Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Losing Liberty in an Age of Access

Afew months before 9/11, when I first moved to downtown Los Angeles, the city’s high rises teemed with lawyers and bankers. The lights stayed on late — a beacon of industriousness. But as I quickly discovered, they rolled up the sidewalks by sundown. No matter how productive and wealthy its workers, downtown was a ghost town. LA’s urban core was no place to raise a family or own a home. With its patchwork of one-way streets and expensive lots, it was hardly even a place to own a car. The boom of the late 1980s and early 1990s that had erected LA’s skyline had not fueled residential growth. Angelenos who wanted to chase the dream of property ownership were effectively chased out of downtown.

But things change. Last month, I moved back to “DTLA,” as it’s now affectionately known. Today, once-forlorn corners boast shiny new bars, restaurants, and high-end stores. The streets are full of foot traffic, fueled by new generations of artisans, artists, and knowledge workers. They work from caf├ęs or rented apartments, attend parties on hotel rooftops, and Uber religiously through town. Yes, there are plenty of dogs. But there are babies and children too. In a little over a decade, downtown’s generational turnover has replaced a faltering economy with a dynamic one.

What happened? Partly, it’s a tale of the magnetic power possessed by entrepreneurs and developers, who often alone enjoy enough social capital to draw friends and associates into risky areas that aren’t yet trendy. Even more, it is a story that is playing out across the country. In an age when ownership meant everything, downtown Los Angeles languished. Today, current tastes and modern technology have made access, not ownership, culturally all-important, and LA’s “historic core” is the hottest neighborhood around. Likewise, from flashy metros like San Francisco to beleaguered cities like Pittsburgh, rising generations are driving economic growth by paying to access experiences instead of buying to own.

Nationwide, the line between downsizing hipsters and upwardly mobile yuppies is blurring — an indication of potent social and economic change. America’s hipsters and yuppies seem to be making property ownership uncool. But they’re just the fashionable, visible tip of a much bigger iceberg.

Rather than a fad, the access economy has emerged organically from the customs and habits of “the cheapest generation” — as it has been dubbed in The Atlantic, the leading magazine tracking upper-middle-class cultural trends. Writers Derek Thompson and Jordan Weissman recount that, in 2010, Americans aged 21 to 34 “bought just 27 percent of all new vehicles sold in America, down from the peak of 38 percent in 1985.” From 1998 to 2008, the share of teenagers with a driver’s license dropped by more than a fourth. And it isn’t just cars and driving: Thompson and Weissman cite a 2012 paper written by a Federal Reserve economist showing that the proportion of new young homeowners during the period from 2009 to 2011 was at a level less than half that of a decade earlier. It’s not quite a stampede from ownership, but it’s close.

In part, these changes can be chalked up to the post-Great Recession economy, which has left Millennials facing bleak job prospects while carrying heavy loads of student debt. But those economic conditions have been reinforced by other incentives to create a new way of thinking among Millennials. They are more interested than previous generations in paying to use cars and houses instead of buying them outright. Buying means responsibility and risk. Renting means never being stuck with what you don’t want or can’t afford. It remains to be seen how durable these judgments will be, but they are sharpened by technology and tastes, which affect not just the purchase of big-ticket items like cars and houses but also life’s daily decisions. Ride-sharing apps like Uber and Lyft and car-sharing services like Zipcar are biting into car sales. Vacation-home apps like Airbnb have become virtual rent-sharing apps. There’s something powerfully convenient about the logic of choosing to access stuff instead of owning it. Its applications are limited only by the imagination.

That is why we are witnessing more than just a minor shift in the way Americans do business. It is a transformation. Commerce is being remade in the image of a new age. Once associated with ubiquitous private property, capitalism is becoming a game of renting access to goods and services, not purchasing them for possession. (...)

The Hinge of Technology

We are now on different cultural ground than Belloc, Reich, Friedman, and even Pipes had imagined. And unfortunately for today’s conservatives and libertarians, almost all of whom are still persuaded that freedom rests upon ownership, that idea is directly challenged by the new logic of possession and use woven into the origins of digital commerce.

On the one hand, we have become accustomed, when installing software — computer programs, smartphone apps, video games, etc. — to clicking our blind assent to so-called “end-user license agreements,” which function roughly like government largesse in their lopsidedness: if you want the goods, you agree to the terms, narrowed and capricious as they may be or may one day become. Recently, what has been good for the software goose has become good for the hardware gander, with many of our devices, like our iPhones, being “owned” only in a sense dramatically attenuated by the terms of the contracts we sign when we pay for them. Not only have tech companies expanded the logic of licensing to the four corners of their market, but that full-bore advance has marched apace with a growing public belief that these terms are reasonable and commonsensical.

On the other hand, our shifting sensibilities have also helped hasten the offloading of ownership by popularizing services where once only goods would do. “Service” was once characteristically an arrangement that kept owned goods in working condition over years, perhaps decades; then, after an era of “planned obsolescence,” wherein products grew cheaper and more disposable, the current era of services arose. Today, not only has technology awakened us to the experiential advantages of short-term rentals over vacation homes, or Uber (“everyone’s private driver”) over flashy cars in the driveway. Despite the collapse of newspapers, subscriptions are booming — to everything from newsletters, podcasts, and on-demand video to short-term goods like shaving kits and steaks. The AMC theater chain recently announced it will begin experimenting with a flat monthly rate for an unlimited number of movies, in effect bringing the Netflix subscription model from the small screen to the big. Evanescence has become a cultural feature, not a bug. Snapchat, the app whose users’ pictures and videos disappear after viewing, brings a level of immediacy and impact to the social Internet akin to attending live sports or music events. Not coincidentally, sports and music figure significantly in users’ “snaps.”

Importantly, however, at a time when Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg has deliberately eliminated clothing from his list of cognitive cares by adopting a bland uniform of hoodies and casual wear, elites are using their massive advantage in purchasing power in a manner unlike the industrial barons of old. Although the ethic of conspicuous consumption and status wealth is still on display on Wall Street, the future appears to belong to a new generation of the independently monied and independently minded, for whom ownership functions primarily as a means to the privileges of experiential choice.

The upshot of these marked changes in the culture of commerce creates problems for partisans of liberty, problems pointed in two directions. Not only is contemporary culture too Lockean, defending special property rights at the expense of a robust, general conception of them. In other respects, it is not Lockean enough. Despite the vogue for experience, too much of the propertied elite embraces a system of political patronage that further concentrates property at freedom’s expense. The rise of the sharing economy has shifted massive sums toward innovators whose financial success has enabled the rise of what Noam Scheiber, in an influential New Republic essay on Obama consigliere Valerie Jarrett, pointedly termed “boardroom liberalism”: “it is a view from on high,” he wrote — “one that presumes a dominant role for large institutions like corporations and a wisdom on the part of elites. It believes that the world works best when these elites use their power magnanimously, not when they’re forced to share it. The picture of the boardroom liberal is a corporate CEO handing a refrigerator-sized check to the head of a charity at a celebrity golf tournament. All the better if they’re surrounded by minority children and struggling moms.” Indeed, Silicon Valley has shown itself to be comfortable with influential pro-corporate operators of both parties. Meanwhile, more broadly, the affinity for ownership that arises from a proverbial “hard day’s work” is on a decline among rising generations — not so much because they are lazy, but because, increasingly, the satisfaction they derive from work is in the access to experience it unlocks. Plus, even many younger Americans who sense the hollowness and corruption of materialistic patronage prefer to focus self-interestedly on pursuing their alternate path, not fighting against the subsidized concentration of property. In this way, the relationship between ownership and freedom is eroded at both ends.

New Economy, New Politics

Rather than looking for answers among intellectual historians, perhaps the right should now look to the futurists. Indeed, some of today’s best futurists help provide a key insight: the transformation in how we do business involves a wholesale rejection of the social structure of the market.

To be sure, this kind of futurism is very much in the air. Capitalists and free-marketeers concerned to keep the wheels of productivity humming have clued in, advocating for a consumerism of experience. American religion, so often animated by the hope of reconciling material and spiritual plenty, has a stake in the pitch as well. Academic studies “proving” that experiences conduce more to happiness than property does trickle down into the public mind by way of reports like James Hamblin’s recent Atlantic article summarizing the science: “Experiential purchases like trips, concerts, movies, et cetera, tend to trump material purchases because the utility of buying anything really starts accruing before you buy it.” That’s because, one hypothesis runs, “you can imagine all sort of possibilities for what an experience is going to be.” The alternative? “With a material possession, you kind of know what you’re going to get.” Under the banner of possibility, the idea of ownership is reconfigured as an obstacle to opportunity.

Conservatives have gotten in on the act, without much undue ideological strain. In a New York Times column entitled “Abundance Without Attachment,” American Enterprise Institute president Arthur Brooks advises that America surmount the “Christmas Conundrum” of gift-grubbing by pursuing abundance but avoiding attachment. “First, collect experiences, not things,” Brooks writes with Emersonian heft. Americans are apt to lower their spirits in the “dogged pursuit of practicality and usefulness at all costs.” As Aristotle knew, and Brooks counsels, experience affords knowledge of that which is “admirable, difficult, and divine, but useless.” The economy of experience, intimates Brooks, at last achieves the American conservative’s dream: lighting the denizens of democracy with an aristocratic passion.

Gone is the ascetic, renunciatory conservatism of midcentury theorists like Christopher Lasch, or Philip Rieff, for whom “experience is a swindle; the experienced know that much.” Rieff, a nearly anti-political sociologist, associated the culture of experience with analogue, not digital, technologies, such as psychotherapy. Indeed, Rieff wrote, “the secret of all secrets” and “interpretation of all interpretations” taught by Freud was “not to attach oneself exclusively or too passionately to any one particular meaning or object.” Or, not so covertly, to any particular institution or person — a direct attack on traditional conservatism if ever there was one.

And so, as the cultural right has struggled to choose between attitudes toward attachment, the economic and political landscape has shifted decisively underfoot. At the turn of this century, one of our more idiosyncratic futurists, Jeremy Rifkin, had already raised the point, tying cultural and technological change together to account for our spirited turn against ownership. He argued that markets, which once drew people to mingle face to face at specific sites, have been replaced by networks, which disperse us as widely as our transactions. For Rifkin, and some others among the futurists, the eclipse of the market is the hallmark of a new economic — and political — age.

by James Poulos, The New Atlantis |  Read more:
Image: Flickr Ted Eytan (CC)