Instacart, the Sharing Economy and Modern Peonage

Farhad Manjoo’s column about Instacart in yesterday’s NYT just about made me barf.

Instacart is an app-driven grocery delivery service. You want groceries delivered, you place an order through the app. Then one of Instacart’s “independent contractors” goes to a grocery store, buys your items and delivers them to you.

This, like Uber and Airbnb, is an example of the sharing economy. With Uber, you share your car; with Airbnb your house or apartment. With Instacart, you share your free time.

And therein lies the nauseating rub. Manjoo gets excited about how sharing services like Instacart create new earning opportunities for those increasingly shut out of the economy by a lack of low-skill jobs. Here’s your nut graf:

“Still, Instacart’s success suggests that rather than simply automate workers out of their jobs, technology might create new labor opportunities for people who haven’t acquired formal credentials or skills in an economy where low- and medium-skilled workers face a bleak outlook. Like the ride-sharing service Uber, Instacart creates work by connecting affluent customers who have more money than time with part-time workers who have the opposite problem — lots of time, not enough money.”

I don’t know about you, but what I read there is, “If things get tight, don’t worry—you can always earn a little dough by wiping some rich guy’s ass.”

Manjoo trumpets Instacart’s line that their workers can earn $15-$30 an hour, which he points out is a lot better than flipping burgers. Oh, but you’ll have to buy your own health insurance, not to mention use your own car, which requires money for upkeep, insurance and gas.

But if something goes wrong, Instacart’s got your back, right? Well, no. You’re an independent contractor—it was nice knowin’ ya!

Manjoo gets a gem of a quote from economist-author Tyler Cowen: “‘I wouldn’t want to suggest people will become grocery-delivery millionaires,’ he said, ‘but if you don’t have a college education but you’re smart and responsible, could you make a living doing this and maybe piecing it together with some of these other kinds of jobs? Absolutely.’”

In other words, he wouldn’t want to suggest that someone would be able to afford to use Instacart by working for Instacart. And how about bowing and scraping? Would that be another one of those jobs you could piece this together with to keep the lights on?

Don’t get me wrong. It’s not that I think these “sharing economy” services are evil per se. I actually like the idea of people being able to earn a little extra money this way. I’ve used both Uber and Airbnb, and I don’t think using Instacart is wrong in and of itself. Hell, probably some of you reading this will want to sign up for it right now. 

It’s the notion that sharing services could be a corrective for increasing income inequality that gets me. I mean, great, if someone can’t find a job, clearly opportunities to “piece together” a living are better than nothing.

But is making trickle down economics more efficient really the best technology can do to create more opportunities for all?