Micro Rentier

By Dan Wilcock

Merriam-Webster defines the French word rentier as “a person who lives on income from property or securities.” Here in America, rentier is an uncommon word. Word’s spell-check underlines it.

But it may become a lot more common thanks to Capital in the Twenty-First Century, the bestselling 700-page overview of inequality in rich countries by Thomas Piketty. I just started reading it, and found myself looking up the word in the dictionary. He uses rentier frequently to describe people whose income derives from capital assets instead of direct payment for labor.

Even though Piketty’s book brilliantly uses data to show that the rentiers are grabbing an increasingly large percentage of total wealth, I can’t help but notice that the lines between rentiers and laborers are increasingly blurring in the rich countries he studies.

A great example of this blurring is the so-called “sharing economy,” which was the focus of a cover story in Wired magazine this month subtitled “how Airbnb, Lyft, and Tinder are teaching us to love strangers.”

Is the owner of a late-model car who moonlights on nights and weekends by driving sloshy revelers around town for Uber a worker or a rentier? A bit of both, I think.

The Wired article opens with a day-in-the-life narrative of a 30-year old woman who works as a freelance yoga instructor and personal trainer when not picking up rides through Lyft. Doesn’t sound like dynastic wealth to me, but nor does it sound much like 9-to-5 for a pay-check labor.

I think the web is turning folks into micro rentiers. Traditional income streams, measured in per capita income and unemployment stats, may have flat-lined in recent years, which is a big factor in the rise of inequality. But the web is making it easier to unlock the asset potential of privately-owned stuff like cars and houses that until now were mostly financial liabilities.

I personally haven’t become a micro rentier yet. Security, privacy, and serenity are all things for which I’m willing to pay the opportunity cost of foregone income. But if I were squeezed, I’d definitely consider sticking my toe in these waters. Our economy may well squeeze most of us into these markets in the next few years, at least those without the keys to dynastic fortunes.