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Bullshit Jobs
August 19, 2013 9:27 AM   Subscribe

"In the year 1930, John Maynard Keynes predicted that, by century’s end, technology would have advanced sufficiently that countries like Great Britain or the United States would have achieved a 15-hour work week. There’s every reason to believe he was right. In technological terms, we are quite capable of this. And yet it didn’t happen."
posted by chrchr (116 comments total) 52 users marked this as a favorite

 
So, he offers no evidence or statistics, randomly assigns some jobs as being bullshit, and thinks he's made a radical new point?

Also, if he thinks administration is unnecessary, I would love to ask if he thinks paychecks are important for those oh-so-necessary "really useful workers?" Because someone has to cut those.
posted by corb at 9:32 AM on August 19, 2013 [17 favorites]


We really need to get off the Work To Eat factory model of employment, although getting it past the the highly entrenched Your Job Is You mentality is going to be difficult. ( Hint, it's the kind of mentality that's required to keep this model profitable and working for the people who own the factories, no matter if it produces iron or paper.)
posted by The Whelk at 9:33 AM on August 19, 2013 [32 favorites]


This is a shockingly poorly-written and poorly-reasoned piece. I'm actually a little embarrassed for Graeber; I didn't agree with all of Debt but generally thought it was a useful scholarly contribution. The same can't be said for this.
posted by downing street memo at 9:34 AM on August 19, 2013 [6 favorites]


There’s a lot of questions one could ask here, starting with, what does it say about our society that it seems to generate an extremely limited demand for talented poet-musicians, but an apparently infinite demand for specialists in corporate law?

One of these is post scarcity.
posted by zabuni at 9:34 AM on August 19, 2013 [4 favorites]


We really need to get off the Work To Eat factory model of employment...

*hires 1000s of low-paid foreign wage slaves to favorite this comment*
posted by DU at 9:35 AM on August 19, 2013 [10 favorites]


One of these is post scarcity.

The latter.
posted by overeducated_alligator at 9:41 AM on August 19, 2013 [4 favorites]


I favorited DU's comment for free; am I part of the solution or the problem?
posted by Renoroc at 9:46 AM on August 19, 2013 [8 favorites]


I liked this one better:

Great Problems: The Rent-seeking Economy (Devin Finbar)

The basic problem is that there is a surplus of basic goods in the world, but each person still needs some money to get access to those goods. So everyone’s is focused on imagining some gimmick – a six bladed razor, a beer can that turns blue when its cold, a funny talking gecko – that gives someone a reason to give you money when there is no real differentiation based on product value.

The sales and marketing economy is zero sum. Each business must work harder and harder at new tag lines, gizmos, tricks, and jingles. And when sales guys at the other company work harder, you must work harder too.

posted by bukvich at 9:46 AM on August 19, 2013 [27 favorites]


But to work a mere 15 per week would be to slack, to become an anathema to the great American\Western\Modern Work Ethic, where you strive to do your best for 40 hours a week for decades of your life, just so you can relax on the weekends and whittle away your last years! To work a mere 15 hours per week would be to enjoy your time while you're relatively young and lively!

I believe one of the great hurdles to post-scarcity future is inefficiency in the name of cost-savings. In major bureaucracies, people work in their little teams to complete their little widget, which fits into some bigger machine. But instead of understanding how the whole machine works, or even communicating with other companies who also work on big machines to see how your company could become more efficient, we've mastered the micro-focus. I'm sure some companies don't get burdened by this as much as others (or worse, the public-sector, which is hampered by laws and regulations created by people who have no idea whatsoever what is required to operate that public entity from day to day), but if information was shared and utilized more freely, things could be great.
posted by filthy light thief at 9:47 AM on August 19, 2013 [5 favorites]


Well, to be fair, you can work 15 hours a week and have the living standard of a 1930s laborer. I know a few people who do. But people prefer a higher standard of living even if it entails more hours of work.
posted by Triplanetary at 9:48 AM on August 19, 2013 [22 favorites]


"It’s not entirely clear how humanity would suffer were all private equity CEOs, lobbyists, PR researchers, actuaries, telemarketers, bailiffs or legal consultants to similarly vanish."

If the author cannot/does not understand that most people in western society actually prefer having insurance (actuaries) and legal systems (bailiffs), then he is looking at a very different society than the one I live in.
posted by DGStieber at 9:48 AM on August 19, 2013 [20 favorites]


bukvich: The basic problem is that there is a surplus of basic goods in the world, but each person still needs some money to get access to those goods.

Because people still hold onto their surpluses as if lowered costs would kill them, and everyone is focused on optimizing their personal gain in the exchange of goods and services. And then there's the bloated costs of management for the creation and exchange of those goods.

Enlightened co-ops for all!
posted by filthy light thief at 9:50 AM on August 19, 2013 [1 favorite]


Well, to be fair, you can work 15 hours a week and have the living standard of a 1930s laborer. I know a few people who do. But people prefer a higher standard of living even if it entails more hours of work.

You make it sound selfish to want to visit a doctor once in a while.

I can't even imagine the amazing cultural renaissance the US is going to have when we get a sane healthcare system and people can spend less than 70 hours a week earning enough to keep their kids alive.
posted by DU at 9:51 AM on August 19, 2013 [49 favorites]


"The same goes for almost all the new industries outlined above. There is a whole class of salaried professionals that, should you meet them at parties and admit that you do something that might be considered interesting (an anthropologist, for example), will want to avoid even discussing their line of work entirely."

I'm pretty sure that I would hate to talk to this guy at a party about my job. Not because I am ashamed of it, but because he sounds like a pompous asshole.
posted by DGStieber at 9:52 AM on August 19, 2013 [5 favorites]


Hey now DU, according to some family members twitter feeds, healthcare is a form of slavery.
posted by The Whelk at 9:54 AM on August 19, 2013


I can't even imagine the amazing cultural renaissance the US is going to have when we get a sane healthcare system and people can spend less than 70 hours a week earning enough to keep their kids alive.

Yeah, the 2430s are gonna be pretty great all right.
posted by rifflesby at 9:55 AM on August 19, 2013 [11 favorites]


If the author cannot/does not understand that most people in western society actually prefer having insurance (actuaries) and legal systems (bailiffs), then he is looking at a very different society than the one I live in.

Yep. And lobbyists - for all the opprobrium they get, deserved and undeserved - actually serve a vital role as information brokers in centers of political influence. The rise of lobbying is intimately tied with the rise of the managerial state.

There are hundreds of fascinating pieces to be written about why what I'll broadly call the "symbol analysis" industry is exploding, but this ain't one of them.
posted by downing street memo at 9:56 AM on August 19, 2013 [6 favorites]


So, he offers no evidence or statistics, randomly assigns some jobs as being bullshit, and thinks he's made a radical new point?

I guess we've managed to identify one BS job.

I think we're really talking about two phenomena here: hyper-specialization and scut work. On the one hand, there are jobs that seem to be bullshit but aren't; they're just so specialized that it's hard to see how they are valuable without a lot of effort*. If you remove those jobs, problems start to happen. Then there are the real bullshit jobs which I think are created when people try to shuffle scut work around. They say they hate doing X, create a whole group of people to do X so they don't have to, then it turns out they now have to do Y, which is just as bad as X, to enable that group to do X*, so essentially you have two groups doing X instead of one, and one group with BS jobs.

* Especially by people who do the job but don't want to, like the referenced former-poet-musician lawyer.
** A good example of this is a role at my work: there's group of pure middle-men that I submit requests to in format B that then turn around an resubmits those requests in format A. When I submit my format B request, I know exactly what should be in the format A request, who it should go to, and at what time it should be done. The reason we do this? Someone thought the format A requests were a distraction, and created a group to remove that distraction, but it turns out it's just scut work that goes with the job.

posted by cosmic.osmo at 9:56 AM on August 19, 2013 [5 favorites]


Agreed, a sane healthcare system in the US would be great. Hopefully we will get it in the next year or two.

I'm simply pointing out that Keynes' prediction from 1930 was right: to achieve the living standard of a 1930s laborer requires fewer hours of work than it used to. But we want more than that, like automobiles, vacations, quality medical care for our kids, etc.
posted by Triplanetary at 9:59 AM on August 19, 2013 [1 favorite]


when we get a sane healthcare system

...which will never happen. Never. Not "in the distant future" -- never. I cannot see any set of circumstances that would permit this to happen, you are simply too dysfunctional as a society, and societies don't change that much without major external pressure (war, plague, etc.). Those external pressures would themselves preclude the development of sane healthcare.
posted by aramaic at 9:59 AM on August 19, 2013 [14 favorites]


I did a blog post on this months ago. I think I did it better.
posted by COD at 10:00 AM on August 19, 2013 [1 favorite]


"It’s not entirely clear how humanity would suffer were all private equity CEOs, lobbyists, PR researchers, actuaries, telemarketers, bailiffs or legal consultants to similarly vanish."

It's ironic that it would be easier for most people to identify the specific needs in their lives fulfilled by most of the people in that list than it would be for them to identify any need fulfilled by a professor of anthropology.
posted by yoink at 10:01 AM on August 19, 2013 [14 favorites]


There is a whole class of salaried professionals that, should you meet them at parties and admit that you do something that might be considered interesting (an anthropologist, for example)

Is there a word for that feeling of hot, burning shame you feel on reading something that should have made the actual author embarrassed to have written it? It's like wincing when you see someone else being kicked in the balls.
posted by yoink at 10:03 AM on August 19, 2013 [12 favorites]


Either he clearly doesn't know what an actuary is or he thinks it would be better if companies/government agencies just put random amounts of money into pensions whenever they felt like it.
posted by kiltedtaco at 10:06 AM on August 19, 2013 [4 favorites]


*looks at current work schedule*

TOTAL HOURS: 6.5

*laughs bitterly*

I have never had a full-time job. I've been in the workforce for 6 years and have a degree. Think about that.

When CEOs stop asking for senseless 13% cuts across the board in payroll despite being paid outrageous amounts of money and shareholders rolling in it, we can talk. Meanwhile I have to go and pay my student loans while looking for a position that will give me at least 15 hours.
posted by lineofsight at 10:07 AM on August 19, 2013 [12 favorites]


...societies don't change that much without major external pressure (war, plague, etc.). Those external pressures would themselves preclude the development of sane healthcare.

Which explains how we got the 40 hour, 5 day workweek in the first place...how?
posted by DU at 10:08 AM on August 19, 2013 [6 favorites]


I often think of things like this whilst jogging. I am running nowhere for no real purpose other than to burn off calories and stay fit because I over consume and under perform physical work.

It's bullshit work.

(Though it does also get me a bit high and it is kind of meditative)

I can't even imagine the amazing cultural renaissance the US is going to have when we get a sane healthcare system and people can spend less than 70 hours a week earning enough to keep their kids alive


Like the one that is going on in every other OECD nation where there isn't health scare? I think you are wildly overestimating how much culture depends on an absence of economic fear.
posted by srboisvert at 10:08 AM on August 19, 2013 [1 favorite]


My first fulltime job in 1966 was 37.5 hours a week, and it was widely believed that four-day weeks were going to be the norm. Then Reagan.

Now I see a thread full of comments from kool-ade drinkers, and I doubt that things will ever improve to even what they were in the '60s. Me, I'm about to become as non-productive as is possible on Social Security, and unlike most of you, I'll have time to agitate for what I see as important. Which will be keeping your masters from looting Social Security more than they already do, of course.

This definitely made me laugh:
most people in western society actually prefer having insurance (actuaries) and legal systems (bailiffs)
Really, that's funny!
posted by Kirth Gerson at 10:09 AM on August 19, 2013 [11 favorites]


Wait, Kirth Gerson, you are in favor of Social Security, but you think actuaries are a waste of time?

/quizzicaldog.jpg
posted by yoink at 10:12 AM on August 19, 2013 [9 favorites]


All this talk of consumption is pretty rank too. The amount spent on geegaws has only gone down. I'm of the opinion this is why (non-white collar) crime has gone down. If you break into my house, what can you steal. A 3 year old TV whose value has depreciated 50%. Furniture that will be difficult to sell? Books?

Now I see a thread full of comments from kool-ade drinkers, and I doubt that things will ever improve to even what they were in the '60s. Me, I'm about to become as non-productive as is possible on Social Security, and unlike most of you, I'll have time to agitate for what I see as important. Which will be keeping your masters from looting Social Security more than they already do, of course.

People disagree with you. They are not slaves, they are not deluded, they are not evil. Your condescension will be the death of your relevance.
posted by zabuni at 10:12 AM on August 19, 2013 [14 favorites]


Metafilter: post scarcity
posted by zippy at 10:14 AM on August 19, 2013 [1 favorite]


The creepy thought which keeps returning to my mind is: the whole mess is really just a demographic problem. The previous generation had children at rates appropriate to a completely different projection of future society. Intense automation happened within the span of a single generation, causing a labor surplus.

If birth rates drop for long enough, won't everything sort itself out? I'm not saying this would be "good," but am I missing some important part of the equation?
posted by overeducated_alligator at 10:14 AM on August 19, 2013


Your condescion will be the death of your relevance.

concern-trolling will be the death of yours
posted by DU at 10:16 AM on August 19, 2013 [6 favorites]


The sweet spot (as opposed to the sweat stain) is to identify a line of work that can neither be mechanized nor outsourced and enjoys steady demand no matter how the economic winds blow. My own solution (and I'm sure there are many better ones) was to spend several decades shoving drinks across a bar. It bought me a house, raised a family and, once in management, gave me enough transferable skills to go into accounting and computers...
posted by jim in austin at 10:17 AM on August 19, 2013 [1 favorite]


Metafilter: post scarcity

Comment abundance.
posted by yoink at 10:17 AM on August 19, 2013 [2 favorites]


Which will be keeping your masters from looting Social Security more than they already do, of course.

This definitely made me laugh:
most people in western society actually prefer having insurance (actuaries) and legal systems (bailiffs)
Really, that's funny!


Social Security is an insurance program.
posted by downing street memo at 10:18 AM on August 19, 2013 [4 favorites]


I wish I could do a part-time job. Automation has really had a huge impact on my field, but it doesn't mean I have less projects, they are just faster, so I do more at one time and therefore I and my co-workers are multi-tasking constantly. The problem is that the human brain isn't that great at multi-tasking and this introduces a lot of mistakes into the process, which end up being bugs and creates work for our support staff. If I could go part-time they they hired another part-time worker, we could take on fewer projects per person and do them better. My job is OK, but I have lots of other interests too and I've have more time for that.

The issue is that in the American workforce, the overhead per employee in terms of things like health insurance makes that a very costly option. Also there is a huge stigma against part-time jobs, that they are "mommy jobs" and should be reserved for mothers with young children (who are also assumed to be non-ambitious).
posted by melissam at 10:19 AM on August 19, 2013 [6 favorites]


Keynes wasn't the only one who believed that. It's also the economic supporting principle behind B.F.Skinner's Walden Two.
posted by CheeseDigestsAll at 10:20 AM on August 19, 2013 [2 favorites]


I think the official term is "phony baloney jobs."
posted by The Underpants Monster at 10:20 AM on August 19, 2013


They are not slaves, they are not deluded, they are not evil.

Nor did I say they were. You, however may go put words in someone else's mouth, or in one of your own orifices. And I am not interested in my "relevance," whatever that is.


No, sir yoink, I do not think actuaries are a waste of time. I think the idea that most people want insurance is silly. People don't want insurance; they want the things that insurance will help pay for when something goes wrong. If those things had not become unaffordable for average people, there would be no need for most insurance.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 10:22 AM on August 19, 2013 [5 favorites]


Like the one that is going on in every other OECD nation where there isn't health scare?

There kind of is a cultural renaissance going on in Scandinavian countries and has been for a while now. There's been an increasingly steady stream of film, music and TV from that part of the world showing up in my daily consumption and popping up on the cultural radar in the US for like the last 15 years. But they've actually got extra benefits like taxpayer funding of artists at a much higher level than we do in the US, so it's not the healthcare alone.
posted by jason_steakums at 10:22 AM on August 19, 2013 [6 favorites]


Yes, yes, it was better before the Japanese and Germans recovered from the Second World War. And now the Chinese are in on the game. So the world doesn't have to buy your products any more. On the plus side, life in the rest of the world is much, much better. And you're not doing too badly.

Unless you are a writer, of course. Lots of those around, I'm afraid. Consider retraining?
posted by alasdair at 10:24 AM on August 19, 2013 [3 favorites]


The sweet spot (as opposed to the sweat stain) is to identify a line of work that can neither be mechanized nor outsourced...My own solution (and I'm sure there are many better ones) was to spend several decades shoving drinks across a bar.

Meet Carl, the robot bartender.
posted by Iridic at 10:25 AM on August 19, 2013 [1 favorite]


I think the idea that most people want insurance is silly. People don't want insurance; they want the things that insurance will help pay for when something goes wrong.

That's like saying that people don't want houses; they want the environmental stability and privacy that houses provide. The bottom line is that they still want houses.
posted by Etrigan at 10:25 AM on August 19, 2013 [11 favorites]


"I can't even imagine the amazing cultural renaissance the US is going to have when we get a sane healthcare system and people can spend less than 70 hours a week earning enough to keep their kids alive."

Like the one that is going on in every other OECD nation where there isn't health scare? I think you are wildly overestimating how much culture depends on an absence of economic fear.
Well, I can tell you that in a place like Sweden the "culture scene" is a bit more diverse age-wise. Culture is great in the US, it's just when you have kids or you get older and start having health issues you pretty much have trouble participating because you need to worry about things like health insurance. My female friends and I often joke about how it's our responsibility to marry an artist/writer/musician because we have health insurance. In all seriousness though, maybe they could pick up the slack at home that I have to neglect because the only jobs available that have things like health insurance are 40+ hours a week.
posted by melissam at 10:25 AM on August 19, 2013 [5 favorites]


People don't want insurance

But it's o.k. to want Social Security? I'm beginning to think you might not have thought this all the way through.
posted by yoink at 10:25 AM on August 19, 2013 [1 favorite]


Unless you have a better way of people getting "the things that insurance will help you pay for..." besides the pooling of resources either in the private sphere (insurance) or the public sphere (gov't.), then you need the aforementioned structures. Both of which still depend on actuaries to make estimates about liabilities vs costs.

Saying: "People don't want insurance; they want the things that insurance will help pay for when something goes wrong" seems to me like saying "people don't want food, they want calories and nutrition and meals". I don't get it.
posted by DGStieber at 10:26 AM on August 19, 2013 [2 favorites]


For instance: in our society, there seems a general rule that, the more obviously one’s work benefits other people, the less one is likely to be paid for it. Again, an objective measure is hard to find, but one easy way to get a sense is to ask: what would happen were this entire class of people to simply disappear? Say what you like about nurses, garbage collectors, or mechanics, it’s obvious that were they to vanish in a puff of smoke, the results would be immediate and catastrophic.
Wow, that's blatant correllation-causation confusion.

Garbage collectors' pay being lower than that of actuaries has nothing to do with whether or not the world would be relatively worse off if garbage collectors were to disappear as opposed to actuaries; it has to do with the fact that most of those actuaries could be reasonably competent garbage collectors instead of actuaries, while the opposite might not be the case.
posted by Flunkie at 10:27 AM on August 19, 2013 [10 favorites]


I think the idea that most people want insurance is silly. People don't want insurance;

Ah, the ol' "It'll never happen to me" way of going through life.
posted by sideshow at 10:28 AM on August 19, 2013 [1 favorite]


It seems like everyone would have been better off if the author had spent some time explaining the purpose of insurance and actuaries rather than writing this article.
posted by kiltedtaco at 10:29 AM on August 19, 2013 [6 favorites]


Which will be keeping your masters from looting Social Security more than they already do, of course.

The SSA has a 1% administrative overhead. 99 cents out of every dollar is paid directly to beneficiaries. Excess monies collected are held in the form of special treasury notes (loans to the federal government) and can only be redeemed by the SSA. Any attempt to default on these notes would destroy the "full faith and credit" of the government. In essence, the SSA is loot-proof, much to the annoyance of the private sector. Hence the recent calls to "privatize" (see: privateer)...
posted by jim in austin at 10:30 AM on August 19, 2013 [20 favorites]


I have worked in jobs which produce some measurable, desired, good. And I have worked in jobs which are mostly make-work, where my main responsibility is to 'service' the emotions of more senior managers. For example, attending meetings, editing their prose, pretending to agree with them, covering up their mistakes. The productive jobs are lower status, more heavily regulated, more stressful, and subject to a lot of external criticism from the press and politicians. An example would be teaching. Examples I haven't done myself would be bin men or nurses. People who work in shops. There is an expectation of productivity and grudge about income which you just don't get when you work in an unproductive job.
posted by communicator at 10:31 AM on August 19, 2013 [3 favorites]


Although the linked article doesn't address it, there really is something to Keynes idea. If income had tracked with productivity growth in the USA, we'd probably be where Keynes predicted.

Productivity in the USA today is something like 190% to 240% of 1979 levels, depending on your source (I pick 1979 as the start of the Reagan era). Income for people other than top earners is essentially flat. What this means is that capital holders have absorbed all the benefit of productivity gains, which I am guessing is not what Keynes expected.

If productivity gains had been equally distributed, and you go with the higher estimate of productivity growth, a 16.67-hour workweek today would produce the same effective income as a 40-hour workweek did in 1979. Pretty close to Keynes' 15 hours.
posted by adamrice at 10:31 AM on August 19, 2013 [33 favorites]


This article is definitely not the most articulate expression of the concept, but I think there is a lot of symmetry with an idea I've been thinking about a lot lately, namely: why is it that such a huge percentage of corporate business consists of basically lying to each other about things no one really cares about? The answer, of course, is profit. The challenge lies in reconciling the often overwhelming individual greed encouraged by the system with our desire to be caring and compassionate people.
posted by feloniousmonk at 10:32 AM on August 19, 2013 [2 favorites]


> Which explains how we got the 40 hour, 5 day workweek in the first place...how?

The situation that led to 40 hour work weeks is not one that will be repeated unless there is some sort of miracle.

There was a period in the past where progressive politics were an actual force - where both parties were willing to give back to working people, to invest in America's future by building roads, a network of trauma centers, funding the arts and science, to reinforce the rights that average Americans had - conceivably even to work for peace.

Now neither party wants any of these things - and worse, they have closed off all mechanisms that could lead to change.

It's like firmly gluing the lid onto a kettle, and then putting it on the stove - it's just not going to end well.
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 10:32 AM on August 19, 2013 [5 favorites]


Nor did I say they were. You, however may go put words in someone else's mouth, or in one of your own orifices. And I am not interested in my "relevance," whatever that is.

Now I see a thread full of comments from kool-ade drinkers

I thought you wanted to agitate. You want to convince people of your views of the system. By relevance, I mean that you would better at that if you did not insult them, by calling them kool aid drinkers, (which I used as a stand in for deluded).
posted by zabuni at 10:32 AM on August 19, 2013 [1 favorite]


That's like saying that people don't want houses; they want the environmental stability and privacy that houses provide. The bottom line is that they still want houses.

No, that's silly, too. Who here (among Americans) loves their health insurance company?



I know that SS is insurance. Because it's called that does not make it resemble Aetna or Prudential, or any of the rest of the for-profit insurance industry. I am aware that SSA employs actuaries. That doesn't mean the ones employed by my health insurer are contributing value to society.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 10:32 AM on August 19, 2013


Bailiff seems like a strange pick for the bullshit job label. Which kind of bailiff is he referring to? The kind that makes you pay taxes or the kind that stops you from beating up a jury?
posted by Winnemac at 10:33 AM on August 19, 2013


On insurance, one can easily imagine a country where 'safety nets' were stronger, and the need for insurance would be correspondingly reduced. There would be a need for a certain amount of probability-judging, but it would be handled in a different way, one which was more 'productive' - that is, the 'good' generated is better aligned to the amount of intellectual work done.
posted by communicator at 10:33 AM on August 19, 2013 [5 favorites]


And in just this way, society is organised to make-work. I have done plenty of make-work jobs, they were my best paid jobs, least stressful. When one moves to a job - blue collar or white collar - where there is a measurable product, then the attitude of other people is quite different. It is dismissive ('anyone could be a garbage man') suspicious ('road workers sit around all day') and one is supervised closely ('useless teachers').
posted by communicator at 10:39 AM on August 19, 2013 [4 favorites]


I think the idea that most people want insurance is silly. People don't want insurance;

Ah, the ol' "It'll never happen to me" way of going through life.


It's all about which way you want to bet. If my house burns down it will suck either way and I'll cry. If it doesn't I'd be so pissed thinking about that money I bet on it burning down. Insurance is lose-lose.
posted by Meatbomb at 10:39 AM on August 19, 2013


And I have worked in jobs which are mostly make-work, where my main responsibility is to 'service' the emotions of more senior managers. For example, attending meetings, editing their prose, pretending to agree with them, covering up their mistakes.

The problem with this framing - and the problem with this terrible piece - is that it assumes that any activity not directly tied to the production of a good or service is useless. This assumption is the mirror image of the homo economicus bullshit that conservatives pedal.

In the real world, businesses are complex organizations and require any number of "inefficiencies" - including jobs and activities that seem quite silly - to function properly because humans are weird, emotional, and inefficient ourselves.

Now Graeber is an anarcho-socialist and has certain ideological commitments that may have led him to treat the subject of his research - the capitalist system - with such disdain. But for all its abuses, for all its inefficiencies, for all its injustices, it's the way that the vast majority of people on earth have their needs met (or not). An attempt to even begin to understand this system would've been nice here.
posted by downing street memo at 10:40 AM on August 19, 2013 [9 favorites]


Who here (among Americans) loves their health insurance company?

In comparison to having to pay my own way, I do. Just like I love my house and car a lot more after I get back from a weekend of sleeping outside and walking around the goddamn woods.
posted by Etrigan at 10:42 AM on August 19, 2013 [4 favorites]


t assumes that any activity not directly tied to the production of a good or service is useless

I am not assuming that. I am saying that emotionally servicing the more senior people in an overloaded hierarchy is not a 'good', and a great deal of effort is put into that. That is because we have an unbalanced society, where some people have a lot of power, and they use that power to get the things they want - ego service mainly - rather than selflessly directing staff at a more general 'good'.
posted by communicator at 10:44 AM on August 19, 2013 [2 favorites]


“the top 1 percent of households have secured a very large share of all of the gains in income—59.9 percent of the gains from 1979–2007, while the top 0.1 percent seized an even more disproportionate share: 36 percent. In comparison, only 8.6 percent of income gains have gone to the bottom 90 percent”

And that's the problem in a nutshell. When the richest cream off all the profit of automation, computerization et al, there's very little left for the people doing the actual work.

Let's say that you could have now have a 50% salary bump; or work 50% less hours for the same wage. If you do the latter, we'll assume that work still needs to be done, so that's 50% of your job that could go to someone else. You'd have time to do something creative, or fun, or maybe just spend more time with your family.

So even without abandoning the principle that 'you only get what you work for', we have drastically improved salaries for the average worker, and also likely greatly improved employment.

But let's examine that principle that you have to work hard to earn your keep - why does that cease to apply to the wealthy? Children of the rich get born on 3rd base, and think they hit a triple. CEOs earn 500x the compensation of their average worker; it used to be 50x. Why do the investment bankers et al earn such a high wage merely because they control the money flow?

The wealthy realised they could buy the press, they could buy politicians through paying for election campaigns, and it's not far from them buying the justice system.

But of course, criticizing this state of affairs is 'socialism', and literally anti-american.
posted by ArkhanJG at 10:45 AM on August 19, 2013 [38 favorites]


And why should they or would they be selfless in that way? Nothing in our culture or economy directs them to be so, they are not educated to it, and if they did it there would be no reward. The amazing thing is that anything productive gets done at all.
posted by communicator at 10:45 AM on August 19, 2013


Amen! We must start eliminating the bullshit administrative, managerial, financial, legal, etc. jobs as quickly as possible though artificial intelligence, smarter/flat management, etc. See also Workers of the world... Relax! by Bob Black and In Praise of Idleness by Bertrand Russell (previously).
posted by jeffburdges at 10:45 AM on August 19, 2013 [3 favorites]


I often think of things like this whilst jogging. I am running nowhere for no real purpose other than to burn off calories and stay fit because I over consume and under perform physical work.

It's bullshit work.

(Though it does also get me a bit high and it is kind of meditative)


Exercise is not necessarily a response to over-consumption, but a desire for over-all well-being. Sedentary jobs generally pay better than physically taxing jobs, and as such are more desirable, so we must turn to other means to exercise our bodies.
posted by filthy light thief at 10:46 AM on August 19, 2013 [2 favorites]


Really, I don't want insurance. I would much prefer to be able to pay my medical expense straight up out of pocket. The problem with that course of action is obvious, as I would probably go broke if I came down with anything more serious than the common cold. The question that I have that I've never gotten a satisfactory answer to is why everything in the medical industry is so goddamned expensive. I would suspect that a not insignificant part of that cost is going to the administrative "services" that the insurance industry provides.
posted by dudemanlives at 10:46 AM on August 19, 2013 [5 favorites]


businesses are complex organizations and require any number of "inefficiencies" - including jobs and activities that seem quite silly - to function properly because humans are weird, emotional, and inefficient ourselves

That does not mean the level of inefficiency we have at present is optimum, or that jobs which 'seem silly' are not in reality silly. I think even you, believing Capitalism is an optimum system, would agree there is some 'silly' work, some wasted effort, some bullshit.

My argument is that this type of work, the work that 'seems silly' really is silly (quite often). That the amount of the average job which is silly is increasing. That economic pressures are not making jobs leaner, but replicating unnecessary entities and unproductive activity.
posted by communicator at 10:52 AM on August 19, 2013 [1 favorite]


I am not assuming that. I am saying that emotionally servicing the more senior people in an overloaded hierarchy is not a 'good', and a great deal of effort is put into that.

Right, but what if - assuming your characterization of your past jobs is accurate - it actually does lead to a "good"?

I mean, here's the thing. Human beings like praise. Here on this very website there is a little number next to each of our contributions that tells us how many people thought it was great. Lots of mefites take that number pretty seriously, and put a great deal of effort into making it go up, even though it is, objectively speaking, worthless.

In other words, what I'm saying is, ego stroking is how business gets done. In a world where human beings have egos, in order to create "goods", you might have to stroke somebody's.
posted by downing street memo at 10:53 AM on August 19, 2013 [2 favorites]


Can't have 15-hour work weeks when the competition is willing to work 20.
posted by ctmf at 10:53 AM on August 19, 2013 [2 favorites]


ego stroking is how business gets done. In a world where human beings have egos, in order to create "goods", you might have to stroke somebody's

Yes, but in an unbalanced, I would say decadent, society, more and more effort is directed at that type of activity. I think we would agree there have been societies in the past that foundered because 'ego stroking' of a small elite became over-dominant. Pre-revolutionary France for example. Is it so impossible that the wealth-imbalance of our society is matched by an effort-imbalance. It would be extraordinary if it were not.
posted by communicator at 10:55 AM on August 19, 2013 [1 favorite]


Bailiff seems like a strange pick for the bullshit job label. Which kind of bailiff is he referring to? The kind that makes you pay taxes or the kind that stops you from beating up a jury?

The writer may well be referring to bailiffs in English and Welsh law which often effectively act like debt collectors. They can seize goods from an individual or business so that the sale of those goods can pay back the outstanding debt. Given that a court can impose a lien on income to pay back a debt, the use of bailiffs seems redundant. Especially so as in England and Wales wages are most often paid electronically and can be automatically set to dock at source.

(There are other kinds of bailiffs, but I think this is the kind he is speaking of.)
posted by Thing at 10:55 AM on August 19, 2013 [3 favorites]


Triplanetary: I'm simply pointing out that Keynes' prediction from 1930 was right: to achieve the living standard of a 1930s laborer requires fewer hours of work than it used to. But we want more than that, like automobiles, vacations, quality medical care for our kids, etc.

I would be really interested to read about how the quality of life has increased in the US since 1930, and what the costs of those increases are (plus how and why those costs have increased).


dudemanlives: Really, I don't want insurance. I would much prefer to be able to pay my medical expense straight up out of pocket. The problem with that course of action is obvious, as I would probably go broke if I came down with anything more serious than the common cold. The question that I have that I've never gotten a satisfactory answer to is why everything in the medical industry is so goddamned expensive. I would suspect that a not insignificant part of that cost is going to the administrative "services" that the insurance industry provides.

Here's a MetaFilter post on the reason for high health care costs in the US. Regardless of overpriced Tylenol, there are procedures that utilize very expensive equipment, and if you were to need such a procedure, it would cost you an exorbitant amount of money. Thus insurance costs everybody something, to avoid charging a few people everything. Insurance balances the financial pains across the backs of the masses. Kind of like socialism, except in the current system, there's competition, so people are making a mint off of this "free" market with an imbalance of information.
posted by filthy light thief at 10:56 AM on August 19, 2013 [3 favorites]


I was talking about ego-soothing as a merely unproductive activity, one that takes up so many hours a day in unproductive meetings, in watching powerpoint presentations, in reading hundreds of content-free emails. But of course the emotional servicing of the powerful is often actively counter-productive. Again, we see this more clearly in other countries than in our own. We would willingly 'see' this when dealing with a country like Saudi Arabia, where the hierarchy are princelings. We would 'see' it when dealing with the Chinese communist party hierarchy. But we find it much harder to see in our own culture.
posted by communicator at 11:03 AM on August 19, 2013


Couldn't the sheer number of people in the world be a factor in how much administrative work is required worldwide?

On a small scale, say I'm just fine managing 5 people. But now there's 25. Ideally, we would also then hire 4 more people to do the same thing I do, so it all evens out, right? But no. Now I have to coordinate with those other 4 people, which takes some amount of time. Where before, I could just keep my policies in my head, now I have to expend some effort making sure everyone does it the same, maybe even writing a policy/procedure manual. What if those people disagree with me? Better have a single person be the decision maker, and have all 5 of us work for that person.

The extra overhead is tedious and boring, maybe, but it's not bullshit. It's just that often, the workload doesn't scale linearly.

And world population now isn't the same as in Keynes' world.
posted by ctmf at 11:04 AM on August 19, 2013 [4 favorites]


Administrative activity clearly can be productive, but administrative resource can also be directed at unproductive work. The question is whether that direction of resource is done efficiently in our culture, or distorted by other issues. The white collar/blue collar distinction is a red herring.
posted by communicator at 11:07 AM on August 19, 2013


As capitalism develops, the municipalities become ever more active in their service of mankind, and the material conditions of existence for the workers become ever more improved. The working people become ever more enlightened, ever more independent in spirit, and ever more competent to understand the conditions of existence and the best way to serve their interests. And, though the material conditions become ever more improved, the workingmen become ever more dissatisfied and feel themselves ever more fettered and crippled by the capitalistic order. Their dissatisfaction and their feeling of constraint grow, not because their material conditions of existence become ever worse, but rather in spite of and because of their improvement. The workingmen grow mentally and morally. This growth of theirs manifests itself in an increase of capacity to enjoy and a desire for ever more enjoyment. The workingmen become ever more painfully conscious of the incompatibility of capitalism with their own well-being. Ever more keenly do they realize that their life does not improve proportionately to the rapid and wonderful progress mankind makes in the arts, the sciences and the industries. They perceive that, not only are all advantages of progress and civilization monopolized by the idlers, parasites and swindlers, but also that these gentry, like swine, destroy and befoul everything which they themselves cannot use, or which they cannot dispose of at a profit, thus depriving the workingmen of the benefits of the increase in the productiveness of labor. Though the conditions of existence for the workingmen improve, yet that improvement, relatively to the real progress of mankind, is absolutely insignificant; so insignificant, indeed, that the conditions of the working class fall ever more and more behind the progress of the race. The chasm between them and the capitalist class becomes ever deeper and wider, producing in the workers the deepest despair with the capitalist system.--The Philosophy of Marx / Harry Waton.
posted by No Robots at 11:07 AM on August 19, 2013 [6 favorites]


This other previous thread on why childbirth is more expensive in America than anywhere else in the world also provides some informative analysis of why our health care costs are so high. It's basically because hospitals try to start pricing for all services at a ridiculously high rate in order to be able to hold their own in negotiations with insurance companies.

On the other hand, increasingly the insurance companies are also buying up hospitals and physician's groups, so who knows what kind of perverse incentives that kind of thing creates.

(That was in response to filthy light thief back here.)
posted by saulgoodman at 11:07 AM on August 19, 2013 [1 favorite]


On a small scale, say I'm just fine managing 5 people. But now there's 25. Ideally, we would also then hire 4 more people to do the same thing I do, so it all evens out, right? But no. Now I have to coordinate with those other 4 people, which takes some amount of time. Where before, I could just keep my policies in my head, now I have to expend some effort making sure everyone does it the same, maybe even writing a policy/procedure manual. What if those people disagree with me? Better have a single person be the decision maker, and have all 5 of us work for that person.

What is this magical world you work in where they don't just make the original person deal with managing 25 for the same pay they got managing 5? I want to go to there.
posted by jason_steakums at 11:08 AM on August 19, 2013 [3 favorites]


I have that I've never gotten a satisfactory answer to is why everything in the medical industry is so goddamned expensive.

When your appendix bursts what are you going to do, shop around? Yes, insurance companies add a lot of unnecessary cost but medicine is plain expensive because there's no posted prices and consumers generally don't choose the lowest-price option for a bunch of pretty good reasons.

Anyway, maybe Keynes was just wrong? I mean, he was a smart guy and all but I'm not going to start an argument with all of Keynes beliefs as fundamental axioms.
posted by GuyZero at 11:21 AM on August 19, 2013 [2 favorites]


It's basically because hospitals try to start pricing for all services at a ridiculously high rate in order to be able to hold their own in negotiations with insurance companies.

Well, also because they're required to provide services whether or not someone has healthcare, so they lose a lot of money on people that skip out on their bills, but make up for it by charging everyone else more.
posted by corb at 11:23 AM on August 19, 2013


Sure--it's multifactorial, and I was simplifying a lot of other factors. But the literal, most immediate reason you see the exact sticker price you do on a hosptial bill is because it represents the starting point of negotiations with whomever's on the hook to pay the bill, but most people who don't have insurance don't have enough economic clout or leverage to negotiate on their end.
posted by saulgoodman at 11:38 AM on August 19, 2013


This is just Douglas Adams "B Ark" plotline in essay format isn't it?
posted by Joh at 11:42 AM on August 19, 2013 [5 favorites]


Although the linked article doesn't address it, there really is something to Keynes idea. If income had tracked with productivity growth in the USA, we'd probably be where Keynes predicted.

Productivity in the USA today is something like 190% to 240% of 1979 levels, depending on your source (I pick 1979 as the start of the Reagan era). Income for people other than top earners is essentially flat. What this means is that capital holders have absorbed all the benefit of productivity gains, which I am guessing is not what Keynes expected.

If productivity gains had been equally distributed, and you go with the higher estimate of productivity growth, a 16.67-hour workweek today would produce the same effective income as a 40-hour workweek did in 1979. Pretty close to Keynes' 15 hours.


The problem with this argument, though, is that it totally ignores the 50 years between when Keynes wrote "Economic Possibilities for Our Grandchildren" and 1979. Take the BLS stats on nonfarm productivity growth, for example (series PRS85006092), which are available from 1947 on (and maybe this is better, so you don't have the Great Depression and World War II distorting things). Productivity grew such that, if 1947 = 27.8, then 1979 = 59.5. Theoretically, then, a 40 hour work week could be compressed into about 19 (40*(27.8/59.5)), but of course that didn't happen, people generally preferred to consume more than before, and whatever real or imagined sins of Reaganomics doesn't explain it.
posted by dsfan at 11:47 AM on August 19, 2013 [1 favorite]


Reading the comments, I feel like I've stumbled into a bizarro-world MetaFilter, where everyone defends insurance companies and being an actuary is a Very Important Job which requires 8+ hours of concentration each day. FFS, how many of you are spending hours of each of your workdays posting these comments on MetaFilter anyway? Maybe this article leads to discomfort because you're coming to the realization that *your* job doesn't require 40 hours a week, and you could have your hours or salary slashed at any point and have little recourse. I have sympathy - that's a shitty position to be in - after all, if your job really only needs about 20 hours, the other 20 hours of your weekly existence must happen within that little cube. Hope all of your goals in life can be fulfilled via the internet!

But anyway, I think I saw your boss getting ready to interview for a new office jockey position that just opened up, so open up that Excel document and make look like you're working!
posted by antonymous at 11:49 AM on August 19, 2013 [24 favorites]


No sadly, Joh. There are an awful lot of bullshit jobs that attract fairly driven individuals, that just makes them even more wasteful. Just fyi, we recently discussed how employment in high-frequency-trading is collapsing because they did their job too well.
posted by jeffburdges at 11:53 AM on August 19, 2013


antonymous: But research shows "Goofing off online increases productivity at work." Doing certain jobs efficiently--particularly jobs that involve a lot of thinking--counter-intuitively actually requires a certain amount of slacking off. Thinking isn't just a conscious, deliberate process, but an unconscious one, too--one that doesn't work so well under too much pressure [.pdf cite].
posted by saulgoodman at 12:02 PM on August 19, 2013 [6 favorites]


Reading the comments, I feel like I've stumbled into a bizarro-world MetaFilter, where everyone defends insurance companies and being an actuary is a Very Important Job which requires 8+ hours of concentration each day.

You didn't read the comments.
posted by downing street memo at 12:02 PM on August 19, 2013


antonymous: My job takes 40 hours a week whether I do X amount or 2X amount. It's AMRAP, not for time. Since I get paid the same amount whether it's X or 2X or even 3x, I might as well look at metafilter once in a while, and my boss is cool with that, too, if I keep it reasonable.

Does that make it a bullshit job?
posted by ctmf at 12:03 PM on August 19, 2013 [4 favorites]


antonymous: My job takes 40 hours a week whether I do X amount or 2X amount. It's AMRAP, not for time. Since I get paid the same amount whether it's X or 2X or even 3x, I might as well look at metafilter once in a while, and my boss is cool with that, too, if I keep it reasonable.

Does that make it a bullshit job?


Also there are those jobs where if you're sitting around browsing the web it's a good thing, because it means nothing is blowing up (either figuratively or literally).
posted by jason_steakums at 12:15 PM on August 19, 2013 [2 favorites]


In essence, the SSA is loot-proof, much to the annoyance of the private sector.

Benefits paid are subject to the whims of Congress and the President. Obama has already bargained to reduce benefits. There is more than one way to loot Social Security. Defaulting on the trust fund is the least of your worries.
posted by JackFlash at 12:20 PM on August 19, 2013 [2 favorites]


I'm sure many of you have wonderful, rewarding jobs. But I think the author's primary error was calling certain jobs "bullshit" rather than using a more diplomatic choice of words. Now if I'm to defend the article's premise (that a 15-hour workweek is viable), I'm also in a position where I'm forced to call out my peers' jobs as bullshit. Great.

I'm really just trying to point out that our leisure time has probably peaked, and that workplace structure has not been adjusted for productivity gains (or wage stagnation, for that matter). Here is a slightly better essay on the subject of Keynes's vision (I'll admit I haven't read the whole thing).
posted by antonymous at 12:39 PM on August 19, 2013 [1 favorite]


dsfan: "Theoretically, then, a 40 hour work week could be compressed into about 19 (40*(27.8/59.5)), but of course that didn't happen, people generally preferred to consume more than before"

The 40 hour work week has little to do with consumer preference, I think. For example, businesses with high per-employee costs (think benefits, healthcare, insurance, training, etc.) would rather have one employee at 40 hours a week than two employees at 20 hours each and similar hourly rates. Even if the employees would prefer fewer hours and less pay, it's not clear their preferences would have the power to set the terms of employment against the preferences of those doing the hiring.
posted by Wemmick at 12:42 PM on August 19, 2013 [1 favorite]


There is no finish line; after a point "efficiency" is a canard. Efficiency that leads to the wholesale destruction of jobs (especially in a capitalist system) is pointless in the extreme. With that plan, there is no other place for the wealth to go but to the top.
posted by Benny Andajetz at 12:58 PM on August 19, 2013 [3 favorites]


It's really funny how cultural assumptions and perspectives change overtime and how these changes effect the so-called "political realities" of the day. When SS and unemployment benefits first became the law of the land, a big part of the push for them came from employers themselves.

Why? Because it was clear to everyone in those days of widespread, long-term economic hardship that we had to do something as a society about retirement age citizens not having anything left to live off of at the end of their working careers.

Some employers tried addressing the problem by offering unemployment insurance plans of their own, but inevitably, most workers themselves opted for the higher wages their competitor's were offering instead of opting to have their compensation deferred (after all, at the time, they had no more guarantee their money would still be there waiting for them when they reached retirement than they had had that the banks wouldn't forfeit all their deposits during the bank runs at the start of the Great Depression).

So business leaders (among others) cried out for Federal laws to require employers to participate in Social Security and Unemployment Insurance programs so that they could provide these socially-necessary benefits without being at a fatal competitive disadvantage in the labor marketplace. Now so many business leaders decry these same programs the private sector once demanded as onerous and anti-competitive. It's really kind of a ridiculous, herky–jerky dance we're doing through history.
posted by saulgoodman at 1:12 PM on August 19, 2013 [9 favorites]


This is so interesting, and on a subject I frequently argue about with friends and acquaintances, and I would dearly love to get involved in this. But today, I'm just too damn busy dealing with my bullshit job.
posted by Naberius at 1:16 PM on August 19, 2013 [3 favorites]


Benefits paid are subject to the whims of Congress and the President. Obama has already bargained to reduce benefits. There is more than one way to loot Social Security. Defaulting on the trust fund is the least of your worries.

The SSA requires actuarial "tweaking" to continue providing full benefits throughout the Baby Boomer tsunami. Those tweaks can come in a variety of forms: reduction of future benefit growth (what you were alluding to), higher SS tax rates, later retirement dates or any combination of the above. The problems with the SSA are simple actuarial ones that could be solved in 10 minutes by anyone with a spreadsheet. The political problems, however, are a different matter...
posted by jim in austin at 1:17 PM on August 19, 2013


A piece written by Michał Kalecki in 1943 I think illustrates why we don't have full-employment.

Political Aspects of Full Employment
posted by waitangi at 1:43 PM on August 19, 2013 [2 favorites]


“Nothing breeds radicalism more quickly than unhappiness unless it is leisure. As long as the people are kept profitably and happily employed there is little danger from radicalism.” – John Emmett Edgerton, president of the National Association of Manufacturers from 1921 to 1931. More quotes about the origins of consumerism.
posted by Speculatist at 1:47 PM on August 19, 2013 [2 favorites]


I'll just leave this here. The Abolition of Work. (Bob Black, 1985)

For the sack of nostalgia.

Oh, ok, and this.

As a young man I could not believe that people could give their lives over to those conditions.... They never pay the slaves enough so they can get free, just enough so they can stay alive and come back to work. I could see all this. Why couldn't they? Bukowski
posted by Twang at 4:11 PM on August 19, 2013 [2 favorites]


"Work dominates life in Eden-Olympia and drives out everything else. The dream of leisure society was the great twentieth-century delusion. Work is the new leisure. Talented and ambitious people work harder than they have ever done, and for longer hours. They find their only fulfillment through work. The men and women running successful companies need to focus their energies on the task in front of them, and for every minute of the day. The last thing they want is recreation. [...] Creative work is its own recreation."—J.G. Ballard, Super-Cannes

posted by mattbucher at 5:21 PM on August 19, 2013 [1 favorite]


Reading the comments, I feel like I've stumbled into a bizarro-world MetaFilter, where everyone defends insurance companies and being an actuary is a Very Important Job which requires 8+ hours of concentration each day.

As a side note, as a kid I didn't know what to study, was reasonably good in maths and statistics, and someone said the actuaries get paid a lot.

The syllabus was very difficult, I did an internship with a multinational insurer and saw the vast suffering of 10 other wannabe actuaries in the office, and decided no amount of money was worth that, I finished the degree and then went on to much greener, lower paying pastures... having being burned I have a healthy respect for what actuaries do...

As for the article itself, the writer seems pretty ignorant (just randomly calling out jobs he doesn't understand as "useless"... if he actually ran a 1000 employee company and tried to get rid of all those positions he would be rather quickly needing to rehire them) but there is some grain of truth in his ideas... particularly in regards to tangible / intangible goods - say, competitive marketing, what if say Coke and Pepsi, Ford and GM, McDonalds and Burger King, etc - all called an advertising truce and donated eleventy billion dollars to charity every year? Or lowered the price of their products, leading to a net gain in consumer utility worldwide? There's the counter-argument to be made that products like those, and particularly like Nike - are primarily made of brand image, not the raw material. So when you're buying a Nike shirt, what you're "buying" is 90% advertising (imagery and emotion associated with the product that was built by the advertising campaigns) and only 10% material (cotton) - hence, the advertising expenditure was creating real value, in the same way putting up a music concert also produces real value even though nothing tangible is left afterwards. In a hypothetical world where Coke did zero advertising, the utility of drinking a Coke would be less than the one we have now.
posted by xdvesper at 6:15 PM on August 19, 2013 [5 favorites]


When SS and unemployment benefits first became the law of the land, a big part of the push for them came from employers themselves.

I've mentioned this before but SS benefits the rich far more than it does the poor. It is very interesting to observe societies like China where the distinct lack of a social baseline requires every Bo, Chin and Ling to save, save, save enormous amounts of income and thereby makes the flexibility and a dynamicity of a consumer-led economy impossible. SS can be viewed as a kind of tremendous, long-term subsidy to capitalists by increasing general risk-preferences. Have no doubt it is very much leverage and its forever impending doom (tm) should not be viewed wholly as a bad thing.

And these numbers do not even reflect on all those people whose job is to provide administrative, technical, or security support for these industries, or for that matter the whole host of ancillary industries (dog-washers, all-night pizza deliverymen) that only exist because everyone else is spending so much of their time working in all the other ones.

Graeber is woefully wrong on this. For shame. It ought to be very obvious to an Graeber of all fucking people that late capitalism's trick is not the creation of work but the creation of debt. Modern serfs do not work to dig their way out of debt, they dig, borrow and toil to earn the privilege to take on ever more debt.

And why?

It is precisely because debt is the ultimate prisoner's dilemma. You win by defecting. He who takes the most takes it all. In the end, what are nation states, what are so-called "sovereigns" who puff themselves up with all sorts of nonsense about "freedom" and "the people", or corporations or churches -- anything but debt vehicles?

Graeber's essay is stupid and superficial. It's just such a poor showing overall. The phenomenon he remarks upon is very much real and even a blind man could see that the vast majority of over-educated worker-bees toil away to no reasonable purpose. But he fails to grasp that all the busy work -- everything from hedge funds to Congress -- was very much intended to appeal to investors and create leverage.
posted by nixerman at 7:44 PM on August 19, 2013 [1 favorite]


Can't have 15-hour work weeks when the competition is willing to work 20.

Not sure why it took this many comments to get to the root of the issue. The biggest reason why workers can't negotiate for shorter workweeks -- or pretty much anything else -- is because there's a labor surplus.

In industries where there is truly a labor shortage (some highly-skilled occupations), you can get a shorter workweek. Cf. Timothy Ferriss' latest drivellings. Most people can't, though, because if they go in and ask their boss for a 30-hour week with retained benefits, they'll get laughed at, fired, and replaced with someone more "hungry." Maybe figuratively, maybe literally. (Maybe literally by employing someone a bit more desperate at the same office, but just as often literally by employing someone a lot more desperate on the other side of the planet. Welcome to the future; we don't have flying cars but we sure as hell have cheap container freight so we can outsource your job.)

Those halcyon days when we got the 40-hour / 5-day workweek? They largely happened when the economy was expanding, the labor market was tight, and the balance of power between employers and employees leaned more in the opposite direction. And the chances of anything in a similar direction happening when we have a labor surplus is absurd.

In the short run it's not an issue of politics as much as it is economics; the same politicians who eat so readily from the hand of capital would be happy to do so from labor, if labor could provide the same level of delectable campaign-time morsels. But labor is outbid, and will continue to be outbid for the foreseeable future unless there is a substantial change in trade and labor policy, which is itself unlikely while labor is so hard-pressed.

So, given the fact that so many of us could be so readily replaced with someone younger, slightly more desperate, and far deeper in debt, it's no wonder that instead of a 20 or 30 hour workweek, what we've instead ended up with -- in large part, for those who can swing it -- is a workweek consisting of some, probably <40 hrs, amount of actual work mixed with an increasing amount of bullshit not-work. (Time spent sitting at your computer, appearing to work, but instead reading Metafilter, for instance.) You would be unlikely to get away with such slacking in the 1950s while on the job, but today it's the only recourse that the average white or pink-collar worker has to extract some of the gains due to automation and technology, which otherwise just accrue to their corporate masters. But the appearance of putting in the time must remain, lest one of the very-much-not-proverbial workers waiting outside the proverbial factory gates get brought in instead.
posted by Kadin2048 at 8:12 PM on August 19, 2013 [6 favorites]


This is a not very good article that deals with an important issue and a significant point.

If productivity gains had been equally distributed, and you go with the higher estimate of productivity growth, a 16.67-hour workweek today would produce the same effective income as a 40-hour workweek did in 1979. Pretty close to Keynes' 15 hours.

This needs to be combined with the fact that the costs of basic goods have shifted. What I mean by that is that in many places it now costs a far larger chunk of your income to pay for housing, food and (in some cases) healthcare than it used to.

This is why measuring "standard of living" is a tricky thing - I can own an iPad, which is this wonderful piece of technology that my parents could never have possessed at my age, for obvious reasons, but they could own a family-size house.

As for jobs that do not do anything useful: he shoots himself in the foot by listing together jobs that are arguably useful but perhaps should have a different role in society as a whole (actuaries) alongside jobs that are grossly overpaid but not exactly pointless (CEOs) and jobs that actively make the world a worse place by distorting the political process to serve the interests of non-human entities (lobbyists). Some of these should be modified, others destroyed.

What can be done? I would suggest a number of practical measures.

1) Reform the structure of corporations. Cooperatives - see here - or Bcorporations might be a good way to go. Corporations are legal entities. Their properties depend on statutes and case law. If you look into the history of where the idea of a corporation - especially the "veil of incorporation" - comes from, it is actually based on very shaky judicial reasoning.

Legal structures things can be changed - they are only tools to serve social purposes. If, as seems increasingly clear, they are not serving the interests of the vast majority of people, they should be changed. We would need to experiment with different forms of organisation, and might not get it right straight away - but I would argue that where we are at the moment is just one such experiment and we are getting a lot of data that suggests that this approach is not working.

2) Reform the political process. The political process is too vulnerable to the influence of money - in the longer term, there are a number of things that can be done about this. First past the post is not a representative system. Replace it with a more proportional representation based system. Introduce compulsory voting. Personally, I strongly favour "sortition", which is a principle that the Athenians used to select many of their leaders - it means choosing by lottery. You could have a database of people who are adults, sane and in good standing. Choose a group of them randomly. The variation in competence between people is generally exaggerated and we already trust 12 random (or semi-random) strangers to make life-or-death jury decisions. Why not extend the principle? It would be tremendously hard to corrupt and would reduce the prevalence of "career politicians".

But long-term changes to legal structures and voting principles, although necessary, are difficult to achieve. Nothing less than a concerted program of taking over every structure of government and repurposing it to the cause of progress will suffice to bring about these changes. That means that our generation, the younger generation, must take over every area of civic power at every level - including local councils, school councils, police departments, courthouses and judges seats and so on. There is no choice: if we do not take this power, it will be used against us. So we must take it.

3) Reform ownership of goods and services, because the "public" sphere should be bigger, not smaller. Reject the idea that only work in the private sector is good: a bizarre and toxic ideology has taken hold that says that the private sector basically does the only good work in the economy and pays for everything else. This usually depends on a simplistic interpretation of where value is created and how. It is increasingly clear that a great deal of value in society is created by the public and the state, and that many entrepreneurs and venture capitalists essentially skim that value off the top - privatising the rewards of a social risk. We need to stop allowing value to be captured by a tiny number of people. If we retained the things that we produced - rather than allowing them to be arbitrarily taken from us - then something like Graeber's utopia of leisure would be possible.

4) Abandon the idea that "work is good" in and of itself - and this is where Graeber's essay comes in. This is a foolish notion. It may have something to do with Protestantism, although I suspect it is older than Protestantism - it is the original religion of slaves. Everyone is familiar with the experience of pointless labour, mere busywork. Leisure allows time for reflection, for art - for, (if we must use the foul language of business-speak), "creating value". Graeber is exactly right about this: far more has been done for mankind in idle moments of reflection or self-directed curiosity than in all the office-work performed in the two hundred and fifty years that there have been offices to work in.

We cannot build a perfect world, but we can build a better one. And as I said, we have no choice: if we do not, others will build a worse world for us and trap us there.
posted by lucien_reeve at 2:41 AM on August 20, 2013 [5 favorites]


We're mostly all on-the-clock right now while reading this thread, and commenting on social reform online, which suggests the "ruling class" shall confront the "mortal danger" posed by a "population with free time on their hands" eventually anyways. So maybe the NSA should not merely lay off system administrators but overwork the ones it keeps? ;)

There is no shortage of small start ups that provide superior products with minimal management or administration, at least in markets where large corporations cannot monopolize market access. We should advance technologies that make managers and administrators redundant to erode the illusions that keep all the behemoths afloat.
posted by jeffburdges at 3:37 AM on August 20, 2013


"Blog about my illustration for David Graeber's article in Strike! magazine" - John Riordan
posted by jeffburdges at 10:17 AM on August 20, 2013


Just fyi, David Graeber wrote Debt: The First 5000 Years (previously), so any omissions are most likely merely an attempt at brevity, nixerman.
posted by jeffburdges at 10:37 AM on August 20, 2013


There is an interesting chicken v egg problem for my suggested solution, which goes : automate all the bullshit jobs so that people become unemployed, protest, and eventually force the government to shorten the work week.

Almost all labor went into agricultural work right up until the industrial revolution. Yes, industrializing agriculture made that possible, but the labor shortage created by industrialization surely incentivized the industrialization of agriculture.

Automating white color jobs addresses only half the labor demand problem since many bullshit jobs should simply be eliminated, not automated, but worse our historical examples of progress addressed the labor supply problem too. And we're sadly too good at inventing bullshit jobs thanks largely to Keynes.

We might become computer savvy within a couple generations that any new policy gets implemented through automation first, thus preventing any significant job creation through new policy.
posted by jeffburdges at 2:36 PM on August 23, 2013


Neil Gaiman Addresses the University of the Arts Class of 2012
posted by jeffburdges at 5:01 PM on August 23, 2013


administrative jobs are the modern equivalent of the industrial line worker
Disaggregation may make it look meaningless, since many workers end up doing things incredibly far removed from the end points of the process; the days when the iron ore goes in one door and the car rolls out the other are over. But the idea is the same...

Technology continues to improve, however. Just as robots became ever better at various manual tasks over the past century—and were therefore able to replace human labour in a growing array of jobs, beginning with the most routine—computer control systems are able to handle ever more of the work done by human administrative workers. Jobs from truck driver to legal aid to medical diagnostician to customer service technician will soon be threatened by machines. Starting with the most routine tasks. Human labour will not be eliminated entirely from these sectors. Jobs that require a particularly high level of task flexibility, or creativity, or empathy may continue to employ people (for a while). Yet most office jobs will eventually go the way of the dodo.

And at that point advanced economies may find it necessary to address what is really the central complaint in Mr Graeber's essay. The issue is not that jobs used to have meaning and now they don't; most jobs in most periods have undoubtedly been staffed by people who would prefer to be doing something else. The issue is that too little of the recent gains from technological advance and economic growth have gone toward giving people the time and resources to enjoy their lives outside work. Early in the industrial era real wages soared and hours worked declined. In the past generation, by contrast, real wages have grown slowly and workweeks haven't grown shorter.

The development of large-scale technological unemployment or underemployment, however, would force rich societies to revisit a system that primarily allocates purchasing power via earned wages. And that, in turn, could allow households to get by or even thrive while working many fewer hours than is now typically the case—albeit through a pretty hefty level of income redistribution. They would then be free to write poetry or tutor disadvantaged children, though we shouldn't be surprised if most use their new leisure to spend more time with a beloved video game.

We can't be certain that the robots are coming for all our jobs. Disemployment in administrative jobs could create new, and perhaps highly remunerative, work in sectors or occupations we can't yet anticipate. If we're lucky, that work will be engaging and meaningful. Yet there is a decent chance that "bullshit" administrative jobs are merely a halfway house between "bullshit" industrial jobs and no jobs at all. Not because of the conniving of rich interests, but because machines inevitably outmatch humans at handling bullshit without complaining.
This, by Definition, is Job Polarization
[T]he fundamental changes occurring in the labor market are best seen at the occupational level not the industry level. When discussing cognitive or routine or manual type functions and how technological change is impacting them, these generally cut across industries by occupation. When I look at employment growth from 2010 to 2012, using occupational groups, I get the following (trying to match the great graphics that both the WSJ and Atlanta Fed use)...

What we see here is strong job growth at both the top and bottom ends of the wage spectrum. Yes, food preparation and personal care account for a disproportionately large share of jobs gained in recent years, but so too have business and financial services, healthcare practitioners, computer and mathematical occupations and management. Where we have seen slower growth is in the middle. The light blue bars, which I term lower middle-wage jobs account for about 40% of all occupations in 2012 yet account for just 26% of the growth. The dark blue bars, which I term upper middle-wage jobs, account for another 19% of all occupations and 0% of the growth.
ZMP workers in Japan, boredom and banishment rooms
Shusaku Tani is employed at the Sony plant here, but he doesn't really work.

For more than two years, he has come to a small room, taken a seat and then passed the time reading newspapers, browsing the Web and poring over engineering textbooks from his college days. He files a report on his activities at the end of each day.

Sony, Mr. Tani's employer of 32 years, consigned him to this room because they can't get rid of him. Sony had eliminated his position at the Sony Sendai Technology Center, which in better times produced magnetic tapes for videos and cassettes. But Mr. Tani, 51, refused to take an early retirement offer from Sony in late 2010 — his prerogative under Japanese labor law.

So there he sits in what is called the "chasing-out room." He spends his days there, with about 40 other holdouts.
fwiw, here's some stuff...
posted by kliuless at 10:56 AM on August 24, 2013 [2 favorites]


Why a medieval peasant got more vacation time than you
Ignores various tasks require serious labor without automation however.
posted by jeffburdges at 7:40 AM on September 5, 2013


The modern phenomenon of nonsense jobs
via Culture is not about aesthetics. Punk rock is now enforced by law.
posted by jeffburdges at 2:49 PM on September 14, 2013


I slightly confused my links, that last one is exactly the same essay, just appearing elsewhere with less cussing. Instead try this one :

MIT Tech Review : Report Suggests Nearly Half of U.S. Jobs Are Vulnerable to Computerization
posted by jeffburdges at 3:06 PM on September 14, 2013


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