trying to do the No True Progressive thing here, but what progressive who's paying any amount of attention to these issues actually holds this opinion in 2015?
posted by tonycpsu at 5:23 PM on December 11, 2015 [5 favorites]


The notion that racism is prejudice + power (meaning only whites can be "racist") is fairly common among some progressive groups.
posted by jpe at 5:29 PM on December 11, 2015 [6 favorites]


I'm really not trying to do the No True Progressive thing here, but what progressive who's paying any amount of attention to these issues actually holds this opinion in 2015?

Hi, welcome to Metafilter. Have a cookie!
posted by Justinian at 5:29 PM on December 11, 2015 [7 favorites]


The notion that "only white people can be racist" relies on a particular definition of racism (i.e. permeating structural racism) which makes it entirely compatible with the existence of discrimination against white people. I am not generally a fan of this use of that line - because it amounts to semantic one-upping where one could instead just say that one is talking about structural racism and that these occurrences of discrimination are not symmetrical. But it's pretty clear what's meant by it.
posted by atoxyl at 5:43 PM on December 11, 2015 [2 favorites]


why should evading hotel or taxi regulations imply a propensity to discriminate? I don't see it.

What, so the people who weren't around when the regulations were put in place don't understand why they were necessary? And it's not in their interest to look into it? Shit, next we'll be saying that might extend to every regulation that's inconvenient for them.
posted by ctmf at 7:55 PM on December 11, 2015 [4 favorites]


This reminds me of a study I read about where researches created an algorithm that modeled self-segregation by creating a map of randomly scattered dots colored black or white and assigning each dot a very slight preference to be near at least one other dot that was of the same color. And then within a very few "rounds" where the dots could move positions, you ended up with black dot neighborhoods and white dot neighborhoods. Even "weak" racism had strong effects. It's a much bigger and much harder problem than cartoonishly undiluted Extra Strength racism.

If anyone is interested, that was most likely Nobel prize winning economist' Thomas Schelling's work, which he did about 50 years ago using agent based modeling.
posted by MisantropicPainforest at 8:03 PM on December 11, 2015 [3 favorites]


If anyone is interested, that was most likely Nobel prize winning economist' Thomas Schelling's work, which he did about 50 years ago using agent based modeling.

Vi Hart made an online simulation of this model, Parable of the Polygons, which was posted to MetaFilter.
posted by Rangi at 9:41 PM on December 11, 2015 [3 favorites]


I think this is an interesting and useful paper, and I don't mean to detract from the discussion of the content, but I'm curious about what the IRB had to say about the methods used to perform this research. Creating multiple fake accounts and using web scrapers to gather data on hosts violates multiple sections of Airbnb's terms of service, and it seems like gathering and publishing host data that is not publicly visible (e.g. host responses) violates parts of the privacy policy as well. I'd love to know if the researchers communicated with Airbnb before or during the study, and what that conversation looked like, since Airbnb's TOS doesn't include anything about third-party research for purposes outside market research, identity verification, fraud detection, customer support, promotional messaging, and legal compliance. As problematic as I think Airbnb is (read: ridiculously, forehead-clutchingly, disruptive-in-all-the-worst-ways problematic), I also feel iffy about enrolling a bunch of people in a research study without their consent, if that's what happened here.
posted by guybrush_threepwood at 3:40 AM on December 12, 2015 [1 favorite]


Maybe this will be the start of getting these shenanigans regulated. I hope so.
posted by Sheydem-tants at 4:09 AM on December 12, 2015


guybrush_threepwood: I think this is an interesting and useful paper, and I don't mean to detract from the discussion of the content, but I'm curious about what the IRB had to say about the methods used to perform this research.

From the article:
We collected all data using scrapers we built for this purpose. We sent inquiries to Airbnb hosts using web browser automation tools we built for this purpose. Our Institutional Review Board approved our methods before we began collecting data.
I remember reading that most business research is considered exempt from IRB approval, though they usually go through it anyway. The study states that they attempted to make sure the host did not hold inventory for them, so it doesn't seem like anyone was harmed in the study. It's not a dating site; these are business transactions.
posted by bluefly at 5:52 AM on December 12, 2015 [2 favorites]


This reminds me of a study I read about where researches created an algorithm that modeled self-segregation by creating a map of randomly scattered dots colored black or white and assigning each dot a very slight preference to be near at least one other dot that was of the same color. And then within a very few "rounds" where the dots could move positions, you ended up with black dot neighborhoods and white dot neighborhoods. Even "weak" racism had strong effects. It's a much bigger and much harder problem than cartoonishly undiluted Extra Strength racism.

Possibly you might have read about this (and Schelling!) in a 2002 article in The Atlantic by Jonathan Rauch called Seeing Around Corners.
posted by you must supply a verb at 7:59 AM on December 12, 2015


Things like a transparent and open pricing system meant that drivers got a decent rate negotiated with the taxi board, they got a monopoly on hailed fairs and in return they were expected to fill certain obligations like picking up any passenger that requests it. If they failed in these obligations they would lose their licence to operate which is a pretty huge Sword of Damocles hanging over their head.

This implies that regulation works though. And that it's readily enforced.

Have you ever tried to call in a taxi complaint? Even a serious one? Do you ever think about why taxis refusing to pick people up in a "certain neighborhood" or take them there is such a trope that it's been in many tv shows and movies? Have you never talked to a minority who multiple cabs refused to pick up, when they later picked up a white passenger halfway down the block... who invariably has multiple stories to this effect? Have you ever talked to someone who was seriously mistreated by a cab driver, and tried to report it? Even if they had evidence? Anyone whose been child-locked in a cab by the driver over some dispute?

These services don't just exist because people forgot why regulations were needed, they exist because regulations were being lackadaisically enforced all across this country.

I'm not really all that pro uber or airbnb, but can we at least have an honest discussion where we admit that was true. Instead of, you know, a "wake up sheeple!" sort of one where we act like a functional system is being dunked into the garbage can and everyone is just too stupid to remember why it was necessary?
posted by emptythought at 11:07 AM on December 12, 2015 [12 favorites]


That is definitely a really good point. I trashed the libertarian arguments earlier but one thing they are right about is that anti-competitive situations often lead to poor service and no accountability. Can we have the regulations without the absurd monopoly?
posted by Drinky Die at 12:24 PM on December 12, 2015


The notion that racism is prejudice + power (meaning only whites can be "racist") is fairly common among some progressive groups.

No, the idea is not that only whites can be racist, it's that racism against white people (i.e., "reverse racism") can't be a thing. Racial minorities discriminating against other racial minorities is still plain racism (because it still upholds the existing white-supremacy power structure). Racial minorities discriminating against members of their same racial group would likely be considered internalized racism, and, again, it's something that upholds the existing white-supremacy power structure and is a widely acknowledged form of racism.
posted by jaguar at 1:52 PM on December 12, 2015 [9 favorites]


I'm not really all that pro uber or airbnb, but can we at least have an honest discussion where we admit that was true. Instead of, you know, a "wake up sheeple!" sort of one where we act like a functional system is being dunked into the garbage can and everyone is just too stupid to remember why it was necessary?

Okay, here's the honest discussion: the existing livery services are poorly regulated. But the gig economy rejects the idea of regulation.

You bring up that taxicabs refused to service certain neighborhoods, while ignoring that Uber "solves" that problem by setting the bar to entry rather high - you need both a smartphone and access to credit to use their service. (This, by the way, is also why I find when pro-gig service people talk about how regular cabs don't like credit cards to be more than a bit obnoxious, because they always ignore that bit.) Uber and Airbnb have had bad track records when it comes to complaints as well.

But the kicker is that when people start talking about regulating these firms, they start screaming bloody murder. Look at what happened in San Antonio - when the city proposed rquiring Uber drivers to be licensed by the city with fingerprints on file, the company threatened to take their ball home, and waged a successful PR campaign to get the city to acquiesce.
posted by NoxAeternum at 3:38 PM on December 12, 2015 [5 favorites]


You bring up that taxicabs refused to service certain neighborhoods, while ignoring that Uber "solves" that problem by setting the bar to entry rather high - you need both a smartphone and access to credit to use their service.

What do you need to start as a taxi driver?
posted by Drinky Die at 3:44 PM on December 12, 2015


The point is that I can take a regular cab with just cash but I need a credit card to use Uber. So if and when Uber drives the cab companies out of business if you can't get a credit card I guess you're taking the bus.
posted by Elementary Penguin at 4:29 PM on December 12, 2015 [1 favorite]


I think uber will put their heads together and find a way to take your money.
posted by Drinky Die at 5:43 PM on December 12, 2015


As the paper discusses, discrimination against potential black customers is inefficient.

Well, that depends on what exactly it is that you are trying to efficiently do.
posted by Pater Aletheias at 5:43 PM on December 12, 2015 [3 favorites]


I think uber will put their heads together and find a way to take your money.

That's not a bet I'll take. It all would depend on how valuable they feel that servicing that customer base actually is.
posted by NoxAeternum at 6:45 PM on December 12, 2015 [3 favorites]


We actually do want a "sharing economy" regardless because it'll have fewer oligopolies, use resources more efficiently, automate jobs that should not exist, and allow people to do jobs casually as much for amusement as for pay.

It's obvious that, if people are sharing, collaborating, etc., then people's prejudices, etc. become more visible. We needed to work on that lower level racism anyways though, but yes doing so requires more gentle tactics than dealing with racist policies instituted by businesses.

In this case, I'd agree with the authors that AirBnB should simply not "require users to reveal their names", but actually doing that is a separate problem with AirBnB being a web company that does not want to give their customers any privacy.
posted by jeffburdges at 6:57 AM on December 13, 2015


My last comment was poorly thought out due to alcohol. Withdrawn.
posted by Drinky Die at 7:28 AM on December 13, 2015


> We actually do want a "sharing economy" regardless because it'll have fewer oligopolies, use resources more efficiently, automate jobs that should not exist, and allow people to do jobs casually as much for amusement as for pay.

This is absolutely correct — especially when you consider it from the perspective of an employer rather than an employee. For example, people doing jobs casually as much as for amusement as for pay may come cheaper than people who are doing it for a living, which means I could lay off some of my full-time employees and replace them with casualized part-time workers. This has knock-on benefits from the employer perspective, as the presence of casualized labor in a workforce exerts downward pressure on wages as a whole — people desperate for any full-time job they can find are typically willing to take lower salaries. Even beyond the downward effect on wages, the sharing economy is particularly efficient for employers because they can often use the de jure independent contractor status of their employees to get around cumbersome regulations (as has been in part discussed in this thread). So you know it's a win-win for all people who have enough capital to buy labor instead of sell it.

From an employee perspective, the sharing economy means a steady downward pressure on wages, benefits, and workplace protections. These are typically not things we want, unless we've trained ourselves to identify with our employers' point of view rather than our own.
posted by You Can't Tip a Buick at 11:31 PM on December 13, 2015 [5 favorites]


We want to eliminate unpleasant work and ideally employers. AirBnB and Uber are not employers but broker services, easily interchangeable with another broker service. There is nothing that prevents a large city like San Antonio from launching an alternative that plays by the city's rules, except of course if those rules require drug testing and fingerprints. It's fine to install some app to drive around partiers on Friday nights when you've no plans yourself, but it's another thing entirely to give up smoking pot and get fingerprinted for the privilege.
posted by jeffburdges at 2:52 AM on December 14, 2015


AirBnB and Uber are not employers but broker services, easily interchangeable with another broker service.

Except that they aren't "easily interchangeable", thanks to network effects. I know that the fantasy persists that we can just remove online services that act badly simply by switching to another service, but that is something that really needs to die.

It's fine to install some app to drive around partiers on Friday nights when you've no plans yourself, but it's another thing entirely to give up smoking pot and get fingerprinted for the privilege.

The point is that society cares less about the fact that you're just doing this for beer money, and more that you are driving random people around for hire, and as such wants some measure of tracking your operation.
posted by NoxAeternum at 8:06 AM on December 14, 2015 [1 favorite]


Well, and also people who have to sell their labor time for a living (which means most people) have an interest in the conditions under which labor time is sold and the price at which labor time is sold. If people are for whatever reason dumping excess labor on the market at below market rates (or even at below the rate required to support a worker), that does in fact harm all workers.
posted by You Can't Tip a Buick at 9:25 AM on December 14, 2015 [2 favorites]


We want to eliminate unpleasant work and ideally employers.

Tell this to someone whose choices are "unpleasant work" or "not eating."

It's possible to imagine a hypothetical version of a "sharing economy" where peoples needs are taken care of by some kind of universal income guarantee, and also to imagine a scenario where robots do much of the work that needs to be done for such a society to function, but to pretend the currently extant "sharing" economy has anything to do with this or puts us anywhere closer to realizing that version of society is pure fantasy.
posted by tonycpsu at 9:37 AM on December 14, 2015 [3 favorites]


I mean I think we should ban work and eliminate employers too, but I'm pretty sure the means of doing that isn't going to involve app-based middleman services designed to result over time in further concentration of wealth and power. And I'm positive it's not going to involve redesignating employees as independent contractors.
posted by You Can't Tip a Buick at 10:05 AM on December 14, 2015


Except that they aren't "easily interchangeable", thanks to network effects. I know that the fantasy persists that we can just remove online services that act badly simply by switching to another service, but that is something that really needs to die.

Maybe not with AirBnb, but Uber has at least a few credible competitors, even if Lyft and Sidecar are present in fewer cities.
posted by Apocryphon at 10:33 AM on December 14, 2015


We'd have another competitor to Uber if San Antonio had chosen to spend say $10M building one, perhaps many more if they'd licensed the code under GPLv3 or made it a federated system. It might've failed if they asked drivers to get fingerprinted and do drug tests, but if the government had any sense they could maybe figure that out along the way. Also, there was never any legitimate public interest in fingerprinting and drug testing drivers, NoxAeternum, just politicians flexing their power and imposing their puritanical values.

There are competitors to AirBnB too like vrbo.com, etc., Apocryphon, but actually AirBnB has numerous quasi-compeditors like Couchsurfing, BeWelcome, Trustroots, Warmshowers.org, etc. These are more community and less financially oriented, so mostly just us hippies, but they're where AirBnB got the idea, they're still going strong, and they're different enough that they won't disappear. As an aside, there is a strong case that the reason Uber's management get away with being jerks is that the hippies didn't occupy the rideshare niche first. Ain't so hard to imagine a truly collaborative transport application.

We get major political reforms like basic income because economic changes necessitate them, tonycpsu, not just because politicians magically see the light. Yes, there is a real cancer in America's political and social thought process that'll make this change suck like the fight for healthcare sucked. Appears unavoidable though.
posted by jeffburdges at 7:52 PM on December 14, 2015 [1 favorite]


We get major political reforms like basic income because economic changes necessitate them, tonycpsu, not just because politicians magically see the light.

Right, which is why it's so baffling to see anyone who ostensibly favors a more equal income distribution cheering on the advance of the sharing economy. It's the same logic that gets politicians to publicly finance stadium projects and provide giant tax breaks to corporations so they locate their jobs in their town -- sure, a handful of people will be helped in the short term, but in so doing, we shift financial resources and the balance of power away from the public writ large and toward a select few.
posted by tonycpsu at 7:38 AM on December 15, 2015


In many cities, there is a system of taxi medallions, or similar, that funnels money into the pockets of investors, or create monopolies in other way, so no hope for more equal income distribution there. There is an argument that Uber drivers earn slightly more, which presumably fudges the data by considering only cities where they compete with taxis licensed through medallions. In any case, those cheaper fares are in significant part coming out of the pockets of pre-existing monopolists and rent seekers, so that's good.

As a rule, these sharing economy services should ideally be replaced with federated open source platforms that preserve user's privacy. Ain't likely to happen quickly in the U.S., but it's plausible in Europe, and breaking taxi monopolies makes it more likely.

In particular, I'm envisioning a system where customers and merchants exchange cryptographic tokens in a way that keeps them both anonymous to the system operator under normal conditions, but allows rudimentary rating functionality, and allows either to deanonymize the other in the event of breach of contract, crime, etc.
posted by jeffburdges at 4:48 PM on December 15, 2015 [1 favorite]


“Why We Fight Uber,” Michal Rozworski, Jacobin, 16 December 2015
The fight against Uber isn’t technophobia. It’s a fight for a technology that could foster real cooperation.
posted by ob1quixote at 10:48 AM on December 16, 2015


I agree with that essay overall but disagree with that particular statement. There is almost nobody actually building or fighting for technologies that could foster real cooperation. In particular, all the Anti-Uber crusaders are working to reinforce harmful monopolies that outright prevent cooperation. It's unfortunate that Uber gets there first. And It's problematic that Uber integrates themselves with local governments in ways that allow them to oppose real cooperation efforts. Ain't likely a distributed peer-to-peer ride sharing tool can pay operating fees, bribes, etc. though. I doubt this hypothetical cooperative ride sharing tool could've opposed these local monopolies, in essence drivers are much less anonymous that say file sharers.
posted by jeffburdges at 9:21 AM on December 19, 2015




"If anyone is interested, that was most likely Nobel prize winning economist' Thomas Schelling's work, which he did about 50 years ago using agent based modeling."

IAAE, and have done agent based modeling and this stuff is all well and good. And you can set up these models and define parameters to do anything.

But I assure you that the history of white flight in this country was the furthest thing possible from a naturally occurring phenomena and EVERYTIME people bring it up with regards to housing and racial segregation in these contexts they are doing nothing but justifying racism. Think twice before you do it.
posted by stratastar at 12:05 PM on December 28, 2015


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