Owning vs sharing: Don’t get caught in the ugly middle

In a tweet Paul Graham writes: “As buying and selling become easier, owning approaches sharing.” That describes my behavior regarding many objects, especially electronics: for as long as I’ve been buying Macs and Mac products, I’ve been selling the old versions on Craigslist for a third to half of their initial value. In some sense I’m actually leasing them, but using myself as the leasing agent. Although I’ve owned a car I actually prefer not to and Uber is accelerating the ability to rent cars when needed and avoid the hassles of ownership. Housing has of course long been both rented and owned, and like many economists I find the U.S. obsession with owning housing to be misguided.

But there are other ways too that owning approaches sharing in my life:

  • Old cameras and lenses get sold to fund new ones. Like Macs, they tend to retain a fair amount of value—usually about half for lenses and a third for camera bodies.
  • It’s not uncommon for me to sell books that look promising but don’t live up to expectations, almost always through Amazon (despite Amazon’s encourage for buyers to scam sellers; for objects worth less than $20 I don’t think the issue is overwhelmingly important).
  • Although I haven’t begun doing this yet, I think that selling bikes may be more economical than moving them. The last bike I moved from Tucson to New York was probably a net loss and should’ve been sold instead of shipped.

There are some items that still aren’t easily sold, like beds and furniture, in part because they’re heavy, in part because they can harbor bed bugs, and in part because they just aren’t that valuable. I don’t have the citation handy, but I’ve read that Ikea might be facilitating mobility by making it cheap and easy to setup new apartments: it’s possible to buy a couch, a chair, some dishes, a bed, and some shelves for under $1,000, in the course of an afternoon (although I’d prefer a Tuft & Needle bed, but that’s an aside).

Among my friends, city-to-city moves often entail dumping most of their stuff and buying it again at the destination, since the moving cost is too high to justify the hassle. That’s less true of me because I have a sit-stand desk and some other pretty expensive gear, but in this respect I’m in the minority. Keeping a minority of one’s stuff may also lead to a more satisfying, experience-rich life, at least for some people.

The habit of either having very expensive and durable stuff or throwaway stuff may also be indicative of the polarization of many domains, in which it makes sense to either buy or be the best, or buy throwaway stuff or don’t bother competing. Don’t get caught in the ugly middle. Like “Death before inconvenience,” “Don’t get caught in the ugly middle,” is something companies should contemplate.

Owning cars and houses in particular is just insanely expensive. In “The Cheapest Generation,” Derek Thompson and Jordan Weissmann observe that

Smartphones compete against cars for young people’s big-ticket dollars, since the cost of a good phone and data plan can exceed $1,000 a year.

But cars cost close to $10,000 a year, according to AAA—or at least an order of magnitude more than a phone. Even if other transportation expenses (Uber, bikes, subways (where available)) cost a couple thousand dollars, they’re still significantly cheaper than owning a car. And a phone plus a data plan enables those alternatives. Owning and sharing may be less opposed than they were once believed to be.

2 responses

  1. Pingback: Apple finally releases new laptops: « The Story's Story

  2. Pingback: Links: The widowhood effect, Mac desktops, nuclear power, campus identity politics, and more! « The Story's Story

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