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The Triple Revolution (wikipedia.org)
75 points by benbreen 67 days ago | hide | past | favorite | 47 comments



What's amazing to me is that we have the amazing gains in productivity, but we've avoided the predicted unemployment by adding huge numbers of unnecessary managers and paper pushers. It's hard to fathom why companies (and schools!) Just keep hiring admin, HR, development, etc.


That's not actually what has happened. Roll back 100 odd years, the average age of entry into the work force would be around 14 for males (very useful in coal mines for the narrow bits), retirement was 65, but most people didn't make it that far. The typical working week was 6 days. Now we have a significant percentage of the population studying into their twenties, and at the other end retired and living into their eighties or nineties.

That's the predicted "unemployment". There are probably significantly fewer managers per se, than there used to be - companies like GE used to have hierarchies 40 or more levels deep.


Do you have a source for that regarding GE? That seems incredibly implausible. I'm moderately familiar with the history of corporate organization, and never heard of anything even remotely close to a hierarchy of 40 levels -- not even when combining reporting chains of conglomerates, regions, and local management.


I'm really curious how a managerial hierarchy of 40 works in practice. If a manager is responsible for a headcount of 2 then GE would have 2^40 = ~1 trillion employees. Since this is obviously not possible then what does the org chart of a firm with 40 levels of hierarchy look like.


It's not necessarily a balanced tree. One path can have length 40, while another could be 2.

I think at megacompanies, the hierarchy can be pretty deep before you get into what is normal for medium sized companies. Global -> Region ("Americas") -> Country ("USA") -> Region ("Northeast") -> State ("New York") and then you just have a company with a CEO (called something else at this level), SVPs, Directors, Managers, Supervisors, Shift Supervisors, etc.


Hard to fathom if you are only considering the institutional goals and not the perfectly reasonable goals of the rational actor individuals within the institution.


That's not what has reduced employment at all.

As a rule, businesses exist to make a profit, and make gigantic efforts to eliminate unnecessary positions, such as mass layoffs after mergers. Just because you don't understand the necessity of middle management or "paper pushers" doesn't mean they're not necessary.

The real reason we avoid unemployment is the same reason we've avoided it ever since 90% of households were farmers. It's because however efficient we get, consumers always want better things.

We avoid unemployment not because of "bullshit jobs". We avoid it because humans have an insatiable demand for more travel, novel restaurants, video game consoles with more realistic graphics, fancier theme parks, new blockbuster movies. Our desire for new and better things will never stop. So the desire for people to take jobs to invent and provide those things will never stop.

"Unnecessary managers and paper pushers" has utterly nothing to do with it.


Do you believe the customer's appetite for more and more garbage is truly infinite? At some point, the demand growth will stop. Earth has a finite mass, after all, and humans only live for about a century at the longest.


You're making an awful lot of assumptions that consumer appetites are for "garbage".

Yes there's absolutely cheap stuff made in China.

But it's also critically-acclaimed novels and television series that speak to the issues of our day. It's desire to travel and experience other cultures. It's things like wanting to learn the basics of another language with Duolingo. Or it's medical advances.

Yes I do think consumers will always want more improved or up-to-date things. But I also think it's awfully judgmental to perjoratively label those things "garbage".


Of course demand is infinite.

1. Conspicuous consumption is purely competitive. There will never be a point where running faster stops being an advantage in a marathon. If everyone could afford five cars, then some people would still try to gain a status advantage by buying ten.

2. The dopamine hit from spending money is purely relative to the amount of money you have. As you earn and spend larger sums of money your brain adapts to expect even more. It's just like any addiction – a drug user will keep increasing doses forever until they reach some medical or financial constraint.

3. New "needs" are simply created. People get chemotherapy instead of simply dying at age 60 from cancer. People receive expensive mental health treatment from high-skilled practitioners which didn't used to exist. Most people used to be illiterate but now everyone needs a high school education, and more than half even need an expensive college education.

90% of people in the first world have enough money to get all of the things that very poor people "need". But we simply adjust to the new reality. People move to high COL cities and spend all of their money bidding up the cost of houses. It never ends.


Sure, but we're nowhere near the planet's maximal capacity, won't be for generations, if ever. By the time we're remotely near that, a Dyson sphere/ring could extend that for hundreds of generations more. The idea of maximal density may bring to mind dystopian sci-fi, but eg Judge Dredd's urbanized New England was less dense than Kowloon/Hong Kong is now. The demand curve, thus, is functionally infinite, same as the sun's lifespan. It'll expire after millions of years, but even my great grand children will be long gone by then, so the astrophysics of it mean that the statement "the sun will last forever" isn't literally true, but functionally, it is.


> Do you believe the customer's appetite for more and more garbage is truly infinite?

https://finance.yahoo.com/chart/NFLX

Yes.


Netflix is also the company who said that sleep is one of the limiting factors to their growth. There are only 24 hours in a day and sleeping, eating, and going to work each consume a non-zero number of those.


> Just because you don't understand the necessity of middle management or "paper pushers" doesn't mean they're not necessary.

This is presumptuous. Having worked in groups where I understood my job and the jobs of my coworkers who held the same position as me at least as well as they understood their jobs themselves: unnecessary paper pushers exist.

> As a rule, businesses exist to make a profit, and make gigantic efforts to eliminate unnecessary positions, such as mass layoffs after mergers.

People say stuff like this all the time—Paul Graham famously trotted it out as a retort to the existence of a gender pay gap—but it doesn't comport with observations. From some of my personal notes on this topic last week:

There's a widespread belief that capitalism seeks out efficiency. With most organizations being capitalist enterprises, so the belief continues, they are an extension of this. You can see this show up in arguments about the gender pay gap. If we could cut costs just by hiring women to do the same job, they say, then we would. The veracity of the claims about the size of the pay gap notwithstanding, the claim that corporations would seize the opportunity to cut costs like this doesn't jibe with reality. Corporations are not observed to be a perfect extension of the law of capitalist efficiency. A corporation as an entity is not a perfectly rational actor operating in its own self interest, following both from the irrationality of the people who make it up and from instances of where they do behave rationally operating in their own individual self interests, counter to the organization's.

There is hardly ever a Taylor-like figure [around].

... i.e., someone tasked with stamping out the sorts of inefficiency in the way that these arguments demand it is being addressed.

We need to coin some sort of shorthand akin "the Gell–Mann amnesia effect", where we comment upon the tendency of people to automatically ascribe e.g. competence and efficiency to institutions, on the basis that they are institutions, while ignoring immediately available evidence to the contrary.


I didn't say unnecessary paper-pushers don't exist. I said corporations make gigantic efforts to eliminate them.

Management isn't and never will be perfect. But just because some small percentage of existing positions are actually unnecessary doesn't mean that's a primary or even secondary explanation for preventing mass unemployment, which was the original topic.

Obviously corporations aren't perfectly rational. Nobody is. But the fact remains that rational profit-seeking is a systemic incentive pushing corporate behavior in a particular direction -- e.g. to eliminate useless jobs. There is no similar general systemic incentive that rewards keeping useless jobs around.

Contrary to your personal notes, capitalism absolutely seeks out efficiency. It isn't perfect, and it isn't the only force. But it is by far the strongest force. In other words, there is an extremely strong trend where the most efficient companies stick around, and the rest go out of business.


I was specific in my criticism. Your retort that 'you don't understand the necessity of middle management or "paper pushers"' is a common, just-so, casual dismissal that pops up all the time, and when it does, it bristles.

> Obviously corporations aren't perfectly rational.

https://slatestarcodex.com/2014/11/03/all-in-all-another-bri...

> the rest go out of business.

Right, which is why it's so odd when people respond to criticism about a business's practices with the institutional bias that I referred to.

[EDIT: FWIW, I don't agree with either you _or_ the person you're responding to about "the real reason we avoid unemployment". I don't think they're more right about it than you are, but they're aren't more wrong, either. Not really interested in discussing that, though. I am (was) narrowly interested in the existence or non-existence of paper pushers, and where they're tolerated.]


> it bristles

It seems to me that you're taking this too personally. First of all, the person you're responding to wasn't even talking to you or about you when they wrote the "Just because you don't understand..." line, so you're out here taking offense on behalf of everyone who posits the existence of unnecessary jobs. (#NotAllPeopleWhoPositUnnecessaryJobs?)

Taking "personal truth" out of the equation, as an impartial observer, reading the assertion on the part of a username on HN I don't recognize that useless jobs exist is insignificant evidence in support of that hypothesis - exactly the same as if I heard someone I don't know claiming they saw bigfoot or UFOs. To improve the situation, you could provide supporting details about the examples of useless jobs you have seen.


> It seems to me that you're taking this too personally.

Assume that I'm not. (I'm not, and it seems surprising to me that it seems that way.)

> "personal truth"

I don't recognize this as a term, and really, I'm just not interested in any discussion about the other things you've mentioned: usernames not recognized, who was talking to whom, advice about improving my situation, and so on. This is both too meta and in a direction that doesn't pique my curiosity.


> Assume that I'm not. (I'm not, and it seems surprising to me that it seems that way.)

Fine - maybe I misread simple annoyance as personal offense.

> I'm just not interested in any discussion about the other things you've mentioned: usernames not recognized, who was talking to whom, advice about improving my situation, and so on.

What I said wasn't really about any of those things, so let me try again.

Your response here

> > Just because you don't understand the necessity of middle management or "paper pushers" doesn't mean they're not necessary.

> This is presumptuous. Having worked in groups where I understood my job and the jobs of my coworkers who held the same position as me at least as well as they understood their jobs themselves: unnecessary paper pushers exist.

struck me as a thoroughly unproductive way to debate. You made a bare claim to have seen something that others allege to be rare. Obviously the fact that you have seen it is enough evidence for you, but it shouldn't move the needle on anyone else's state of belief. Therefore, IMHO, it's not a useful contribution.

When I said improve the situation, I was not giving "advice about improving [your] situation"; I meant improving the quality of discussion.

[tone edited]


You decided to persist, but this is still too meta with respect to the actual topic at hand, and still not interesting. [And there's too much logical inconsistency (and blind hostility) here besides.] This is my last comment here.


Is there any evidence of managerial excess at the expense of profits (I don't mean anecdata)? Genuine question. I've always worked in small companies, so I don't have any experience with large companies.

But someone is footing the bill for a salary on the premise that enough revenue will be generated to cover managerial costs and some. Right?


Headcount is probably the more appropriate number. Original commenter's claims on whether it's gone up or down aside, there is some minimum number of managers for a number of employees, and of support staff for same.

That number may be larger or smaller, but it exists. An organization can't function effectively with 1,000 people reporting to one manager. (See: Valve)

Note: from what I can find, it historically and currently hovers around 10:1.

If we're talking about profits though, headcount matters more, because it requires the other things. If you can run the same revenue on 100 people as you can on 1,000, you save on their salaries, but also on the salaries of all the management and support the extra 900 would require.


You're describing one manifestation of cost disease. Controversial opinion:

Programmers think that they're exempt from this, but they're not.

I used the term "devops shovelware" the other day in reference to the dominant culture that you can see on display in the present. That sort of thing is just another type of unnecessary paper pushing. Resume-driven development, churn for churn's sake, and much of what accounts for the little green squares on GitHub contribution graphs are all manifestations of the very same cost disease.


I strongly agree with this. I've tried to write about this seriously, and then I tried to write about it with humor. Here is the humor:

http://www.smashcompany.com/technology/my-final-post-regardi...


Not really, if you look at their goals which are to maintain managerial control, David Graeber wrote a book about the phenomenon called Bullshit Jobs.


Its a tacit admission that the economy needs us to have money, but also seems bizarrely to need to distribute it unequally to get where it wants to go. If the economy needs us to have money but distributed it equally, the 'value' property would become really moot.

Its also a tacit admission that most 'jobs' have no relationship to productive labour, or even necessarily create value. But, I'm a believer in the labour theory of value, so there's that...


Historically it was exceptionally common to grow unproductive jobs up to the limit that the economy could support e.g. the Edo era of Japan. It's quite plausible/likely that part of the industrial revolutions magic was that economic growth outpaced the economies ability to add unproductive jobs.

Note that by unproductive jobs I'm specifically refferring to what could be called BS jobs. Jobs that were previously done by one person, but are now done by 10 people without an increase in measurable output.


> Jobs that were previously done by one person, but are now done by 10 people without an increase in measurable output.

Is there any data to support this claim?


Good luck trying to get an organization with BS jobs to competently implement a program that can deliver that kind of data. You're going to run into selection bias right of the gate, and then after that, you need to worry about the reliability of the data that you do get.

The key name to attach to your queries when trying to research this is "Graeber".


> Alienation Is Not ‘Bullshit’: An Empirical Critique of Graeber’s Theory of BS Jobs > David Graeber’s ‘bullshit jobs theory’ has generated a great deal of academic and public interest. This theory holds that a large and rapidly increasing number of workers are undertaking jobs that they themselves recognise as being useless and of no social value. Despite generating clear testable hypotheses, this theory is not based on robust empirical research. We, therefore, use representative data from the EU to test five of its core hypotheses. Although we find that the perception of doing useless work is strongly associated with poor wellbeing, our findings contradict the main propositions of Graeber’s theory. The proportion of employees describing their jobs as useless is low and declining and bears little relationship to Graeber’s predictions. Marx’s concept of alienation and a ‘Work Relations’ approach provide inspiration for an alternative account that highlights poor management and toxic workplace environments in explaining why workers perceive paid work as useless.

https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/09500170211015067


It seems like you're trying to make a point about some altogether different topic, probably inferring some intent on my part based on a non-literal reading of what I wrote. (For example, that I'm personally endorsing Graeber. Hard to say, really, because you yourself didn't really say anything.) The literal reading of my comment is the correct one.

I said the relevant name when trying to turn up data would be to search for "Graeber"—which, as your comment indicates, is correct.


I don’t understand this sort of explanation. A “tacit admission” by who? “The economy” does not actually take actions, and definitely doesn’t have objectives; it just describes the broad system resulting from many individual agents.

Are you suggesting that corporate VPs hire managers with a goal of distributing money unequally so their products get sold? That seems like a huge stretch - they benefit so little in that way from their individual hiring decisions.

Are you suggesting that there is an “invisible hand” which pushes systems towards hiring do-nothing managers, because companies that don’t get outcompeted? I don’t see how that would happen - it seems like the opposite would occur.


> Are you suggesting that there is an “invisible hand” which pushes systems towards hiring do-nothing managers, because companies that don’t get outcompeted?

Not the OP but in a sense that's what happens, yes, even though I wouldn't use that "invisible hand" metaphor (which I personally find it a little over-used) but more like the "BS-jobs class system" (composed of most of the C-execs, of most middle-managers, of some HR and marketing people) making sure it is successful at reproducing itself.


I’m still confused. What do you mean when you say the “system makes sure?” I have the same issue as before - I don’t think of systems as having intent or “making sure” of anything. That might be a metaphor around a mechanism or feedback loop - what is that mechanism?


manager and paper pushers are mostly required due to regulations and government. It’s hard to fathom why companies just give 21% of their income to the irs, until you look up certain regulations.


It's surprising that as late as 1964 Tom Hayden was still willing to believe a story as hopeful as this one, and I think some of that optimism was because of his race (he was white), because as early as 1962 he'd already heard Ralph Abernathy (the right-hand man of Martin Luther King) give his speech about "The civil rights movement is in a race with the farm tractors."

Abernathy's view was grim: legal discrimination had left more than a third of African American's working in agriculture, but the automation of agriculture was wiping out those jobs. Abernathy thought it was crucial that the civil rights movement open up the rest of the economy for African Americans, before they lost all their old jobs on the farm.

Tom Hayden mentions this in his memoir, though he admits "At the time, I had no idea what Abernathy was talking about."

But the African Americans seemed to have had the clearest and most accurate picture of what was about to happen: millions of jobs would disappear, and vast ghettos would appear in the cities, full of African Americans who had no work, either because of the loss of textile jobs in the city or because of people losing their jobs on the farm and then moving to the cities.


Funny I was born pretty much at the date of the Triple Revolution.

I've noticed increasing productivity leading to unemployment hasn't happened it seems to me because people like to be gainfully employed rather than doing so because the work is essential. Even if they make the same money as being unemployed. Hence my friends have occupations like social media promoter or yoga teacher that mostly didn't exist 50 years ago. Maybe when the robots do all the essential work we shall teach each other yoga and influence each other with beach selfies.

Re the other two revolutions I'm glad MAD (mutually assured destruction) is no longer talked about and think we are making slow progress on human rights, some places more than others.


> Re the other two revolutions I'm glad MAD (mutually assured destruction) is no longer talked about

Yes, it's not talked about much, but there are more nuclear powers than before and the risk is very much still there. I don't know how we'll put that genie back in the bottle.

I just read the other day about Russia's new doomsday weapon. A nuclear torpedo with yield triple that of the largest bomb ever exploded, a dirty bomb on purpose for extra radioactivity, and meant to be detonated near a coastal city to strike it with a 500 meter radioactive tsunami. That kind of silliness continues on, unfortunately.


I'd feel better off with MAD, it's supposed to prevent a nuclear exchange.


Isnt fewer hours of work and more leisure desirable from a post scarcity standpoint? The govt is pretty much paying ppl to not do anyshing


Of course it is, the problem is of course that the workers get paid less while the current expenses remain the same (or worse, they increase).

> The govt is pretty much paying ppl to not do anyshing

To be honest I'm not sure where the government comes into all this.


How does "post scarcity" play out with respect to induced demand? Will we perfect recycling to the point that we can close down mines? Or do the robots do the mining, and we drown under the mass of widgets that people obtain for a single use and then abandon? Will we get to a point that even without CO2 emissions, we heat the planet purely through resistive losses from the unbounded energy consumption required?


A single person living on quasi-ubi presumably has a much smaller footprint and energy demands than a large family or a wealthy household that consumes a lot


That sounds like austerity, not really what most people picture when they hear "post scarcity"


Reading this article has resulted in an afternoon of watching classics about Mutual Assured Destruction.


Followed by an evening of Fallout 4.


And then becoming versed in Ayn Rand




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