I disagree that the answer is moral and political and that the "ruling class" sat down to decide most people should work bullshit jobs. The phenomenon is more elegantly explained by pure economics: as less time is expended extracting resources and producing things, more energy is absorbed by the zero-sum, gimmicky game of selling and marketing them.
To give credit where it's due, I first saw this credible argument on michaelochurch's (now sadly inactive) blog , and he may well have originated it. Here it is, in a better explanation than I could provide:
"The Marketing and Sales Treadmill
In the modern world [...] there are no unexploited resources and no surplus jobs to be had processing those resources. [The worker] needs a job, but their labor is surplus and unnecessary.
[...T]he most common path is that our prospective worker enters the sales and marketing business. [...] Even engineering focused companies like Facebook have more sales people than engineers. [...] So everyone’s energy is focused on imagining some gimmick – a six bladed razor, a beer can that turns blue when [it's] cold, a funny talking gecko – that gives someone a reason to give you money when there is no real differentiation based on product value.
The sales and marketing economy is zero sum. Each business must work harder and harder at new tag lines, gizmos, tricks, and jingles. And when sales guys at the other company work harder, you must work harder too.
Past writers who imagined the future thought that as machines saved our time, we would have more time for leisure. That has not happened. Instead [...] we must work in sales and marketing to convince someone with money to trade cash for our trinket, so that we can have purchasing power to access the natural bounty of the land. [...] The future is here, and it is the sales desk at Dunder Mifflin."
I've said this before in other contexts, but it doesn't have to be a conscious decision or conspiracy.
A key concept from Physics that I wish was more widely understood by the populous at large is that of the "stable attractor". In chaotic systems you often get certain configurations which are locally stable, often highly stable, and they often attract more elements of the system into this configuration.
It's a common natural phenomenon responsible for much of what we see in nature.
In political and economic systems you often get stable attractors - systems which aren't specifically designed but where behaviors and interests align in ways that are mutually reinforcing. Sadly often with deleterious consequences.
Another way of looking at it is the Wisdom of Crowds viewpoint. Large groups of individuals making small individual decisions based on limited information have collective effects which can be seen as a computer, where regulations and restrictions on the decisions they can make become the programming. The more people making up the system the better the machine is in making collective decisions that achieve its goal.
The core program of our system is interest on capital. This underlies everything in our economic system. It's a simple concept but our markets are built around it, our government funding is built around it. Our lives, pensions, mortgages etc are built around it.
The machine that is our economy with such a large number of people it's very effective at returning interest on capital. As capital is owned by a dwindling percentage of people it's not surprising that this leads to a concentration of wealth. Basic arithmetic shows that in a system where all capital flows through a machine returning interest on capital it eventually becomes more and more concentrated in those who started out with the most capital. Without redistribution of wealth downwards through taxation and policies this is inevitable.
As the author says. Therefore decision making becomes more concentrated in the owners of most of the nation's capital.
Long story short this is an inevitable feature of the capitalist system. It's not a criticism of it per se. If you look at the advocates of capitalism from the beginning they've assumed that government and policy will place regulation and restriction to prevent the overconcentration of capital through this mechanism.
Unfortunately part of the stable attractor at work in the US is the confluence of money and politics. More than any other western nation the US political system is heavily influenced by money, and as a result once capital becomes sufficiently accumulated we get regulatory capture in the financial sector.
No conspiracy. The author doesn't suggest a conspiracy. Just a stable attractor. Which is in itself far more nefarious because it's far harder to remove from the equation.
Since compounding interest demonstrates geometric growth, areas of allocation that match the investment rate must go up in either risk or must go down in reward or a new form of efficiency must be found that was previously unattainable. In practice this leads to concentrated wealth being misallocated (high risk) or hemorrhaged (inflationary loss) or effectively applied to the growth of a new technology (successfully invested), probably in that order of likelihood.
I thought that the phenomenon of risk aversion and evidence from the investment markets (stocks having higher returns than bonds) showed that people, on the whole, did not take enough risk in their investments.
The continued push to remove regulations on policy-buying is the conspiracy.
The US confluence of money and politcs hasn't always been as "free flowing" in the past, ie, prior to the overturning of McCain-Feingold and establishment of
Moneyed interests have been hard at work trying to push this country over a cliff so they can swoop in afterwards and profit off the wreckage. That's well documented and one party (the GOP) has been brazen and proud of it's efforts to increase corruption, while the other (Dems) has been ineffectual and also culpable.
My only addition would be to note that insofar as the capitalist system has active support from powerful people, it is not merely a natural accumulator, it is, in a sense, intelligent, and perverting every aspect of our society into its own service.
I disagree that ... the "ruling class" sat down to decide most people should work bullshit jobs.
But the author denies this explicitly.
The phenomenon is more elegantly explained by pure economics ... more energy is absorbed by the zero-sum, gimmicky game of selling and marketing them.
It's sort of odd to appeal to economics on the one hand and then characterize sales/marketing as zero-sum on the other. I wouldn't spend any energy defending sales/marketing as positive-sum myself, but economists do.
Yes, he contradicts himself. Your quote clearly implies design, and then he concludes with this:
>If someone had designed a work regime perfectly suited to maintaining the power of finance capital, it’s hard to see how they could have done a better job... ...Clearly, the system was never consciously designed. It emerged from almost a century of trial and error.
There are some good points in the analysis, but it would be more compelling if it didn't hint at some sort of elite conspiracy.
Just like when scientists use words like design and God - it's not literal it's figurative. The author's pretty clear he doesn't think a committee of plotters sat down and mapped out our road to ruin.
See my earlier comment. He's merely describing a stable attractor. A feature of the system which creates local maxima which are hard to escape from. An involuntary alignment of interests which means that individuals acting on their own behalf reinforce a system which has less than ideal characteristics, without themselves either thinking through the larger collective consequences or supporting them.
Totally agree with Zeteo's assessment - only thing I would add is that people shouldn't assume someone else'e job is 'bullshit' simply because they can't directly see or appreciate the value it creates.
For example: in the case of corporate leadership, it is easy and appealing to suggest they aren't creating any direct value... i.e. fire the leadership and 'widgets' will still get made. The problem with this thinking is that the output from some individuals only shows up in the medium to long term... take away great leadership from a company and they will make the numbers for the next few quarters, but in a year they will be out-maneuvered and out-performed by the competition. In today's economy it's not about how many widgets you make, it's about making the right widget in the first place... figuring that out is a lot harder than actually making the thing in the end.
The value some jobs create is more difficult to view directly, but is no less valuable in terms of delivering things people want, that they are willing to pay for - i.e. creating wealth. Investors understand this very well, which is why they are willing to pay huge sums to top leadership.
As a final thought, if you really want to 'reap the benefits' or our more productive society, you can work 15 hours starting today. The tradeoff is that you'll need to move to the middle of Colorado, buy a small plot of land, build your own house and purchase a straight edge razor. If you want to enjoy the vast benefits (however small) that our progressive society enjoys, then you also need to live within that system and work in some way to push things forward... however incrementally.
> if you really want to 'reap the benefits' or our more productive society, you can work 15 hours starting today. The tradeoff is that you'll need to move to the middle of Colorado, buy a small plot of land, build your own house and purchase a straight edge razor.
What if you owned the home you live in, though? Lately, I've become a bit obsessed with this idea. The reason the 'wage slave' concept exists is that most of us have to do the 9-to-5, or we would unsettlingly quickly find ourselves homeless - the ultimate social catastrophe. I sometimes compare this with the lifestyle I see in some 'less developed' countries, where it is still customary for a family to own the house they live in. The result is that even when the breadwinner is frequently un- or underemployed, and with parts of the household staying at home exclusively without generating an income, their lives seem a lot less stressful. Even when they worry about money and basic necessities, they survive, turning down consumption to a minimum in financially challenging times. The equivalent for us, with regards to the subject at hand, would be to work 15 hours of productive, enjoyable work and still get by. Or alternatively, to work 40 hours of really interesting, challenging stuff that might not pay well or at all for a while.
The conclusion would seem to be to work single-mindedly on owning your home. As you said, one option is to move to Colorado and buy a barren plot in the middle of nowhere. But a more reasonable alternative might be to work your freaking ass off to pay off your property as soon as humanly possible. If you are really scrappy, you should be able to do that in around 15 years, depending on where you live and what your salary is. The problem is that people don't want to live like that. We want to live comfortably, with the biggest car we can afford the monthly payments on, with nice vacations, consumer goods etc. etc. Well you pay for that - the price is working 9-to-5 in a job you hate.
You still have property taxes, maintenance, and upkeep costs on a home. In condo/co-op situations you have a building maintenance fee. In an urban environment it is difficult or impossible to be self sustaining because there just is not enough land to do so.
An article (I can't reference) in the WSJ on the Greek economic crises discussed a middle aged adult who left a job in Athens, returning home to the country side to milk goats, his income dropping to a few hundred dollars a month. At least there was a country side to return to.
I would argue that a good portion of the "reason we don't work 15 hours a week" is related to government policy. I am speaking globally here, not isolating one country or another. Government policies raise property taxes, rezone areas, sometimes seize property for development (happening at mass scale in China), and do a whole lot of other things to increase economic activity. Generally, an individual sitting in a home not doing much does not maximize the growth of the particular municipality or nation. Thus, that individual finds themselves with many opposed to his or her interests. The only defense is both very strong property right laws and a general belief system ready to support them.
The book you are looking for is "Mortgage Free!" by Rob Roy. He shows you how to go this route ie. buying cheap property and methodically building a house as you have the money to do it (and how to hunker down when you don't). Also, read Walden
I took a slightly different tack, but also own my own home outright without ever having had a mortgage
-Save up enough money to have 1/2 the value of the worst house you can find in a neighborhood that isn't too bad
-Use that money to purchase the house using a line of credit backed by the house you're buying. You are allowed by the bank to take out a line of credit on a house you are buying equal to 1/2 the tax assessment or 70% of a formal valuation
-Put all your income directly against that line of credit. No maximum payments or other mortgagey bullshit to deal with. You must be disciplined in order to do this effectively. No buying toys!
-Spend all your free time renovating in ways that will increase the value of the house: Kitchens, landscaping, new flooring, paint, trim, siding etc
-Look for deals on properties (esp. bank repos) so that you can leapfrog up to better properties while still managing on the line of credit. I paid off the previous place before moving up, but I'm sure you could figure out ways to move up before then
Voila. I have owned my own house for the past 7 years. Only took me 3 to pay off my first place, and another 2 to pay off the next, despite costing twice as much
Current place is a 1850sqft split level on 1 acre of land with a 30'x50' 2 level shop. 5 minute drive to city centre
-I live in a relatively rural area in western Canada. Homes now cost $300-500k. I got mine as a) a steal from a couple that needed a quick sale and b) a bank repo I jumped on the minute it hit the market
-We are a family of 5 with a stay at home mom. This is significant in that there is no second income, but all meals are home cooked which saves huge dollars. Also no child care costs
-My income not huge, mid to high 5 figures range
-I started off with about $50,000 I had saved up prior to marriage
-This adventure began at 25yo. I am now 35. I've been mortgage and debt free first at 28 and then again at 31
-The whole thing works best with low interest rates (obviously). I negotiated my line of credit at prime
-I had access to tools, know-how and traded labour from relatives (mostly my Dad). I only bought or rented about half the tools I needed
-Working in the lumber industry meant access to cheaper lumber
-Personal frugality and a frugal wife were huge accelerants.
-Being a car salesman's son probably endowed me with better negotiating ability than most
Quite possibly, but I _personally_ found that working with my hands complimented working with my mind alot better than putting in 16h days of straight programming. The returns may not be as good as a second job, but I also didn't burn out.
Of course, that assumes that you enjoy the reno/carpenter/craftsman thing.
That said, whatever way that allows you to bring in the most (net) money in the least amount of time will obviously be the most efficient way to pay down debt.
I don't mean to derail the conversation but I wonder how much would it cost to buy a piece of land outright -- with no future obligations in terms of property taxes. Is this a wild goose chase? There will always be public cost of building roads and bridges and schools and firefighters who all have to be built/paid somehow.
It doesn't apply in your case as your property tax is probably much less than your maintenance fee to the property management. I know it is silly to think this way but I can't shake the feeling that I can lose my house that I own if tomorrow I don't have enough income to pay property taxes.
I imagine you could purchase some sort of financial product that would pay out continuously to cover your taxes. Basically a perpetual annuity, with some wiggle room built in to account for changes in tax rates and property valuation.
I don't know what a realistic rate would be for such a thing, but probably quite low. So you'd probably have to put in something like 50x your annual property tax payment.
While that would be cool, the concept of never owning your land smacks of feudalism. It's almost like we're sharecroppers to the government. Taxes are important, however, those taxes could be collected instead by taxing the consumption of necessary resources rather than just having the piece of ground. For example, fire protection -- it could be argued that the virtue of owning land itself doesn't necessarily require fire protection. So rather than using the land as effective collateral to ensure tax payments, why not simply charge the landowner for fire protection in lieu of taxes? If they refuse to pay, their land isn't seized (as is the case now,) they merely have to assume the fire risk. Of course, getting insurance on the land (or improvements) would necessarily require fire protection, so the tax base would be minimally effected, yet not make a person subject to losing their home and land as a result of taxation.
Water and sewer is already paid for by taxes on those services. Really the big issue is with the schools, however existing income and/or sales taxes could compensate.
The problem with taxed land is that the taxable value determines the taxed amount rather than some other, more objective measure. Valuations on land and improvements are subject to external, market forces and by their nature are unfair. Imagine a family that purchased unused Napa farmland 100 years ago. Their real income has stayed the same (or declined) yet their taxes have increased with no correlation to their income. Even if the land was prime vineyard, unless they're actually making income from it, the effective output of the land didn't change from when they purchased it. So by the mere fact that they chose not to plant grapes and produce wine, they could lose their land due to an inability to pay the taxes. That then puts economic pressures on landowners that would lead them to selling out to large conglomerates.
For example, if you have prime farmland and choose not to capitalize on it, you'd have a big incentive to sell-out to a company like Monsanto, or else lose the land or go bankrupt paying the taxes. Yet if you were taxed on the land's income (and services consumed,) you'd be able to afford the taxes which would be based on output rather than potential output.
This would benefit everyone, except perhaps country property appraisal offices. As it is now, you're taxed based on potential market value and not necessarily real value. Real value can't be determined until someone actually pays money for a property -- anything before the actual purchase is just somewhat educated speculation.
Life, ultimately, requires continuous activity to sustain. So I don't get very bent out of shape about the perpetual nature of property taxes, because it's fairly minor compared to e.g. the perpetual nature of food.
You can come up with ways to replace property taxes, without a doubt. There's nothing necessary about any particular tax. The question is just whether it's the best way to do things.
Water and sewer would work fine without it, I agree. A bigger problem, I think, is roads. Highways are mostly funded from gas taxes but local roads are not. It's not practical to directly charge for use of local roads.
You could compensate with other taxes, but now you're taxing (and thus somewhat discouraging) productive activity.
The scenarios you paint don't necessarily seem bad to me. Unfair to the owners, perhaps, but it doesn't seem to benefit everybody else as you say. You correctly infer that property taxes encourage productive use of land and discourage allowing it to sit fallow, but isn't that a good thing? If we make the strong but at least partially true assumption that money is a proxy for value, land that produces enough money to pay for its taxes is producing more value than land that does not. Someone sitting on prime farmland and not actually farming it is a net negative to society unless they're getting more value out of that land than a farmer would.
I don't mean to go all Ayn Rand here and start acting like nature, parks, and anything that's not economically productive is valueless. But still, I think there is value to be had in encouraging land owners to put their property to some actual economic use.
I'd be more upset if property taxes were higher, perhaps. Here, for example, they're about 1%, which is not much. If you can't afford 1%, then you have an enormous amount of money tied up in your property without much money outside of it. It's hard to fit right into a spot where you could afford to maintain your property, but can't afford the taxes. For the vast majority of property owners, the mortgage is by far the major question when it comes to losing one's house or land because they don't have money. Pay off your mortgage and have some savings and you are nearly safe from losing it due to property taxes.
>Someone sitting on prime farmland and not actually farming it is a net negative to society unless they're getting more value out of that land than a farmer would.
To play the devil's advocate: Why stop at land? What about people who have gold under their mattress? Or perhaps (stick with me here) someone who owns the patents for a machine that he refuses to sell anything himself and forbids anyone else from selling anything remotely similar?
Also, I hear we pay farmers not to produce crops because we are afraid seasonal over-production could destabilize prices?
I don't really see a problem with either of your "devil's advocate" positions. Especially the patent one. Given where you're posting, I have no idea why you'd think that would be a "devil's advocate" idea.
A wealth tax is an interesting idea. I have to wonder why it's so uncommon. I'd guess it's some combination of being hard to enforce and easy to move money around. Such a tax would trigger a flight of capital, something that can't happen with a tax on houses. And you can't audit people's mattresses very easily, so it would just encourage hoarding cash.
In a world where such a tax could be enforced and applied worldwide, it doesn't seem like a terrible idea. It shouldn't be very large, but it could have similar effects to property taxes.
On the other hand, we already effectively have such a tax, we just call it "inflation" and the tax rate isn't directly controlled by the government. Inflation has the same good effects I described for property taxes, in that it discourages hoarding and encourages putting money to work. (It has bad effects to, no doubt, so this isn't a total endorsement of inflation or anything.)
Yes, they are. (Particularly, they are intangible personal property.)
> They're a government-granted temporary monopoly.
All "property" is government-granted monopoly in the control/use of some thing (sometimes dependent on a grant from another private party, but still ultimately government granted), concrete or abstract. Some are temporary (this is true of real and tangible personal property, too), some are permanent.
> In the absence of government, there's still some notion of property, but no notion whatsoever of patents.
Outside of government/legality, there's certainly still some notion that things, concrete and abstract, can belong to certain people such that it is wrong to "steal" them, and that certainly includes ideas. The particular details and names of particular classes of property are, of course, products of people, over time, spending time teasing out vague notions into more detailed sets of rules -- which, in the case of property rights, is something that tends to happen in the context of government (not always by government, but you don't even have developed philosophy of property rights without government existing to create a stable enough society for people to spend time writing rather than defending their immediate personal possessions and survival necessities.)
A patent is, ultimately, a negative entity. Before a patent is granted, anybody can make certain objects or perform certain techniques. After it's filed, the patent owner's rights remain unchanged, but everybody else is restricted from doing those things.
Humans have an intrinsic idea of "property" that the legal idea is built upon. A two-year-old child understands the idea of "mine". People still own things when government is not present, they just have a harder time enforcing that ownership.
Patents, on the other hand, are an entirely governmental construct.
Thank you. I guess cash currency isn't really property either. It is backed by the "full faith and credit" of the government so it is like a IOU that the government requires you to accept to settle existing debts.
There's definitely a slope, and trade-offs in both direction.
In the case of land, there's an absolutely limited supply of land, and so I think it could be argued that, in balance, it's more important to make sure that limited supply is used effectively.
Gold, by itself, isn't actually very useful. If someone wants to hoard it, they'll increase the market price for it, and maybe luxuries like jewelry or electronics will be more expensive, but it won't affect much.
I'd actually argue that patents that aren't being used should be made public domain. There's only so many good ways of solving some problem, and if society is blocked off from using some or all of them, then society is that much worse off.
If used as intended, to protect the results of invention/research until a product is brought to market, a patent's downsides are outweighed by its benefits.
From another perspective, some of those downsides could be considered behavior as intended.
Basically, in a tax-less scheme, there's a strong financial advantage to just showing up first.
There is an absolutely limited supply of land, and society has an incentive to make sure this limited supply is being used effectively to produce wealth. Society also has an incentive to make sure that everyone is housed, financially stable, and healthy. These are competing concerns.
Say there were no property taxes, so the only incentive for selling land would be a high enough price. Your hypothetical family would be sitting on prime Napa farmland, not producing wine, and society would have that much less wine to drink.
An aspiring young wine-grower might like to purchase this land, and could even trade a bit of land of his own. If the original family doesn't want to move, though, the aspiring wine-grower is out of luck.
A property taxation scheme encourages people to use their land to produce wealth, either by producing it directly, a la farmland, or by housing people and keeping them healthy, such as houses or apartment buildings.
In a tax-less scheme, there's a strong advantage to just showing up first. The lucky few to first colonize Napa can maintain control of the land indefinitely, and younger generations and immigrants are at a financial disadvantage, as they won't have the option of owning their own land, but they'll be in a marketplace competing with persons who don't have to worry about housing at all.
> If they refuse to pay, their land isn't seized (as is the case now,) they merely have to assume the fire risk.
The problem being, of course, that fire has a habit of not staying put.
This kind of idea becomes even more ridiculous if you apply it to police service instead. Are they not going to arrest the criminals because the person didn't pay their quarterly police stipend? Do they get arrested after they step off the property, and the stolen goods just auctioned off?
There is a societal benefit to having these services, so therefore society as a whole is requested to pay.
I've long thought the exact same thing. Taxation of property based on the government’s assessed value seems unfair simply at face value. It punishes the financially responsible citizens who pay off their property in the scenarios you mentioned. It seems to me that if you buy a piece of property you should be able to live there as long as you want without paying any taxes on it. Why should you be indebted forever to the government?
My grandparents on my father's side managed to pay off a mortgage in seven years, twice. And that on a professor's salary and sending two kids to college with no loans. Of course, the argument can be reasonably made that wages haven't really kept up with inflation . . .
You mean, you will prefer a bigger place. It's not a need. We live in the most spoiled country on Earth and think that our absurd norms are the same as necessities. Having a decent safe home in a decent place with modern technologies is the most anyone needs.
Bullshit jobs certainly exist, and in great numbers. The proof is in the fact that many of the people who "do" these jobs actually goof off a significant part of their working day and yet things still march on as if nothing is different.
In places I've done contracting work I've seen vast offices full of these folks, and it almost feels to me as if their bosses are sort of covering for them. Cubes full of people browsing Facebook at least half the day.
The author does state: "I would not presume to tell someone who is convinced they are making a meaningful contribution to the world that, really, they are not. But what about those people who are themselves convinced their jobs are meaningless?"
Personally, quite often my jobs have been meaningless or worse. The worse they paid, probably the more meaningful they were.
At one of my previous jobs this was the network admin for me. It's not that I felt that network administrator was a useless job. It's that there are 5 of them and only one of them doesn't have their head up their ass. If anyone in the building ever needs anything done they know the 1 person in that department that can do the work. The rest are barely capable of staying up late to push the "go" button, calling the competent one if anything goes wrong. But it's a big corporation with egregious HR policies, and the manager is valued by how many people he oversees, and we value tenure over usefulness.
Except that the world population is increasing (more of us), proportionally fewer people live in grinding poverty (more time) and more of us have access to diverse communications technology (more access). Seems to me attention isn't much like real estate.
Reminds me of the cigarette advertising ban - as soon as tobacco advertising was banned in the UK profits shot up because the huge ad budget was suddenly unnecessary. They no longer had to compete with each other on that front.
I think you are largely correct: it's an emergent pathology. Complex systems are full of those.
But that doesn't answer the question as to why we never read articles like this. Why doesn't anyone ask this question?
So I also blame the Puritan work ethic. "Idle hands are the devils tools," we're told, and work is (like Soviet Russia) both a duty and a right. Nothing offends our ultimately Puritan-rooted morality more than someone "sitting around doing nothing," even if that nothing happens to be art or philosophy or caring for their children. The latter is a great illustration: look at the crap that stay-at-home parents sometimes get.
So I do believe there is an ideological basis for this. It causes us to see the perverse treadmill you describe as a good thing rather than as the cancerous tumor of waste that it is. It's a tumor that makes us tremendously poorer, especially in ways that are not readily measured by money: friendship, family health, intellectual and aesthetic fulfillment, etc.
An analogy: it's sort of like if we had this weird moral belief that high-crime ghettoes were a good thing. They "make people into men," etc. So imagine if we let the "projects" pathology that evolved in many cities in the 20th century go completely unchecked because we semi-secretly liked it that way. The pathology is emergent, not by design, but our tolerance and even encouragement of it is definitely ideological in basis.
Before we go too far, raising children is definitely not Biblically categorized as idle hands, but in fact praised and respected.
The old-school Puritan would prefer you spend time teaching and raising children than helping an ad company sell more clicks. Or generally make a Skinner box.
Don't know much about Soviet Russia but 19-teens Russian avant-garde art was pretty boss. To say nothing of Kandinsky.
My perspective is that idle hands are actually idle: not building, not thinking, not active, not contemplative, not searching, not trying, not even resting. But idle. Un(der) used. And rather hard to defend. Consumption is easier than creation.
My perspective is that idle hands are actually idle: not building, not thinking, not active, not contemplative, not searching, not trying, not even resting. But idle. Un(der) used. And rather hard to defend.
This is difficult for me to understand. How can you tell the difference between resting hands (easy to defend, imo), and idle hands?
I would having a job is only a subset of what not being idle means.
I always divide my time into two basic phases: productive and consumptive. Either you are creating something or you are consuming something. Sitting around watching TV is consuming; creating a tv show would be producing.
I think both activities are valuable and have their place. Sometimes you need to relax and enjoy a passive activity, but what makes society great is the production of new things; be they art, science, entertainment, goods..
I tend not to judge the WHAT of the creative side. It doesn't matter what you create, but the creation of new ideas and things is what makes us human.
Great job mentioning Skinner boxes. I think this might be another dimension to this pathology: to what extent is our economy a Skinner box?
And you're technically right about classical Puritans. They would regard a lot of what we "do" today as BS make-work, not true work. But I think that distinction has been lost. The "work ethic" is an example of what I call a "zombie idea," an idea missing its head that continues to march on through a culture and eat peoples' brains.
That's true. I've been in meaningless make-work jobs before, jobs where I could literally goof off 90% of the time. I left.
A lot of people might think "wow! awesome!" It's not. It's soul-crushing and unbelievably depressing. It doesn't leave you more energy for other things; it saps your energy and makes you feel like shit.
My point was that the job was demonstrably unnecessary. I have seen, from an outside vantage point, entire departments that are wholly unnecessary doing nothing but creating work for other wholly unnecessary departments.
I think there's a degree of truth in that, especially in very bureaucratic organizations, but I think it's orthogonal to this discussion.
I did a stint in business consulting and rubbed elbows with a lot of certified 100% grade-A sociopaths. In my experience they were not deep thinkers or conceptual thinkers, and thus are actually unlikely to hatch deep long-term conspiracies of the sort that would result in an elite agenda to create make-work. They struck me as exceedingly shallow short-term thinkers who do a lot of bullshit posturing and a lot of social climbing. They don't analyze deeply. They look for opportunities for quick ascension via tactics like this:
kind of like an asymptotic line, optimizing for efficiency - we spend more and more time making less and less of a difference. The problem is, with companies the size we have nowadays, even a small percentage improvement leads to runaway success, so every company is incentivized to continue optimizing.
Maybe we should limit the maximum size of a company?
I thought that the redundancy in all the engineers working on competing identical products was bad but this is worse. No wonder we're not exploring space. My understanding of free market theory is that the "competition" supposedly drives down price, but I don't think free markets exist.
I wish Graeber had reiterated his "1% market" idea another time in full, but the basics are as he implied here. A market reflects the preferences of the people who have the money. If you have a market economy with deeply built-in and extreme inequalities, then you can get a "free market" that, yes, reflects the preferences of about 1% of the population.
It's not economic at all, it's political (whether it is intentional or not is a different question). In evidence is all the violence that is brought to bear in sustaining the current economic status quo (i.e. the piles of regulations and laws).
(wanted to post this on the website, but the comments system is off)
I've found this article both entertaining and insightful; there's one big hypothesis in it which I find unnecessary, though: the conspiracy theory, making it a fight between dominant classes and actual wealth producers.
If we call "bureaucracies" the collectives which consume a lot of human workforce and produce little human-enjoyable wealth out of it, then those bureaucracies are best understood as a life form, distinct from the homo sapiens individuals which serve it. You need to see them as a whole, for the same reason as why you can't make sense out of an animal if you mainly see it as the sum of its individual cells.
From a biologist's point of view, they need to compete for resources, they show some adaptability, they reproduce themselves with some amount of mutation: they have everything needed to benefit from Darwinian selection, and they do.
The resulting current generation of bureaucracies has evolved a very good effectiveness at diverting resources, from other consumers including humans, towards themselves (that is, maintaining and growing the bureaucracy itself).
As a result, they exhibit many "intelligent" traits, including some selfish sense of purpose. Conspiracy theorists wrongly look for The Man, the mastermind driving bureaucracies. There's none, no more than there's a single neuron nor small group thereof which drives your brains: a complex enough bureaucracy has a non-human mind of its own.
Keynes was right about the amount of work we'd need, what he failed to predict is a phenomenon very similar to eutrophisation: we dream of full employment when we don't need to, so we produce much more "nutrients" (people willing to offer their workforce) than we can use for survival and human enjoyment. So instead of being consumed by/for homo sapiens, this energy is consumed by that competing life form that are bureaucracies.
It's stronger than a Nash equilibrium. It's not even an equilibrium actually, because we keep improving humans' productivity, and bureaucracies keep eating the freed workforce.
It's really easier to make sense out of it from an ecologist's PoV than from an economist's or a game theoretician's, because the two competing agents (humans and bureaucracies) are hard to formally separate.
> "inverted totalitarianism" describes this phenomenon.
I believe it doesn't. Inverted totalitarianism supposes that a master class keeps the plebeian one controlled through apathy and deception, rather than open brute force as in classical totalitarian states. But it fundamentally frames the struggle as one group of humans against another.
My point is that it's not humans versus humans, it's humans versus bureaucracies, a bureaucracy being an autonomous agent without any human mastermind thinking on its behalf, i.e. much more than the sum of its employees, the way a human being is much more than the sum of its cells.
We're treating bureaucracies (as per the definition above, "entities that consume a lot of human workforce and produce little human-enjoyable wealth") as allies helping us producing wealth, because we think salaries still are a good way to create and distribute wealth. Even entrepreneurs are often primarily incensed as "job creators", although when you think about it, it would be better for them to create wealth out of thin air rather than out of sweat and tears. We ought to treat them (bureaucracies, not entrepreneurs!) as a parasitic species instead.
The idea of IT is that there's no "Big Boss Man" at the top of the pyramid pulling the strings. It's the distributed system and choices made by individuals that leads to a similar outcome as more typical centralized totalitarian government.
Yes, there are wealthy people, privileged people, and powerful people, but they are all kept in check by the system and by pursuing their own interests, just like everyone else.
I think he uses institutional analysis, and rejects conspiracy theory. So even if you replace everyone in them, institutions should pretty much function the same as before.
Whereas conspiracy theorists focus more on individuals with black mustaches, and advocate toppling them. They don't go deep into institutional change.
So, for example from this article: "if 1% of the population controls most of the disposable wealth, what we call “the market” reflects what they think is useful or important, not anybody else." This institutional reality occurs even if you and I are in that 1%.
Even when Adam Smith uses the term "conspiracy", it can still really be institutional analysis: "People of the same trade seldom meet together, even for merriment and diversion, but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public, or in some contrivance to raise prices." Here, he just means normal planning which people are institutionally incentivized to do. We don't call it a "conspiracy" when a corporation's executives plan how to increase profits.
I was with him all the way until "The ruling class has figured out that a happy and productive population with free time on their hands is a mortal danger". The author does make the point that it might also be the people themselves pushing for it, at least.
The 'ruling class' really doesn't care if anybody is or isn't working pointless jobs. Society as a whole is forcing people into pointless jobs by viewing anybody who is unemployed as some kind of failure. When a child gets out of school they need to find work or they have failed. If someone has no job their perceived lack of purpose ultimately pushes them into mental illness, drug abuses or even suicide. This has nothing to do with someone forcing people to work and everything to do with the human brain's need for purpose forcing working - even if that work is pointless. For example, you often hear someone say with pride how they have worked so much they don't have time to eat or sleep even when the work they are doing is something like filling out pointless bureaucratic paperwork.
"How can one even begin to speak of dignity in labour when one secretly feels one’s job should not exist?"
Most people in these kind of jobs actually believe that the job is necessary. Especially in academic and administrative disciplines the very thought of their work not being useful will have most people very defensive and angry. They'll probably go as far as to sabotage genuine useful production in an effort to prove their value.
> Most people in these kind of jobs actually believe that the job is necessary.
Really? Or do they secretly worry that it isn't?
> Especially in academic and administrative disciplines the very thought of their work not being useful will have most people very defensive and angry.
"No one gets in trouble for saying that 2 + 2 is 5, or that people in Pittsburgh are ten feet tall. Such obviously false statements might be treated as jokes, or at worst as evidence of insanity, but they are not likely to make anyone mad. The statements that make people mad are the ones they worry might be believed. I suspect the statements that make people maddest are those they worry might be true." -- PG, http://www.paulgraham.com/say.html
While a pithy thing to say with some truth in it, I have experienced people asserting things of the order of 2 + 2 = 5, and given the right situation it can have the potential to make people pretty mad.
Which is why they revoked your math license, we know the story.
No, when you say 2 + 2 = 5, you can put it off as "He can't be serious", and then it's off your mind. But if the person keeps asserting it till you can't brush it off anymore, that's when heads tend to roll. It goes against what you believe, and subconsciously, that goes against you as a person.
The concept that everyone must have a "job" (that is, work for someone else for a wage) is deep in the psyche of both the ruling class and the majority, so both reinforce it through culture and propaganda. It's no different from how previous societies believed that Jews controlled the banks, or children got sick and died because they were suffocated in their sleep by witches. It's rank idiocy, but it's rank idiocy that almost everyone believes.
"How is this not an extra argument in favour of his claim that there are lots of bullshit jobs out there?"
I was not arguing against the idea of bullshit jobs. It's not even possible to argue against that! I was arguing against the reason for having bullshit jobs. He attributes this to some plan by 'the man' to put people in these jobs. I'm arguing it is people putting themselves in these jobs by themselves.
Alright, I understand the argument now, thank you.
I still disagree that anybody is trying to make this occur through nudges, a plan or any sort of action - considered or not. I believe it is the result of human kind's base urge to find meaning in themselves and their lives. I'd say that even if people in power were to try and push people into jobs, the people being pushed out of jobs would seek to find any job they could do regardless of how useless it may be. Simply to be doing a job and satisfying themselves.
I fully accept it's a plausible argument that people in control are pushing us, though.
I'm still not convinced. The attempt by one government to carry out 'economic nudging' does not mean that the nudging has had any real effect. There is also the problem that countries without such attempts (eh.. Sri Lanka?) are having any different results in people working bullshit jobs.
Again, the argument is plausible but is a long way from being compelling, for me at least. The simplest answer - that people are doing what they do because it's how people work - is far more compelling for me. The right answer is usually the one that passes the 'least surprise' test the best.
What would surprise you more?
1. A group of the government and wealththy individuals
are managing to convince the entire population into
working bullshit jobs.
2. People without jobs don't feel they have a purpose
and try to create a purpose in any way they can,
such as copying those who do appear to have a purpose.
I don't think we really disagree. People act in their own interest, and for those with power over others, those self interested acts are inevitably going to influence the lives of those in their power.
To me, it is least surprising that these acts would take the form of subtle "nudges," carried out through the media, education system, etc. There doesn't have to be a big scary plan behind it, it's just the cumulative effect of many powerful actors trying to maintain and increase their power.
My reference to the government's "Nudge Unit" (worst rap crew ever) was mainly to illustrate the fact that this is seen as an effective and sensible mode of exercising power by the 21st century establishment. They tried various forms of more overt, coercive control in the last century and it didn't work out so well. Hence I am least surprised that they are now doing the same thing through more layers of abstraction.
But yeah, I'm certainly not saying I absolutely believe all of this to be true, with tinfoil certainty. It's just that like many others around here, I've started looking at current events less in isolation and more through the lens of post WW2 history, and it certainly throws some things into sharper relief. Let's hope I'm not just staring at Rorschach blots.
RyanZAG, I suspect it's more a matter of it being convenient for those with entrenched wealth and power to let the masses struggle for the scraps they have left over. This situation leads most of us to compete for the bullshit jobs, to get angry at those who were fortunate enough to get real jobs (even if they are poorly compensated relative to their social value, e.g. teachers), and to generally be so distracted by the charade as to not notice the massive fraud taking place behind doors forever closed to their unwashed, foolish selves.
That happens less in academics - I was thinking more of administrative areas in corporations. For example, there are no shortages of stories of administrators in procurement adding in additional required paperwork when more efficient computerized systems make their stamp on documents less required.
Actually, this has happened in academics in a way too - consider the requirement of ever lengthening literature reviews in PHD theses. These have come about because of the ease of access to academic documents through digitized journals making libraries and supervisors less valuable. The answer is to increase their value by increasing the amount of work required so that they will still be necessary to wade through it. I'm not sure how much this is sabotage and not just the result of electronic journals making this easier though, which is why the example in the paragraph above is far more relevant.
I am a math professor. This phenomenon of lengthening literature reviews doesn't exist in math, nor indeed have I ever seen mathematicians assign pointless busywork to sabotage others, or to inflate our own importance, or for any other reason.
Now the intrinsic value of research math as a whole may be debated, especially that of the bottom 90% of researchers (and I would not say I'm in the top 10%).
But I have really not observed math professors to be guilty of what you claim. Quite frankly, math itself is hard enough; there's no point in setting additional hoops for students to jump through. It would just make us look foolish, and waste our own time (in addition to that of others).
Well, pointless busywork was a staple of my high school and under days of math. Once I got to college, I had a professor for Calculus I that said our grade was the four tests + the final or just the final - whichever grade was higher. Having taken Cal in high school, I just showed up for the final and got a B+ (I reversed the damn derivatives of ln/e).
That was the best math class I never took. To be fair, my discipline wasn't anything scientific so needing math wasn't in my college curriculum (switched from business to psychology then to art and advertising). I took another class, Discrete Math, from the same teacher my senior year as an elective and absolutely loved it. I never skipped a day.
He was a great teacher, and the way his class was set up for grading and not really giving a shit about homework was perfect. If I were to ever teach math later, his format would be how I would do it.
"Math professor" probably means at the college or university level -- high school math is widely regarded as complete and utter BS.
I've taken... a rather significant pile of maths classes at this point (I'm majoring in it), and I've never felt like any of the college-level maths classes assigned busywork. I may not have liked the size of the workload (oh god, real analysis), but I've never felt it was unreasonable.
I think you're interpreting "math professor" as "school teacher", while others are talking about the tenured kind of professors. "Students" here are researchers, who do work potentially ostensibly for society, not just homework for their own education.
I worked at a government agency that circa 2005 was using paper timesheets. The timesheets were required to be printed on a specific shade of blue paper.
Hilarity ensued when some admin ordered "air force blue" paper instead of "power blue". The HR director decreed that only "power blue" would be accepted, and all other hues would be rejected. They probably spent 200 hours debating it.
Ok, I got to ask what exactly was HR's explanation for a particular shade of blue?
I've been part of something like this is a weird way. In the summer the humidity got too much for our HP4 printer and it would crinkle 20lb paper and get jammed. We found the 28 or 32 lb paper (long time ago / cannot remember exactly) would not jam and the printer worked fine.
So, in the summer, we changed to ordering the thicker paper. The gold paper was cheaper than the white paper at that weight. So, we order gold paper every summer.
Long after the building had air conditioning and the old printer was replaced, they still ordered gold paper every summer until the program closed.
" consider the requirement of ever lengthening literature reviews in PHD theses. These have come about because of the ease of access to academic documents through digitized journals making libraries and supervisors less valuable."
I'm not sure I understand your conspiracy theory mumbo jumbo correctly, but I cannot help but take from this that you are saying that because finding literature has become faster due to electronic access to papers, the added value of the Phd supervisor has gone down. If this is so, you have absolutely no idea what you're talking about, a position for which I find additional evidence in your use of 'PHD' with all capitals which nobody in academia would do. Look, if you have something valuable to add to the discussion, please do; but if you're just going to make things up to fit your ideological predispositions, stay on Reddit.
I agree. If anything, the explosion of digital libraries and thus of available information would tend to make librarians and supervisors with deep domain knowledge even more essential to sort through all the noise.
And I'm only sort of being facetious. Sometime in the 1980's the humanities seemed to collectively decide that 'theory' was more important than the ability to think and communicate clearly. To my mind this has always been the point at which Academia as a class abdicated it's responsibilities to society at large in favor of internal power games and obscurantism.
The continued existence of lecturing, 4 decades or more after it's been shown to be a poor use of time?
An article I recently read (written only 30 years ago) attributed a lot of this to the academic's ego enjoying the feel of being an expert, when a printed sheet of paper, written by someone else would have a bigger impact on the students attending the lecture.
It seems self-evident that lecturing is a hugely inefficient and ineffective way of teaching people.
But I don't think it's about stroking the academic's ego as much as maintaining academic jobs. Remove the unnecessarily labour-intensive lecturing component and, unfortunately, it's far harder to justify large state subsidies and tuition fees that pay for universities. Universities are strongly incentivised to continue lecturing busy-work.
I would also guess that while lectures themselves are horrible, the structures, routines and environments created around lecturing are extremely valuable to students. You can't replace lectures with nothing. That's why MOOCs and textbooks, for all their virtues, are not an adequate replacement.
Even so, I've long wished someone would invest in creating videos that present university-level lecture material with television production values. I think you could create a format that is far more engaging and memorable than the typical lecture, you could have hosts with presentation and communication skills rather than academics, and a team of writers with expertise in the subject and education could spend time doing research to find the best way of teaching a subject and ensuring clarity, accuracy and understanding. Why not have Calculus II with Ryan Seacrest?
"It seems self-evident that lecturing is a hugely inefficient and ineffective way of teaching people."
Is it possible that only poor lecturers give hugely inefficient and ineffective lectures?
It seems to me the point of lectures isn't to transmit information - that can be done using a book. Rather it is, or ought to be, a demonstration of how a master deals with a problem or answers a question.
I teach basic maths to adults and teenagers (the latter tend to be the ones at the back of the class in compulsory education). One of my big projects in the first part of the year (before the exams loom over the horizon) is to encourage students to read the textbook themselves. In the rare classes where this becomes accepted, I can use the lessons more like seminars and get the students moved up the problem solving ladder.
Given that we have had reliable maths textbooks since around 1215, and printed ones since roughly 1580, the difficulty of achieving this always surprises me.
It's only been about a century since it was fair to assume that every educated person had read it. I think the fact that we wouldn't be able to use it as a textbook in schools today is a really bad sign.
Er - not so sure about Euclid being read widely as recently as 1913. Definitions of 'educated person' were very narrow then in England. 'Mechanics institutes' taught 'practical mechanics' far more than abstract geometry to working people.
Euclid is a small part of mathematics, although a powerful example of logical reasoning. If I could encourage my Level 2 students to a level where they could read and understand (say) Chapter 8 of Silver's The Signal and The Noise we might be getting somewhere.
(Yes, this is part II. I got interested in the topic.)
I empathize with the difficulty of defining 'educated person.' As you rightly point out, there are different threads in what an "education" means. http://www.educationengland.org.uk/history/chapter03.html goes into the three main groups - 'public educators', 'industrial trainers', and 'old humanists' - which participated in that debate, ending "The curriculum which evolved during the 19th century was 'a compromise between all three groups, but with the industrial trainers predominant' (Williams 1961:142). This was 'damaging both to general education and to the new kinds of vocational training' (Williams 1961:143).
For purposes of this discussion, I think it's reasonable to refine the meaning of "educated person" specifically to "expected from someone who has graduated from a liberal arts college." I think this definition works for most of the last 500 years of having liberal arts colleges, up until the mid-1900s.
My definition specifically excludes religious and industrial education, which I think is appropriate for the intent.
Now, I noted that the Elements book I pointed to was meant for "elementary" students. I think that means up to age 12 or so. It's definitely no later than what the 1868 Taunton Report proposed:
> first-grade schools with a leaving age of 18 or 19 would provide a 'liberal education' - including Latin and Greek - to prepare upper and upper-middle class boys for the universities and the older professions;
(vs. second- and third-grade educations meant for the middle classes and lower.)
So the two pieces of evidence I have, for why someone in 1913 with a liberal arts education (an 'educated person') would have likely studied the Elements is first, the two forewords for a text book meant for 'elementary' students, and second, the number of reprintings of the text book, which implies that many were published.
> The whole journey by rail from Merawi to Dakhesh occupied four days, whereas General Hunter with his flying column had taken eight—a fact which proves that, in certain circumstances which Euclid could not have foreseen, two sides of a triangle are together shorter than the third side.
Why would Churchill use this reference if the readers, educated in the mid- to late-1800s, are not expected to understand it?
There was a big debate in the UK in and around 1902 about the teaching of Euclid.
In Google Scholar's preview for "SOME RECENT DISCUSSION ON THE TEACHING OF MATHEMATICS", WW Beman - School Science and Mathematics, 1903 - Wiley Online Library "I may add that the address was given in full in the Educational Review for February, 1902. This discussion of the teaching of mathematics in England particularly with regard to the retention of Euclid as a test-book of geometry is by no means a new one." See also a letter in Nature http://adsabs.harvard.edu/abs/1902Natur..66..103S pointing out that Schopenhauer was also critical. And a 1903 Nature followup at http://adsabs.harvard.edu/abs/1903Natur..68R...7P saying "I WILL not deny that some reformers desire to abolish Euclid and establish another sequence of propositions in abstract geometry for schoolboys .. Two per cent. of schoolboys take to abstract reasoning as ducks take to water, and they ought not to be discouraged from the study of Euclid, but they and all the other boys ought to study geometry experimentally, logic entering into the study just as it enters into other parts of experimental physics. If the best modern books have a fault, it lies in the absurd assumption that an experimental sequence ought to have some connection with the Euclidean sequence."
In http://www.jstor.org/discover/10.2307/3603959?uid=3738984&ui... I read a page from a 1901 paper for the Mathematical Gazette (London) saying "(ii) The question of the retention of Euclid as a text-book was again raised. It was urged with considerable force that our retention of a book discarded by other nations had at any rate a presumption against it, and that it was wrong to sacrifice the interests of education to the east of the examiner. (iii) More than one speaker pointed out that if the experimental or intuitional method of introducing the truths of Mathematics, and especially of Geometry, were used from the lowest classes of our schools upwards, the strictly deductive course would not lose but gain in effectiveness."
So, it looks like the end of the 1800s was the death-knell for Euclid's Elements, but it was in the UK where it hung around the longest, perhaps for another 20 years.
I'll agree with thesis that it wasn't uncommon about 100 years ago as a standard text, and agree that that was about when it stopped being common.
If you read the preface to the 1888 version, you'll see: "From first to last we have kept in mind the undoubted fact that a very small proportion of those who study Elementary Geometry, and student it with profit, are destined to become mathematicians in any special sense; and that, to a large majority of students, Euclid is intended to serve not so much as a first lesson in mathematical reasoning, as the first, and sometimes the only, model of formal argument presented in an elementary education."
In the forward to the new edition, it again refers to "elementary teachers." According to http://www.educationengland.org.uk/history/chapter03.html "the Elementary School Code of 1860 had fixed the leaving age for elementary schools at 12." This is in the UK. I don't know if the teaching of the Elements only for upper and upper-middle class students, or if it included a wider range of students.
"The overwhelming outcome of all this work is that there is no significant difference between lecturing and a host of other methods in their ability to enable students to learn factual material. Lectures are as effective as many other methods, but not more so. There are indications that lecturing is less effective, even for imparting information, than certain methods, notably unsupervised reading. (In fact unsupervised reading may have the edge over all face-to-face teaching methods for factual mastery)." (In case this sounds overly positive about lecturing, note that the author considers factual transfer to be lecturing's strongest feature)
It's only a broad review of what was considered fairly obvious research conclusions, he specifically says that he's not writing to present new evidence just to note that despite the evidence no change in behaviour has occurred, and as I say, it was written 30 years ago, but I'm not aware of anything more recent overturning these results.
It's not clear but I believe his source for this particular claim is the Bligh book which is cited explicitly elsewhere in the text, which summarizes hundreds of studies comparing the effectiveness of lecturing with other techniques in his book "What's the use of lectures".
(Amusing aside: The review snippet of Bligh's book on Google books is as follows: "A large portion of this book is dedicated to presenting research on why and how lectures fail. You really have to wade through a lot of material to get to any help in putting a lecture together". I think that neatly encapsulates the mental resistance to abandoning lectures by people who give them)