I am trying to understand how human beings create value through their actions, and what that implies for humanity. Although this goal is hardly original, and has occupied much brighter thinkers than me for much of their lives, it is a necessary step in defining Foundationalism, because how we occupy our hands and minds, and what effects that has on us and society, are critical components of human flourishing. And the economic path we have been on for the past several decades has led to the opposite of human flourishing, surface appearances notwithstanding. To guide us to flourishing, we must understand why that is, and what can be done differently.
I am beginning with this lightweight book (and will move on to heavyweight books, such as Karl Polanyi’s The Great Transformation). The core complaint of the author, David Graeber, a British anthropologist, is that a substantial majority of the white collar work in British and American society is valueless to society and damaging to the worker. They have “bullshit jobs.” He defines such jobs as any job that is “pointless, unnecessary, or pernicious,” and where that is obvious to the worker himself. Graeber admits that all of his data is qualitative, mostly gained by responses to his request on Twitter for people to tell him about their jobs. That means this book is anecdotes all the way down. This is not as much of a defect as it seems, though, since these are matters that benefit more from thought than quantification. Yes, the book has many defects, among them lack of focus and mediocre writing, but the questions Graeber raises are worth raising.
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The author divides BS jobs into different, mushy categories, but if you pull back a little, they all boil down to the same thing—their performance adds no value to individuals, firms, or societies, other than payments made to the worker for his work. Merely unpleasant or boring jobs are not BS jobs, as long as they have a point. Basically, Graeber thinks a BS job is one where if the worker simply stopped working, nobody would notice, or care. Or, alternatively, one where if it were made illegal, no black market would develop (a clever definition, though one only offered in a footnote, when it should have been front-and-center). Graeber also points out that BS jobs are not just useless to society, but spiritually bad for workers. People do not want to live a purposeless life. Channeling the much better writing of Matthew Crawford (whom he does not cite), he accurately points out that people want mastery and agency, not just a paycheck. “Compensatory consumerism,” as Graeber calls it, is not compensatory, although that is all that is offered in our current setup.
What is the specific cast of BS jobs, given that employment in sectors of the economy such as agriculture and manufacturing has shrunk, and BS jobs have grown? (True, Graeber does not demonstrate they have grown; this is more of a convincing, but not proved, premise.) Services have grown enormously as a percentage of total employment, and it is there that most BS jobs are found, Graeber says. But he makes a key distinction: “services” lumps together true services, such as waiters and plumbers, with “information,” meaning “administrators, consultants, clerical and accounting staff, IT professionals, and the like.” We hear “information” and think “technology”; this is false—it’s actually paper pushers, with a very high percentage of BS jobs.
And of these information jobs, a vast number of them are tied to “finance capital.” Here the rubber meets the road. Finance capital includes not just Goldman Sachs and Chase Bank, but also many related and ancillary services, such as corporate law and much accountancy. I have long been down on the finance sector, but have been unable to clearly formulate why it is parasitical and essentially worthless, to the extent it employs more people than in, say, 1960. Graeber sheds some light. “In a way, one could argue that the whole financial sector is a scam of sorts, since it represents itself as largely about directing investments toward profitable opportunities in commerce and industry, when, in fact, it does very little of that. The overwhelming bulk of its profits comes from colluding with government to create, and then to trade and manipulate, various forms of debt. All I am really arguing in this book is that just as much of what the financial sector does is basically smoke and mirrors, so are most of the information-sector jobs that accompanied its rise as well.”
Graeber claims that the existence of massive numbers of BS jobs disproves oft-made claims about economics. “Economies around the world have, increasingly, become vast engines for producing nonsense. . . . [T]he fact that so many people are being paid to do nothing in the first place defies all our assumptions about how market economies are supposed to work.” In the eyes of libertarians and so-called free market conservatives, who think the largely unfettered free market necessarily leads to optimal outcomes, the value of work is in the eye of the beholder, and all that matters is whether someone is willing to pay at the margin for the work. If so, it must have value. Orthodox Marxists similarly claim that the existence of BS jobs is an illusion. In Graeber’s mind, both are disproven by the empirical evidence.
Graeber is at pains to deny that the problem is caused by government. He’s not very convincing. First, the claimed rise in BS jobs tightly parallels the rise in regulation, since 1970. Second, the vast majority of his anecdotal examples are either directly ordered by government regulation, or are second-hand effects of government regulation. Most of his BS jobs that are technically in the private sector involve either compliance with government mandates or evasion of them. Graeber thinks it is some kind of slam-dunk argument that because administrators have, supposedly, grown at a more rapid rate at private colleges than at public colleges, government is not the major problem. He ignores that private colleges are both wholly insulated from actual private enterprise and are, in essence, arms of the government and heavily regulated by it, both directly and indirectly. (I suspect, too, that there is a direct link between the growth of BS degrees, such as gender studies and the like, and the growth of BS jobs, since nothing of value has been learned that could be of value to any employer producing value, so the only possible type of job for such a graduate is a BS job.) Graeber then points out how big business, especially big finance business, spends enormous sums on lobbying to demand more regulation of themselves, thereby achieving rent-seeking goals, then pretends the regulation was imposed without their will. Yet he claims this is not a problem with government, but rather one with private business, which is at best half-true.
But, totally aside from government, it is certainly true that BS jobs are not automatically eliminated by the free market. I used to be a mergers and acquisitions lawyer and I’ve seen how a lot of companies work; it is a total myth that companies evolve toward efficiency due to competitive pressures. This myth is beloved of strategy professors at business schools (none of whom, of course, have ever run a business). (Strategy, like leadership, is something that simply can’t be taught, and all people who purport to teach either should be fired.) Most big companies (and, to be fair, organizations) are a seething mass of chaos, laziness, and incompetence; all the productive activities are done by a small minority of the employees, who usually are simply hindered by the rest, and have to spend much of their time routing around the incompetence and the incompetents. This is, of course, why “Dilbert” is funny—because it’s true, and everyone knows it. So even were government not to be the largest impetus for BS jobs, they would probably still exist, if in smaller quantities. This means there are really two distinct types of BS jobs—those driven by government requirements, which technically actually fail Graeber’s definition, since the work is pointless, but not optional. And true BS jobs, generated by and within the private sector.
More generally, I’m curious if BS jobs are purely a modern phenomenon, or have always been around. I suspect primarily the former, but I don’t know. I wonder if Max Weber said anything about BS jobs. Are there BS jobs in today’s China? Those things would be fascinating to know, but you won’t learn any longitudinal history, or get cross-cultural comparative analysis, from this book.
So what explains the existence of BS jobs? Graeber isn’t terribly clear, but he characterizes it overall as “neo-feudalism.” By this he seems to mean five things. First, that profit maximizing is not the goal of most modern organizations. Rather, it is to engage in “appropriating, distributing, and allocating money and resources.” “Managerialism has become the pretext for creating a new covert form of feudalism, where wealth and position are allocated not on economic but political grounds. . . .” Second, having people working for your organization, but doing nothing, if you are in charge, is a reflection of your glory, just like a medieval lord supposedly had useless people hanging around. Third, offering pseudo-history about the moral imperatives of work over time as opposed to Marx’s labor theory of value, Graeber claims we have all internalized an ethic that doing something purposeless, as long as it is “work,” is more moral than not working. Fourth, “The ruling class has figured out that a happy and productive population with free time on their hands is a mortal danger.” He reaches this conclusion on a “cui bono?” analysis—if more wealth and power has shifted to the ruling class, and organized challenges to their power such as unions have been destroyed, keeping the workers busy with make-work prevents those organized challenges from recurring (he ignores that this reduces wealth and power, since the workers have to be paid, and that organizing can be combined with working). Fifth, he claims automation did kill the jobs; we just made up new BS ones, and then tells us (I am not kidding) that “fully automated luxury communism” is therefore possible.
None of these parallel explanations is real convincing, although it’s hard to get a grip on them in order to engage with them. Regardless, Graeber ends with a call for Universal Basic Income, while disclaiming that he’s making a policy prescription, in order that he not be required to defend something quantitative. UBI would allow people to walk away from soul-sucking BS jobs, making their continuance unlikely, which certainly seems true. But if it is true that most BS jobs are created by government directives of one type or another, then those jobs are not really “pointless or unnecessary,” and someone would still have to fill them. They might have to be paid more, but the government doesn’t care about that. Still, I have a certain sympathy for UBI, as I have described in my review of Andrew Yang’s recent book, and it is certainly true that if Graeber is right about BS jobs, UBI might have an impact on the numbers of people working in them.
Graeber’s conclusion is that, aside from UBI, his claims about BS jobs mean that Keynes was right—we could all be working fifteen-hour weeks. Were that to happen, Graeber, like Marx and early Communists, imagines that then everyone will spend his days creating art and philosophy, and thereby obtain agency and meaning. I doubt it. In today’s society, at least, vice is the most likely use of time. Alternatively, maybe we’d be better off with keeping forty-hour work weeks, and massively increasing output, though that would only have societal benefit if what we produced was not consumerist ephemera, but rather a purpose-directed society, say one devoted to the conquest of Space. Or maybe we could hugely benefit society by cutting overall outside-the-home employment hours for women, and not men, returning to the socially superior system whereby married women usually stayed home and raised children, more children than we have today.
Regardless, I can’t recommend this book. The reader learns very little, except for the premise, which is good as a thought experiment, and seems intuitively at least partially right, but is in no way proven. The book, annoyingly, lacks an index. The author spends a lot of time quoting tedious interlocutors, who say things such as “I [can’t] wait for full communism” and rejoice at their supposed rebellion in wearing discreet Communist paraphernalia to work. And then there are several ludicrous small errors that suggest lack of care in writing. No, “sheriff” does not come, via Norman Sicily, from anglicization of the Arabic sharif. It comes, as the OED says, from the Old English words for “shire” and “reeve,” and I knew that without consulting the OED. No, the job of footmen in Victorian England was not to “run alongside carriages checking for bumps in the road”; that function had long disappeared by the reign of Victoria. No, secretaries in the twentieth century did not do “80 to 90 percent of their bosses’ jobs,” and no, it would not be “fascinating to write a history of books, designs, plans, and documents attributed to famous men that were actually written by their secretaries.” No, the “main reason the Soviet economy worked so badly” was not “because they were never able to develop computer technology efficient enough to coordinate such large amounts of data automatically.” No, simply giving the cash spent on fostering children to their biological parents would not prevent the need for the children to be fostered. On balance, don’t read this book. Just read my review!
Now, let’s do some thinking of our own. Let’s assume there are in fact a very large number of BS jobs, and let’s imagine that everyone who has one simply stays home and reads Proust. What would happen? On Graeber’s premises, there would be no drop in actual value produced. Nothing bad would happen, since nothing that needed doing would stop being done. But it seems to me what would happen is that consumption would go down. Since our money supply is infinitely flexible, money is created to pay people to do BS jobs. That money would no longer be paid to those people (except if partially replaced by UBI). GDP would decline sharply (and monetary velocity would drop?), but as we can see, no actual immediate harm would come to the “real” economy; GDP would simply be more realistic. (I am turning next to Mariana Mazzucato’s The Value of Everything, which focuses on what GDP is as related to value, from which I hope to widen my understanding, which I freely admit is very incomplete on this and related topics.)
But in turn, those who formerly held BS jobs would now be unable to purchase goods and services that are not BS (since by definition all BS services will have disappeared). If demand for goods and services that are not BS declines, necessarily supply of those goods and services will decline. Real GDP would therefore soon decline as well, creating a downstream real effect. Graeber ignores this, simply assuming that the total number of hours worked in non-BS jobs will stay the same. Instead, it will go down, at least partially obviating his pleasant dream of fifteen-hour work weeks with no reduction in overall real output. If this is true, it suggests our entire economy is largely based on fictions, a game of musical chairs, kept going by debt, monetary manipulation, and the growth of BS jobs. (It appears, and I am sure that the Austrian School-types will like this analysis as much as they probably dislike the idea that BS jobs exist in defiance of economic orthodoxy, that what makes this possible is fiat currency. Whatever the many possible drawbacks of the gold standard, when fiat money did not exist, I am pretty sure there were no BS jobs.)
The only way to avoid this would be to substitute non-BS jobs for existing BS jobs. Let’s try the reverse line of thought. What if everyone dropped Proust and instead started working eighty-hour weeks (not necessarily outside the home—whatever GDP may include, work inside the home is still work, and often the most societally productive), at non-BS jobs that actually produced goods and services valued by others? (Society would also have to be relieved of all the government regulations that produce BS jobs.) Well, a lot of actual value would be produced. But if all the extra time worked was used to produce, say, more and more polished games for the iPhone, that isn’t really a benefit for society, even if it is technically value and not BS work. On the other hand, if it was used to produce the engineering and machines to conquer Space, or any other number of truly productive endeavors, it would be a benefit for society. Perhaps the distinction here is between activities that are primarily consumptive in nature, and have no overarching societal benefit, and those that are capital-increasing, and do have some overarching benefit.
Ah, but of what does that capital consist? As always, we should begin with the end in mind, and that end, for Foundationalism, is human flourishing within the constraints of reality. I think that a flourishing society is one with high aggregate social capital, as well as high aggregate tangible capital. In many ways, a society maximizes itself when, at the same moment, a man is building rockets to mine asteroids, a woman is raising and teaching her children, and a priest is bringing cheer to the sick and hope to the despairing. The cumulative capital of a civilization is hard to measure, but it exists, and it consists of many different things done by that civilization (but not, please note, all things done).
The ultimate discussion, and answer, then, is to figure out how society can best maximize actual value produced by the labor of its members. No doubt much of the answer is cultural, since central planning certainly isn’t going to do it (but I note that cultures that produce any significant amount of, much less maximize, aggregate capital are very rare throughout history). Such things are what I am going to ponder in my next several economics reviews; I will try not to drag it out too long, and I am eager for commentary from readers to help me guide my thoughts.
Many have already taken direct aim at the book for its faulty premise. At the micro-economic level, no job is bullsh*t if someone is willing to pay for it to be done. There is value to the one paying for it. That is definitional. You cannot “define away” the “value” of a job by simply claiming that no value is added to the economy or that no one would notice that the work is not being done or that no blackmarket would arise if the work was made illegal. The person/firm paying for the job would notice. The work being done may be bullsh*t from the standpoint of the person doing it, but not for the person/organization paying. Maybe the person/organization paying for the “work” is inefficient in that more is being paid than is necessary. But that STILL does not mean that the job is bullsh*t.
At the macro-economic level, as you have shown, no job is bullsh*t since all jobs have some impact on the economy at that level.
The book is bullsh*t but very smart marketing. It has a gr8 title and will sell enough copies to justify its writing and publication because lots of people think they have bullsh*t jobs and will buy it so they can be flattered by reading about themselves.
Anyway, the long view here is that this book is yet another look at alienation under modernity. For years, new words dress up the concept of alienation — like needing to have a “meaningful” “impactful” “purpose-filled” life — but it is the same ole same ole. The current costume is just as false as claiming that the purpose of life is the to “be happy.” Both conditions — meaningfulness and happiness — are byproducts of production and creativity. If you are alienated from your work, do something that is not alienating. If you are stuck with an alienating, soul-killing, bullsh*t job because you have bills to pay, make sure your leisure time is filled with non-alienating productivity. Producing — rather than just consuming — is the key. Be just a bit more self-sufficient. This is difficult since extraction capitalism exerts great corrosive pressure on individual and home production. Those are forms of competition. If you bake your own bread, you will not buy bread from the store. If my firm destroys your will, capacity and ability to bake bread, I can capture your home production as part of my market share.
Your post-Collapse new world will have to reconstruct the schools and family. Despite the pretense to the contrary, we are not taught anything in school that helps us lead meaningful lives because school teaches us nothing that helps us be self-sufficient. Restore shop, home economic and all the other vocational classes. Increasingly, we learn nothing at home about being self-sufficient. Certainly, nothing in culture, television, movies, etc., teaches or promotes this.
UBI will not promote self-sufficiency or productivity. It will just encourage laziness and more immigration, both of which will accelerate the Collapse. I agree that no one on UBI will be reading Proust; more likely, everyone will be watching more porn. Once instituted, UBI will also create a never-ending political demand for evermore UBI (just like we’ve seen with minimum wage laws). Who could possibly live on $1200 a month? So, gimme gimme gimme more. UBI is just another mechanism for creating physical and mental weaklings based on the politics of emotion; boo hoo hoo, someone thinks their job is bullsh*t so — OBEY — and vote for UBI.
I look forward to your review of The Great Transformation. (FYI, there is a double sentence in the fifth paragraph from the bottom).
I think the first claim is entirely wrong. The marginal theory of value is a fantasy to the extent it is deemed to always be operative. It embodies the common error of viewing man as homo economicus; no doubt Thaler, et al., had thoughts on this, though I haven’t studied them. It is simply wrong that’s how everyone approaches every transaction, I think.
Even beyond that, of course, a job may have no value to society, whether or not it has value to the payer (or the person making the decision to force someone else to pay).
Alienation is sometimes, but by no means always, addressable by production and creativity. The search for transcendence is universal, but meaning is provided by other things as well–most notably religion, but also other things that are not productivity (at least in the narrow sense) or creativity, such as raising children.
Certainly you are onto something with consumerist capitalism attempting to manipulate social behavior to sell more stuff to people. More thoughts to come on that, though!
Crawford’s two books (linked in the review) expand on your thoughts on self-sufficiency as it relates to meaning; they are both quite good. And I agree with you on UBI, for the most part, as I outline in my Yang review. Interesting theory, unworkable in practice except in a homogeneous, tightly self-controlled society–where it would not be needed or useful, and would just encourage vice.
And fixed the sentence–thanks! More responses to earlier comments to come . . . .
The correct locus for the analysis of “bullshit” jobbery — that is, low or negative job utility — is not the individual or the employer, but society overall. So, of course the worker himself benefits — he’s being paid! And typically his employer isn’t wasting money, at least in the sense that it needs him there to comply with some bullshit regulation or just the general bullshit legal environment.
I disagree with our host in that I don’t the subjective theory of value is wrong per se — I agree with you that it can be usefully viewed as always operating by definition. However I will agree with him that this is often not very helpful. People have motives well beyond the mere monetary. They do all sorts of things that at least on the surface level of analysis — looking only at the exchange of tangible things — don’t make economic sense. I.e.: we tip, even in a restaurant which we know we’ll never be in again. Certainly one can explain this kind of stuff as “getting value for value” in some subjective sense — i.e., if you don’t tip you’ll feel bad. But it does require explanation beyond a mere noting of the physical goods being exchanged — in the case of a tip, money for nothing.
Yes, the worker benefits from being paid, but on balance, he may be worse off psychologically or spiritually. And yes, I don’t deny that it must be true that people who do things do them for some set of reasons, not randomly. But that’s a different claim that that man is homo economicus.
I used to work for a government agency, and a knew a manager there who once told me this :
“In the public sector, only 10% of the people actually get the work done. In the private sector its TOTALLY different – its 20%.”
Funny, but sadly, too true…
And you might check out The Future of Capitalism for a good discussion of rent-seeking activities across the economy (in law, finance, lobbying and real estate). To which I’d also add most campaign expenditures (which ran into the billions during the 2016 cycle).
What productive purpose does that serve? It only makes politicians beholden to those giving them billions of dollars.
Would we be worse off if much much less was spent on non-substantive TV ads? I think not. Complete deadweoight loss, as the economists say.
All true. It relates to the question of whether all advertising is a deadweight loss–perhaps not in the technical sense, but in the sense I am talking about with respect to societal value.
Anyone heard of George Strigler? It’s not really a novel idea to use the power of the King (state) to protect and create rules/legislation that protect aristocracy. In many communist countries (extremely large bureaucracy/red tape univers) having a job/position of a paper pusher was the most desired outcome one wanted. I suppose that large corporations have similarities regarding this aspect of management. It probably has the benefit of easily finding scapegoats from time to time. Someone to blame is always needed.
A strong King needed alliance with members of the nobility. A weak King was used by the aristocracy to get more from the public wealth/taxation power of the central authority. As such the American President position might look like a strong one, while most of the administering power of it is used by career burocrats.
Also the ritualistic channeling of popular attention every 4 years or so gives the impression that is a type of scapegoating type of position. Regulatory capture and the very plutocratic political discourse of this time might look unprecedented.
The state of ultra cultural fragmentation is the very intention of modern propaganda. Extremely hard to unite when we have so many reasons to be divided.
Lord Jesus Christ have mercy on me the sinner! Can anyone recommended 10-15 good Christ centered Christmas children movies? Santa is not Christ.
Interestingly, Stigler wrote the Forward to Karl Polanyi’s The Great Transformation, which I am reviewing soon. But your point about jobs as paper pushers being valuable under various systems, valuable to those in charge that is, is one that Graeber makes with his claims about neo-feudalism. But it’s still not a productive use of labor!
There are mighty few good children’s Christmas movies, if any. I’ve looked.
I did have a question about this comment “a society maximizes itself when, at the same moment, a man is building rockets to mine asteroids, a woman is raising and teaching her children”
Is it necessary that it’s the man building the rockets while the woman raises and teaches the children. Can it be the woman building the rockets while the man raises and teaches the children?
Yes, it is necessary. In theory, of course, in isolated individual circumstances it could be the reverse. But a well-run society reflects reality, and that includes fairly rigid sex roles, the traditional versions of which existed for excellent reasons. And on average, men are better at, in several different ways, building rockets, and women are better at, in several different ways, teaching (and raising generally) children.
I’m going to expand on this at some length next month, in the context of Foundationalism in the context of a review of Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique.
That’s curious – because the prevailing research shows that there is no average gender difference in STEM ability between boys and girls. I look forward to reading your thoughts on that book and I hope it addresses these claims with historical evidence.
Having read The Feminine Mystique, I look forward to this! Here’s a nudge.
Yeah, I’m working on it. There is a lot going on right now, for various reasons (good stuff, not some kind of personal crisis). I’ll be back to full output soon, I hope!
That’s curious. The prevailing research suggests there is no average gender difference in STEM ability. I look forward to your review of that book, but I hope it provides evidence to back up the claim that rigid sex-roles of the traditional type are a net-positive compared to the modern arrangement where women work and men raise kids.
Hmmmm . . . I’d be interested in pointers to that (on STEM ability). My initial impression is that is totally false. Certainly, for example, the long-known fact of higher variance in male IQs is pretended by recent “research” to not actually be true. But such research in, say, the past 20 years, can never be trusted, since if the researcher gets the correct result, he is richly rewarded, and if he does not, his career is over. See Summers, Larry.
And, of course, ability is not the same thing as interest. As Jordan Peterson points out, as seen in Scandinavian countries, the more choice women have, the more they pick traditionally female occupations.
I’m probably getting ahead of myself, but I doubt very much that any significant number of families with both a mother and a father have the father raising kids while the woman works. Sure, the NYT talks about them all the time. But they’re not real, and to the extent they are, they are probably both corrosive and problematic for other reasons.
There’s a lot more to think about, though . . . .
No average sex differences in STEM ability? Oh come on. (Yes I know you said “gender”, but you meant “sex”. Gender is, according to modernity, all in our heads; invisible and unmeasurable except via completely subject self-report — so it’s not worth arguing over. Perhaps all the male faces you are about to see are transwomen inside.)
Certainly if you know anything about humans you know that most of our traits, if measured, form bell curves. And if you know anything about statistics, you know that the difference between bell curves becomes much more pronounced in the tails. So, if you want a simple but effective “lyin’ eyes” test of which sex is better at STEM, then all you need to do is find samples of people with ability at the highest levels, then take a gander at the proportions of both sexes. So, for example: the international mathematics olympiad. Or the how about the winners of the fields medal? Winners of a Nobel in Physics?
Or perhaps more to the specific point here: how about rocket scientists at SpaceX?
But really it’s not like we lack solid data on sexual IQ differences. I am sure you are aware of the SAT, which is basically an IQ test with both “math” and “other intelligence” subcomponents. And sure enough, young men as a whole always easily outscore young women on the math (and slightly on the non-math). Here’s an article on that(their bold):
Actualy girls lack one other big thing which boys have: boys tend to like STEM.
As for the “prevailing” research — perhaps the research you are thinking of does prevail. But please ask yourself: why does it prevail? It prevails because it is widely reported. The media reports on the research they like, and fail to report on the research they do not like. Two points for guessing if the media prefer research that finds equality or inequality. Hint: equality is the religion of our age.
Rather than Bullshit Jobs which I think can be notoriously hard to get a clear definition on, we can rather classify jobs as parasitic and non-parasitic. Parasitic jobs are jobs that do not in any way increase the economic pie, non-parasitic jobs enlarge the economic pie. The ideal goal of the society is to have as large a percentage as possible of non-parasitic jobs though some amount of parasitism will always exist.
I’ll provide some examples to explain what I mean. A great movie made by Christopher Nolan (I’m a fanboy) is non-parasitic even though it does not obviously increase the economic pie. The argument can be made that in a spiritual and meta-physical manner, it enriches human life and thus is non-parasitic. All great and lesser works of art should fall into this category. Porn however is parasitic. It parasitises upon base human instincts and doesn’t leave anyone better off having consumed it. This does imply that a definite value system must exist to judge jobs, and the Christian value system in my opinion works well.
Going to less complex examples, Diversity Inclusion Officers that every megacorp hires is obviously parasitic. Lawyers for the most part are parasitic, and a society that requires less lawyering is healthier. Stock market Investing, when it goes beyond investment into pure speculation (such that the money never actually flows to the company in question) is parasitic. Though this does fall quite a bit into a grey area, since even stock market investing after the initial sale never goes back to the company, yet I don’t think it is as parasitic as options trading. If you have a million dollars, to grow it you decide to give it to a bank that invests in options, all that really is happening is a wealth transfer from betting individuals. No increase of the pie, the increase in liquidity is never substantial enough to justify the job, I think we would be better off if we banned options and forced all these math whizzes to go into maths and engineering instead.
A large amount of engineering isn’t parasitic, but engineering in a large corporate whose main customer is the govt like Boeing is parasitic (anecdotal experience, most of Boeing is corporate politics with make work and very less engineering)
I think this definition of mine captures the intuition of what we recognise as Bullshit jobs well
Good analysis, and I was having quite similar thoughts last week, though I was thinking in terms of social capital-increasing and social capital-decreasing, and history teachers rather than Nolan. Same thing, really. I now have a new arrow in my quiver!
This book is one of a handful that I read before ever stumbling upon this treasure trove of your work. I have to hand it to Graeber, peace be upon him, this work really had an impact on me. The phenomena is certainly real. To those who know a little about free market economics, bullshit jobs are nearly all explained as function of malinvestment caused by market distortions.
Now that I’ve listened to most if not all of your podcast interviews it seems this book made a similar impact on you. I think you’ve brought it up more than any other book and I don’t blame you. The concept must be proliferated in rightwing circles. You’re a fitting champion of it.
Thank you. Certainly, the Wuhan Plague has exposed this even more. It is merely a question of when, now.