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Bullshit Jobs (slatestarcodex.com)
964 points by wyclif 53 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 556 comments



I am fairly convinced that bullshit jobs (and entire bullshit industries) exist as a consequence of the following things:

1) There is less and less actual work to be done due to technological progress; 2) There are economic incentives to create larger and larger organizations; 3) Society hasn't found a rational way to redistribute wealth yet.

This is tragic. Entire human lives are being wasted on this dystopia of boredom and meaninglessness. I would argue that part of the stalemate is caused by politics and social norms. Even though there is not much actual work to be done, people still tend to tie their self-worth and social status to employment. This leads them to demand jobs from politicians, and the politicians find a way to provide them. "Jobs" is usually one of the main topics in any modern election. A rational society at our current stage of development would be celebrating job destruction, not creation.

As technology progresses, and all things being equal, the situation will only become more extreme and ridiculous. Unfortunately, I bet we will get out of this stalemate in a rather nasty way: through resource depletion and environmental collapse.

It depresses me that our species hasn't been fundamentally able to elevate itself above basic monkey-like biological programs and do better than this.


It's not that these jobs are bullshit jobs, it's that commonly they are wrapped up in bullshit procedures.

These procedures typically appear when there's an initiative to reduce costs. The easiest and cheapest way to employ an unskilled person to do a skilled job is to hand them a book of 'procedures' on their first day and say "Everything you need to do and know is in this Book". No time consuming cross-training required, no hiring of expensive people who already know the skill. As the Book of Procedures enables you to rinse and repeat the process with every new hire, you are no longer invested in keeping 'talent' within the organisation; good people leave once they realise that the job is 70% procedure vs. 30% actual work... No matter, there's always The Book, let's hire another grunt from the employment queue.

However, because you are filling up your organisation with unskilled workers, errors become more common place. To reduce the error rate, you introduce some extra checks and balances to ensure that the job is being done correctly. These extra procedures go in to The Book. The ratio is now 90% procedure vs. 10% actual work.

People who actually know how to do their job, having learned it well, or had previous skills, get frustrated that most of their workload is 'make-work' following all the extra procedures, and the people who have no skill, just follow the The Book, because they know no different, and it keeps them out of trouble.

Meanwhile, somewhere upstairs in the boardroom, people in grey suits are patting themselves on the back as operating costs have fallen, profits are up, and incidents are down. Creating The Book of Procedures is now considered a valuable skill in it's own right, so the people who care about climbing the managerial pole devote large chunks of their time adding yet more processes to the The Book, and thus the cycle continues, until several roles in the company are nothing but endless procedure creating/tracking without any actual product output.

There's still the problem of a high attrition rate amongst the middle tier staff, but hey, there's always more fish in the sea right?


I think you're right, but I have a somewhat less dire view on this.

I think that large companies optimize for a fundamentally different outcome than smaller companies, like startups. Large companies became large by applying a successful business model, something that startups are still lacking. If you have a working business model and stable cashflow, any change is potentially dangerous and can take down the company. So in contrast to whatever the marketing material says, rigidity and inability to change is actually an asset for large companies. This means the more inflexibility is added to the organization (e.g. by imposing a Book of Procedures that can never be abolished, employing people with no real power to change anything, or self-selecting a staff which is, put blatantly, incompetent to change), the longer the organization keeps existing. Until the market changes fundamentally, that is.


Absolutely.

There are lots of products that are essentially exactly the same as they were years ago, which is great — change is often a bad thing for consumer products and tools. Typically the only value that innovative managers have in these companies is making the product incrementally cheaper and shittier. The value is that it makes room for quality competitors.



One problem with this model is that competition exists. It requires to adjust the business model, or give away (a part of) the market.

This sometimes produces waves of change (seen as painful and haphazard by the old staff), when new ways to run the company are invented to keep up with the competition. Then, with new stability, a new calcification phase comes, etc.


It is funny that one can seen this "inflexibility asset" in many, many organizations, from various industries and areas. People running those really do not like changes..


It's not that penguins have cold blood in their feet because otherwise they could get stuck on ice. It's that all penguins that had warm blood in their feet have died.


Are you saying that as a company grows larger its business model becomes MORE precarious such that they can no longer afford experimentation or optimization of any kind?


One possible view is that a company grows to the point where it goes from being a recipient of investment, to a source of investment. Also, the managers get too far removed from innovation, to directly engage in or direct it.

I work for a F500. The top brass of the company sincerely want us to move into new areas. So they just buy companies that are already innovating.

People recognize the problem of big companies trying to innovate. One solution is to create isolated innovation teams that function more like smaller companies. I work in one of those teams.


Let's not forget, that's essentially how much of the IT industry as we know it got started: companies like Western Electric, AT&T and Xerox hired people specifically to innovate.


Oversimplifying, this is analogous to simulated annealing optimization algorithm that initially tries various solutions - startup mode, and later converges to a (perhaps local) optimum - large company.


Yes, that's the image I had in mind. The cooling is provided by inflexibility, an emergent behavior of large organizations.


> People who actually know how to do their job, having learned it well, or had previous skills, get frustrated that most of their workload is 'make-work' following all the extra procedures, and the people who have no skill, just follow the The Book, because they know no different, and it keeps them out of trouble.

That’s actually an intermediate step. The interesting side effect of “the book” is that any sufficiently advanced organization will and does recognize the codification or procedure as a chance for automation and increased efficiency. The dangerous thing that might occur here is that “the book” became “the system” in the late 90’s when IT invaded every organization. “The system” got an upgrade here or there - but more or less cargo-cult’d the manual process. More dangerously - “the system” works, and got extended to integrate with another “system.” Changing either one would require substantial work, and the individual that wrote the original “book” has long since left the organization, leaving behind a process frozen in time.


“Don’t just automate, obliterate.” Michael Hammer and James Champy. (1990s)

If my memory serves me correctly.


I feel like even this is being optimistic about the prospects of the book. The idea of The Book is appealing, until someone tries to actually write the stupid thing. Anyone who has ever tried to write any sort of unskilled user facing documentation realizes the cost and training it takes to produce a high quality manual, which naturally the company won't want to pay for, so now you have a half-assed barely legible "Book" that's full of confusion and madness which spirals closer to pure noise with every new "clarification" - pretty soon people aren't doing activities because it's procedure from the book, they are doing activities that are the equivalent of signal noise because no one knows what the book is even trying to say. "No, no, to get a raise first you have to fill out form 2123b, and THEN you sacrifice the goat."


I'm reminded of procedures in the [US] defense industry. A "good step" in a given procedure would be absolutely clear in mind-numbing detail. "Pretend you're writing for a sailor" may be half a joke but it is also very real; sometimes word does get back to you about how something was unclear and a piece of equipment got buggered [or whatever], you look at the section in question, and all you can think is "How can you fuck this up?" but yes a pair of sailors in the Pacific did and now you have to make Sesame Street even easier to understand.

No offense to any of our sailors intended, and this is also true for civilians. You won't necessarily have The Expert or The Author right there during execution, for example.

Also on top of that: sometimes the procedures really are hosed [first draft going live, change the test at the last minute, whatever] and deliberation has to be made until you can rewrite the step for clarity//accuracy//reality and move along. Bring lots of red pens, bring more than you need because you'll burn through all of them.


Not necessarily it being insulting, with Navy sailors, there is a very real chance that when they are needing to read that manual, they are under attack, and thus don't have the time or ability to think through what the step is actually trying to say. Making it extremely clear means that even when being fired on, the correct thing can be done.


First thing I do when being fired upon is ZDV 3/11 "Gefechtsdienst aller Truppen (zu Lande)", the German soldier's bible.

Handbooks are read during downtime not primetime.


I agree.

If I may be fair to myself, the incident in question was during peacetime in the middle of nowhere and was completely routine. Yes that monotony and similar can be a Great Evil, but still... all of my wow.


I believe it was Charles Stross who had a character say "We would like to have Albert Einstein working in the patent office, but it still needs to function if we hire Mr. Bean".


This is what frustrated me after reading the "E-myth" book. Apparently, the recipe for successful business is to enshrine everything in superdetailed Book of Procedures, and have employees follow its content like they were programmable automatons. Now maybe this works, but eliminating human agency like this doesn't sit well with me for some reason.


The main reason why organizations evolve to a bureaucratic mess is human agency, in particular the fact that each individual has personal interests and is motivated to achieve their personal goals. Bureaucracy is designed to restrict personal initiatives that favour the individual worker at the expense of the organization. For example, in Greece public sector workers abuse their position by expecting grafts to do their job, and they deny service to those who don't pay by giving a higher priority to everyone else. Thus, rules are put in place to restrict how prioritization is handled by public sector workers to mitigate this problem. Yet, now public sector workers are bounded to a rigid set of rules which dictates how and when a process should be processed.


Exactly this. The procedures are put in place to prevent abuse of the system by the individual. The problem is that they rarely have the intended effect. First, frequently the policies are put in place to prevent an abuse which performed by an individual at some point. As time goes on, not only do conditions in the world / org change but the people who were part of the org when the abuse happened leave. This creates a situation where people can't remember why a rule exists, but follow it blindly just because it exists, even if in current circumstances it hampers the organization.

Second, inevitably there will be a series of edge cases which any rule is poorly suited to address. These edge cases require a thoughtful application of regulatory authority, which itself requires a thorough understanding of the current context and the purpose of the rule. This thoughtfulness requires intelligence or deep domain expertise, which is often not found in the regulators because if they had these things then they wouldn't be in boring regulatory jobs like HR to begin with. Evaluation of edge cases also requires work, and it's far easier for someone to simply say no than it is to actually investigate the request.

Third, everyone knows that some employees are more valuable to the organization than others and should be allowed to bend or break simple rules as long as permission is sought. However, this will inevitably invite a bullshit lawsuit and so companies have a huge incentive to codify policies and be rigid about them.


> As time goes on, not only do conditions in the world / org change but the people who were part of the org when the abuse happened leave. This creates a situation where people can't remember why a rule exists, but follow it blindly just because it exists, even if in current circumstances it hampers the organization.

Not only that, organizations measure different things differently even from the start. If someone is socializing at work and this wastes 15% of their time, but a procedure to prevent them from socializing at work wastes 40% of their time, everyone is actually better off to just allow employees to socialize (or what have you). But "employees slacking off" is an unsanctioned thing to be reduced whereas "employees following procedure" is an officially sanctioned thing to be increased, so the fact that the procedure is more costly than the "abuse" never enters the decision process.


Interesting. The same happens in Italy; however this hyper-regulation doesn't actually ensure that jobs are performed well and ethically; rather it has the effect of removing personal agency and accountability, while those who seek personal profit still find a way to circumvent the rules.


This sort of bureaucracy is like bicycle training wheels. They hinder those who know how to do the job and want to do it well, they are a major inconvenience, but they stop some riders from falling down. Yet, some people who want to crash the bike do eventually find a way to render them useless.


A while back I took flying lessons. They have a procedure and checklists for most things. This is decidedly a good thing. Checklists are great for reducing errors and should be used in more situations.

Of course there is also a question of whether these procedures can be updated. And whether you can improvise in an emergency. You need more training for that. But this doesn't mean checklists are bad.

Another example: when cooking a new dish, if you start with a recipe you'll probably get up to speed faster than just winging it. This doesn't mean there's no creativity.


Totally not against checklists, especially in aviation. It's just something is rubbing me with the recipe for business involving such degree of micromanagement.

> Another example: when cooking a new dish, if you start with a recipe you'll probably get up to speed faster than just winging it. This doesn't mean there's no creativity.

Fair, but a recipe is about as far from a checklist as you can get while still retaining bullet points. The degrees of freedom in typical recipes are so large you could drive a train through (it's probably unintended - people writing down recipes having zero experience with precise communication). I'm not a very experienced cook, so ambiguous recipes are a pet peeve of mine.


Former chef here, the variance in balances of different chemical constituents can be so massive between two pieces of fruit picked from the same tree that precise recipes would be useless without requiring each reader to have access to a mass spectrometer (and any clue as to what its readout means). This is largely where the "art" in culinary arts comes in. While you could teach someone to read a mass spectrometer to determine the exact chemical result that a given mixture of different ingredients applied to a specified heat curve, it's more likely that they'll just have to learn how to approximate it via taste, smell, and sight.

Good baking books will actually get a lot closer to having specifics in them. They can do this however because a lot of the ingredients that are used in baking are rated based off of various levels of one or more of the chemicals that will significantly affect the result of your baked product (ash level, acidity, sugar content).


This raises an interesting question, relevant for more than cooking: In a process with variable "inputs" , is there a method(probably statistical) to create a recipe that will work,even with this variability, while minimizing the expertise needed ?


"Time Tested" recipes have already done this work - they've performed the process over a long period of time with a wide variety of small input changes/variable ingredients.

For example, the Toll House Cookie recipe has been executed how many millions of times with predictably good results.


Why did you stop being a chef? Too much stress from crazy restaurant owners?


I’ll answer for him. It’s a terrible, stressful, dangerous job, with insane hours & criminal working conditions, that pays peanuts. Might just be my opinion.


Thanks. What are some of your favorite jobs/careers? Or are you still looking?


Yes, and that looks like another argument in favor of very detailed procedures for beginners. (Better than typical recipes.)


I have never deviated from a recipe in twenty years except for being out of ingredients. And I only have one recipe that I can remember without referring to the printout. Checklists have entirely replaced the need for knowing how to cook and I'm glad.


Procedures are to tell machines what to do. As long as you treat people as machines, you'll be revising the Book of Procedures.

Policies are to tell humans what the priorities are so they can use their brains to solve new problems. As long as you have new problems, write policy to guide people.

In both cases, you need good feedback in order to improve. People frequently distrust the feedback mechanisms in the Book of Procedures, because they have experience that says that those books have cycle times exceeding any reasonable amount of patience.


I agree with your view. The "E-myth" book was advocating detailed procedures though, not policies - hence my frustration.


That is because companies are now considered as money-making black boxes. Human agency at execution level isn't relevant.

However if you consider a company as a means to a shared endeavour, then human agency becomes extremely important.


A company is a shared endeavor--for those that own shares in it. But for most companies, most people that execute the work are not shareholders; they're just employees. The interests of employees are simply not the same as the interests of shareholders, so any company that has employees will have to deal with that. The larger the company, the more they will have to deal with it.


Indeed, that book starts really well, in that it states an existing problem: the sole owner overwhelmed by their business, and losing their sense of purpose and happiness. But as it goes on the solution it suggests is disappointing. It may make sense for company owners to delegates and run their operation like a machine. But it is a recipe for frustration for the actual workers—who then may find themselves in the same situation the author's entrepreneur example starts with...


I'm not sure the E-myth is really targeted at the kinds of tech businesses HN readers are after.

If you view it in the context of small-scale food/retail/manufacturing it fits really well. It doesn't fit well for creative efforts, but I'm not sure that invalidates the book either.


Maybe that's the reason. I found it indirectly through HN though, and for that reason I assumed it's a very general small business book.


That's an uncharitable interpretation of what The E-Myth had to say. His point is that you need to make the business run in a way that is independent of you being there. It doesn't mean removing agency from your employees: that is a very bad thing. It means creating enough procedures that people aren't left floundering around waiting to be told how to do something.


I don’t want the cook at In and Out applying their “human agency” to a product I expect to be consistent. I wouldn’t want some minimum wage high school kid deciding on the fly what food safety guidelines are important or not.

It’s ok to have non-scalable businesses; but E-myth isn’t about that kind of business.


Well, that's how things work in Human Resource Machine [0] so it probably works well in reality too, right?

[0] https://tomorrowcorporation.com/humanresourcemachine


> people in grey suits are patting themselves on the back

There are no people in black suits patting themselves on the back. They have bullshit jobs by The Book too. It's The Book all the way to the CEO, who just performs procedures from Another Book to appease the anonymous crowd of stakeholders.

And your favourite *coin will make it even easier for there to be even more ruthless anonymous crowd of stakeholders, yay, progress. I don't even care what's your company named or of it hurts their employees or makes weapons, my blockchain AI owns a stake and I demand the next quarter profits to raise.

No malice. Just ignorance and inability to escape incentives everywhere.


>>Meanwhile, somewhere upstairs in the boardroom, people in grey suits are patting themselves on the back as operating costs have fallen, profits are up, and incidents are down.

That's the key to win in this game.

You define the rules, and the conditions that qualify as success. Once you've done that you make the remainder of the story opaque.

One more thing is to talk in vague terms of percentages and averages. Most people won't understand a word of what you are saying and will still look a good story.


"A surprisingly common part of my life: a patient asks me for a doctor’s note for back pain or something. Usually it’s a situation like their work chair hurts their back, and their work won’t let them bring in their own chair unless they have a doctor’s note saying they have back pain, and they have no doctor except me, and their insurance wants them to embark on a three month odyssey of phone calls and waiting lists for them to get one."

The problem here is that the patient doesn't have a general practitioner (GP, I will call it your/my "doctor" in the rest of the post) or that apparently there's huge wait lists. If I call my doctor, I can get an appointment within 2 work days or roughly half a week. And everyone in my country (The Netherlands) is insured for such visits. In fact, if I want to see a psychologist or physiotherapist or psychiatrist I first need to see my doctor for a reference, for my insurance. That's how it works here. Your doctor is your entry level. So, why not go to your doctor if you have a health issue? Here you would, but apparently in the country this person is from (I suppose USA) that's nigh impossible.

Also, employees have medical privacy here. Yes, a doctor could write such a letter, but ultimately the patient has privacy. Many doctors here flat out refuse such written statements, saying it isn't necessary. Though that might be on a case by case scenario.

On the other hand, I do understand the employer's PoV as well. If person X wants something special, then person A, B, and C also want that something special and before you know it you have half of your employees with -say- all kind of odd food allergies. Although it seems in this case the employee brings their own chair; here that'd be unheard, the employer would arrange a chair for the employee which suits their special needs. So, I disagree that this is a bullshit procedure but I am unsure how to solve the issue in a way where privacy is guaranteed, and then I say: take the loss of privacy in this case for granted and get the written sign.


The Book of Procedures is like a computer program. The unskilled workers are the CPU and those who create the Book of Procedures are like programmers.


This is hauntingly similar to my corporate experience. A procedure book seems helpful when it's standardizing general cases, although when it becomes only an end for safety rather than a beginning for further innovation, the dead weight builds up.


> Society hasn't found a rational way to redistribute wealth yet.

There is no purely rational way to redistribute wealth (or, really, no rational way to actually do anything). Rationality is a tool that allows you to choose the path of action that best fits your goals/values. It does not prescribe any values. What we (as a society) do right now to redistribute wealth may very well be "the rational way" relative to some set of values.

So what you're actually saying is: Society hasn't found a way to redistribute wealth that fits your value system.


The efficient frontier is large, but a lot of the things we do are just dead-weight losses. There are cases of incompatible values where we have to make trade-offs, sure, but there are also cases where we're being irrational under any value system.


> but there are also cases where we're being irrational under any value system

I think the set of possible value systems is much larger than you appreciate. For example, nuclear war is perfectly rational when your value system is "KILL ALL HUMANS".


Some people believe that it is possible to derive values. But even if you don't, it is still very possible that the way most things are done is inconsistent with most peoples values. Simply because using rationality to go from values to policies is computationally hard and can give counter-intuitive results.


the way we redistribute wealth right now is through busy work. this is incredibly irrational. once we recognize that, we can start thinking about alternatives in earnest.


I've heard similar opinions to this before, and I don't think it makes sense. It's so hard for businesses to stay in business that if they could shed the bullshit jobs they would.

I think technological progress is slow process and these jobs exist because they provide some competitive advantage or provide surge capacity. If they're truly bullshit and in the private sector they will eventually disappear. It can take a long time to accurately determine if an activity is essential in complex organizations.


One, bullshit jobs may exist as loops that can be hard to spot if they're multi-step. Department A generates work for department B, which generates work for department C, which - after couple more steps - generates work for department A.

Second, "bullshit" in "bullshit jobs" doesn't mean useless from market's short-sighted POV. A competitive market is prone to formation of negative-sum games between companies, and further to formation of more companies supporting those games. Consider the advertising industry, the poster child of wasteful negative-sum games: in saturated markets, it supports competition for fixed customer pool. To that end, it employs countless of creatives designing new texts, posters, videos, etc. It then employs printing shops and distribution centers to place all that material in the real world. All that effort, man-hours and fuel is wasted - in an attempt for one side to get more market to themselves, only for the other to cancel it out. If all parties agreed not to do this, everyone would be better off. But they can't, and so instead a whole industry of bullshit jobs is created.

Those are, I believe, the two main sources of bullshit jobs - internal closed loops, and negative-sum games.

(EDIT: in a sense, those two are actually facets of the same phenomenon.)


I've got a favorite hobby horse which is an example of this dynamic: The competing administrative bureaucracies in the health care administration, and health insurance, industries.

Both of these classes of (so I claim) drones think they're doing good work: health care drones are trying to navigate the regulations and get care for their patients. Insurance drones are trying to navigate regulations and keep costs down.

But if you zoom out a bit, so your domain of analysis is "The Health Care System", you find that these so-called competing bureaucracies are a large organ whose function is to make it difficult to accurately assign costs to services. As long as those prices are hard to know, they are impossible to optimize, and so the prices stay exorbitant.


That is absolutely a great example of bullshit jobs. It gets even worse when each side outsources this function to other companies. If they outsourced to the same company, then maybe some genuine efficiencies could be realized.

When single payer healthcare comes up, free marketeers ask, "Do you want an unelected bureaucrat to decide if you get healthcare?" They must have never been in the situation where someone at the insurance company my employer picked - an unelected bureaucrat with a profit incentive - has denied coverage.


> The competing administrative bureaucracies in the health care administration, and health insurance, industries.

Our company once was in the same office building as another company that specialized in billing for health care.

They would look at the services provided by a doctor's office, and figure out ways to code the procedures performed so that it would maximize the payout from the insurance.

Doctors liked it because it was easy to sign up and just increase their revenue without doing any additional work.


That's one of the reasons why insurers are moving away from the fee-for-service model toward value-based care. So those bullshit jobs at least will eventually disappear.


The prices will stay hard to know because middlemen don’t like to be cut out.


What you call 'negative sum' some of us call 'competition' and it's healthy considering the alternative dynamic of monopoly.

All corporate systems could be described as various intertwining loops (that intertwine with other corporate loops), it's really a matter of efficiency of those individuals and loops as a system.

Sometimes loops seem wasteful ... like lawyers ... until you actually do get sued or need to sue etc..


> What you call 'negative sum' some of us call 'competition'

The broken windows fallacy doesn't suddenly become net-positive when renamed. Perhaps humans are not capable of improving interaction outcomes any further than we've gotten and humanity has reached peak efficiency re: transaction costs and firm-size, but I have a hard time believing that.

> Sometimes loops seem wasteful ... like lawyers ... until you actually do get sued or need to sue etc..

That 'actually getting sued' part is your induction in to the loop. It doesn't justify the bullshit, it is an object lesson in how it works.

Kafka is still required reading.


If it wasn't 'net positive' not only would we not be having this conversation over the 'internet' - we'd still be in the dark ages.

"That 'actually getting sued' part is your induction in to the loop."

No, it's not. It's not always clear what is illegal, what is not, what is infringement, what is not.

Rather than having a totalitarian authority create, divide and control IP etc. we have adversarial law and companies can file suit and work it out in court.

When there isn't overt corruption in the system, it works reasonably well.

That we're even having this conversation over the internet in 2018 is evidence that it's not 'negative sum'.


> If it wasn't 'net positive' not only would we not be having this conversation over the 'internet' - we'd still be in the dark ages.

The internet was developed by Darpa so I'm not sure what you're trying to imply here. Competition did not produce the internet, and the telecommunications industry, which came about after as a commercialization project, has serious issues which make this an even harder argument to make.


Competition definitely created the telecommunications industry and by the way most of the electric grid as well.

'The internet' as we know it was not created by DARPA.

DARPA created some protocols - of which there were many, private and public.

It just so happens that a certain version of it got a critical mass - it didn't have to be that way. And a lot of private interests were involved, particularly private universities.

The network over which the internet was overlaid is entirely commercial - and of course most of the variation of it has been commercial, or non-governmental type NGOs, i.e consortiums.

Nobody is going to argue that some projects, particularly long-term/pure R&D, or projects that literally require a scale that's out of reach of even the largest private entities, are not going to require some kind of collective participation.

But the argument that competition is kafkaesque or inherently problematic because of entities competing for the same turf is short sighted.


I'm not criticizing competition itself. It's wasteful, but it's also necessary because this is how we solve resource allocation problems - we're too dumb to do it directly, so we use market dynamics to implicitly compute it for us.

I'm criticizing runaway negative-sum games. Like where companies are competing for a fixed-size market - any marginal effort to win more of the market will be cancelled out by equivalent effort of the other party. The end result is the same, only both companies just wasted money fighting.


I don't think it would be. I think if everyone stopped advertising unit sales would crash.

Coke vs Pepsi is much less of a thing than the constant reinforcement that you would really, really enjoy one or the other right now. The constant reinforcement drives absolute sales, not just relative market share.

I think the problem is more that a lot of heavily advertised products are incredibly harmful to personal and environmental health. Sugar is unbelievably toxic over the longer term (weight gain, diabetes, etc) but the canonisation of the profit motive means that market morality rewards the creation and promotion of these toxic effects.

You could argue that if people want to poison themselves they should be allowed to. But even ignoring the direct social costs of the medical care required to clean up the effects of Type II diabetes and heart disease, the argument is patchily applied.

Some poisons (sugar, alcohol, tobacco) get a pass, while others (psychedelic drugs) don't. A few like cocaine remain in limbo, with nominal disapproval but tacit - and sometimes not so tacit - covert political support.

It's not just about bullshit jobs but about bullshit consumption, and the curious moral frameworks that support it.


> It's not just about bullshit jobs but about bullshit consumption, and the curious moral frameworks that support it.

I've been thinking about this a lot lately. Many jobs seem to have a net negative value for society - soda, highly processed food, credit cards, car dealerships, (most) sales people, etc. We'd probably be better of as a society paying these people to do nothing than to do what they do now; we'd be even better off if we paid them to do something actually productive. There might not be a perfect solution for this problem, but we don't seem interested in having a discussion about any solution to it.

Like you said, we have a curious moral framework at play here. For instance, a highly paid person who has a job with a net negative impact on society is often considered more moral than a beggar on the street (and it should be noted that the former is going to be consuming more resources from society as well). Because most people will calculate someone's worth by having a job, not by judging its impact on society (at least, most of the time).


> Like you said, we have a curious moral framework at play here. For instance, a highly paid person who has a job with a net negative impact on society is often considered more moral than a beggar on the street (and it should be noted that the former is going to be consuming more resources from society as well).

More than that, we also have very peculiar standards between jobs. I like to pick on marketing/advertising, because I'm absolutely baffled by it. Somehow the profession that often dabbles in lying, scamming and generally making other people's lives worse off (by dragging them towards suboptimal choices) became a respectable occupation, even though if a typical salesman applied their skills to their friends and family, he'd eventually end up punched in the face. It's not even an issue of impact on society at large - we've legitimized, and even glorified, acting maliciously towards random strangers.


Also: the mortgage industry as arms dealers in a bidding war -- and the proceeds of the bidding war don't even go to the counterparties of the contract being sold!

People marvel at how successful the greedy optimization algorithm of our economy is at finding local optima, but when you take a step back the emperor has no clothes. Sigh.


"Many jobs seem to have a net negative value for society - soda, highly processed food, credit cards, car dealerships, (most) sales people, etc."

Rubbish.

Soda taste great, I love it. Don't tell me what is 'good or bad for me' - I can figure that out.

'Processed Foods' feed the world. They're not fundamentally unhealthy, can can absolutely be part of a decent diet.

Credit Cards - are an amazing financial innovation. Consumer credit is a really big deal that helps grease the wheels. Wherever there is no good consumer credit system - the economy is crap.

Car Dealerships and Salespeople - they definitely serve a function and it's why they are among the highest paid. Most people still like to test cars. The car industry relies on the model of dealerships and Tesla riding without is just like a new airline entrant just running only the profitable routes, and not carrying the longer tail ones. Also society has changed a little bit so admittedly the model could adapt.

All of those thinks you mentioned could be improved, and can be risky, but without them we'd be much worse off.


Credit cards definitely provide value, the anti-every-using-credit crowd seems to not understand how they work. If my pet ever needs thousands of dollars of emergency vet care, I can now pay for that using my credit, and then spread my payment of that bill over a longer period.


Expedited access to a shitty line of credit is worth 5% of every transaction you ever make (or whatever they skim these days)? Please.


> I think if everyone stopped advertising unit sales would crash.

It did not happen when some countries switched to much more strict advertising rules.

People don't stop eating, drinking and buying medicines. Or start saving money that will never be spent.


> competition itself. It's wasteful, but it's also necessary > we're too dumb to do it directly

citation needed.

Humanity is planning the colonization of Mars, nuclear fusion and so on and yet, somehow, managing our own resources is always an unsolvable problem?

> I'm criticizing runaway negative-sum games.

They are inevitable with competition.


Yes, we're too dumb to do resource allocation directly, and maybe irreparably so. Citation: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Economic_calculation_problem


> citation needed.

Every attempt of doing it in the past, like e.g. centrally planned economy? Internals of every large company? Self-evident if you look around?

Also http://slatestarcodex.com/2014/07/30/meditations-on-moloch/. In a way, coordination problems are the root of all problems of human society. We're planning Mars colonies in spite of that, not thanks to it.

> They are inevitable with competition.

They can be limited, though. Think of market economy as internal combustion engine. Burning fuel is inevitable - because that's how the engine works. But that doesn't imply you have to set your gas tank on fire.


> Humanity is planning the colonization of Mars, nuclear fusion and so on

You mean those 50-year old fantasies that are better described in science fiction novels than being anywhere close to reality?

You're the one that needs to provide a citation.


If the advertising competition you mention didn't exist, for example competitors closing shop and not playing the zero sum game, then you'd have a monopoly company, which would also be bad.

So in that case, it's good to play the zero sum game since it's a redistribution of income.

Of course, it's wasted labour, and so what you really want is for the government to step in and extract more in taxes and simply hand over the money as welfare or invest in more fruitful pursuits such as scientific research, rather than redistribution of income coming from zero sum games.


I'm not saying the competition shouldn't exist - just that we should put brakes on some of the negative-sum games it causes, once the market is saturated and things turn into a fight for a fixed pie. As you say, at this point it's all wasted labour, and it can eat pretty much all your profits.

I tried to refrain from mentioning government regulation here, but the brakes need to be put on everyone simultaneously - deciding to just stop all advertising expense for yourself is a competitive suicide.


I get what you're saying, but I wanted to point out that lower profits can be better for society if due to competition. Every dollar a company earns in profit is a little more of efficiency that could be eked out of the business


I think we need to be cautious here, though. A perfect market would bring perfect efficiency, but perfect efficiency is a disaster for humans who depend on the market to live. Happiness and quality of life today happen in places where market is not efficient yet.


To live in a world where markets can be perfectly efficient and everyone happy because we stop staking the lives of people to their worth as determined by the market.


I fail to see why not having advertisement would lead to monopolies.


Burger King stops advertising on Tv and loses even more market share to McDonalds. McDonalds then spends less on advertising because it realizes it doesn't need to because Burger Kind gave up. You're left with a "monopoly", McDonalds whose shareholders/top management make even more money, rather than it being redistributed to employees of Burger King.


That's why such change needs to be enforced simultaneously and externally.

As an example, I recall reading that tobacco companies were actually very happy about regulations limiting the marketing of tobacco products - by themselves, those regulations didn't change anything about their market share (the market was already saturated), but everyone got to stop spending so much on advertising.


Oh I'm sure Marlboro, who spent decades building a brand, wouldn't really care about newcomers not being able to advertise. That makes sense.


I don't think Marlboro cared about newcomers, a big company can usually buy out the small one if it gets dangerous. Consumers usually don't even notice.

Unrestricted advertising is basically Red Queen's race; capping it levels the playing field, so it's better for newcomers as well.


They especially don't care when they have no chance of growing to a level where they can get dangerous (because they can't advertise).


How much evidence* is there that "stopping advertising [on TV]" necessarily causes a loss of market share?

* specifically evidence not funded by the ad industry


The premise was not having ads at all, not one company giving up on ads.


Feels like a chicken and egg problem.

McDonalds would only have that dominance thanks to years of advertising. If the mass advertising game never existed, those companies would have to have grown through their own merits instead of advertising dollars, and BK might have a chance (opinions of their food nonwithstanding). I think that's what the person meant by "but they can't [agree not to advertise]", because now we're at a point where removing advertising from the equation would favor those who have already advertised the most.


> I think that's what the person meant by "but they can't [agree not to advertise]", because now we're at a point where removing advertising from the equation would favor those who have already advertised the most.

That's not what I meant. What I meant is that neither BK nor McD can risk cutting advertising efforts, because if either one does, the other automatically starts winning market share. They can't agree to it together, because the first party to defect from the agreement will win (not to mention a third party could swoop in and (excuse the pun) eat their lunch).

This is a prisoner's dilemma situation, and as we all know, the optimal solution for prisoner's dilemma is to have a mob boss proclaim that he'll kill any prisoner that rats others out to authorities. Similarly, either there's a way to punish defectors, or McD and BK will forever be stuck in the loop of ever growing advertising expenses.

Removing advertising would definitely benefit both BK and McD, as both could be able to stop spending money on advertising just to protect their market share.


The external point of view is dubiously helpful.

Lions eat antelope; when they die their bodies become grass; the antelope eat the grass.

Suppose they all agreed not to do this.


Antelope eat grass and breed. If they eat faster than the grass can regrow, they starve and die, and their bodies become grass.

Death through starvation is unpleasant. Suppose they could agree to breed less, as to not expand beyond carrying capacity of the place they live in. They would lead a happier life.

Point being, some feedback-driven systems are good, and some are bad.


Good being, a smaller number of happier lives? Huh. Anyway,

Optimizing for the whole is different than optimizing for the parts.

What seems redundant on a high level can be critical on a lower level.

To each antilope eating grass is purposeful. As may be the work of each Department in your original example.


Why is the supposition that fewer lives is good controversial? What do we owe the unborn and non existent? Surely in any moral framework, if one could prove that additional organisms in an environment degrade the quality of life for all organisms, then it would be a moral decision (in principle) to reduce by attrition the number of new organisms? I am not arguing for population control as the mechanisms to achieve it are themselves morally dubious, but surely in principle we can agree that there is no moral imperative to grow a population, or alternatively that is not immoral to advocate for preventing population growth where it would reduce quality of life and lead to environmental degradation?


A moral framework is inherently subjective, so it should be no surprise that the rights of the unborn are considered more important in some than others.

Christianity arguably disagrees with you - see the tale of Onan. Buddhists likewise consider all life as sacred, in that an animal may previously/subsequently be a human soul. Lastly, many atheist progressives would argue that preservation of the human race is a moral imperative, and having more total humans rather than less ensures preservation in at least a simplistic mathematical sense.


> Christianity arguably disagrees with you - see the tale of Onan

"Be fruitful and multiply" is Genesis 1:28.

Onan is, per Jermone and canonical discussions, about spilling seed unnecessarily, but is more about not raping your sister-in-law and betraying dead family than it is about having many children. Nothing in there about the sacredness of babies or anything.

Onan's brother died and by tradition Onan entered into a Levirate marriage with his dead brother's wife, Tamar, to continue the brother's line. If Onan fathered a child by Tamar the child would inherit all of the dead brother's possessions and rights; if there were no sons Onan would inherit everything. So Onan pulls out, meaning he gets to bang the widow, and still gets to keep everything -- which is pretty sleazy.

God isn't really a fan of this, and punishes him accordingly.


> Lastly, many atheist progressives would argue that preservation of the human race is a moral imperative, and having more total humans rather than less ensures preservation in at least a simplistic mathematical sense.

It doesn't, because what I've essentially explained in my example. Too much population, and you collapse the environment, and human race suffers and then dies. I hope even smart atheist progressives would realize that meaningful ways to preserve human race are things like building a Mars colony, or ensuring the Earth's ecosystem does not collapse (such collapse would likely lead to great wars, possibly nuclear).


I would argue that a strictly rationalist or at least secular morality should be applied given the sheer religious or spiritual diversity of the global population.

And regarding your latter point,it is as you say simplistic - much like the proverbial bacterium on an agar plate, our growth imperative will destroy our future if we overrun the bounds of our environment. I think we will see the issue become more important as the consequences of overpopulation (with respect to resource consumption and carrying capacity) begin to bite.


How do you arrive at an acceptable secular morality, especially since science claims that it cannot speak to morality?


Science cannot speak to general morality, as an abstract set of axiomatically good values, because it tends to tell us that those are completely arbitrary.

But science also teaches us that humans have a set of common, shared values, and while they may be arbitrary in general, they're not arbitrary to us. And they're shared, because humans are not isolated minds, each coming to existence ex nihilo, but in fact are connected through the process of reproduction. All of us have brain architecture we've inherited from a common ancestor.

This is how science can point us where to look for some practical morality.


I agree with the first loop. I think there are very few markets where the 2nd loop actually exists.

1. There is constant innovation, even in the most established areas people are always trying new things. 2. Advertisement is an education campaign. There are always new people that have a problem to solve and they may not be aware of what exists.


> 2. Advertisement is an education campaign. There are always new people that have a problem to solve and they may not be aware of what exists.

That's motte-and-bailey defense of advertising. Yes, it also serves to help people discover off-the-shelf solutions to their problems. But that's not its primary function, nor it's where most money is being made. The discovery part is easy - in fact, most of the times it's best done in pull fashion ("I have a problem, let me look for solutions") instead of push ("here is a solution for the problem you didn't know you had"). Most of advertising is about misleading people to make suboptimal choices - choosing the product whose vendor is best at advertising, instead of the one best suited for the need - and about fighting for a fixed-size pie of customers in a given market.


It has not been my experience that large private organizations are any more efficient at shedding useless jobs than public organizations. Maybe, maybe during a round of layoffs but good people are let go during those too. It is easily overlooked that corporations are a legal fiction, not a real entity. A business can’t do anything, only the people in it. Managers never recommend they be the ones laid off even if they’re the problem (though middle or senior management might accidentally lay off a bad manager or two on rare occasions, but again never lay off themselves). Also I’ve seen in larger companies, no division head wants to get a smaller headcount unless they’re a new person specifically brought in to be a wrecking ball.

Similarly, “the market” is a convenient fiction, a shorthand that occasionally exhibits describable collective behavior but ultimately is also composed of people. There is creative destruction but it takes place over decades, far too long for any individual activity to be pointed to and say that ruined the company except in the most extreme cases.


It's that businesses go out of business -- see Nokia, Blackberry, etc.

Public organizations can't be easily replaced by a competitor -- I think being replaced by a competitor is more of an occurrence than fixing it from the inside.


"It's so hard for businesses to stay in business that if they could shed the bullshit jobs they would."

No, not in a lot of industries.

Many large, established industries have oligarchies that are all more or less inefficient.

For an established company, there's nary any reason to provide hulking, outsized returns because expenses for whatever can always be justified.

Think - surpluses start to develop - is the money going to go into some kind of dividend/repurchase? Or is the Director who's been clamouring for 'more heads for this or that' going to get his staff? It will be the later.

Every manager wants to 'hire hire hire' because it gives them more power. And it's pretty easy to justify it to their bosses and to themselves.

Google could easily fire 10K people tomorrow and wouldn't skip a beat.

Also, it's often surprisingly difficult to measure the efficiency of groups or teams.

Some teams, heck even entire divisions, can be full of hardworking, smart, professional people churning out 'great work' as judged by their CEO. But that 'great work' actually may not move the needle one bit.

The ability to determine how valuable work is to outcomes is something that startup people start to understand, but some go through their entire careers having no clue.

I worked at two Unicorns and then a Fortune 50. It was very inefficient. What totally blew me away is that nobody - not the staff, not the directors, VPs or CEO had a clue - or at least every let on they did. It was difficult because for a couple of years I didn't believe my own intuition, I assumed ' the executives must know better'. Nope. It was a kind of shocking/reckoning to see how dear leaders can be totally out of touch.

I will say this: it's hard to be efficient on large teams. What might seem like 'BS' is really just because you're only operating at 50% efficiency. In product marketing I realized that if our team made only one, single important decision for the company per year - our sales were so big, that it would be worth it. So you could say the company was hiring us for talent, not for work, but we have to show up every day anyhow.


I think working a bit as a consultant/contractor made me realize just how many very prominent companies are being held together by the equivalent of spit and glue.


I had that insight a while ago when I had to dig into a process that was sometimes brittle and supposed to be automated. There were probably 10 departments involved and we never found anybody who actually understood all the details. the thing just had evolved over the years and worked without anybody ever having designed it.


I think it's turned me into a bit of a nihilist.

I worked initially as in-house for a doctor's office trying to break into medical software while running his solo practice. So I figured a little "spit and glue" is par for course. It's essentially a mom and pop.

Then I became a contractor and the first time I ran across a multi-million dollar company doing serious business off of a shoddy Access database that sometimes corrupted the data and needed to be reverted to a previous backup, I was legitimately horrified.

I thought it was a fluke. Then another. And another. Even hospitals and national chains. And I realized that none of us know what we're doing, so don't worry about it. The worst that could happen isn't actually so bad.


I think you overlook two important things.

One, that has been pointed out already, is that companies are not hive minds. Doesn't matter how rich and powerful you are, you have to hire layers of managements to run your organization. These managers get their share of status, power & money by managing more people. The people they manage also want to get into management, so more layers and departments will be created. You are also competing with other companies to keep your employees happy so that they keep making you richer, and for this you have to give them their share. Bullshit jobs are a wealth (and status) redistribution mechanism that works almost as a force of nature under the current state of affairs.

The second thing is that if your plan worked (companies get rid of all bullshit jobs), then society would collapse. .001% of the people would end up with 99.999% of the wealth, everyone else in abject poverty. The more technology evolved, the more extreme this inequality would become. Of course society cannot work like this, and democracies force politicians to align themselves with the interest of the general public -- to some small degree perhaps, but enough here to create enough pressure for such jobs to keep existing.


> Doesn't matter how rich and powerful you are, you have to hire layers of managements to run your organization. These managers get their share of status, power & money by managing more people. The people they manage also want to get into management, so more layers and departments will be created. You are also competing with other companies to keep your employees happy so that they keep making you richer, and for this you have to give them their share.

Sure, but there's competition there. If you can figure out how to achieve the same results with fewer layers of management, or have your management act more efficiently, you'll reap the rewards. So any bullshit managerial position is inherently unstable: as soon as one company figures out they can do without it, it'll vanish from the industry.

> The second thing is that if your plan worked (companies get rid of all bullshit jobs), then society would collapse. .001% of the people would end up with 99.999% of the wealth, everyone else in abject poverty. The more technology evolved, the more extreme this inequality would become.

We're at pretty close to full employment, which suggests there's plenty of genuine work to be done. Remember that eliminating bullshit jobs wouldn't lower productivity (by definition), so redirecting that effort into productive work would massively boost overall productivity and be good for everyone. Even if we were to run out of productive work (which seems a long way off), surely we can find better things for idle people to do than sitting around and obstructing the productive people.


> If you can figure out how to achieve the same results with fewer layers of management, or have your management act more efficiently, you'll reap the rewards. So any bullshit managerial position is inherently unstable: as soon as one company figures out they can do without it, it'll vanish from the industry.

If you can implement it. Building a large company, or redoing management structure in such, is a very long process requiring buy-in from many people. People, whose personal interests may oppose your goal of eliminating inefficiencies.

My guess is that most "low-hanging fruits" in management styles already got picked, and what remains are the cases where it's actually very hard to build (and maintain) a bullshit-free system.

> We're at pretty close to full employment, which suggests there's plenty of genuine work to be done.

Not if some significant chunk of those jobs are bullshit. Just because a job is bullshit, doesn't mean it won't make you - and your employer - money.


“Bullshit” is in the eye of the beholder. One view is that if it makes money, it isn’t bullshit — because someone values it enough to pay for it.


This is a different topic, but the view that if it makes money, it's good is a pretty antisocial and inhumane view - because markets themselves aren't humane, and often optimize for some pretty bad things.


> If you can figure out how to achieve the same results with fewer layers of management, or have your management act more efficiently, you'll reap the rewards. So any bullshit managerial position is inherently unstable: as soon as one company figures out they can do without it, it'll vanish from the industry.

On the contrary, what is not stable is your more "efficient" situation, because it is only preferable from the perspective of the employer, and the managers/employees are also free agents. Ok, so you cut all the bullshit and create your efficient paradise. This will only make your managers look good. But you are making life uncomfortable for them by denying them status and future salary negotiation leverage. So they will use their current aura of success to look for a more comfortable place. Unless you pay them more to compensate, but then there goes your "efficiency". For a situation to be stable it has to be in the best interest of all the parties. Otherwise an upstart can explore that dissatisfaction to compete with you -- for example by snatching your star employees.

> We're at pretty close to full employment, which suggests there's plenty of genuine work to be done.

Making this claim in the context of this discussion is bizarre. It's like you are talking past the very thing being discussed.

> Even if we were to run out of productive work (which seems a long way off), surely we can find better things for idle people to do than sitting around and obstructing the productive people.

People are not fungible insects. There is plenty of productive work to be done, but unfortunately the majority of the people do not have the skills to do them. The very point of what is discussed here is that technology replaces the least qualified jobs first. I'm pretty sure that skill sophistication follows a power law. The more qualified a job is, the exponentially less people can do it. The more qualified a job is, the longer it will take for it to be replaced by AI. Nobody has a magic wand that makes full-grown adults useful again.

You want empirical evidence of what I am saying? Remember the excitement around "let's teach everyone to code and they will become app-making entrepreneurs"? How did that go?


> You want empirical evidence of what I am saying? Remember the excitement around "let's teach everyone to code and they will become app-making entrepreneurs"? How did that go?

This is going extremely well, actually. There are more software engineers than ever in the world, and these software engineers are getting paid more than ever.

These efforts have been wildly successful, and this consistent progress just keeps marching on, even today (as more as more people choose to become successful engineers.).

You might counter by saying something like "but we taught a million people to code and only 100K of them became software engineer!".

And this is the wrong line of thinking because getting 100% of them to become software engineers was never the goal.

It was never the goal in the same way that teaching people to read and write never had the goal of causing 100% of literate people to become fiction writers, and yet we all agree that reading and writing is a good thing to teach people.


> It can take a long time to accurately determine if an activity is essential in complex organizations.

Seems this time you mentioned is N * management-turnover-period. It could be N==1 if the company is run by lucid people, or longer.

IMO, business directors who made their way from the ground up, mostly have a very good and constant feeling for what is essential, even in ever-evolving situations.

The manager running our business group resisted till the end to the attempts to get us CMM-certified, pushed from the top of the group. (Our business was nothing close to medical/military/aerospace.) Eventually he has got replaced, and we did it all -- hired consultants, moved people to newly created jobs, etc. %d years in, and guess what, the fashion for CMM turned over.

Ultimately, the activity was sold and demolished, I suspect this story contributed.


I guess people get quite good at their job, even if their full time job is pretending they are busy doing something useful.

Meaning, it may be hard for businesses to spot who is doing the bullshit job because everybody with a bullshit job does everything they can to keep that job.


Your comment is valid if you assume that a business works like one homogeneous organism, in the language of biology, you have one organism on which natural selection (in this case, the market) acts.

I think, especially with larger companies, you have to treat the whole organism as a bunch of sub-organisms that works together (most of the time) towards a common goal. In that case you can have several different forces acting, for example, the size of a department may be a positive attribute for the manager of that department, even though that size drags the entire 'super-organism' down. The manager probably also goes out of their way to 'protect their people', again to the minor detriment of the super-organism. But is that bad for survival of the super-organism? Probably only minor!

Think of behemoths like IBM - think of how many international dependencies they have, think of how many sub-departments they have, think about how often these departments must fight with each other to make themselves look good to the higher-ups. Think about how much money they make and continue to make, it takes a lot of infighting to get such a big company down.


The way I typically understand this is by Dunbar’s number: that 150 or so persons who are “real” in any given person’s head. Any org larger than ~75 has this type of multipolar dynamic where different sub-units are pulling different ways.

It’s held together by the myth of money and/or organizational purpose, which is actually less immediately “real” than any one of those sub unit in-group people.

It’s not that explicit, but it is certainly innate: large orgs all suffer the same way.


True it takes a long time for formerly great organizations to die. I think a lot of the problems with this type of analysis are time scales and costs of switching. IBM is probably not the best solution for anything if you're starting something new; but if you already have something it's probably good enough and it would cost too much to change right now.

So IBM can limp along until new organizations develop products that are sufficiently cheaper or better that it makes switching the logical move. Or the companies tied to IBM eventually fail and replaced by more nimble organizations.


Large companies like to mimic each other. They're perpetually asking consultants to give the inside scoop on how the competition works, not to beat them, but to copy. They're afraid of being worse, not trying to be better.

Citation: I was a consultant.


An angle that appears to be underexplored, is what happens if you let males compete for sustainability. We might be underestimating the effect of classical (or perhaps even biological) provider roles of males, i.e. the amassment of resources to attract a mate. If we could transform this in competition in sustainability, then it might make a huge difference. Current approaches to sustainability might exactly fail because they do not take such possibly hardwired mechanisms account. E.g. a male who foregoes meat and excessive life style appears to have it harder [0], not easier in his romantic life.

[0]: http://psycnet.apa.org/record/2017-26154-001


I've made this observation as well. It goes further than diet, of course. Cars and clothes is another example.

The only thing that could change this behavior is if women selected for mates practicing sustainability.


I agree. If the women in my generation viewed sustainability and a low ecological footprint as attractive, all I'd do is work on global warming and poverty rather than study algorithms to make money.


Other cultural pressures can overcome people's strong desires to please/attract mates, so I'm not sure that's the only way. Cars and clothes as status are a themselves a consequence of culture. If culture moved away from that to something else then it would just be that other thing that mates selected for. But your general point is well taken.


I forwent meat and most of my excessive lifestyle after I got married--but before I had my children--and I don't think I could possibly be happier (in areas that I perceive to be so related). Under your theory maybe you just need to let boys be boys until they snag a mate and then, via cultural pressures and norms, convert them to sustainability.

Though I think I would have been fine if I stopped eating meat etc before I shacked up, but maybe I just have a high opinion of myself, which is itself a main reason why my wife said she was attracted to me in the first place...

Personally, I'd be surprised if meat eating and peacocking and resource hoarding and excessiveness really makes a difference if a man lacks other redeeming qualities, but I honestly have NFC.


Maybe my social circles are different, but I have noticed that there are way more women than men at vegan events. (even in the Bay Area). There are some stats I've seen, but I don't have them handy. So I think not eating meat could improve romantic odds!


You have a bleak perspective on things. As human beings we have never had as much free time as now where we dont need to worry about food, and we ha e never had as much disposable income as now to be able to enjoy more things out of work.

And your view can be easily reverted. We have never had as many interesting jobs as now. And centuries before us you had to do what your parents did and you had a miserable life anyway. Lets stop with the Lost Eden false nostalgia.


In some times in history, folks worked more. In other times, less. Some folks still work a lot, even though they'd rather just work 35-40 hours a week.

Sometimes folks had more holidays and vacation time in the past as well. Not everywhere has a culture of paid vacation time (or medical leave at all).

Sure, there are interesting jobs, but only a small portion of folks have those sorts of jobs. Lots of folks work in retail, though. Many more jobs are much more interesting from the outside, but at the end of the day, they are still a job. Even when you like what you do.

Lots of folks have to do what pleases their parents. This varies by country: In the US, a parent can refuse to offer up their tax information to a child getting ready to graduate high school, basically keeping them from going to college until 24 or something. They get the chance to revoke it once a year. Some folks pull their children out of school in 8th grade. School schedules sometimes need parental permission.

There are lots of areas in the world where women can't really do the same stuff as men.

I do think the world is better overall than it was in the past, but glossing over these things isn't helpful at all because then folks more easily ignore these things.


I am not glossing over things. Nobody would want to live in the world like 100 years ago or even way before in time. We are just acting as spoiled brats.


> Nobody would want to live in the world like 100 years ago

I for one would definitely want it.

That's my favourite period of time: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Belle_%C3%89poque and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ann%C3%A9es_folles

Very active, very interesting times: lots of scientific breakthrough, development of recent theories, lots of experimentations, while a great part of science is still, and for the last time in history, rather accessible. Travel to the whole world is possible, if you can afford it, while exploration is still possible and a few discoveries are to be made.

Railway transportation everywhere in the most remote places, like mine. 3 times as many people and 10 times as many shops as now in such places. Not everyone packed in gigantic conurbations with abandoned places elsewhere.

Education, hygiene, medicine already pretty developed (not as much as now, and not as well spread, but much closer to now than to the middle ages).

Technical knowledge and devices available (or very soon to be) to ease hardest works.

Great times if you were wealthy. Shitty times if you were a miner, or one of many factory workers, or a peasant in the wrong place. Quite okay times otherwise.


In 1924 the son of the president of USA died because he played tennis without socks: "On 30 June 1924, Coolidge’s two sons, John and Calvin Jr., set out to play tennis on the White House tennis court. 16-year-old Calvin Jr., in a hurry to get out on the court, donned tennis shoes but no socks. Young Calvin’s sockless exertions raised a blister on one of his toes, which soon became infected. The modern antibiotics that would quickly clear up such an infection today did not exist in 1924, and by the time White House physicians were summoned to treat Calvin Jr., it was too late: he died of pathogenic blood poisoning a week later."


Medicine was definitely not developed enough: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spanish_flu


Modern medicine is not that much better at dealing with the flu.


World wars do tend to create very active & interesting times, I will admit


I know plenty of people who would rather live as we did back in the 1950s than as we live today. I happen to disagree, but there is a growing pervasive sense that society (at least the US) peaked decades ago, and our best days are solidly behind us.


How many of them would want to go back if they got their wish.


"we have never had as much free time as now where we dont need to worry about food"

We actually have less free time compared to hunter-gatherers. http://rewild.info/in-depth/leisure.html


This "original affluent society" hypothesis is much-promoted but much of it just isn't true.

Lee's numbers explicitly counted only the initial foraging of the mongongo nuts, i.e. none of the food processing, firewood gathering or tool maintenance. After adjusting for these, the average !Kung work week is at least 50 hours and probably more. See:

http://www.rachellaudan.com/2016/01/was-the-agricultural-rev...


I don't understand the base of this debunk. Nowadays, food 'collecting', food processing, DIY (taking care of tools) are not counted into working time but come extra and are taken from 'free' time. And they amount to 1, perhaps 2, working day equivalent per week.


Sure: "40 hours a week" for moderns is also an underestimate.* But the figure everyone goes around repeating about hunter-gatherers is a more dramatic underestimate. The accurate !Kung estimate is 48-56 hours spent on these things: so we seem to be about the same, but with massively improved quality, cost, and nutrition for us.

The debunking applies to the claim that they had more leisure than us. Lee says: "work week... of 2.4 days per adult... [the bushmen] appeared to enjoy more leisure time than the members of many agricultural and industrial societies."

* Industrialised-world cooking time per week seems to be about 6 hours. https://www.statista.com/statistics/420719/time-spent-cookin... Difficult to find average shopping time, but call it 5-7 hours a week. https://www.statista.com/statistics/521924/time-spent-househ...


But what was there to do with this free time?


There is no way to say this without sounding smug, but I'm reminded of talking with new roommates in San Jose about 10 years ago

* them: "we all split the tv bill, it's $45 a person"

* me: (gasping at a $220 per month tv bill) I actually don't watch tv

* them: (in disbelief) but what do you do after work???

Nowadays this would probably be less weird since we have more streaming options but this whole idea that time is an expanse to be filled as trivially as possible is concerning. What do you do with your unfree time? Is it more purposeful than what you do with time you have at your disposal?


Sort of tangential, but I have a similar thought whenever someone says they don't want to have kids because they don't want to "give up their freedom." No one bats an eye at the idea of spending 60 hours a week between work and commuting. A lot of young people don't even particularly care that much where they work, as long as the pay is ok, as opposed to say, starting their own business and making less money but having far fewer demands on their time.

Obviously people have got to make a living and it's not my place to say when people should have kids, but I don't think a lot of people have a very clear idea of what freedom means.


I just had a kid, and I understand this idea completely. I like being a parent but among other things, it means that major life decisions are MUCH more constrained.

Want to live somewhere else? Hope the schools are decent. Want to live in the city? Hope you can afford a bigger flat. Want to go on a holiday? Hope you're ok with a pissed off kid (and neighbours) on a flight, or lots of time spent entertaining them on a train, etc. Also your choice of destination will be different.

It works for bigger decisions too. It's harder to take huge risks (start a company, etc) when a kid is counting on you.

Also, we've considered changing country someday and now it feels like there's this weird deadline where it's not so bad if she's 2,3, or 4 when we do it but hugely disruptive if she's 10 or 12. We wouldn't have had those concerns before.

And time. My god, it's so time consuming. All of my side coding projects, including ones I've thought might turn in to a business, have ground to an utter and complete halt. As well they should - she's more important, but it's still frustrating. Life is pretty much {"bare necessities to keep a career going", "child care", "nowhere near enough sleep"} - though I hear this gets easier as they get older.


"It gets easier" is a lie that the longer-serving parents tell the fresh meat, so they have some hope to cling to whenever they start to go crazy. Maybe it gets easier after they get a stable job and move out; I'll let you know after my anecdata results come in.

Sure, you eventually stop changing diapers, but that chore gets replaced by something else. And that one by something else, over and over. You're a debugger and fixer for a general-purpose natural intelligence project, and you have to strike a balance between two goals: it won't get destroyed by the world, and it won't destroy the world.


At the very least, I can confirm my 1 year old is far, far, far easier than she was at 3 months old.

Still exhausting, though.


Yeah definitely, I didn't mean to be flippant about the amount of time it takes to raise a child, I have 3 myself, just that people don't hesitate to give up a similar amount of time to a job they don't care about, so I don't think it's really about freedom, it's really about priorities.

My wife and I own our own business so we're both home with the kids. For my own "freedom", working from home has been far more positive than having kids has been negative, but boy, I really hated working in an office so I may just be weird.

We're also considering homeschooling, so we don't have as many of the concerns about location, which would definitely be stressful.


I could be wrong but I believe homeschooling reduces the ability of the children to experience social situations which have an impact later on with their development


This was a major concern for us, but the more I think about it, the less concerned I get.

What I remember from school is a lot of social status competitions that weren't great for self esteem or regular adult life. I was generally popular and considered a nice guy in school and I still cringe at the way I behaved as a young adult. Part of that is just growing up, but a large part of it is that learning how to be very social in high school makes you kind of a jackass by normal adult standards.

Over my life I've also met a lot of homeschooled kids who seem "weird" compared to their peers because they act more like adults than children. The half dozen or so homeschooled kids I knew both as kids and adults have all become well adjusted adults, including the "weirdest" ones. I can remember as a kid thinking to myself how weird they were, and now I'm embarrassed for having been so judgmental as they turned out just fine.

And nothing I hear from friends or relatives with kids in school makes me feel like the kids are missing much by being at home. The same people who suggest that homeschooling hinders social development have practically monthly stories about bullying and conflicts with teachers and social cliques and it sounds like a lot of stress to subject a 6 year old to.

I agree completely that it's important that kids learn social skills but I think it's plausible that public school doesn't provide a better environment for that than home.

In any case, this is becoming less of a problem as the internet enables us to find lots of opportunities for kids to get together with other homeschoolers for sports, hikes, clubs, etc.


Can you elaborate? Or message me? I suspect we have similar mindsets.


Mostly I just think that there are certain places where it's socially acceptable to give up all your time, like to a career. But if you're a smart young person, you're considered to be giving up your future (at least by your peers) if you have kids too young, and I think whether that's true depends a ton on the person in question. I'm of the perspective that a lot of people trade their 20s for a paycheck and weekends getting drunk when they might be happier doing... whatever else, but it's socially acceptable to work and party away your twenties.

Everyone has different priorities for what they want out of life. My wife and I were really profoundly unhappy with the whole 9-5 employee thing, so we started doing web design on the side and eventually started earning enough to quit our jobs and we've sinced moved on to other things that we find more fulfilling than web design.

I mostly take care of the kids, supporting my wife in business when she needs it. I used to be a lawyer, and I can tell that when I tell people I'm basically a stay at home dad that they think I'm not achieving my potential.

But I know how being a lawyer made me feel and I know how dadding makes me feel and even though I still have a lot I want to accomplish from a business perspective, this is by far the best use of my time right now.

That is, I'd much rather do this than work 40 hours a week in order to pay for childcare and have some extra spending money. I'm trying to soak up parenthood while the kids are small and need me constantly and try to let them be independent so that I can reclaim my time as they get older and hopefully in 6-10 years, I'll be back to focusing on interesting business stuff without having to worry about starting a family.

And once again, I'm not suggesting that everyone would be happiest taking care of their children. My wife is much happier running the business.

We've just gotten a ton of mileage out of questioning assumptions about what makes a good life and ruthlessly pushing our life toward what we feel works best for us at the expense of social convention and so far it's worked really well.

We've ended up with a whole life that is really, really weird to a lot of people.

We work together from home (a lot of people like the office and that's cool, but not us) and spend basically all of our time with each other (a lot of couples tell us that they couldn't spend that much time together, but not us) and the kids and we're confident in our abilities to educate our kids in a way that hopefully achieves a better outcome than public schools (lots of people are sure that public school is better than homeschool, but we think technology offers some really cool opportunities). Our kids are still quite young but so far we're doing well, we'll see. We're also not opposed to shifting gears and putting the kids in school if we all think that would achieve better outcomes, or shifting gears in anything to move closer to what we want.

A lot of our friends are getting really embedded into their companies about now, and while the security seems enviable sometimes, it's a lot more important to us to be able to live where we want, and even when work is crazy, it's on our terms, and we think we're going to have a lot more control over our lives in our 40s and 50s than our friends who consider themselves "more free" than us right now.

Time will tell who ends up being right, but it's quite interesting and enjoyable right now!


Thanks for the detailed response! My wife and I are contemplating some large life changes and also feel like the way we've set up society is not actually the best way to live. How much of your work exists to make your boss' boss' boss, and your landlord, wealthier? Why can't I work half as much for half as much money? I never want to buy anything but the odd vacation anyway.


Exactly!

You're welcome, and good luck with everything! :)


Though I do agree with the general point of your premise - spending 60 hours a week working+commuting sounds horrible (I've worked to keep commutes under 15 minutes by bike, walk, or transit). Unfortunately it's non-optional for most people.

This actually brings to mind one of the issues of such a full world - there's not many places you can go to check out of the 9-5 and live off the land. I'm sure sustenance farming is really hard, but I'm not sure it's worse for the soul than spending 2000+ hours a year at a bullshit job.


I understand this.

As a single guy, if I want to get drunk, play my guitar, and/or watch It's Always Sunny, I can do that. Whenever the fancy strikes me. If I want to go drive two states over just to ruminate. I can do that. If I just want to take a nap. I can do that.

The claims on my time are small. A child changes all of that.


What do people do when they go camping or hiking? What do people do when they go to the beach? What do people do when they go to a park? What do people do when they have dinner with their family and friends?

If you can't sit still and enjoy yourself just being, you will be in constant pain, and any break in that pain is only momentary relief. Most people pile distractions on top of distractions to shield themselves from their misery.


Rest. Socialize. Make babies. Goof off, make others laugh. I'm gonna guess that some folks had games, and children likely invented them.


You forgot die in pain because your food was contaminated or your water has bacteria. Can we stop with the happy savages myth for a second?


With regards to "what was there for them to do?", the GP responded with the most authentically human things. Just like money can't buy happiness, technology can't buy you fulfillment and meaning, even if both can make you more comfortable.


People do that in the modern world as well. Just because that stuff was true doesn't mean the rest is false.

I'm definitely not someone that wants to go back to the old times either.


This is a false dichotomy.


The idea that free time should be filled with entertainment rather than intellectual activities and social engagement is surprisingly modern.

Even only 50 years ago, in many cultures, people were spending more time reading, writing songs and playing instruments, engaging in politics, doing home DiY, gardening, improvisational theater.


Can you give example of such cultures? My impression was always that it was contrary to what you wrote. For example, tourism (taking a train to a neigboring city just for fun) was invented in XIX century England to show common folks that there's something other than drinking that they can fill their free time with.


I think the key difference is time spent making vs consuming. I don't know what the ideal ratio is between the two but think we've veered to too much consumption. The replacement of pc's with phones worries me for this reason.


Thats pre civilization. Does it count?


Yes, it's human history


Unless it was written down, it's human pre-history.


And yet human beings still existed before developing written language, so the pertinent statement is still baseless:

>As human beings we have never had as much free time as now


Bullshit jobs also 4) keep a country's population occupied so they don't self-organize and revolt against the country's entrenched power structures.


I think this is a side-effect rather than intentional.


History proves otherwise. In many cultures, including ancient Greece, China and the roman empire, scholars described that artificially creating employment to prevent social unrest was not uncommon.


sure, but is the revolt prevented by keeping them busy or by giving them an (albeit bullshit) means of keeping food on their tables? i'm not a historian, but most of the revolts i've learned about were immediately preceded by severe scarcities of essential items.


Maybe in the past, but these days, it would require unprecedented (in western democracies) levels of direct influence.

On the other hand, the market is itself extremely good at keeping people occupied, chasing ever diminishing salaries.


>levels of direct influence

Um... isn't that exactly what a 'jobs program' is. The US government has a lot of programs with private industry along those lines.


I think there is a simpler explanation, that has nothing to do with technology, productivity, or society: big companies are naturally inefficient internally (due to complexity) but as a whole are best optimized for capturing and retaining markets/regulators.


A company doing X has as its main goal not being good at doing X, but making profit.

This is the essence, and reason why companies need a hierarchy of managers: the owners are at the top, their instructions (make us profit) are delegated down, then profit goes back up. The people in charge are not there because they are experts at doing X. They are there because they are experts at making sure profits go to the top.

All bullsh*t jobs and most inefficiencies can be traced back to people not caring enough about doing X. Because that is not what the company is about, its about making profit.


This is a tricky one, because society also shares that burden in providing jobs just as politicians do.

Society could provides these jobs in positions some might consider "pointless" or "bullshit": using gas station attendants instead of self-serve pumps, for example, or giving local mentally disabled folks a job sweeping floors and cleaning trays at McDonald's, or giving local homeless jobs hawking newspapers instead of self-serve vending machines.

The difference with these positions is that the person is performing real, if only a little, service to other people.

Some bullshit or pointless jobs can still give someone meaning. I think it's important to find a way to keep the population busy, even if it calls for society hiring tons more gas-pumpers or walmart-greeters


There are no bullshit jobs. I like David Graeber very much, but he is wrong on this.

If you believe that we operate in a market economy, then by definition bullshit jobs would be removed. Government or public institutions may be less subject to the market, but even they are subject to it.

Procedures and rules are critical. Most tech people make the fundamental mistake of thinking that because their companies are small and profitable (or that they are solo entrepreneurs), then all companies can be like that. You need to look at the "real world".

Modern civilization requires very, very large organizations that are very complex. Keeping these organizations running is not all sunshine and lollipops. There are a lot of boring, but necessary jobs. See large airlines, mining companies, electrical utilities,... etc. THe modern world is big, complicated and has lots of tedious tasks that ensure your airplane (for which you got a cheap ticket) is built safely, takes off, landes, has fuel, and whose passenger tickets are priced at an insanely cheap level.

As a straightforward example, just look at the complexity of producing and distributing fossil fuels. Read Vaclav Smil.

Are there boring jobs that may one day be automated, yes. But the thing with automation is that it will not eliminate jobs, because we will just buy more stuff - this is exactly what has happened since the Industrial revolution.


I think you're letting your desire, your "belief" in a market economy, dictate your interpretations. Belief is a key term here: if it were observation, we wouldn't need to believe; we would point out how the theory functions in _this_ case just like we can demonstrate the function of an internal combustion engine. Nobody talks about "believing" in PV=NRT. :)

I have a suggestion: Every time you start talking, to yourself or others, about what a market economy does by definition, add to your statement the concept of perfect information. That's a cornerstone of market theory. So if we just stipulate the theoretical function of a market economy is everything you believe, we are left with concrete implementations which will vary from that perfection by the degree to which information is imperfect.

How do you measure that imperfection? That's a doozy. But if someone managing a $1T company has information imperfect by a percent... wouldn't that leave room for $10B of bullshit? Even if every actor in the company was operating in good faith?

How completely do you think your nearest C-level executive understands the function of their organization? 99%? 80%?

So... I think "By definition bullshit jobs would be removed" is treating economics with a precision that would make physics blush, and is usually only attempted by philosophers.


The adverts on TV are a clear indicator that bullshit jobs exist, they are simply not necessary.

Further, much of modern society is not necessary. Fast food is stuff you could make at home, but you're too busy at your advertising job. And so bullshit jobs beget more bullshit jobs.

What's happening in western countries is that trade deficits - the slow bleeding of wealth - are happening while much of the upper middle class engages in bullshit jobs and the lower classes engage in burger flipping to each other and the upper middle class.

Not much productive activity is actually going, less than 20% of the population is engaged in manufacturing, resource extraction, counstruction, and farming, and the rest is bleeding out the accumulated wealth from the past (mainly by countries like China wanting to buy our pieces of paper - dollars - and giving us our plastic and electronic toys).

The real problem is the free market economy is short sighted. Private investors can only think short term because they simply refuse to risk money on very large but high payoff ventures.

The government needs to step in and spend, spend, spend on large ventures like space travel, medical science, robotics for bullshit job insanity to end.


> The government needs to step in and spend, spend, spend on large ventures like space travel, medical science, robotics for bullshit job insanity to end.

Isn't it hilarious that the governments are the largest purveyors of bullshit jobs and resource extraction?


There is a Danish book that adresses the issue, but they pick a different term, opting to call it pseudo work instead. The title of the book is: Pseudoarbejde.

It's not that the jobs are bullshit, or just plain boring, it that they don't need to be done, at all. One of the authors originally didn't believe in the idea, arguing that the jobs where valuable, because someone actually wanted to pay others to do them.

They have en example of a company that figured that if work fills the time allocated to it, then just allocate less time. They saved a ton of time reducing meeting to default 20 minutes. There where several other steps of cause, but they now have a four day work week.

There's also an example from a Danish hospital, where a doctor is required to check if a patient has fallen within the last 14 days, because the hospital had issues where patients had fallen and no one notice. The kicker is that the doctor only does screening for breast cancer, there's no point in asking if an woman who is only in for a screen if she's fallen on the way to the hospital.

A private company wanted a professional done yearly report, every year, requiring around three months of work in total. They wanted it, because everyone has one. It's 50 to 75 pages, which no one else had time to read, so they have another person to read it and cut it done to 10 pages.

So no, it may not be bullshit jobs, they are highly paid jobs, performed by highly educated people. It's just that it's not contributing to the end product of an organisation.


Similar to the old saying "the market can remain irrational longer than you can remain solvent" - the market is not instantly efficient, just over time.

There will always be work that has become bullshit that the market hasn't gotten around to killing yet. That doesn't mean they don't exist, or can't exist for a long time. Some even last lifetimes!

None of this means we can't do a better job helping the market remove the bullshit work, though.


> If you believe that we operate in a market economy, then by definition bullshit jobs would be removed.

Nobody believes that perfect markets exist.


This is obviously incorrect.

Jobs are paid for based on the value they provide to the person paying for the job, not based on the value they create.

A job which takes value from other people and destroys some of it in the process will get paid for just as readily as a job that creates value ex nihilo as long as the person paying for the job ends up with the same amount of value.


The article's last paragraph and link to book review[1] discusses this.

[1] http://slatestarcodex.com/2017/11/30/book-review-inadequate-...


That's a fascinating article. I must admit that I've never really thought about the "shorting real estate" angle when discussing real estate bubbles, and it's a very interesting insight into why we keep getting them.


>If you believe that we operate in a market economy, then by definition bullshit jobs would be removed.

That's the theory, but we all know that theoretical capitalism and what we have today are very different beasts. Bullshit jobs are not literally companies paying people to do nothing, but more systemic problems.

My local shop wants to sell a banana to me. The intrinsic complexity of this task is: A small group of people who grow bananas. A large group of people who manage global shipping. A small group of people to sell the banana to me.

However, let's inject some bullshit: My local shop and a shop slightly further away both want to sell bananas. Therefore they advertise. Let's add two large groups of people making graphics for the side of busses, posters for walls, animation for web advertising, filming television adverts, maintaining 'woke' social media accounts, et cetera. We now involve more groups of people for the busses to sell this advertising space, television networks to manage ad time, et cetera. We now have more people advertising the banana than selling it, but no more human beings are buying bananas, because there's a fixed size market for it. _Those_ are bullshit jobs, because they achieve nothing but keeping the market in the same steady state it would otherwise have been in, except with vast resource expenditure. No one company can stop advertising, though, because then their competitor's resource expenditure would actually become meaningful.


You have this completely wrong.

The advertisers are hired to increase demand for and sell more bananas. If banana demand is actually fixed and the advertisers don't work out (are bullshit jobs), the banana company is not going to keep using the advertisers and cut out the bullshit jobs.


No no no, the point is that the jobs aren't useless _locally_, in that my most local store cannot fire their advertising department, but they are still useless _globally_, in that the sheer scale of resources poured into creating the advertisements to compete with other stores is zero-sum.

$1 of banana advertising does not generate >$1 of banana purchasing _overall_, though it may _take_ >$1 of banana purchasing from a different store. No meaningful value was created for society.

There's a degree to which advertising is educating consumers as to where they can get bananas. The cost required to fulfil that is significantly lower than the actual cost of the advertising industry, because the advertising industry effectively generates other jobs in the advertising industry to compete with itself, as our competing banana establishments both pour more and more of their money into advertisement, because if they don't they lose sales to their competitors. Because more advertising is needed, more advertisers are needed - but the market isn't expanding, or rather, it isn't expanding even a fraction as quickly as the advertising industry.

So we end up in this absurd position where we spend _so many resources_ advertising bananas, when we could spend a tiny fraction and get the same result - no, a _better_ result. Estimates suggest that 40%+ of all bananas are simply wasted, because they don't fit the aesthetically pleasing, advertisable profile of an "expected" banana. Because competition is so tight, and so many resources are put not into the intrinstic complexity of selling bananas, but into the "bullshit" systems surrounding it, we have a waste _floor_ of 40%, even before considering the direct cost of the advertising industry supporting bananas.

And that's bananas. That's one fruit. The whole market is like this, to varying degrees, where entire industries only exist to support other industries, which only exist to deal with the problems they cause. It's bullshit - not in the sense that any one company can just fire all the worthless people, because obviously it's more complicated than that, but in the sense that we have vast chunks of human productivity going into tasks which do not benefit _anybody_. We are burning our finite resources out advertising bananas while at the same time facing down the impending crisis of climate change and asking ourselves where we could possibly make the efficiency improvements necessary to save our species.

I don't know either - but let's start with the bananas.


Creating demand for bananas is not creating value for banana companies. It is taking value from companies with competing products.


Its not the banana company selling bananas to the people being advertised too, its the banana stores, who are competing.


> If you believe that we operate in a market economy, then by definition bullshit jobs would be removed.

Citation needed. What is "market economy" and how does it remove bullshit jobs?


It's a theoretical model of how markets work, but substituting the people for omniscient spherical cows because real people make the modelling too difficult to be useful.


> 1) There is less and less actual work to be done due to technological progress

I would disagree, but this depends entirely on how you define "actual work". Is building and maintaining Facebook actual work? Is composing and playing new music actual work? If we had automated every mechanical task so 100% of human effort every day was spent creating art, would you consider that 100% employment, or 100% unemployment?

I don't think there's one correct answer here. We've never in the past had to use terms like "work" and "employment" in the context of a world where nobody had to work, so it's ambiguous.

There's some kinds of jobs (like creating art) which seem literally bottomless. There's other kinds of jobs (like inventing technology) that create new kinds of work. We may well run out of manual labor, but I don't see us ever running out of work.

> 3) Society hasn't found a rational way to redistribute wealth yet.

Agreed -- or rather, "wealth" is another one of those words which starts to lose its clear definition in a post-scarcity, post-labor world. It was a good abstraction for a couple thousand years, but no abstraction can survive indefinite growth of both technology and scale.


Yes, building Facebook is actual work.

But there are lots of people who work at Facebook who don't actually build the site, or test it, or do something that is important to delivering the website to customers.


>) There is less and less actual work to be done due to technological progress;

I don't think that's actually true. Here's a quick list I threw together on another post:

>Replication crisis? Aging infrastructure? Global warming? Cancer research? Environmental destruction? Food scarcity? Documentation and bug hunting in software? Taking care of frameworks? Early childhood education? Heck, even beyond all the problems on Earth, there are plenty of people who want to work on things like sending people to Mars.

But as people pointed out, those things need collective action and political will. Our current mentality is that we should have minimal collective action, and the vast majority of our resources should go towards what can bring us the largest personal profit returns, no matter the impact on humanity in general. I think we're seeing some of the limits to that approach.


> This is tragic. Entire human lives are being wasted on this dystopia of boredom and meaninglessness.

Such an interesting moment that we find ourselves in:

Humans have taken over the planet and are upset that daily lives now revolve around trite and petty bs rather than predators, scarcity and violence.


No we're upset that we can't cut out the trite and petty bs and be free to make ourselves happy while not worrying about predators, scarcity and violence.

I find these arguments in defense of the existing system to to be the actually trite thing because it reveals an inability to truly look at the system at large and ask what outcomes we want and instead mounts a defense of it as is.


Hey I'm all for social change when it comes to repressed/marginalized people and even wealth redistribution, but I just don't think we can escape BS as discussed in TFA.


>3) Society hasn't found a rational way to redistribute wealth yet.

I'm all in favour of us having a life of leisure or fun jobs (actor, ski explorer etc) and everyone having a basic income from the state. Sadly though the AI robots are not here and getting someone to fix your plumbing is still a pain, plus many other jobs. Maybe in the future we can go that way.


Plumbing and other trades like it are the opposite of bullshit jobs, though. They require specific training and skill. They have tangible results that clearly improve the world (even if they're reactionary and small-scale, i.e., fixing a broken sink drain).


Yeah, don't dump on the trades. When you get down to the real nitty-gritty, most jobs are technically bullshit. If everything were reduced to rubble and ash tomorrow, CxOs, lawyers, programmers, HR, police, teachers, entertainers, salesmen, advertisers, and countless others become useless occupations.

Even doctors lose some of their cachet.

Farmers, carpenters, engineers, plumbers, electricians, etc all become way more valuable as they can actually rebuild the bits of society that are important to everyone.


I don't think 'would be useful in a post-apocalyptic wasteland' is the usual definition (or a very good one) of a non-bullshit job. It's more about how much genuine value the job creates in the real world today.


The problem is defining "value". Some would say entertainment provides some value, some would say otherwise.

I'm focusing on something approaching "minimally viable society".


AI is not a binary event. Technological progress gradually removes the need for labor. Consider simple unsexy things such as automatic cashiers at supermarkets, McDonald's, etc. How many jobs have they made redundant? And do you know that "computer" used to be a profession? Do you know that the majority of blue collar work in 2018 will be made redundant by self-driving vehicles? And so on.

You say I am overestimating technological progress. Ok, then explain to me why work hours are increasing. They should at the very least be staying the same right?


Work hours are increasing because of the decline in unions, and along with it, worker bargaining power.



They are for the US, while they're declining for the EU countries you selected (which your graph shows).


Similar feelings, but slightly different list:

1) TLDR: We don't have a mission beyond population management. Long version: The population is too large to have any consensus about what humanity should be doing. We can never be on the same page at this point. We're constantly just struggling to manage growing populations. 2% of the population is capable of actually thinking through and carrying out any possible reason of existing beyond putting new technology in front of people. While new technology does in fact help humanity, our application of it is totally misplaced - it goes into military or just entertaining people.. Until a massive number of people are dedicated to extra-planetary research, we're wasting time on a doomed planet.

2) We have had a general movement from - people helping others to everyone is out for themselves. This changes the social contract from grand parents moving in with their children to everyone better get their 15 kinds of insurance in order early. If someone lost a house and the neighborhood pooled together to re-build them a house, and there was no need to "buy in" to that, then we would be both richer, and more comfortable with each other.

3) People have become mean. Streets are filled with angry drivers. People only seem to care about their friends for what they can be provided with. If shit hit the fan, most of those people would kill you to steal your food.

4) All of this leads to the house of cards. All these bullshit jobs are supported through various special conditions humanity has set up (insurance companies, banking industry, food industry, military industry) - which means that the bullshit jobs are paid for in the slight tweaks we keep making to our collective society to be more and more a dog-eat-dog world.

It's sad that most people probably don't understand any of this. The only fix would be for humanity to have a mission beyond our individual mission to keep supporting the current structure.


Let's break it down to something simple:

I have $3, you have $1. Is it fair that I give you $1 so we both have $2? Is that rational?

Now let's say that you work 3 hours a day and I work 1 hour. Now what's fair? You're working three times longer than me, but I had three times as much money to start with. Would fair actually be if I gave you $2 instead? That way our cash is on par with our hourly work. Does that seem rational?

Ok, but what if we had the same job. Build a widget. And due to being good at widget building, I only needed an hour to build my widget while you needed three. Now, the output of our work is the same. Should you be rewarded for simply taking longer? I could build three widgets in the time it took you to build one. Well, if we're paying by output, then shouldn't we go back to a 50/50 split of the money?

But what if widgets make a profit of $1 for each sold? And we each worked three hours building and selling widgets. And you made one and I made three and the all sold. I was more productive. Is it rational for me to split the money with you 50/50 because you don't have the same?

Now. What if I sell widget polish. And you make widgets. You buy polish from me. So now, if we split the money, I sell you a bottle of polish for $1. Now the money is unequal again, so we equal the money. Effectively, I'm just giving you free polish. That's rational? Fair?


> Now. What if I sell widget polish. And you make widgets. You buy polish from me. So now, if we split the money, I sell you a bottle of polish for $1. Now the money is unequal again, so we equal the money. Effectively, I'm just giving you free polish. That's rational? Fair?

By the same rationale you can just pick up a free widget, so it seems both rational and fair.


Only if I need/want widgets. Which isn't included in the hypothetical. Because the point is to highlight what happens when I sell you something and makes the distribution unequal again.

If I come out the same whether or not I sell polish, why should I sell polish? Rationally, I shouldn't.

That's also a good reason we should be very careful about using words like rational and fair. There's a lot of perspective hiding in both. And at the very least, fair does not have an easy definition for all situations.


> If I come out the same whether or not I sell polish, why should I sell polish? Rationally, I shouldn't.

Because you like polished widgets, I'd imagine? Or maybe a fascist government forces you to make widget polish, I don't know. I do know you can't have it both ways, if your hypothetical economy is not consistent then it is a useless example.


You're investing way more into the hypothetical than exists.

I wasn't asking what imagined scenarios would force me to sell polish. If you want that, then aliens for all I care.

The entire point is to ask what happens when the results of my actions are nil. Rationally, if two courses of action have the same result, I should take the course that costs me the least.

I mean, here I am describing a situation and you're saying "Yeah, but what if the situation were different". Then the situation would be different and not the one I'm describing.

It's ok not to have an answer to any of the scenarios. To not know. I don't either. I don't know if there is a good answer to a "fair and rational distribution of wealth". The point is to make you question your own perception of the situation and realize that the answers you believe you have may have issues of their own.


I guess, like you, I don't know that I have any answers. What I reject is you describing a made up situation that is unfair then simply noting that it is not fair. That may be true, but it tells me nothing, causes me to have no new interesting questions, and is unrealistic to boot.


What about actually putting tax money to good use by offering free health care and education like Scandinavian countries?

Would be a good start.

From there the concept could easily be expanded. Reward those who work hard at specific things but let the rest of the population enjoy the benefits as well. Give them (free or cheap) access to your widgets. And ensure that you don't end up owning a monopoly taking most of everyone's money and giving nothing back.


I think you're missing the point as well.

Why is that fair? Why is that a good start?

If something is good and fair, sure let's do it, but we've skipped some essential work here. You've declared certain things as good and fair, you haven't actually proven these things are either.

What are the benefits that we should give those who work hard? What are the rewards? It's all fine and good to say "we will reward them". But if that reward is nothing but a sense of pride and accomplishment, I'm going to feel hoodwinked.

And you talk about "taking most of everyone's money and giving nothing back" but aren't you really talking about double dipping here? I'm giving you the widget. The thing you've given me money for. That's the exchange. You're basically saying the person who makes widgets needs to work for something else. But you don't say why. Or what that something else is.

That's what I'm talking about. We need that groundwork in order to actually start a conversation about redistribution. We are talking about literally taking stuff from people. Stuff they're under the impression that they've earned. There are two ways to do that. By convincing them to just give it up. Or by using force. Now, of course, there are those out there who have accumulated fortunes through rather nefarious practices. And it is a perfectly reasonable argument to say that those who have used fraud, deception, and various forms of coercion to build their wealth should have that wealth taken from them by force. It's not theirs. It needs to be returned to those who it does belong to. But we have to establish what are legitimate means of accumulating wealth and what aren't legitimate means. There are obvious cases, but there are also very contentious cases.


Literally zero percent of the economy works like this in reality.


Some people do not start out with different starting conditions? Some people are not more productive than others?

In what way are varying starting conditions and varying productivity levels (cost structures) not realistic?

If I were to guess, GPs point is that post-hoc redistribution is not fair (or can not be made to be fair?). Do you disagree with this conclusion?


It's close. My point is that we need a clear definition of what's fair to start from. And it has to be a definition that is satisfactory to most people.


Interesting. If you have 51% of the people declaring that 49% percent of the people should start with nothing, and that they (by right of popular demand) should get the 49%'s stuff, as a starting point, then, ... that's a clear definition, I guess. And it's satisfactory to most people, I guess. I still feel vaguely unnerved.


While 51% can be defined as "most", "most" doesn't necessarily mean "at least 51%". I was being rather vagueish, because requiring 100% acceptance is likely to be impossible. For instance, I really doubt that the white supremacist movement is going to find any situation where members of other ethnicities get as much or more than any of their members to be "equitable" according to their values. But just because they won't accept a solution that everyone else does doesn't mean we should throw it away. They're being unreasonable.

Not to mention, you're just describing a bullying situation. If you present that scenario to most people, they'll say that it isn't fair. Because they don't know if they'll be on the 51 or 49. I mean, even some of the 51% could say that it's not fair to the 49% to just lose their stuff by popular vote. Which would mean doubly that most people wouldn't find that definition fair.

And of course, the problem is that there's enough variance in "fair" that you probably can't get more that 5 or 10 people to agree on what's fair in all aspects. Which is why I kind of tune out when people just harp on "fair" without being specific. "Fair" is a weasel word. "Not getting shot by the cops during a routine traffic stop" is a clear complaint. That I can work with.


Well, yeah: not having the agents of the monopoly on preemptive violence that the state has reserved to itself getting too trigger-happy is something that I think all us plebes can agree upon.

When you are talking about normalizing starting conditions (up-thread), you are talking about ad-hoc/post-hoc redistribution of assets. Presumably assets that have been earned at an earlier time based on providing customers products or services that they wanted to buy at a price they were willing to pay, at a margin above their cost to the producer, allowing the wealth to accumulate. Like Steve Jobs creating a company that sells iPhones generating wealth.

Now - Steve Job's offspring will start at a better position in life than my children will. They didn't earn it - but my children didn't either. I find myself vaguely uncomfortable with the idea that I/we could form a group of 51% or 55% or 65% or even 80% that would vote to expropriate from them their property, so that I/we could distribute those spoils amongst ourselves. Is the current state 'fair'? Almost certainly not! But legitimized piracy by democratic consent? Where would it end?


I mean, we could form that group anyway. Viva la revolution and all that.

And it's good that you're uncomfortable with it. It's an uncomfortable thing.

I am not talking about the redistribution of wealth per se. I'm talking about the footwork needed to get to the place where we can even begin talking about it. I'm acknowledging that it's difficult. That it needs some hard answers to wicked problems. Something a lot of people ignore in their "eat the rich" rhetoric.

And I'm not really advocating for any sort of change. I'm just saying if you want this, you need that first. If you want "a fair and rational distribution of wealth", you are first going to have to explain what that means to you, why it is fair, why it is rational, why it even needs to be done, and do it in a way that convinces me.

And to the point of fortune of birth, we're all affected by the circumstances of our birth. We're not all created equal in all aspects. Is that fair? Don't know, but it is how the world is. Some people are born taller, prettier, smarter, richer. When you get down to it, there is a large degree of our existence we didn't "earn" by the metric we judge inherited wealth.


You've triggered a thought related to something I've been thinking about for a while (and almost certain to be followed by one or more questions) that I would like to run by you.

But I don't want to compose it on a mobile device, nor at work, so it will be a day or so before I follow it up here.

Cheers!


I'm vaguely comforted by the fact that redistributionists haven't come up with the idea that 80% of them are going to vote to chop 2" off me...


Ok ... I'm pretty sure I'm going to express this badly - but I'll try...

A long long time ago, humans got humanized in places where small numbers of them grouped together and cooperated/traded/shared with each other for day-to-day life.

There might be a (for example) wandering minstrel, who might spend a week or four in each of 20-or-so places. Each of those 20-or-so places (and their surrounding area) might have 150-people-or-so, who would chip in to cover the minstrel's room-and-board-and-drink. It wasn't a rich living (for sure), but one could (in theory) get by). Let's call it 10~30 multi-talented bard/actor/repair-man for every ~3000 inhabitants.

To the degree that people were literate/educated or Western Europeans, they might swap bible stories and memorize the 10 commandments. Amongst which would be admonitions against greed, envy and lust. (The Buddhist would similarly admonish against intoxicants - except they weren't incredibly dedicated to banning stuff...)

So ... fast forward a while. We've got winner take all markets. Let's talk music/film, not sports (but the math can be considered similar): Instead of having maybe 1 itenerate per thousand people, we've 1 superstar per 5~10M people. Woah! Now it's big money, so we've got back-up staff, support, stages, studios, advertising, promos, sponsorship - but it went from (say) $100/month to $10M/month.

Now back to the sins of lust/greed/envy: I believe that we (humans) were not built to envy our neighbor's goods at that scale. There was no Bill Gates. There was not even a David Rockefeller!

So you get a guy (or girl) who is willing to provide a product (or service) to national or global markets, that people want, at a price that they are willing to pay, at a cost-to-produce dramatically less than that price (on a per-unit basis). You have the recipe for a kajillionairre, by that person simply making the world a better price by providing more/better stuff for less. (Or in the Steve Jobs case: by making a religion out of a pocket computer).

But! As wealthy as we all become, with our jobs and income, and housing and clean water and indoor plumbing and always-on-electricity and wireless internet and 24-7 entertainment and a global library at our fingertips and an every improving environment (on most metrics - you would have to track data and not watch the news to learn this), many of us, with our hold Monkey-DNA encoded greed/envy/competitiveness, are jealous of the "Captains of Industry" that have made our lives to much better. And we want to take their money ("The 1%!") and distribute it to a bunch of morons that (from what I can tell) are trust-fund babies that can't hold down a job. (Or even find a place to defecate that is not a police car - given how some of the denizens of OWS behaved).

So! (It took a while to get here). Do you believe that income and wealth equality could be, should be, a first-order goal, given that our current system has generated so much wealth? Why would we want to tear down something that is working for all of us, for the purpose of instituting an abstract noun that no one seems to be able to define? For my part, I'd rather be an increasingly wealthy part of the 99% and am grateful to the 1% for dragging us along with them...


As Dr Ford from WestWorld said something like 'Human are very predictable and run in tight loops' while explaining there is not much difference between man and machine.

As I reflect on my life it does seem very predictable outside work. At office it is still a bit interesting due to all sort of random issues crop up in a work day.


In regards to your second point, I often wonder what it would be like today had Reagan not started the trend of not enforcing the Sherman Anti-Trust Act. We are in a situation where we may end up having to break up AT&T, for instance, twice in a 40 year period.


> Even though there is not much actual work to be done, people still tend to tie their self-worth and social status to employment.

What can replace this though. There is needs to be something that creates a social hierarchy. We can only operate in an hierarchy.


> "A rational society at our current stage of development would be celebrating job destruction, not creation."

Destruction of jobs in our current society would mean bad things for many people.

I understand what you were going for, but society is not at that point yet imo


Our current society is definitely not rational, which I inferred as the point. Our economic system is a good 80% complete nonsense, where we're essentially playing a very complicated and meaningless game with ourselves, except one with meaningful consequences for real people.


You're making me so happy, because the most frustrating thing for me is that, with how tied up in personal and cultural identity and self-worth it all is, few people are willing to admit or recognize this.

Economy, at its core, is a network of transaction predicated on value.

Value, at its core, is nothing more than a perception.


> Society hasn't found a rational way to redistribute wealth yet.

Actually, we have: a free market. The problem is keeping it.


>>There are economic incentives to create larger and larger organizations;

One of the real reasons why languages like Lisp and Perl had a short life in MegaCorps is they were anti-dote to large people hierarchies. You can disproportionate work with small teams.

Execs and VPs openly boast in company all hands about their 'team sizes' and numbers almost as the biggest accomplishment of their lives.

No one is going to buy any technology or methodology which shrinks their head count.


If this was true, wouldn't everybody be programming in assembly? E.g. developing a website in assembly would keep more people occupied than HTML/JS/CSS.


If one were being cynical and thinking that optimising for (maximum) headcount is a major driver here, one might want to avoid technologies with substantial barriers to entry, since that might clear the market of qualified people and make further recruitment very hard. The "ideal" technology would be one where almost anyone can pick it up quickly and at least look like they're being vaguely productive, but where even a 0.01-%ile expert will struggle to achieve really exceptional things.


>>If this was true, wouldn't everybody be programming in assembly?

'Assembly' is a abstraction.

To a Perl programmer. Java's verbosity would look like Assembly.


this reasoning doesn't work. most jobs aren't created by politicians anything like directly, and companies have direct incentive to not be wasteful in their spending. I'm of the opinion that it's just a failing of management, which is hard.


'Rational' can only come about once one has chosen a goal to achieve or a social group to adhere to, because ANY set of logically developed statements must derive from axioms, logic itself included. You just happen to believe that (If I read your point "1)" correctly) that there is a limited amount of work to be done in any society.

One could just as easily state that a 'rational' society should celebrate: a stable number of jobs (if one is anti-technologically inclined, or if one happens to believe that society is harmed by rapid change); or a growing number of jobs (the rapid change view + population growth, or a belief that more jobs mean people have found more problems to be solved).

But one could also move away from the direct 'jobs' concern and argue that a 'rational' society would be better at finding ways to address the need humans have for being valuable to their society (often expressed here in the US in terms of having a job) and ensuring that people have enough capital to live on a year-to-year basis, whether by changing the expression of those needs and giving a universal basic income or by finding better jobs or perhaps even by going with a strongly progressive income tax and actually supporting small businesses.

Many of the examples I have provided have been argued in the past at some point or another (and my short list is by NO means complete), and one could certainly talk about whether empirical evidence seems to support or contradict each of these points (though note that there are likely multiple interpretations of the data!), but ultimately our society is made of people and articles such as this suggest that we have built a society that systematically fails to support the values of its members. So maybe we should start talking about those values and quit going on rants about 'oh, everyone else is irrational'.

Relevant XKCD: https://xkcd.com/610/


Isn't my smartphone redistribution of wealth?


It is not just social status but also real financial constraints for survival that lead to wage slavery.

IMO poverty and austerity and military and wars imposed or tolerated because of greed and lack of empathy and foolish voters are the main reasons for needless misery.

The kind words for John McCain were shocking and disgusting.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bO4wXQesThA&t=356s

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3CIGuscbG60

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_--joNde92k


100% agree!!


I believe all this is part of evolution.. thing to come after the current(human).


> As technology progresses, and all things being equal, the situation will only become more extreme and ridiculous.

It's actually the opposite that is the case. As technology progresses you will see more and more and more speculative waste because the entire market becomes more efficient at producing speculative waste.

Another name for "speculative waste" by the way is "Capitalism." Before you worry about "bullshit job" you might want to consider the thousands of businesses that fail everyday, the books and movies and cartoons and the mountains of media that is produced that will never be read or consumed, the endless containers of products -- everything from Squirrel Girl teeshirts to satellite networks to cryptocurrencies -- that get made and then quickly discarded.

All of it is speculative waste and all of it is absolutely necessary for a free market to function.

The concept of "bullshit jobs" is stupid but it's the "common sense" stupidity that is really just a lack of imagination. In a global economy filled with billions of independent actors the vast majority of economic activity will be variously inefficient, useless and often down right harmful. This speculative waste will expand to consume all of the speculative capital available. The vast majority of this economic activity will only be minimally profitable and much of it will generate no returns whatsoever. But every once in a while you get a "10 bagger", an investment that yields order of magnitude returns, and this changes everything.

The author should be concerned not that most people are engaged in ultimately pointless economic activity but that, perhaps like himself, so many in the West are profoundly underemployed.

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