What do a luxury-home network, a car-sharing company, and an online-deals giant have in common? asked Derek Thompson. They’re all part of the Great Recession’s booming “sharing economy,” and they’ve all been bankrolled by Steve Case, the founder of America Online. Over the past eight years, Case has invested in companies like Exclusive Resorts, a network of shared vacation homes, and Zipcar, the car-sharing club for urban drivers. By promoting access and convenience over ownership, these businesses are a perfect fit for the recession lifestyle of consumers who want to pay less but do more.
No question, the sharing model accomplishes “more economic activity with less waste”: Cars are used all day instead of sitting idle, and merchants can shift unused inventory through online deal offers. But whether this efficiency is actually a good thing for the U.S. economy is another question. “What happens when millions of people spend 10 percent less on new things and 10 percent more sharing old things or getting sophisticated deals?” Consumers might love that “Netflix means we don’t have to buy a movie ever again.” But the efficiency of a “post-ownership society” may not translate into economic growth.