Thursday, June 28, 2018

Bullshit Jobs

As I gather my thoughts - which I've done a couple of times here - on the problems with our economy, I sometimes run into articles that are of interest, but maybe not directly related  to my thesis.

[There's a fairly long introduction here before you get to bullshit jobs.  For the impatient, just skip down to the quotations below.]

Basic Thesis:  Underlying everything, the Protestant Work Ethic is no longer applicable and probably never was all that good a model for an economy.  Basically, the Protestant work ethic made work an intrinsically 'good' thing.  Work became a religious 'calling' from God.  Your worth in society is based on your work.  On keeping busy.  If you aren't working, you are a parasite.  Idle hands, you know.   That may have seemed useful at a time before steam engines and electricity and food and housing and the basics of life from dishes to clothing required as many hands as there were.  Yet even then, the wealthy didn't have to work.  But  children did.  (And I'd point out that all that work may not have been necessary.  In fertile lands, lots of cultures had times for art and music and elaborate festivals.)

The work ethic may not be a good economic model, but it's a great moral model to keep workers working and  to help the rich  justify why they have so much more than they need while others are barely scraping by.   And so  the rich folks really have no obligation to the poor.  Quite simply, the rich worked and 'earned' their wealth, and the poor were simply lazy. We still hear a lot of this from Republican politicians.  Even many liberals believe this.  It's fed to us with fairy tales and television and movies.  Our whole society is based on this notion.

In the US in the 1950s there were lots of articles about what Americans were going to do with all their spare time when automation cut jobs to 30 hours a week or less.  The 50s were a rare time in the US when the gap between rich and poor was fairly low.  Income taxes (at least before deductions)  were near 90% for the wealthiest.  (I don't think that's part of Trump's vision of making America great again.)  Unions were strong, blue collar workers could make a lot of money.  There were decent wages and benefits for people without a college degree, even a high school degree.  So the economists maybe saw things going along at the same pace, with robots taking over some jobs, allowing workers to work less for the same income.

But they forgot this is a capitalist society.  As the owners brought in more automation, instead of cutting back the work week, they cut back jobs.  People got full time leisure (also known as unemployment).  Those who kept their jobs often ended up working well over 40 hours a week, often without an increase in pay.   The financial profit of automation went, not to the workers, but to the owners of the businesses and their shareholders. And politicians acknowledged these realities - that not all unemployed folks were deadbeats - enough to set up various welfare program for some of them.

And so as this trend continued - more automation replacing workers who can no longer find good paying jobs with pensions and health care - we've ended up with a huge gap between rich and poor and lots of unemployed (not just those officially 'unemployed')  and a growing homeless problem.   Building houses for the homeless isn't the solution, because if the economy continues in this trend, there will be an endless stream of people who become superfluous and who can't earn enough to pay for housing.

We need to change the economy so it doesn't bleed workers, or so that work doesn't become the only way to morally redistribute wealth.

So we need a new model for the economy, one not based on a 16th Century religious revolt against the excesses of the Catholic church, but one based on the reality that not everyone needs to work to support the economy any more.  Jobs should no longer be the only morally acceptable means of distributing income.  Paid work shouldn't be mandatory for a decent basic lifestyle.  A practical alternative model is what I'm looking for.

But in the meantime, here are some thoughts from a book about bullshit jobs by David Graeber.  First a quick definition and second a simplified list of examples of bullshit jobs.
"How does Graeber define a “bullshit job”? Essentially it’s a job devoid of purpose and meaning. It’s different to a “shit job”, which is a job that can be degrading, arduous and poorly compensated but which actually plays a useful role in society. Rather a bullshit job can be prestigious, comfortable and well-paid, but if it vanished tomorrow, the world would not only fail to notice, it may actually become a better place. Bullshit jobs ‘take’, more than they ‘give’ to society. 
Graeber refines his definition by providing his own hilarious typology of bullshit jobs. There are “flunkies”, also known as “feudal retainers”, who are specifically hired by directors to make them appear more important. “Goons” are the aggressive, hired-muscle frequently found in telemarketing teams and PR agencies, employed solely to cajole people into do something that contradicts their common sense. “Duct tapers” who are employees hired only to fix a problem that ought not to exist. “Box tickers”, which we need no introduction to and “task masters”, whose sole function is to create whole new ecosystems of bullshit (the latter can also be described as “bullshit generators”). And there are various combinations of the above, which Graeber describes as 'complex multiform bullshit jobs'”.
But Graeber doesn't blame capitalism ( I need to read more on this to be sure  that's accurate).  Rather he says capitalism has been perverted by "Managerial Feudalism."  And this results in the creation of bullshit jobs.
"One of the most compelling arguments in Graeber’s book is the simple observation that the creation of meaningless jobs is exactly what capitalism is not supposed to do. Governed by the need to maximise profits and minimise costs, companies subject to “pure” capitalism would gain no advantage in hiring unnecessary staff. However, Graeber points out that many industries no longer operate on this dynamic of profit and loss. Instead some industries like accountancy, consultancy and corporate law, are rewarded through huge, open contracts, where the incentive is to maximise the length, cost and duration of the project.
One testimony from a former consultant helping a bank resolve claims from the PPI scandal described how they, 'purposefully mistrained and disorganized staff so that the jobs were repeatedly and consistently done wrong… This meant that cases had to be redone and contracts extended'”.
Bullshit jobs really isn't what I'm talking about.  Though it shows the hollowness of the Protestant work ethic - since these jobs aren't needed, yet they are there.  People work at these jobs that are not only unnecessary, but at times harmful, and probably not mentally healthy for the workers.

So, consider this post as notes.  As I run across interesting things like this, I'll post them as more notes.     Is Managerial Feudalism just a disease that capitalism caught, or is it a natural outcome of competition leading to power and greed that sets up perverse incentives for corporations to make money?  (Think about the housing crisis where banks made loans they knew wouldn't be repaid, but everybody was making big profits on.  Think about Wells Fargo setting up false bank accounts to bleed their customers who had set up real accounts.

Enough for now.  But also note, if we move to fewer and fewer real jobs, then the Supreme Courts' regular cutting back of union powers may not matter.  Unions too need to refocus so they can help define the new economic and moral model for wealth distribution to go along with or even replace work.


  1. ‘but one based on the reality that not everyone needs to work to support the economy any more’
    The question ‘is’ who going to work to support the economy and what are they going to be doing? Let’s use food as an example, you are going to need people to pick the crops process the food and get it to market. It’s something you cannot automate for the most part and a lot of it is backbreaking (this is coming from someone who picked sugar beets for 8 hours a day on a non-mechanized farm). Give those people the chance to opt out and I bet they would, I sure as hell would have. What I see are jobs where people ‘have’ to work to maintain society. How do you make those jobs attractive enough for people to want to do them? I am looking forward to your thoughts on this.


    1. Sorry Oliver, I've been distracted. No one is denying that people will still have to do some work, but a much reduced workforce can get it all done. The point is that paid work shouldn't be the criterion for being a good person. People can contribute in many other ways. Backbreaking work can be shared by a lot more people - if you only do a few hours now and then, it's not so backbreaking. Or those folks can be paid a lot to do it. We just need to apply our imaginations to find alternative ways to figure these things out. Different cultures may handle it differently. In Thailand, the whole village would go from one farmer's field to the next to plant the rice, for example.


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