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On the Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs (strikemag.org)
546 points by gu on Aug 19, 2013 | hide | past | favorite | 349 comments

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 [1], 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."

[1] http://intellectual-detox.com/2013/04/14/rent-seeking-econom...

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.

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.

I work in the ad industry. I'd argue that the entire ad industry exists as a skinner box, tweaking settings and turning knobs with the sole goal of having consumers consumer more of their product.

Same and agreed

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'd say the difference is how long they're "resting". Taking a weekend or vacation? Wonderful. Haven't had a job in a year and not really trying to get one? Idle.

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.

I think a simpler explanation is that people enjoy being productive. Otherwise, why would people have a problem with meaningless jobs?

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.

Meaningless make-work is the worst. Having nothing to do isn't so terrible. I can come up with plenty of useful ideas left to my own devices. It's when I have to do busy-work that's bad.

Couldn't you goof off 20% instead?

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.

Although I agree not a direct creation of "the ruling class" in the sense of the 1% wealthy, it's interesting to think about the Sociopaths in the classic RibbonFarm posts:

The Gervais Principle, Or The Office According to “The Office”


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?

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.

15 years? you need to be more ambitious.

i paid off my home in less than 7 years (small condo, under 200k) in my early 30's.

i had a friend do the same thing, except his house cost a bit more.

the key is living below your means. you don't buy the biggest house you can afford, because you probably don't need that extra space anyway.

for anyone with a decent job and some discipline, it's possible. finding the job is the easy part...

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.

Yes, I think buying land "outright" is impossible. Perhaps in some unincorporated area or whatever?

Property taxes are relatively high where I live(about $350/month, though I pay quarterly.)

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.

Feudalism in service of society is a good thing. Permanent land ownership is literally the source of aristocracy and a huge problem where it exists.

http://www.infoplease.com/timelines/voting.html "1790 Only white male adult property-owners have the right to vote."

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.)

I was under the assumption that confiscation of private property was more widely condemned no matter what domain. Apparently not.

Patents aren't private property. They're a government-granted temporary monopoly. In the absence of government, there's still some notion of property, but no notion whatsoever of patents.

> Patents aren't private property.

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.

Cash is at least a concrete thing you possess, rather than an abstract idea whose sole purpose is to prevent other people from doing certain things.

Edit: additionally, cash doesn't expire, while patents only last two decades.

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?

Econically speaking, taxing land ownership directly is pretty efficient. After all, it's hard to evade this tax since you can't hide land, and the tax won't affect the (fixed!) supply of land either.

If you have a family and kids, you will need a bigger more expensive place, so tack on those years to the total.

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.

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 . . .

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 Algorithm is: -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

Full Disclosure: -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

Wouldn't my time be better spend taking on a second job as, say, a programmer (which I am good at) instead of becoming a mediocre craftsman?

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.

Oh, if you enjoy crafting as a hobby, that's something different, and then obviously worth it.

How's the health quality of those less developed countries? What's the life expectancy? How many years until the kids have to starting working?

Where I live, a Southern European country, we don't really have big cars and nice vacations, but we do have cheap health care and high life expectancy (80 years).

And there aren't many less developed countries on the top of this list: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_countries_by_life_expe...

Is it worth the 9-to-5 (or higher)? I don't know.

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.

or hacker news </zing! I'll just take my hat as I leave>

Shut down the site. You win.

Dude, tone down the rhetoric.

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.

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.

>The ruling class has figured out that a happy and productive population with free time on their hands is a mortal danger

I think you're connecting all the wrong dots.

Things Graeber says:

* The ruling class could not wish for a better system (hyperbole of course)

* The ruling class has figured out threats to its position

* Such systems arise organically

Things he does not say:

* The ruling class has engineered this system after figuring out what threatens its position, and made it seem organic

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.

The usage of "as if" like that means to me that he doesn't thinl k it's really what happened. He is using a similie.

Right on! Or as Seth Godin puts it:[0]

> Attention is a bit like real estate, in that they're not making any more of it. Unlike real estate, though, it keeps going up in value.

[0]- http://sethgodin.typepad.com/seths_blog/2011/07/paying-atten...

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.

It is within mature markets. It is orders of magnitude more difficult for an American firm -- especially a small one -- to market in South America or Asia due to language and culture barriers.

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.

That makes me wonder what would happen if we banned advertising in general.

> The sales and marketing economy is zero sum.

This is false. I'll let those more gifted than myself to make the argument:


Exceptions don't make rules, it's the other way around

Except when its an "Exception that proves the rule" - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Exception_that_proves_the_rule

What I meant is you don't turn an exception into a generally applicable rule, but rules can infer exceptions.

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.

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.

Citation needed (and appreciated).

Das Kapital in 11 paragraphs! Wow, good writing!

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.

Isn't ideology wonderful?

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.

What I get from your comment is that any time anyone even references a ruling class, you believe they are claiming conspiracy.


Archived version in the event that blog page disappears.

If you think sales & marketing are a zero sum gimmick, you must not have encountered middle management. The fact that we pay these baby sitters so much money compounds our "need" for them.

could you please send me your status report? thanks!

I think it sounds like the author is experiencing angst about his own bullshit job.

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).

Some of what people want is positive-sum: Books, aquariums, theater showings, even cars. As we get more productive, the amount of time you need to work for these decreases.

A lot of what people want is zero-sum: Location, status symbols, and so forth. If you want to live in the centre of town you need to work more than anyone else who so wants, not just as much as it takes to cover the maintenance.

This is, I believe, a large part of why working hours aren't going down. You could work less, but then you'd lose out to someone who doesn't.

This is a good observation.

I've put some effort into circumventing the zero-sum things, though I haven't thought about it this way before. I live on a boat that I've paid with cash, and thus own. My living expenses come down to harbour rent, electricity and heating in the winter. Over a year that's an average of $300 a month. I live in the smack middle of Copenhagen. On top of this comes living expenses, clothes, etc. But I'm not very materialistic so that's quite cheap too.

The surprising result (for me at least) is that I'm out of the status race, and people envy me for the freedom I've gained. By choice I haven't been working for more than a year, and I can afford it, and don't feel much pressure taking any old job. I'm looking for something interesting, but if it doesn't turn up I can live without. In the meantime I spend time doing all the sideprojects, art things, and hanging out a lot of other people are dreaming about while they slave away.

To quote Fight Club: "the things you own end up owning you"

I think you're discounting that most people really don't want to live on a boat. An alternative is living in the countryside, but most people don't want to live there either.

It's not just materialism or a status symbol at play here, but the preferences of the majority of society pushing people into zero-sum. If people suddenly decided that living on a boat isn't that bad (not going to happen), then the price of docking your boat in the middle of Copenhagen would be through the roof in short order. Still zero sum.

From anecdotal evidence I don't think you're right. Every summer I speak to an average of three strangers a week that stroll by the harbour and ask about how to get a space, how to buy a boat, and how they can go about doing it. But very few people take the plunge. When I tell people how I live most of them are envious (some think I'm crazy too).

I think what's keeping people from doing it is fear. Most people don't have the courage to break with deepheld norms such as living in a house or an apartment.

I also live on a boat, in France, and the pressure on mooring places is unbearable in many places, including all of those conveniently close to "good" jobs. This is worsened by the waterways administration's Kafka-like madness. For instance, a boat which has mooring rights in Paris will cost about €600K more than the same one in an unremarkable place (mooring rights are effectively attached to a boat, and non-transferable).

So more extensive evidence shows that when living in a boat becomes popular, prices (in money and inconveniences) do skyrocket.

No, I do think he's right. They might be honestly curious about the details of living on a boat, but in the end not really that interested in pursuing it for themselves. Many think of it as something they might really like to try out for a year or two... tops. others, likely see the appeal but realize that it's not a realistic option for them (spouses, children, pets, etc.). If everyone wanted to live on a boat too, there is no way your costs would stay the same (slip costs would go through the roof).

You are my hero. I keep telling people (friends and parents) that a life like yours is possible. Not necessarily a boat, but something outside the box. But here in Flanders (Belgium), that's unthinkable. Every Fleming should have a house and very Fleming has a massive debt because of it. We love building so much, that there's almost no space left!

To be fair: You do build lovely, functional houses in one of the most beautiful parts of Europe.

Ha! At least those are all interesting. Many American neighborhoods are row after row of the same boring "Colonial" or "Ranch" designs.

That sounds wonderful, but the line I'd always heard was "A boat is a hole in the water you throw money into" - that is, they are expensive to maintain. How do you avoid that?

If you are a little handy and know how to work an angle grinder and a circular saw it's really not that expensive. Plus you have something to do in the weekends :-)

In other words, you're substituting your own time for money.

That's no different than working and paying someone else to do it, economically, but I imagine you enjoy it. More power to you. :-)

Actually, my family owns a country home (far from anywhere; land tax is ~zero) that's also next a fjord. As in, a meter and a half from the water. We've got a floating dock.

I've been wondering about how to maintain it, now that our patriarch is getting too old to do so. The main issue, really, is how to get back and forth - I'd love to live there semi-full-time, but realistically can't do so in the winter, and the roads are getting worse every year now that all the farmers are gone. Using a suitably large boat seems like an interesting option, and would give me the choice of living closer to some town if I need to work closely with people on some project.

If you have some figures - how much it actually costs, etc. - that'd be great. I certainly wouldn't mind doing maintenance myself, but I expect it still won't be free. Also, what model boat do you have?

Send me an e-mail, it's in my profile. I'll be happy to answer any questions you might have, and help in any way I can.

Sounds like a great project!

I think this comes from boats used for free time. They cost a lot and you spend relativly little time on it.

Now if you live on the boat you are using it which would make it more economical however I'm sure the upkeep and fuel costs more than a house would.

From my talks with boatowners / boatlivers on the river Cam in Cambridge, UK, the upkeep and fuel ain't too bad.

>I'm out of the status race, and people envy me for the freedom

They probably envy your newfound status.

I think that almost everybody can do that - cut down a bit on the living expenses, save some money, quit your job and look for something worth doing. I am currently doing it and wasn't such a trouble

> I live on a boat that I've paid with cash, and thus own.

Man, you're living the dream. I'm in Brazil, real estate prices in the big cities are on par with US or Europe, but credit is worse (interest rates are 9-10%). I'm starting to entertain this option, which would be perfect since we have such a long coast. I also love to be in contact with nature. The price of a decent 30 feet sailboat is half the price of a 1 bedroom downtown apartment (plus, you don't have land tax), so it also makes sense financially.

Do you have any experiences to share?

I do something similar, but I live in the rat race. I have a job that keeps me going on part time hours nicely, and I just built a house (largely with money).

I'm not saying that you're wrong, but the article isn't really about that, and he also briefly touched on this point:

> The standard line today is that he didn’t figure in the massive increase in consumerism. Given the choice between less hours and more toys and pleasures, we’ve collectively chosen the latter. This presents a nice morality tale, but even a moment’s reflection shows it can’t really be true. Yes, we have witnessed the creation of an endless variety of new jobs and industries since the ‘20s, but very few have anything to do with the production and distribution of sushi, iPhones, or fancy sneakers.

Which is why I, a moderate libertarian, have reluctantly acknowledged the need for a legal maximum 30 hour working week; the evidence for market failure in this area is sufficiently overwhelming that I can no longer ignore it.

The problem is a lot of what "people want" they are actually indoctrinated to want.

This is exactly it. On a related note, look at how fast food restaurants no longer sell fast, cheap food. Instead they sell experiences. McDonalds has the McCafe thing, and even KFC is trying to rebrand itself as something more like Panera Bread.

We have moved beyond the point where the item itself is readily available, so what is desired now is the experience that goes with it.

I think you overstate the case with fast food -- lots of their marketing still seems to be about fast and cheap -- but to the extent that it is less focussed than that in the past I think it is because fast food outlets are marketing to differentiate themselves from each other because they are ingrained enough on culture that they don't need as much to differentiate from traditional restaurants.

I like the positive/zero sum analysis. Alas, in the UK, living near a viable job is actually regarded as sum positive!

I think this depends on where you are, in my experience north Americans tend to work far more hours than people from northen europe.

The normal working hours where I come from is around 37 hours. I have a 36 hours work week with all overtime must be taken as time off at some other time. (of cause there are also people who work more).

There are negative sum jobs as well. Pharma people, promoting harmful drugs, soldiers or criminals.

soldiers do not belong in that group. they generally do significant good just as a sitting deterrent. much more than yet another mediocre web developer. how their political masters choose to use them however ...

>they generally do significant good just as a sitting deterrent.

... to other soldiers. And the same logic dictates that everyone involved in the whole dismal advertising industry does significant necessary good works by offering their clients a means to neutralise the benefits that their rivals get from THEIR advertisers. I'd contend that bullshit jobs that are necessary to counteract the effects of other bullshit jobs are still bullshit!

How it's possible to make both sets of bullshit jobs obsolete is left as an exercise for the social engineer, of course...

Not all criminals are negative sum. For example, digital piracy is positive sum.

Your post seems to boil down to: products manufactured on cheap in China cost much less than real estate in London and car from Munich.

The problem is that before globalization happened you could afford stuff manufactured locally without working 60 hour weeks super-sophisticated high end jobs requiring sacrificing your youth to study and hard work.

We need to distinguish between two separate, tangentially related issues: bullshit jobs and bullshit hours.

Most of the classes of jobs mentioned in this piece are not, in and of themselves, entirely bullshit. Rather, the idea that each of these people actually needs to be in the office, pretending to be continually and evenly busy, for 50+ hours a week -- that's bullshit. Work ebbs and flows in a very different way for each type of job; it is not evenly distributed across the day or week. The belief that it is leads us to create busywork, the dread and bane of all office workers.

We are struggling to unshackle ourselves from the remnants of the old, industrial workweek, which was developed around assembly lines at automobile factories. Most of us aren't building Model T's anymore. And yet, we have laws and/or employment contracts charting mandatory minimum workweeks, mandatory minimum hours per day, etc.

Some jobs really do require 40, 50, or even more hours per week. Many, and I'd dare say most, do not. Especially the white-collar administrative and "paper pushing" positions mentioned in this article. The jobs themselves aren't unnecessary (at least not in reasonable quantity), but the idea that all jobs are normalized around the same schedule is absolute lunacy.

A significant part of my job is being available. I can leave a few minutes early if I check my email before the next day starts (ignoring social pressure; nobody's usually going to have questions at the very end of the day that can't wait for morning) or come in a half hour to occasionally an hour and a half late (nobody has immediate questions that early in the day), but mostly I need to be around during the times that everyone else is working.

If I'm having a slow period, or if I'm stuck and need time to percolate, I'll bring a book or spend more time than usual on HN.

But then how do we organize the productive capacity? We need the course bins to blindly assign human "resources" to, otherwise we'd need to recognize the heterogeneity of the positions and people that fill them. Do you want the IT support techs in the office 60 hours a week and the managers for just 20 hours a week?

(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.

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.

Exactly. You don't need a conspiracy to describe a stable but sub-optimal outcome: you just need it to be a Nash equilibrium.

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.

> It's stronger than a Nash equilibrium. It's not even an equilibrium actually, ...

An alternative is that it's an equilibrium, but that we haven't hit where it starts to operate as one yet.

This kind of discussion always reminds me of the movie Cube[1]. Since watching it years ago, I have often found it to be a fantastical and exaggerated but useful metaphor related to this topic.

1. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cube_(film)

"Bureaucracy expands to meet the needs of the expanding bureaucracy" --Oscar Wilde

The phrase "inverted totalitarianism" describes this phenomenon.

> "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.

It's pretty much as you describe it.


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 assume you'll enjoy the five chapters on human systems, inspired by "Systemantics": http://www.draftymanor.com/bart/systems1.htm

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.

To paraphrase a famous xkcd strip, "2+2 = 5" isn't funny anymore when it's being stated by a US Congressman.

I've certainly caught myself doing this.

Of course, that means nothing other than that I'm dumb sometimes, which was a known fact.

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.

Ever read The Emperor's New Clothes?

Regarding those theories about the Jews... what do you mean, previous societies? Lots of people today actually, really believe that the faults of capitalism come from Jewish finance.

> The author does make the point that it might also be the people themselves pushing for it, at least.

I think the implication is that that is largely a form of Stockholm syndrome.

> They'll probably go as far as to sabotage genuine useful production in an effort to prove their value.

How is this not an extra argument in favour of his claim that there are lots of bullshit jobs out there?

"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.

>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.

Those two things are not mutually exclusive. See the last line of the article:

"Clearly, the system was never consciously designed. It emerged from almost a century of trial and error."

People in power make little daily nudges, those under the yoke follow the path of least resistance, and society wanders towards an equilibrium.

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.

It's a bit more than a just plausible argument. There's a whole cabinet department devoted to it:



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.

Actually, I would be far more surprised by (2). I don't know anyone who actually believes that employment is their "purpose".

Thus "the man" influences the people to act against their own best interest. Happens all the time.

I was with you until the end.

Can you provide an example of an academic sabotaging useful production in order to prove his or her value?

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.

Indeed, we hate extraneous paperwork:


and are trying to change the library system:


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).

I can't speak for other disciplines.

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.

If I had to guess, literature reviews are getting longer because us researchers are quickly going through the lower-hanging fruit and thus reaching discoveries that have more and more "dependencies".


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.

Ah, but this trend was fought by another academic. Alan Sokal, NYU physicist, famously completely bullshitted an essay and got it published by Social Text, a leading postmodern sociology journal.


Scroll down to "Transgressing the Boundaries".

I assume you are an academic - therefore, I imagine you have heard of cases where a peer reviewer killed an article just because it contradicted the reviewer's own work?

Even if an academic is not explicitly sabotaging work, it's clear from the amount of time spent on grant applications and general bureaucracy that their useful production is being sabotaged.

To meet bureaucratic standards, researchers are often required to teach and educators are often required to publish... it's not effective production.

> I assume you are an academic - therefore, I imagine you have heard of cases where a peer reviewer killed an article just because it contradicted the reviewer's own work?

Thats why you have the reviewers declare no conflict of interest, have more than one peer reviewer and an editor who makes the final decision and assigns further peer reviewers if necessary.

I agree with your last two points.

> have more than one peer reviewer and an editor who makes the final decision and assigns further peer reviewers if necessary.


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?

(Note: this is completely layman speculation)

"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.

Depends on level.

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.

1215? What's wrong with Euclid?

Well, ok, I was thinking of arithmetic and algorithmic methods in number. I'll let you have Euclid, although it would be heavy going now to use that as a textbook...

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.

I can now add more data points. In "THE RIVER WAR: An Account of the Reconquest of the Sudan" by Winston S. Churchill, 1902 edition, from http://www.gutenberg.org/files/4943/4943-h/4943-h.htm :

> 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.

Hard to say if it was "widely read", but the Elements was certainly read by Lincoln in the mid-1800s.

This text book of the Elements was first published in 1888, updated in 1900, and with reprints every year or two until (at least) 1915 http://openlibrary.org/books/OL24198679M/Text-book_of_Euclid....

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.

BTW, here's an advocacy piece for bringing the Elements back as part of the core curriculum - http://www.kysu.edu/NR/rdonlyres/0B03B73A-777B-4571-A554-7DE... .

> a printed sheet of paper, written by someone else would have a bigger impact on the students attending the lecture.

Citation needed.

Twenty terrible reasons for lecturing


"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)

One peer reviewed paper a year. Regardless of quality. Wittgenstein - a philosopher with a major influence on modern life after he died published two short works in a lifetime.

Don't publish just to publish, only publish what you believe are great papers and don't bother playing the system.

So I left academia to become a discordian agent for precisely this reason.

If someone has no job their perceived lack of purpose ultimately pushes them into mental illness, drug abuses or even suicide.

I agree with this, but I think the real reason is more profound.

I think working is a "need" and then became a social value, not the other way around.

Creating tools and weapons is what gave us an edge as a species, so it wouldn't be that surprising that the need to work is not just a response to social stimuli (although it probably is aswell).

> It’s not entirely clear how humanity would suffer were all private equity CEOs, lobbyists, PR researchers, actuaries, telemarketers, bailiffs or legal consultants to similarly vanish. (Many suspect it might markedly improve.)

We'd probably lead full, rich and happy lives until we were all suddenly wiped out by a virulent disease contracted from an unexpectedly dirty telephone.

Besides, this is a classic game theory example of cooperation vs. competition. Sure, everyone would live rich and happy lives if everyone would cooperate, but that would be for only as long as there are no new lobbyists, etc. Once they appear - they win all the money, and everything goes back to how it is now.

Ok, so how do you create an enforcement mechanism to keep the capitalistic bullshit from coming back once you've gotten rid of it?

I think what he's suggesting is inverse of the outcome of HGTTG - that the telephone sanitzers wipe out all the ineffectual upper management people who do no or limited real work.

Neither is a plausible solution, although his seems more valid if you would consider decimating the ineffectual upper management class rather than outright removal.

Thank you. I was waiting for a telephone sanitizer reference.

For those that don't know, this is the same David Graeber [1] who wrote "Debt: The first 5000 years" [2].

"Debt" is a pretty great book, and I recommend others read it. At least, I found it illuminating to the popular concept of debt, the historical idea, and its ramifications.

[1]: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/David_Graeber

[2]: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Debt:_The_First_5000_Years

I thought it was a great and edifying book, but towards the end he did the same thing as in this article. He went off preaching half baked ideas about morality like a hippy.

His list of bullshit jobs here is so slippery it undermines his basic point. If private equity and all the corporate lawyers vanished there would be serious ramifications. Nothing capital intensive would get done, unless you instituted fiat capital allocation, but we know that doesn't work. And what's not bullshit about modern doctoring and nursing? 90% of the time they're treating lifestyle ailments for which the treatments don't actually do very much. What's not bullshit about being a teacher of tenth graders who can barely read?

> Nothing capital intensive would get done...

I would like to see the categorization of capital-intensive projects, because I wonder if most (not all, but most) of the value of such intensive uses of capital today are related more to financialization than actual leveraging of the sum total knowledge and effort of the species towards a more comfortable future. From my limited vantage point, I think what is happening is not just an alteration of time preferences (time horizon) for capital-intensive projects, but an aversion that leads to an alteration of the "risk horizon" as well.

Where is our generation's Hoover Dam? Or Manhattan Project? Or reaching further back in time, where is our Age of Exploration if you are into more private venture-backed efforts? For every LHC or Tesla, we have dozens of regional wars, hundreds of make-work programs, thousands of financial engineering projects at various Global Fortune 1000 syndicates, and millions of highly-leveraged real estate speculative ventures around the world. Our state-of-art in residential shelter have major subsystems that are still largely recognizable to someone from a century and a half ago; where is the work on cheap aerogel SIPs, more self-maintaining homes, lower energy footprint communities? Why are we generating a giant pile of waste BTUs from air conditioners and not recapturing that back into our water heaters? There appears to be a large disconnect between what we as a civilization know and what we deploy (my personal theory is this has something to do with available energy).

It is not clear to me that all those PE and corporate attorneys are actually allocating capital in the furtherance of general comfort for all, but rather instead they appear to be mini-max'ing for their interests at the relative expense of slowing our current state of advancement. Adam Smith had some warnings about a dominant capital-holding class overriding the "invisible hand" (which my first time through TWoN decades ago I didn't appreciate, and I still have my doubts), and I wonder if he wasn't on to something.

What would be the serious ramifications of vanishing corporate law and private equity?

Try running a company or doing a start up with out a supply of capital.

Is it really so difficult to allocate capital that just about every city needs skyscrapers full of finance people? I'm asking that as a completely legitimate question - I really have no idea of how much work is required to give my small business a line of credit.

For most of history there were not big companies allocating capital, and for most of history it was nearly impossible for most people to obtain capital to start or grow their own business.

Put another way--the modern financial system was created for a reason. The author supposes that it was a big conspiracy theory to give us all shitty jobs, but in counter I would point out that it has likely never been easier for people to start or grow businesses than it is today.

Well, that's not necessarily true (at least, in my case). I can't walk down to the local bank and be approved for a small amount of capital without providing equal collateral. Even with a strong business plan. I have to show quite a bit of history of revenue and cash flow for a minimal credit line.

On the other hand, it's relatively easy for me to ask a bunch of my friends to each lend me $10,000. And, that is more because of the cumulative result of decades and decades of productivity increases in addition to a society that values electronics and computers and the internet. Those factors give these software engineer friends the extra discretionary money to lend to me. It's not because of the magic of the financial system.

The author is saying that there's a huge excess of capital and productivity that could theoretically 'pay' for other types of work. But, instead, we as a society, decide to funnel most of our excess to people who push around accounts ledgers, ruminate on legal logic, generate sales ads, and do other sorts of 'educated' busy work.

One reason the modern financial system is so huge and complex is that so many of its features have been extended to individuals.

I, a rather average middle-aged dude, maintain 4 bank accounts, 6 lines of credit, 4 investment accounts, and 4 lines of insurance [1]. Think of the complexity involved in providing those services to me--now multiply by tens of millions of other people. This does not even get into the financial instruments of businesses and governments, which are far more complex.

The end result of all this complexity is that individuals like your friends can accumulate and access large sums of money to lend to you to start a business. Most new business financing does not come from banks, it comes from individuals, families, or alternate financial businesses like angel funds, venture capital, hedge funds, etc.


Bank accounts - 2 personal checking - 2 savings

Credit - 1 mortgage - 3 credit cards - 2 check cards

Investments - IRA - 401k - HSA - Brokerage (trading)

Insurance - Home - Auto - Life - Health

It's not that hard to imagine what will be like if there's no financial institution and corporate lawyers. The first is that the dollar you own will not be real money -- we have to go back to gold standard (even this requires certain level of financial institution to support). Also, say good by to bond and stock, or mortgage or student loan. or cheap airline tickets. I always find it like magic that you can just give somebody some money and then receive some bits of information that claims you own X% of certain company, without the need to actually know anything about said company(although it's not recommended to do so). Just think about if you have to design a system that can align other people's interest so they work for you WITHOUT you actively managing anything. How can it be possible?

How would you build a skyscraper? That requires quite an investment of capital.

Short answer: yes.

I liked the article but there is no conundrum here:

> the very fact that tube workers can paralyse London shows that their work is actually necessary, but this seems to be precisely what annoys people

Yes, people are not paid in accordance to the direct tangible benefit their work brings. Salaries are broadly determined by the same laws of supply and demand that determine prices for other stuff.

Tube workers are not seen as worthy of high compensation, or high-status in general, because people believe, correctly or not, that it's easy to do the job. On the other hand, programmers usually command high wages, despite being viewed as nerds and rather low-status, because it's hard to replace one.

Some professions may have an artificially constricted supply, through regulations for example, which throws those observations off a bit.

> It’s even clearer in the US, where Republicans have had remarkable success mobilizing resentment against school teachers

I'd argue that if you replaced school teachers with babysitters, the only catastrophe would be all those damaged egos.

>I'd argue that if you replaced school teachers with babysitters, the only catastrophe would be all those damaged egos.

The keyword you used is "replaced", not "do away with". Actually I think an argument could be made that teacher pay does already treat them somewhat as babysitters. Babysitters would likely be more expensive on an hour * kids basis than teachers given current babysitter rates.

Anyways, you are right, wages are determined by "supply and demand", unfortunately collective bargaining is seen as a bad thing, whereas I see it just as another way for a truly "free market" to communicate the value of a job.

The productivity of London tube workers results from their work on an enormous and unique capital asset.

"The ruling class has figured out that a happy and productive population with free time on their hands is a mortal danger"

I don't know what to call this fallacy, but it needs a name. In a way it's similar to saying "nature abhors a vacuum," "this evolutionary strategy aims to", "the market will.." etc. Those are all personifying emergent phenomenons. They are non person things that behave amusingly as if they have a personality. The "ruling class" is different though because it is made of of people. I don't think the author is trying to suggest thousands (or millions) or people conspired to make "the masses" waste 30 hours per week on motivational seminars, but using that language makes it sound like he is, sort of, without committing to it too much.

Worse, it absolves one from exploring the most interesting part of this argument. If There is a literal conspiracy, who? how? details, please. If it's a metaphor for some sort of emergent phenomenon, explore that. What are the forces at work that make this happen. Is it the proliferation of zero (or small) sum games like litigation or advertising? Is it about opaque performance in modern snowflake jobs? This is the most interesting part of the discussion and "The ruling class has" just absolves the writer of addressing it.

I think the word you are looking might be "teleology".


Buckminster Fuller had it right back in the 70's -

"We must do away with the absolutely specious notion that everybody has to earn a living. It is a fact today that one in ten thousand of us can make a technological breakthrough capable of supporting all the rest. The youth of today are absolutely right in recognizing this nonsense of earning a living. We keep inventing jobs because of this false idea that everybody has to be employed at some kind of drudgery because, according to Malthusian-Darwinian theory, he must justify his right to exist. So we have inspectors of inspectors and people making instruments for inspectors to inspect inspectors. The true business of people should be to go back to school and think about whatever it was they were thinking about before somebody came along and told them they had to earn a living."

http://paste.ie/view/de115ebd Cached version (black on back text was all that was show from Googel Cache, this is a bit more readable ) as strikermag seems to be having issues at the moment

I've found myself thinking about this a lot lately. I don't know about corporate law, but I can certainly see many jobs becoming obsolete in the not-so-distant future. Automation is advancing and accelerating like never before, and that is a good thing. Of course, this means fewer workers are needed. Factor in population growth, and this quickly becomes a major issue.

I've seen people bring up basic income when such concerns are raised. I myself am undecided on how effective it would be, but it seems like now is a good time for conversation on the matter to begin.

One place to look for that discussion is Switzerland. They collected over 130,000 signatures on a law proposal for basic income. So now there will be a direct vote on it. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Basic_income#Switzerland

After the swiss people voted against an extension of mandatory vacation, from four to six weeks, recently, I highly doubt that this law has a chance to pass. However, it sure will be an interesting and passionate discussion that will force everyone to ask the right questions. In fact its already going on. If you speak German you can e.g. read the comments on all the major newspaper articles, like here http://www.nzz.ch/aktuell/schweiz/schweizer-koennen-wohl-ueb... (I suppose the same is true for French and Italian.)

PS: This is the best HN thread in a long time. There are opposing views and intelligent, passionated discussion about what could be boiled down to the question "What is the meaning of life?" for each participant.

Interesting. I hadn't heard of that until now. It may not pass, but it's amazing to see it even being considered for a vote.

And I agree, this thread has been a great read.

I've seen people bring up basic income when such concerns are raised. I myself am undecided on how effective it would be, but it seems like now is a good time for conversation on the matter to begin.

So am I. It's a fascinating idea that could be the most important improvement to our economy since the introduction of the labour market, drastically reducing poverty and increasing socioeconomic mobility.

Or it could cause widespread inflation and tank the GDP. I'm not sure anyone really knows which way it would go. I think the only way to know is to try it out on a small but representative subset of the population (e.g. 1%), then a larger subset (e.g. 5-10%), before doing a full roll-out.

Yeah, I can see it swinging either way. However, the alternative of not doing anything could be just as catastrophic. Politicians always talk about creating jobs as if it were the goal. Jobs are just a means to an end, and creating jobs for their own sake is not only inefficient, but something that can't hold out in the long run.

I really enjoyed this piece. Very thought provoking. I only have one issue and that is the question of what causes pointless jobs.

Graeber suggests this was a decision by the ruling class, collectively, to push us to work harder and keep us from being the competition. To some extent there is some support for that. One of Hilaire Belloc's complaints about the early welfare state was that it would effectively chain people to corporate work.

But I don't think it is the whole or even the primary driver. One of the most interesting books I think one can read is "The Collapse of Complex Civilizations" by Joseph Tainter (another anthropology professor) who suggests that the rise of these sorts of paper pushing jobs is caused not by a desire to keep the poor poor and dependent on work (something early Capitalists like Adam Smith advocated outright) but as an overall measure of complexity. These are coordination jobs. They have become at once pointless and necessary.

Take for example Graeber's example of corporate lawyers. These jobs are needed because we have seen an explosion in the complexity of corporate law. Corporate lawyers thus effectively pilot a corporation through hazardous legal waters (with the officers still nominally at the helm). The job is BS. The job is necessary because we had problems and passed laws, and now everyone needs corporate lawyers.

Interestingly Graeber's view is much more optimistic than Tainter's. If Graeber is right the world will hum along with or without these complexity-related jobs. But if Tainter is right then we are nearing a danger zone where we risk societal collapse when the complexity becomes one level too high. I hope Graeber is right, but in my heart I fear and believe that Tainter is.

<i>"Graeber suggests this was a decision by the ruling class, collectively, to push us to work harder and keep us from being the competition."</i>

He explicitly states this is not what he thinks. The reading comprehension in this thread is very selective.

I reread, and I can't see where he explicitly says this is not what he thinks. He claims that this is a fairly accurate picture of he moral state of our economy. I would be interested in what you are seeing that I am not.

"Silicon Valley" (as a euphamism for our industry) has a chance to lead the culture here, and also to respond to an emerging criticism of itself in a way that is socially positive.

I'm seeing more and more articles to the effect that high-tech destroys jobs. Our response should be: "good, now we should move to a four-day work week." If high-tech work destroys jobs, it should leave people more time for friendship, family, art, learning, play, ...

Attack the Puritan bullshit-work ethic and the associated economic broken window fallacy directly. Make it a "culture war" issue if necessary.

That would be the first step: a four-day work week, a three-day weekend. More jobs for those who don't have them, less work for those who do. The energy savings in transportation would also be immense.

Tech industries would be largely unaffected. Why? Because our work is largely intellectual in nature, and intellectual work does not come in continuous streams. It comes in bursts of productivity. I bet removing one day from the work week would negligibly impact productivity in our field. It might even increase it in some cases.

I find it funny that the author states that "the ruling class" essentially decides to keep people busy. Let's not forget that there are other factors at play here: unions are the first one that come to mind. Any union shop is going to have a major problem on their hands the day they decide to cut one job (not saying it's right or wrong, just that unions defend their jobs rigorously, as they should). Unions typically aren't what I think of when I think "ruling class".

However, I do tend to think of politicians as that "ruling class". And for better or for worse, people love to hear the phrase "job creation". Politicians can't "create" jobs in the same way that private companies can. They can certainly foster an environment wherein companies can flourish (and ruin it). But any politically-created job is either an oversight job (finance industry is littered with jobs that should be automated but in the interest of being able to point fingers at people, exist) or a bureaucratic job (in my opinion).

Politicians make unions and "bullshit jobs" possible by creating the incentives for companies to hire people they don't need. Unions then make it impossible to get rid of the deadwood. In the case of pure government jobs we're doubly damned.. they create bullshit jobs for paper pushers and then governmentt unions make sure those jobs exist for as close to forever as they possibly can. It's not conspiracy, it's stupidity.

An enduring image for me is of the kind of bullshit jobs that you really can only find in certain parts of East Asia these days.

For example, drive to a parking garage at a shopping mall and there will be a guy who's entire 8 hour work day is spent wearing an over elaborate bell hop uniform and bowing to cars as they drive in. That's it...his entire job is bowing to cars. If he disappeared off the face of the planet tomorrow, it wouldn't affect a single thing. People would still come to the mall, cars would still manage to park, not one thing would change.

Or how about the nice costumed sales ladies standing in every aisle in the grocery store, not giving out promotional samples (a la Costco), but simply holding up gift packages of cheap processed food items. My favorite is the gift package for your salaryman husband, a beautifully wrapped container of instant coffee. That's actually two BS jobs, the lady holding the package (which you were going to buy anyway), and the person who packaged up the $20 container of instant coffee in an overly elaborate gift package that will go directly into the trash 10 seconds after it's received.

I remember travelling in Russia, and going into one of those amazing Stalanist subway stations, and there was a booth with a person in it. They didn't do anything, they weren't really an attendant, didn't help anybody or have any particular function, they just sat there for a 8 hours.

Of course for the really unbelievably useless jobs you have to look inside the U.S. government.

(1) As a lawyer I love how to non-lawyers the legal industry (usually BigLaw) is always the go to example for things that cost a lot but do nothing.

(2) All these lofty ideas and conspiracy theories are great but bullshit jobs exist for one reason - most people suck at their job and are perfectly O.K. with it.

It's nice to think of labor as a machine. A system where everyone tries to be efficient and strive to do the best work possible. In reality that just doesn't exist. Most people go to work for a paycheck. Their one goal - keep getting that paycheck. In that context it's easy to see how what could be accomplished in 15 hours suddenly takes 40. If there is no incentive to work hard, better, faster, or stronger, why bother? Anyone here ever work a union job? You don't exactly get to leave early if you finish early. You don't exactly get a raise either.

Additionally most people don't have a passion that they'd rather get back to. Very few people think of anything besides (a) work (b) family (c) friends (d) misc. rec. activ. (sleep, sex, vacation, whatever). So this idea that the Bullshit Job is somehow preventing people from doing something more productive is, well, bullshit. Most people would do nothing with their time if not for work.

It's nice to dream the world works otherwise but at least in my experience it does not.

The legal industry is mostly "bullshit" work. To think otherwise you'd have to believe both: (1) the system is perfect at making good laws which have the precise consequences desired. (2) the average number of laws decreases, rather than increases over time (barring major overthrows, revolutions)

I don't even know how that argument makes any sense.

This fails to engage with any economic reality.

Realistically, the reason that bullshit jobs exist is because it is possible for a low amount of work to result in a good amount of profit. Let's look at Microsoft Office, for example - you can charge $200 per copy for effectively zero cost. Therefore, if somebody can manage to sell 1000 copies of it, their job is justified, along with an assistant or two. This could take a very short amount of time.

The reason there are "bullshit jobs" is because profit margins can be so high. The higher the margins, the more bullshit jobs, and the lower the margins, the fewer. Restaurants have few to no bullshit jobs because there simply isn't enough money to be made with labor that isn't running at 100% most of the time.

If you want a world without bullshit jobs, you'll want a version of the world where products are NOT sold at 4x markup from their cost of production, and instead a 1.5x to 2x markup. Then, companies will HAVE to be lean, because a marginal increase in sales/support will not translate to an enormous increase in profits.

Look at companies with low margins and high costs of production, and you may see inefficiency (it happens everywhere), but there will not be many bullshit jobs.

I live and work in Washington DC. If you ever want to visit a living museum of bullshit jobs, come visit this city. One of my favorite anecdotes is when my friend worked for a defense contractor who hired a "requirements manager". On her first day of work, she popped into my buddy's office and whispered: "what are requirements?".

I remember being contracted out for IT support to a government agency whose sole purpose was representing workers in government agencies. The entirety of its existence astonished me, and as you can imagine, absolutely nothing was accomplished in the 3 weeks I was around. One employee spent most of her time procuring special furniture and equipment for a self-perceived disability (she was perfectly capable), others whiled the day away in "meetings" and water cooler discussions. They could not, however, be bothered to observe that the reason their office server was not functioning was due to its power cord not being plugged in. I wish I was making this up.

Sounds like communist countries used to be.

The author has a very interesting point. Still he oversimplifies and so I didn't find the article very insightful.

For example lawyers are there for good reason. Modern society needs a way to officially settle conflicts. But our law system creates arms races and draws more and more resources this way.

I think few jobs are as zero sum as SEO from their beginning. The problem is that when we start arms races and pour more and more resources into them, they become almost zero sum.

So the interesting question would be how to avoid arms races. But that is not even mentioned.

the arms races are essentially competition - and competition often creates positive externalities which are not immediately obvious to a naked eye, such as new technologies, etc. Perfect example is Jane Street Capital pouring resources into O'Caml libraries because they feel it gives them an edge in the high frequency trading arms race

"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."

Are you freak'n kidding me? The 99% is the market not the 1%. Who do you think is buying what the 1% is selling? It's the 99% who determine what is being made by buying what they buy!

I've had a few jobs like this, not many though, and I can tell you that none of them were at companies small enough for an owner to know who I was.

I'd like to propose a different reason for these jobs; middle manager decision makers who have ulterior motives than to optimize ROI. Like what you ask? Like getting a bigger budget next year. Like empire building. Like maximizing the illusion of importance. I could go on, but since I've never had one of these positions, I'm sure I could never do the list justice.

Law (since it was mentioned) and consulting are slightly different since you might end up doing something pointless where your company is maximizing ROI because the market is paying for you to do something pointless. ... and given that situation, I'd venture to guess that either a) it was one of the non-stakeholders mentioned above that brought you in, or b) an owner who bought into your industry/company's marketing BS and hasn't been disillusioned yet. ... yet.

There may be situations I can't think of, but I'd suggest that it's the 99% who has created this situation in most cases.

Not surprised that the top four comments at the moment disagree with the author. I strongly recommend that anyone who was affected by the 2008 economic crisis read his best-known book: Debt, the first 5000 years.

You may still disagree with his conclusions, but you're more likely to do so in an informed way. It is the only treatise on the subject of debt, which I have been able to find, that actually makes sense. I say that as someone who has read far more Hayek and Rothbard than Marx or Bakunin.

Other people clearly don't think your job is worthless or they wouldn't be paying you to do it. The reason we don't work less is because we clearly want (and can have) more stuff than we had in the 1930's. If you're happy with the standard of living from 1930 you could probably achieve that with 10 hours of work per week.

On a micro scale, your job clearly isn't worthless. A large tech company needs patent lawyers, or it will be completely destroyed by its competitors. But what if all patent lawyers suddenly resigned and started their rock bands, or became carpenters?

So, "bullshit jobs" are essentially jobs where you are playing a zero-sum game. Like SEO: your site goes up, another site goes down by the same amount. And you have to keep spending on it, otherwise your site will fall off the first page.

The world is not going to drift towards the global optima.

Nash wins, idealists lose. Sad, but inevitable. :)

That's why we need "pragmatic" idealists. People that realize that trying to make people go against their immediate self-interest in the game just won't work, but that the game itself can be changed to push the Nash Equilibrium up.

> Other people clearly don't think your job is worthless or they wouldn't be paying you to do it

That's true on its face, but the problem the article is trying to put its finger on is that money earned does not necessarily equate to value created. GDP grows every time money changes hands, but that is only a proxy for actual value delivered to human beings. As the economy grows more complex this proxy becomes more abstract and provides more opportunity for arbitrage and siphoning of wealth through clever manipulation.

They're paying people to have the specific domain knowledge that can be applied quickly in emergencies.

I suppose it's a bit like being a fireman at an airport, the chances of having a plane need your services are I would've thought pretty rare, but you still need to be there and you've still got to be ready because you've got to react incredibly quickly if something goes wrong.

Can't have an airport without firemen even though an incident requiring their services may never happen, I guess companies feel the same way about corporate lawyers, HR departments and PR people.

> The reason we don't work less is because we clearly want (and can have) more stuff than we had in the 1930's

I wouldn't blame entirely blame consumerism for why we won't work less.

A lot of things have gone up drastically in price in the '30s: higher education (which "everyone" is encouraged to get, from "every" adult figure in their life, from about 6th grade on. Wasn't like that in the '30s); housing; medicine.

In the '30s my great uncle was given a house as a wedding present. His siblings also got houses when they got married. Can you imagine something like that today? Gifting your children something that, in today's age, costs $100,000 (and sometimes 2x-3x more)?!

Of course we buy more things, and I know my grandparents didn't spend money on a smartphone every 2 years or have a $100/month cable bill. But blowing $2K on a TV is a drop in the bucket when you have a $200K mortgage (aka: debt).

I'm willing/able to live cheaply, and buy less things, but my creditors (the big three, above) want their bills paid. So I can't "just" work half time at the code factory and get paid 50% less, because I have debts the like which people in the '30s would have no idea about.

("You mean going to the doctor could be 1-2 months worth of take home pay, even with this 'insurance' that costs 10% of your take home pay??")

I'm not really up on what the standard of living was like in the 30's, but is it really possible working 10 hours per week? That would barely pay rent in most places.

The trick is getting into a government subsidized housing program, making use of food stamps, and taking as many other handouts as you can get. A former friend does this and works about 10 hours a week as a dishwasher (sometimes more if they have a busy week) spending the rest of his time playing video games or reading Objectivist literature.

" reading Objectivist literature " while on food stamps?

Clearly he is doing so from curiosity and not conviction.

Or get some serious skillz and a good gig.

In rural areas, 1930's living did not include amenities like plumbing or electricity in most places. In urban areas, you're looking at an interior room in a cold water tenement or a boarding house type situation.

It would be tough to do it in the city without becoming a victim of crime, but you can pull it off in many rural areas. Note that the 10 hours of work would be paid work. You'd be doing all sort of tasks on your own behalf. If you lived in the northern US, for example, right now you'd be chopping wood and preserving food in preparation for winter, for example.

Right, which leads to the question: which is the more "bullshit" job? Adding widgets to Facebook at $100k per year? Or unpaid time chopping wood to burn for fuel? Both of them lead to a warm room in the winter, but one is exhausting, dangerous, unpaid, and incredibly ineffecient.

You can have home, land, and installation of home on land for about 25K, if you're willing to settle for small values of each. Ebay has cheap land in rural places. You can buy a new manufactured home for less than 20K: https://www.factoryexpomobilehomes.com/micro.asp . You can get ten years' supply of basic food for probably $3000, depending on exactly what you get, from Costco: http://www.costco.com/emergency-kits-supplies.html . After property taxes and septic installation and other miscellaneous niceties, if you round up to 36K, that's basically $250 a month that you'd need to clear after taxes.

Edit: for 10 years; I'm assuming you'll have to replace such a cheap home after 10 years, but if not, the amortized cost is considerably lower.

Well, you'd need to move somewhere rents are really low. Rents were lower back then because rent is largely a zero-sum game, but they've risen a lot more in city cores.

Actually, you should probably buy your own house. In a lot of places that's quite cheap; if there's low competition for space, it wouldn't take very long at 40 hours/week (living a cheap place) before you can afford your own.

You forget that nasty reality called property and school taxes. In reality, one never owns one's home. You own it as long as you can pay any remaining mortgage and all the taxes. Let's also not forget maintenance costs. Ever paid the bill to replace a leaking roof or kitchen appliances or...

Deprecation of assets via property tax is an incredibly good idea. When you don't have that, people see property as a speculative asset class, buy property, do nothing productive with it and...that's basically the Chinese property bubble.

Yes, you must pay taxes on your home, but that's because your home is consuming resources from the locality even if it is owned outright.

The grand parent made a really good point. Lets say I don't want to consume local resources. I still have to pay taxes. As far as I know, this is true in the US and Canada. I believe this may not be true elsewhere. Regardless, the "having to pay taxes" has implications such that one can never completely leave the rat race.

Btw ... I'd be happy to be corrected. Are there places in the US/Canada without such taxes? Since they are levied locally, I imagine they could exist.

The mere existence of your land imposes a burden on local resources. Unless it's completely paved over (unlikely) it may start on fire, which may spread to nearby property. Paved over or not, it may be used by people without your permission as a base for criminal activity, necessitating a police response whether you want it or not.

Let's say it was paved, and a solid steel structure built with a roof so steep it was of no practical use to humans. You've eliminated the fire and criminal issues, but now rainwater runoff is flooding the road and your neighbors' property, you're causing ecological damage by eliminating vegetation and animal habitats, and you're blocking sunlight from your neighbors' yards.

And since you're not consuming local resources, that means you have no way to get to or from your property, so really, what good is it to you anyway?

There is no practical way for you to go about your life that has zero impact on those around you. So yes, you must always, to some extent, deal with the reality that there are other humans on this planet.

Country property taxes are generally pretty low in rural areas. Not zero mind you, it's the local gov's primary source of funding barring states sales tax, and gosh forbid if there are kids in the county to be schooled. If you don't want to pay property taxes, move to a fourth world country like Somalia.

China doesn't have property taxes, but the schools are underfunded and local governments are addicted to condemning farmer property and reselling it to run the cities. Not to mention the bubbles that result, since you can just sit on property as a static investment if it isn't taxed annually. Property taxes are good, trust me, the alternative (being priced out of the market by speculators) suck.

Water, sanitation, road or port facilities usage, etc are probably still 'local'.

Rents are only zero-sum because somebody figured out how to price-fix realty. In a healthy world you will have lotta new beautiful towns and affordable rent everywhere (but a select few historic places).

But the cost of "luxury" items has declined a lot since the 30's how much did a TV or a Car cost in the 30's compared to today.

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