Think of that spare bedroom left vacant by children leaving the nest. Think of that empty passenger seat in most cars as they clog traffic in our major cities. To an economist, those are unused bits of capital: The room could be rented out, satisfying someone’s need for a short-term stay in town; that car seat could be occupied by someone heading in the same direction as the driver. Such unused sources of production are, simply put, dead capital.
Arthur C. Brooks, president of the American Enterprise Institute, recently argued that significant amounts of such dead capital could be brought to productive life if only local governments would stop protecting vested interests and allow entrepreneurs to invigorate their local economies.
How? There are new, exciting companies that empower individuals to improve their economic condition and, at the same time, improve the productivity of capital. One example is the ridesharing service Uber. Uber brings together those with empty passenger seats and those needing a ride across town. My experience (unfortunately, not in Saint Louis) is that Uber rides showed up faster than traditional taxis and that the drivers were more attentive to my needs. Because Uber drivers are rated by riders even in transit, poor drivers can lose business for inadequate service. Competition drives out poor performers.
Airbnb is a market solution to the problem of underutilized housing capital. With excess bedrooms in the United States, why not allow the owners of those empty rooms to satisfy the needs of individuals seeking a place to stay for a night or two? The needs of those willing and able to pay for a room are served and the owner is rewarded with, especially in these still-difficult times, an extra bit of income.
Unfortunately, a maze of state and local regulations block Uber and Airbnb from operating in many locales. “Governments have their own golden opportunity,” Brooks writes, “to exercise creativity in service of the common good, whether that entails rethinking anachronistic zoning laws or adjusting tax policies that treat someone’s spare bedroom the same as a Marriott suite.”
If bringing dead capital to life is good for the economy, isn’t it time for politicians and regulators to awaken to the potential benefits that such services can provide?