The Servant Aggregators

Several years ago, I asked,

In an economy where some folks are very rich and many folks are unemployed, why are there not more personal servants?

Recently, someone pointed me to Umair Haque’s column from two years ago.

I’m going to call it a Servitude Bubble. For the simple reason that it is largely based on creating armies of servants. You can call them whatever buzzwords you like — “tech-enabled always-on super-hustling freelance personal brand capitalists”. But the truth is simpler. The stuff of the Servitude Bubble makes a small number of people something like neofeudal masters, lords with a corncucopia of on-demand just-in-time luxury services at their fingertips. But only by making a very large number of people glorified neo-servants…butlers, maids, chauffeurs, waiters, etcetera.

Dog walkers, Uber drivers, etc. My question was answered.

But it’s not just a few rich people with access to these services.

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12 Responses to The Servant Aggregators

  1. BenK says:

    And it never was! But the myths of midcentury labor obscured it.

  2. asdf says:

    Convenience and trust are basically the problems with employing servants. The finding process is expensive and the screening process is expensive. These apps attempt to solve this. Uber takes away the risk involved in carrying cash into a strangers car, or having to trust that the meter will be fair and accurate.

    Of course this only works for easily definable and simple tasks that can be measured and programmed into an app. Piecework if you will.

    Also, a lot of it appears to also be tax dodging. Most Uber drivers for instance are probably on state assistance.

    • A Leap at the Wheel says:

      Asdf – a few weeks ago when I was busy with work and my wife injured her foot, we used Taskrabbit to find someone to come and do what we estimated was 2 hours of lawn work. We asked him to mow the lawn, pull everything dead out of the garden, and clean up the stuff that fell from a recent wind storm. He did exactly this with pretty minimal directions. He even asked if he should get lawn bags from the store before coming over.

      The tasks don’t have to be measured and programmed into the app. Just finding someone, facilitating (and recording) communication, and processing payment is enough.

      • asdf says:

        Mileage varies. I’ve been to small towns where people don’t lock their doors, and meanwhile we have packages stolen from our buildings lobby on a frequent basis. Bike shares programs work in Portland, but not Baltimore.

        Payment processing and feedback mechanisms do appear to be the major services these apps provide. This allows most people to be comfortable with a wide range of activities, though not all.

  3. BC says:

    The answer to Arnold’s question may be that home production is tax-free, while hiring servants to do home production is not. That tax gap is so large that it causes (almost) everyone to buy health insurance through their employers and, thus, is plausibly large enough to cause almost everyone to avoid buying home production from outside labor. The problem is exacerbated when one considers the additional costs of full-time servants, not just payroll taxes but also mandatory benefits, labor and licensing law compliance, costs associated with firing, etc. The trust problem cited by asdf is also relevant. Tyler Cowen is fond of pointing out that the young males that may struggle the most in the service-oriented modern economy are the ones that one might judge as least suited to care for young children.

    The gig economy jobs created by Uber et al. (1) reduce the gap between home production and hired home production both by removing regulatory barriers such as licensing/taxi medallions and by treating servants as independent contractors and (2) help address the trust issue with ratings and also by putting a “trusted” third party between client and servant.

  4. Matt says:

    Donald Boudreaux pointed this out some time ago. We all have access to chauffeurs, personal chefs, maids, tutors, people to make and clean our clothing, and many, many other duties traditionally done by “servants”.

  5. Bill says:

    Nannies.

  6. Matthew Young says:

    Trying to automate the labor markets.
    Labor market inefficiency, the inability to index workers by value makes for a barely working labor market. It requires expensive intermediaries to handle a lot of inside information that is never revealed or priced.

    Techies are trying to fix that. It is an iterative process.

  7. CMOT says:

    “why are there not more personal servants?”

    The answer is simple – the rich are getting that at the office, they don’t need it at home.

    There’s very little work/life distinction for the new master class, and since they’re spending so much time at the office that’s where the personal service occurs – it’s just paid for by the firm, not the individual as used to be the case.

    Even more than that, the new master class surrounds itself at work with low (or zero) marginal product employees producing social capital the feeds the self esteem of the new masters, even when it’s not picking up their dry cleaning. But managing them comes at the cost of both time and emotional involvement, so NOT having to do that in their free time with an army of home servants is a good thing to them.

  8. Massimo Heitor says:

    “glorified neo-servant” sounds like a ridiculous label for a person with a job.

  9. Bryan Willman says:

    (second try)

    What is a “servant” and how is it different from any other job? Is the doctor whose compensation depends on giving me sound medical advice not a servant? When I do some task for an employer, am I not a servant?

    What else is there, but direct and indirect servants?

  10. D. F. Linton says:

    Being an old-world servant usually meant a full time, often live-in, relationship with you employer. There is much more personal agency and control bring an Uber driver than a dedicated chauffeur. Viewed from the “servant’s” perspective I can see much to prefer in these new relationships.

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