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Why Capitalism Creates Pointless Jobs

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By David Graeber

In the year 1930, John Maynard Keynes predicted that technology would have advanced sufficiently by century’s end that countries like Great Britain or the United States would achieve 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. Instead, technology has been marshaled, if anything, to figure out ways to make us all work more. In order to achieve this, jobs have had to be created that are, effectively, pointless. Huge swathes of people, in Europe and North America in particular, spend their entire working lives performing tasks they secretly believe do not really need to be performed. The moral and spiritual damage that comes from this situation is profound. It is a scar across our collective soul. Yet virtually no one talks about it.

Why did Keynes’ promised utopia – still being eagerly awaited in the ‘60s – never materialise? The standard line today is that he didn’t figure in the massive increase in consumerism. Given the choice between less hours and more toys and pleasures, we’ve collectively chosen the latter. This presents a nice morality tale, but even a moment’s reflection shows it can’t really be true. Yes, we have witnessed the creation of an endless variety of new jobs and industries since the ‘20s, but very few have anything to do with the production and distribution of sushi, iPhones, or fancy sneakers.

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So what are these new jobs, precisely? A recent report comparing employment in the US between 1910 and 2000 gives us a clear picture (and I note, one pretty much exactly echoed in the UK). Over the course of the last century, the number of workers employed as domestic servants, in industry, and in the farm sector has collapsed dramatically. At the same time, “professional, managerial, clerical, sales, and service workers” tripled, growing “from one-quarter to three-quarters of total employment.” In other words, productive jobs have, just as predicted, been largely automated away (even if you count industrial workers globally, including the toiling masses in India and China, such workers are still not nearly so large a percentage of the world population as they used to be).

But rather than allowing a massive reduction of working hours to free the world’s population to pursue their own projects, pleasures, visions, and ideas, we have seen the ballooning not even so much of the “service” sector as of the administrative sector, up to and including the creation of whole new industries like financial services or telemarketing, or the unprecedented expansion of sectors like corporate law, academic and health administration, human resources, and public relations. 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.

These are what I propose to call “bullshit jobs.”

It’s as if someone were out there making up pointless jobs just for the sake of keeping us all working. And here, precisely, lies the mystery. In capitalism, this is exactly what is not supposed to happen. Sure, in the old inefficient socialist states like the Soviet Union, where employment was considered both a right and a sacred duty, the system made up as many jobs as they had to (this is why in Soviet department stores it took three clerks to sell a piece of meat). But, of course, this is the very sort of problem market competition is supposed to fix. According to economic theory, at least, the last thing a profit-seeking firm is going to do is shell out money to workers they don’t really need to employ. Still, somehow, it happens.

While corporations may engage in ruthless downsizing, the layoffs and speed-ups invariably fall on that class of people who are actually making, moving, fixing and maintaining things; through some strange alchemy no one can quite explain, the number of salaried paper-pushers ultimately seems to expand, and more and more employees find themselves, not unlike Soviet workers actually, working 40 or even 50 hour weeks on paper, but effectively working 15 hours just as Keynes predicted, since the rest of their time is spent organising or attending motivational seminars, updating their facebook profiles or downloading TV box-sets.

The answer clearly isn’t economic: it’s moral and political. The ruling class has figured out that a happy and productive population with free time on their hands is a mortal danger (think of what started to happen when this even began to be approximated in the ‘60s). And, on the other hand, the feeling that work is a moral value in itself, and that anyone not willing to submit themselves to some kind of intense work discipline for most of their waking hours deserves nothing, is extraordinarily convenient for them.

Once, when contemplating the apparently endless growth of administrative responsibilities in British academic departments, I came up with one possible vision of hell. Hell is a collection of individuals who are spending the bulk of their time working on a task they don’t like and are not especially good at. Say they were hired because they were excellent cabinet-makers, and then discover they are expected to spend a great deal of their time frying fish. Neither does the task really need to be done – at least, there’s only a very limited number of fish that need to be fried. Yet somehow, they all become so obsessed with resentment at the thought that some of their co-workers might be spending more time making cabinets, and not doing their fair share of the fish-frying responsibilities, that before long there’s endless piles of useless badly cooked fish piling up all over the workshop and it’s all that anyone really does.

I think this is actually a pretty accurate description of the moral dynamics of our own economy.

*

Now, I realise any such argument is going to run into immediate objections: “who are you to say what jobs are really ‘necessary’? What’s necessary anyway? You’re an anthropology professor, what’s the ‘need’ for that?” (And indeed a lot of tabloid readers would take the existence of my job as the very definition of wasteful social expenditure.) And on one level, this is obviously true. There can be no objective measure of social value.

I would not presume to tell someone who is convinced they are making a meaningful contribution to the world that, really, they are not. But what about those people who are themselves convinced their jobs are meaningless? Not long ago I got back in touch with a school friend who I hadn’t seen since I was 12. I was amazed to discover that in the interim, he had become first a poet, then the front man in an indie rock band. I’d heard some of his songs on the radio having no idea the singer was someone I actually knew. He was obviously brilliant, innovative, and his work had unquestionably brightened and improved the lives of people all over the world. Yet, after a couple of unsuccessful albums, he’d lost his contract, and plagued with debts and a newborn daughter, ended up, as he put it, “taking the default choice of so many directionless folk: law school.” Now he’s a corporate lawyer working in a prominent New York firm. He was the first to admit that his job was utterly meaningless, contributed nothing to the world, and, in his own estimation, should not really exist.

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? (Answer: if 1% of the population controls most of the disposable wealth, what we call “the market” reflects what they think is useful or important, not anybody else.) But even more, it shows that most people in these jobs are ultimately aware of it. In fact, I’m not sure I’ve ever met a corporate lawyer who didn’t think their job was bullshit. 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. Give them a few drinks, and they will launch into tirades about how pointless and stupid their job really is.

This is a profound psychological violence here. How can one even begin to speak of dignity in labour when one secretly feels one’s job should not exist? How can it not create a sense of deep rage and resentment. Yet it is the peculiar genius of our society that its rulers have figured out a way, as in the case of the fish-fryers, to ensure that rage is directed precisely against those who actually do get to do meaningful work. 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. A world without teachers or dock-workers would soon be in trouble, and even one without science fiction writers or ska musicians would clearly be a lesser place. 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. (Many suspect it might markedly improve.) Yet apart from a handful of well-touted exceptions (doctors), the rule holds surprisingly well.

Even more perverse, there seems to be a broad sense that this is the way things should be. This is one of the secret strengths of right-wing populism. You can see it when tabloids whip up resentment against tube workers for paralysing London during contract disputes: the very fact that tube workers can paralyse London shows that their work is actually necessary, but this seems to be precisely what annoys people. It’s even clearer in the US, where Republicans have had remarkable success mobilizing resentment against school teachers, or auto workers (and not, significantly, against the school administrators or auto industry managers who actually cause the problems) for their supposedly bloated wages and benefits. It’s as if they are being told “but you get to teach children! Or make cars! You get to have real jobs! And on top of that you have the nerve to also expect middle-class pensions and health care?”

If someone had designed a work regime perfectly suited to maintaining the power of finance capital, it’s hard to see how they could have done a better job. Real, productive workers are relentlessly squeezed and exploited. The remainder are divided between a terrorised stratum of the – universally reviled – unemployed and a larger stratum who are basically paid to do nothing, in positions designed to make them identify with the perspectives and sensibilities of the ruling class (managers, administrators, etc) – and particularly its financial avatars – but, at the same time, foster a simmering resentment against anyone whose work has clear and undeniable social value. Clearly, the system was never consciously designed. It emerged from almost a century of trial and error. But it is the only explanation for why, despite our technological capacities, we are not all working 3-4 hour days.

Originally published on Strike!

2016 September 27

The post Why Capitalism Creates Pointless Jobs appeared first on Evonomics.

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cjheinz
7 hours ago
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#keynes
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Paul Krugman: Progressive Family Values

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"An attempt to focus on the problems of the real America":

Progressive Family Values, by Paul Krugman, NY Times: Here’s what happens every election cycle: pundits demand that politicians offer the country new ideas. Then, if and when a candidate actually does propose innovative policies, the news media pays little attention, chasing scandals or, all too often, fake scandals instead. Remember the extensive coverage last month, when Hillary Clinton laid out an ambitious mental health agenda? Neither do I. ...
Still, there really are some interesting new ideas coming from one of the campaigns, and they arguably tell us a lot about how Mrs. Clinton would govern.
Wait... Aren’t Republicans also offering new ideas? Well, I guess proposing to round up and deport 11 million people counts as a new idea. And Republicans ... seem to have moved past ... proposing tax cuts that deliver most of their benefits to the wealthy. Now they are, instead, proposing tax cuts that deliver all of their benefits to the 1 percent — O.K., actually just 99.6 percent, but who’s counting?
Back to Mrs. Clinton: Much of her policy agenda could be characterized as a third Obama term, building on the center-left policies of the past eight years. ... For example..., her proposed enhancements to the Affordable Care Act would extend health coverage to around 10 million more people, whereas Donald Trump’s proposed repeal ... would cause around 20 million people to lose coverage.
In addition..., Mrs. Clinton is pushing a distinctive agenda centered around support for working parents. ... One piece ... involves 12 weeks of paid family leave to care for new children, help sick relatives, or recover from illness or injury. ...
Another, even more striking piece involves helping families with young children in several ways, especially ... to hold down the cost of child care (the campaign sets a target of no more than 10 percent of income.) ...
But why should helping working parents be such a priority? It looks to me like an attempt to focus on the problems of the real America — not the white, rural “real America” of right-wing fantasies... And that America is one in which ... stay-at-home mothers are a distinct minority, and in which the problem of how to take care of children while making ends meet is central to many people’s lives. ...
So anyone who complains that there aren’t big new ideas in this campaign simply isn’t paying attention. One candidate, at least, has ideas that would make a big, positive difference to millions of American families.
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cjheinz
14 hours ago
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#tweeted
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Men Without Work

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Over the weekend, the FT published my review of Nicholas Eberstadt’s important new book Men Without Work.  The core message is captured in the graph below.

men-without-work

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Job destruction caused by technology is not a futuristic concern.  It is something we have been living with for two generations.  A simple linear trend suggests that by mid-century about a quarter of men between 25 and 54 will not be working at any moment.

I think this likely a substantial underestimate unless something is done for a number of reasons.  First everything we hear and see regarding technology suggests the rate of job destruction will pick up.  Think of the elimination of drivers, and of those who work behind cash registers.  Second, the gains in average education and health of the workforce over the last 50 years are unlikely to be repeated.  Third, to the extent that non-work is contagious, it is likely to grow exponentially rather than at a linear rate.  Fourth, declining marriage rates are likely to raise rates of labor force withdrawal given that non-work is much more common for unmarried than married men.

On the basis of these factors, I expect that more than one-third of all men between 25 and 54 will be out work at mid-century.  Very likely more than half of men will experience a year of non-work at least one year out of every five.  This would be in the range of the rate of non-work for high school drop-outs and exceeds the rate of non-work for African Americans today.

Will we be able to support these people and a growing retired share of the population?  What will this mean for the American family?  For prevailing ethics of self-reliance?  For alienation and support for toxic populism? These are vital questions.  Even more vital is the question of what is to be done. These questions should preoccupy social science researchers.  They are vital to our future.

 

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cjheinz
14 hours ago
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Van Morrison: The Rolling Stone Interview

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The answer is quick, blunt and impatient. "Yeah, yeah, I agree," Van Morrison says, responding to a question about a song on his new album, Keep Me Singing. There is a brief silence. "What's next?"

I had asked him about the first lines on the record, which sum up Morrison's life in

This article originally appeared on www.rollingstone.com: Van Morrison: The Rolling Stone Interview interview

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cjheinz
1 day ago
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Van's recent work is really good.
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How David Bowie, Brian Eno Created Sci-Fi Experiment '1. Outside'

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When David Bowie began work on 1. Outside, it had been a decade since he'd had a mainstream hit, and he was well beyond caring. "He said to me that he didn't like the commercial things he did in the 1980s when he was pressured by his record company," says keyboardist Mike Garson.

This article originally appeared on www.rollingstone.com: How David Bowie, Brian Eno Created Sci-Fi Experiment '1. Outside'

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cjheinz
1 day ago
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My favorite Bowie.
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What is so bad about the RBC model?

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This post has its genesis in a short twitter exchange storifiedby Brad DeLong

DSGE models, the models that mainstream macroeconomists use to model the business cycle, are built on the foundations of the Real Business Cycle (RBC) model. We (almost) all know that the RBC project failed. So how can anything built on these foundations be acceptable? As Donald Trump might say, what is going on here?

The basic RBC model contains a production function relating output to capital (owned by individuals) and labour plus a stochastic element representing technical progress, an identity relating investment and capital, a national income identity giving output as the sum of consumption and investment, marginal productivity conditions (from profit maximisation by perfectly competitive representative firms) giving the real wage and real interest rate, and the representative consumer’s optimisation problem for consumption, labour supply and capital. (See here, for example.)

What is the really big problem with this model? Not problems along the lines of ‘I would want to add this’, but more problems like I would not even start from here. Let’s ignore capital, because in the bare bones New Keynesian model capital does not appear. If you were to say giving primacy to shocks to technical progress I would agree that is a big problem: all the behavioural equations should contain stochastic elements which can also shock this economy, but New Keynesian models do this to varying degrees. If you were to say the assumption of labour market clearing I would also agree that is a big problem.

However none of the above is the biggest problem in my view. The biggest problem is the assumption of continuous goods market clearing aka fully flexible prices. That is the assumption that tells you monetary policy has no impact on real variables. Now an RBC modeller might say in response how do you know that? Surely it makes sense to see whether a model that does assume price flexibility could generate something like business cycles?

The answer to that question is no, it does not. It does not because we know it cannot for a simple reason: unemployment in recessions is involuntary, and this model cannot generate involuntary unemployment, but only voluntary variations in labour supply as a result of short term movements in the real wage. Once you accept that higher unemployment in recessions is involuntary (and the evidence for that is very strong), the RBC project was never going to work.

So how did RBC models ever get off the ground? Because the New Classical revolution said everything we knew before that revolution should be discounted because it did not use the right methodology. And also because the right methodology - the microfoundations methodology - allowed the researcher to select what evidence (micro or macro) was admissible. That, in turn, is why the microfoundations methodology has to be central to any critique of modern macro. Why RBC modellers chose to dismiss the evidence on involuntary unemployment I will leave as an exercise for the reader.

The New Keynesian (NK) model, although it may have just added one equation to the RBC model, did something which corrected its central failure: the failure to acknowledge the pre-revolution wisdom about what causes business cycles and what you had to do to combat them. In that sense its break from its RBC heritage was profound. Is New Keynesian analysis still hampered by its RBC parentage? The answer is complex (see here), but can be summarised as no and yes. But once again, I would argue that what holds back modern macro much more is its reliance on its particular methodology.

One final point. Many people outside mainstream macro feel happy to describe DSGE modelling as a degenerative research strategy. I think that is a very difficult claim to substantiate, and is hardly going to convince mainstream macroeconomists. The claim I want to makeis much weaker, and that is that there is no good reason why microfoundations modelling should be the only research strategy employed by academic economists. I challenge anyone to argue against my claim.




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cjheinz
3 days ago
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#ModelsSuck
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