david graeber

Friday assorted links

1. PBA cards, and implicit trades with police.

2. Australia: “Lawyers and civil liberty groups have expressed concerns about the way a pregnant woman was arrested at her home in Ballarat for allegedly encouraging people to take part in an anti-lockdown rally.”  I guess she didn’t have a good enough PBA card.

3. The football culture that is Fargo.  10,000 at an indoors game?  And is a two-puffin photo twice as good as a one-puffin photo?

4. Should a consortium of 45 hospitals defy the FDA’s directive on convalescent plasma and run an RCT instead?

5. New data on the Russian vaccine.

6. Obituary for David Graeber.

7. MIE: The Japanese companies that help people vanish.

*Bull Shit Jobs: A Theory*

That is the new and entertaining book by David Graeber, probably you already have heard of it.  Here is a brief summary.

Coming from academia, I am sympathetic to the view that not everyone is productive, or has a productive job. And my ongoing series “Those new service sector jobs…” is in part reflecting the wonder of the market in providing so many obscure services, but also in part a genuine moral query as to how many of these activities actually are worthwhile.  You are supposed to have mixed feelings when reading those entries, just as with “Markets in Everything.”

Still, I think Graeber too often confuses “tough jobs in negative- or zero-sum games” with “bullshit jobs.”  I view those as two quite distinct categories.  Overall he presents the five types of bullshit jobs as flunkies, goons, duct tapers, box tickers, and taskmasters, but he spends too much time trying to lower the status of these jobs and not enough time investigating what happens when those jobs go away.

He doubts whether Oxford University needs “a dozen-plus” PR specialists.  I would be surprised if they can get by with so few.  Consider their numerous summer programs, their need to advertise admissions, how they talk to the media and university rating services, their relations with China, the student lawsuits they face, their need to manage relations with Oxford the political unit, and the multiple independent schools within Oxford, just for a start.  Overall, I fear that Graeber’s managerial intelligence is not up to par, or at the very least he rarely convinces me that he has a superior organizational understanding, compared to people who deal with these problems every day.

A simple experiment would vastly improve this book and make for a marvelous case study chapter: let him spend a year managing a mid-size organization, say 60-80 employees, but one which does not have an adequately staffed HR department, or perhaps does not have an HR department at all.  Then let him report back to us.

At that point we’ll see who really has the bullshit job.

Tuesday assorted links

1. “And moreover, the moment that anyone expresses outrage, he will call them a “mood affiliator…””

2. “You can say anything you like about sex nowadays, but the moment the topic turns to fiscal policy, there are endless things that everyone knows, that are even written up in textbooks and scholarly articles, but no one is supposed to talk about in public.”  That is David Graeber, in one of the most bizarre pieces I have read of late.

3. Yeti sightings are down.

4. Will the Cadillac Tax boost wagesIs Spotify hurting the music industry?

5. Knausgaard on Houllebecq does not disappoint.

6. The arms race for anti-drone weapons.  And Google wishes to enter drone delivery.

7. China’s covert radio network.

What I’ve been reading

1. David Graeber, The Utopia of Rules: on Technology, Stupidity, and the Secret Joys of Bureaucracy.  Don’t judge Graeber by his mistakes or by how he responds (doesn’t respond) to criticism.  This one is still more interesting to read than most books.  In fact, most of us quite like bureaucracy.

2. John Gray, The Soul of the Marionette: A Short Inquiry into Human Freedom.  The usual dose of pessimism, with a choppier argument and a slightly larger typeface than usual.  It induced me to order Mr. Weston’s Good Wine.  In any case, I’ll still buy the next one, engaging with John Gray if nothing else has become a ritual.  I once predicted to Jim Buchanan that John would end up converting to Catholicism, but I still am waiting.

3. Juan Goytisolo.  I’ve tried to read a bunch of his books, so far they all bore me, in both Spanish and English, the fault is probably mine.  Various sophisticates suggest he is great, should I keep on trying?

4. Oliver Burkeman, The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking.  He is one of the best non-fiction essay writers, and he remains oddly underrated in the United States.  It is no mistake to simply buy his books sight unseen.  I think of this book as “happiness for grumps.”

5. Harry G. Gelber, The Dragon and the Foreign Devils: China and the World, 1100 B.C. to the Present.  No, this isn’t the best Chinese history book.  But it is the one most written in a way that you will remember its contents, and in this context that is worth a lot.

Assorted links

Hard Social Science Fiction: Neptune’s Brood

Hard science-fiction is science fiction that respects the findings and constraints of contemporary science. By analogy, I deem hard social science fiction* to be science fiction that respects the findings and constraints of contemporary social science especially economics but also politics, sociology and other fields. Absent specific technology device such as a worm-hole, hard science fiction rejects faster than light travel as little more than fantasy. I consider Eden-like future communist societies similarly fantastical. Nothing wrong with fantasy as entertainment, of course, just so long as you don’t try to implement it here on earth.

Charles Stross is one of my favorite hard social science fiction authors. Stross writes both hard science-fiction and hard social-science fiction, sometimes in the same book and sometimes not. The Merchant Prince series, for example is hard social-science fiction drawing on development economics with a fantasy walk-between-the-worlds element while Halting State is hard-hard science-fiction set in the near future (n.b. HS memorably begins with a bank robbery from Hayek associates).

Stross’s latest, Neptune’s Brood, is hard-hard science-fiction set far in the future and perhaps best illustrated with this telling quote:

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that every interstellar colony in search of good fortune must be in need of a banker.

Although set far in the future, Neptune’s Brood contains plenty of commentary on recent events if one reads it carefully for hidden meaning, i.e. a Strossian reading. It is no accident, for example, that it opens with a quote from David Graeber’s Debt and finishes with altruist squids.

Neptune’s Brood is Stross’s attempt to understand money by thinking about what money and banking would look like given interstellar travel and relativity. Not surprisingly, Stross draws upon Paul Krugman’s Theory of Interstellar Trade and also (perhaps less explicitly) on the new monetary economics of Fama, Black, Hall, Cowen and Krozner. One plot point turns on what might happen should the velocity of money increase dramatically! I was also pleased that privateers make an appearance.

Hard social-science fiction is not just about economics. NB also contains interesting commentary on technology, religion, social organization, reproduction and their mutual influences. I wouldn’t put NB at the top of my list of Stross favorites but I enjoyed Neptune’s Brood and you need not let the commentary interfere with the story itself which in Stross fashion moves along at a rapid clip with plenty of enjoyable action and mystery. Recommended.

* yes, it should probably be hard social-science science-fiction but that is too much of a mouthful.

BS Jobs and BS Economics

David Graeber’s peculiar article on bullshit jobs (noted earlier by Tyler) does have one redeeming feature, a great example of poor economic reasoning:

…in our society, there seems a general rule that, the more obviously one’s work benefits other people, the less one is likely to be paid for it.  Again, an objective measure is hard to find, but one easy way to get a sense is to ask: what would happen were this entire class of people to simply disappear? Say what you like about nurses, garbage collectors, or mechanics, it’s obvious that were they to vanish in a puff of smoke, the results would be immediate and catastrophic. A world without teachers or dock-workers would soon be in trouble…

This, of course, is just the diamond-water “paradox”–why are diamonds, mere baubles, so expensive while water, a necessity of life, is so cheap?–the paradox was solved over a hundred years ago by…wait for it…can you guess?….the marginal revolution. Water is cheap and its value low because the supply of water is so large that the marginal value of water is driven down close to zero. Diamonds are expensive because the limited market supply keeps the price and marginal value high. Not much of a paradox. Note that, contra Graeber, there is nothing special about labor in this regard or “our society.”

Moreover, it’s good that prices are determined on the margin. We would be very much the poorer, if all useful goods were expensive and only useless goods were cheap.

Assorted links

1. The growing importance of mall kiosks.

2. MIE: ugly Christmas sweaters.

3. David Warsh on all the recent hullaballoo.

4. Will the Chinese experiment with full convertibility into the New Zealand dollar?

5. Noted law professor leaves academic to do acupuncture, and profile of David Graeber and his anarchism.

6. A note on self-defeating austerity.  I say if you engage in “austerity” today and your fiscal situation responds fine in the short run, the austerity was probably, fiscally speaking, an OK thing to do.  If you have some festering problems seventeen years from now, I would consider blaming the decisions, or lack of decisions, which get made in the interim.  If anything the utter OKness of the short run effects means a government has slack to deal with the longer run; this is an ongoing decision tree.  By relying so heavily on an difficult to observe, difficult to causally trace yet somehow carved in stone long run, this argument is looking more and more like the old Laffer Curve.

Why were we obsessed with flying cars?

David Graeber has a fascinating albeit uneven essay about our changing visions of the future, here is one excerpt:

Why, these analysts wonder, did both the United States and the Soviet Union become so obsessed with the idea of manned space travel? It was never an efficient way to engage in scientific research. And it encouraged unrealistic ideas of what the human future would be like.

Could the answer be that both the United States and the Soviet Union had been, in the century before, societies of pioneers, one expanding across the Western frontier, the other across Siberia? Didn’t they share a commitment to the myth of a limitless, expansive future, of human colonization of vast empty spaces, that helped convince the leaders of both superpowers they had entered into a “space age” in which they were battling over control of the future itself? All sorts of myths were at play here, no doubt, but that proves nothing about the feasibility of the project.

And this bit:

The growth of administrative work [in universities] has directly resulted from introducing corporate management techniques. Invariably, these are justified as ways of increasing efficiency and introducing competition at every level. What they end up meaning in practice is that everyone winds up spending most of their time trying to sell things: grant proposals; book proposals; assessments of students’ jobs and grant applications; assessments of our colleagues; prospectuses for new interdisciplinary majors; institutes; conference workshops; universities themselves (which have now become brands to be marketed to prospective students or contributors); and so on.

As marketing overwhelms university life, it generates documents about fostering imagination and creativity that might just as well have been designed to strangle imagination and creativity in the cradle. No major new works of social theory have emerged in the United States in the last thirty years.

Interesting throughout, as they say.  For pointers I thank Umung Varma and Kevan Huston.

*The Occupy Handbook*

I have an essay in that book co-authored with Veronique de Rugy.  Other contributors include Paul Krugman, Robin Wells, Michael Lewis, David Graeber, Peter Diamond, Emmanuel Saez, Ariel Dorfman, Barbara Ehrenreich, Jeff Sachs, and Nouriel Roubini, among others.

Our essay is an…outlier…in the volume.  Here is one bit:

Wall Street has contributed to some very real problems, but the core issues for poor Americans are often health care, education, and the cost of renting an apartment of buying a house.  The best way to improve living standards and increase options for future success is to move toward greater competition and accountability in each of those areas, areas that usually have little to do with the financial sector per se.

Our goal is to propose an alternative vision for what OWS should focus on.  You can buy the book here.

Assorted links

1. On the new EU deal, and here too, the Italian ten-year yield is down only a small amount.

2. On TGS, the excellent Edward Tenner.

3. Telemundo will start using some English subtitles and other smatterings of the language.

4. More on Italian small firms, and here is Henry’s post  but I think Italian small firms have to do better than just OK, once you consider the volatility of different sectoral fates.

5. Observations about successful fiscal adjustments, and economics Haiku.

6. Good profile of David Graeber.

The wit of the Irish?

What’s unusual about the Irish [medieval] material is that it’s all spelled out so clearly.  This is partly because Irish law codes were the work of a class of legal specialists who seem to have turned the whole thing almost into a form of entertainment, devoting endless hours to coming up with every possible abstract possibility.  Some of the provisos are so whimsical (“if stung by another man’s bee, one must calculate the extent of the injury, but also, if one swatted it in the process, subtract the replacement value of the bee”) that one has to assume they were simply jokes.

That is from David Graeber’s Debt: The First 5,000 Years.

What I’ve been reading

1. Andes, by Michael Jacobs.  Most travel books disappoint me, but I found this one interesting throughout, most of all the section on Venezuela.  It is conceptually strong and overall enthralling.

2. Sergio Chejfec, My Two Worlds. Are you deeply interested in how an Argentinean observer might phenomenologically regard a southern Brazilian city, combined with his philosophy of walking, in fictional form?  I am.  This may or may not be of general interest.

3. David Graeber, Debt: The First 5,000 Years.  Do you seek an overly verbose, sometimes fascinating synthesis of economic anthropology, early 20th century credit theories of money, and the history of debt?  The book overinterprets early historical evidence and falls apart as it approaches contemporary times, still it has a vitality which many other tracts lack.  Here is a chat with the author.

4. Wells Tower, Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned.  This Jonathan Miles quotation is better than anything I will come up with: “Tower’s stories [have] the kind of torque that’s so damnably rare these days in American short fiction, where the payoff tends to be the faint, jewel-box click of epiphany, the small tilting of a life.  Tower’s ambition is greater and brawnier than that.”

5. Charles Seife, Sun in a Bottle: The Strange History of Fusion and the Science of Wishful Thinking.  An excellent and compulsively readable history of the attempts to make fusion power work; I thank Gordon for the original pointer.

6. Aurel Schubert, The Credit-Anstalt Crisis of 1931, no further comment required.

Assorted links