Arguably the two biggest economic stories of the last decade are the Great Recession and the rise of a category of new businesses that turn noncommercial capital and individuals’ spare time into valuable commercial assets. It’s too early to say which will have the greater lasting impact in fifty years’ time, but there’s a strong case to be made for the latter.
If the key economic trend of the 19th and 20th centuries was the growth of economies of scale—factories, big firms, multinationals—we are now seeing the opposite. And nowhere is the discontinuity with the industrial past more evident than with the new firms using smartphone apps and online markets to meet consumer demand for services ranging from physical storage space to urban transportation—a list that continues to expand and may soon impact virtually every corner of commercial life.
Libertarians have risen to the defense of these new firms against local regulators whose attitudes toward innovation run the gamut from apathetic to thuggish. But they have largely missed the most interesting part of the story: America is seeing what Peruvian development economist Hernando de Soto calls “dead capital” come to life.
This “peer production economy”—the development of new platforms to connect buyers and sellers who otherwise would not have connected, either because of supply- or demand-driven constraints, regulatory barriers or high transaction costs—is placing that which we didn’t formerly think of as productive capital into the stream of commerce. The result may be a blurring of the lines between personal consumption goods and productive capital, and we may become much wealthier as a consequence.
Take the burgeoning markets that allow people to rent out part of their homes, either as a kind of bed and breakfast (e.g., Airbnb) or for storing other people’s goods (e.g., StoreAtMyHouse.com). Census data show that America has over 460 million bedrooms in our more than 190 million housing units; that’s about 1.5 bedrooms for every man, woman, and child in the country. This represents a great deal of capital that people own but aren’t leveraging to earn returns.
And while this unused real estate wealth is not the “dead capital” of the world’s poor that de Soto describes, overzealous or captured regulators can cause it to take on some of the same characteristics, chief among them the inability to enter the stream of commerce. That’s what we have seen in New York’s attacks on Airbnb or Seattle’s war on any form of private transit aside from taxis and livery service. Regulators are, in effect, seizing some of the bundle of rights of capital ownership—and mostly for purposes inimical to the idea of free markets.
Consider the growth of the so-called “ride-sharing” industry. Most of these firms aren’t about sharing per se; the term “sharing” suggests the non-remunerative joint use of resources, and most ride-sharing drivers are in it to make money. By placing their cars (and their work as drivers) into the stream of commerce, they are bringing to the market resources that would otherwise have lain fallow. (And, of course, if you want to put your capital to work for you without any additional work, RelayRides connects car owners with the carless, a pure instance of valuable personal property turned instantly into commercial capital stock.)
This injection of non-commercial capital into the commercial sphere is remarkably democratic. More than 90 percent of American households have one or more cars, with half owning two or more; the median household has more than $6,800 equity in motor vehicles. That means that vast majority of American adults have an asset that they could make economically productive, which could be particularly valuable to the unemployed or people who have seen their wages fall or their hours cut back.
While the growth of the peer production economy has been cast in the popular media largely as a technology issue, from an economic perspective the technical aspect is relatively banal; the novelty is found in the underlying business models. The value lies in creating new marketplaces and new markets that allow sellers (owners of capital and labor) and buyers to transact in a way they could not before. These firms are simply using technology—and fairly mundane technology at that—to reduce search costs and information asymmetries. In that regard, they’re no more innovative than any marketplace developed by men to engage in Smith’s “propensity to truck, barter and exchange one thing for another.”
Notably, few if any of these peer production companies actually provide the services they purvey; Uber connects black car drivers with passengers, Airbnb links renters with travelers and Etsy allows small artisans to create virtual storefronts. Uber owns no cars, Airbnb has no properties and Etsy prints no Insane Clown Posse fan art. They are really marketplace innovations, not tech innovations—and have as a result little of the “gee whiz” appeal of, for instance, Google Glass or commercial drones.
Just as Hernando de Soto estimated there is more than $9 trillion in dead capital globally, a non-trivial amount of the trillions of dollars in Americans’ non-financial household net worth is undoubtedly dead—not because of informal titles, uncertainty of ownership, or dysfunctional financial institutions, but because the owners of this capital didn’t really see what they have as capital. And even if they did, markets were too riddled with information asymmetries, barriers to entry and high transaction costs for this capital to be commercialized.
What we are seeing now is likely the tip of the iceberg; who knows what other capital lies dormant and how entrepreneurs may find ways to use it? Next month marks 15 years since Berkeley’s Space Science Laboratory released SETI@Home to take advantage of the spare CPU cycles of home computers to crunch radio telescope data in the search for extraterrestrial life. The concept has since been expanded to everything from biomedical research to climate modeling. If we can figure out ways to take spare clock cycles and donate them—or in the case of Bitcoin mining, monetize them—there are undoubtedly any number of other commodities from which we can extract wealth.
Hernando de Soto’s realization that across the world, the poor were sitting on trillions of dollars of dead capital was a significant breakthrough for the development community. Today in the United States, entrepreneurs are coming to a similar conclusion, and they are developing innovative ways to bring that capital to life.
The question now is whether regulators and policymakers will allow this capital to make us wealthier—or send it back to the grave.