Assorted links


4. Democratic Party VSPs haven't failed as utterly as their parallel, the intellectual vanguard of the Republican Party, the neocons.

Western society has been moving rightward, so the successful Democrats seem more squishy-centrist than radical-ideological, and vice versa for Republicans, and this has been happening for a generation. Furthermore, look at how Very Serious politicians become in, say, the euro area periphery when they get into government. Few implement ideas Paul Krugman likes, even though in theory those countries should be the biggest beneficiaries of his proposed alternatives (at least, the ones that are sufficiently big and closed to exploit a Keynesian multiplier).

"Western society has been moving rightward"

This is basically oxymoronic, unless you're engaged in the kind of definition manipulation that basically results in a discourse that can never amount to anything more than meaningless epithet-flinging.

I think he meant on economic issues. I'd cite as evidence of that the consensus that VERY high marginal tax rates and redistribution by regulation (rent controls, taxi medallions) are bad.

ThomasH discerns my thoughts correctly. The economic centre point nowadays is right of the centre point in 1980 on trade, taxation, unions and state-owned enterprises, and traditional socialism has died within the big centre-left parties (consider Roger Douglas, Blair, Schroeder, even Hollande). Some on both left and right delude themselves that the past was better, but the left are conflating the effects of their policies with the long post-war boom, and the right are forgetting the petty manipulations of governments in everyday economic life, especially outside the US.

If by moving "rightward" you mean increasing the degree of managerial socialism and magical thinking about the nature of man, then sure.

Well, managerialism is probably right wing. Is it hierarchical? Is it authoritarian? Is it contra-revolutionary? Is it working in the interests of the property owners/capitalists?

The word David Graeber is looking for is "rent-seeking".

Many jobs are increasingly "bullshit" as Graeber puts it. They're based on rent-seeking in either the public or private sectors: Public sector rent seeking in the form of delivering social goods to people so they can afford to engage in politics to get a bigger slice of social goods. Private sector rent seeking in the form of refusing to tax the network effect value of assets.

Taxing economic activity rather than taxing net assets creates highly concentrated capital that is immune from competition and risk averse -- private sector rent-seeking. On the public sector side there remains the rent-seeking of special interests using their government funding to support lobbying for more government funding to their particular "project"

I've been hired for jobs that were bullshit on day one. No rent seeking. The article wasn't that flawed or ridiculous. I think you and Tyler are thinking more macro when the article was micro.

I like this a lot. I'd only add that the private sector has within it the capacity to get less bad. The insurgent undermines the rent-seeking hegemon by attacking its inefficiencies. At some point, rent seeking loses its utility. No such process can happen in the public sphere. It is why health care and education suffer from the same defects as Soviet industry. Still, that leaves us with wine tasters, stock market analysts...

I am in British Columbia this week, in an ares where the big summertime industry is fly fishing - all catch and release. Taking fish out of the river and putting them back. I suppose some "utility" argument could make that "productive," but I think it is really based on a psychic connection to primitive fishing. It is ritual hunting without the taking. Perhaps those (us) fishers should hike, and meditate, instead. Rather than "fish bothering."

I believe the correct term is "fish molesting"!

On Graeber and bullshit jobs, I think there are two very telling ironies in his references to academia.

1) He lists "academic administration" as a bullshit job but not academics ourselves. It's in no way obvious to me why academic social scientists like Graeber and myself are not doing bullshit jobs. In some sense writing about how someone buys a sweater in Madagascar or how American radio stations decide to play "My Humps" is a bullshit activity that mostly serves to keep us busy. Certainly we're not making stuff. But of course anyone who has read material from say the UC Faculty Association will be familiar with arguments blaming everything on administrative growth (without noting that often as not it was the faculty ourselves who demanded the university create assistant subdeans of development for sustainable diversity initiatives).

2) He complains about academic self-governance being endlessly time-consuming. (At least that's how I read the "hired because they were excellent cabinet-makers, and then discover they are expected to spend a great deal of their time frying fish" thing). But wait a minute, Graeber is famous in part for being a horizontalist, which is to say that he is extremely reluctant to delegate decisions to executive authority. Thus he is a particularly extreme case of the twin gripes of academics "I spend too much time in meetings" and "why wasn't I consulted?" and like most academics doesn't really appreciate that the only way to solve one of these problems is to let go of the other.

re-reading it I see Graeber is explicit about the contradiction/irony/subtlety of point #1, although I still think he doesn't get problem #2.

#2: Is this author really a professor? How many people do you think work in a company such as Delta Airlines? Wiki says 80K. None of them actually manufactures planes, plane components or any tangible goods or byproducts besides lots of CO2. They just are part of the bullshit service economy according to Prof. Graeber. it's really hard to not laugh at him.

Huge swathes of people, in Europe and North America in particular, spend their entire working lives performing tasks they secretly believe do not really need to be performed

Did Graeber go and ask? I've met more people who think their job's more important than it really is.

Re Graeber's bullshit jobs. The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy previously recognized this problem, which the Golgafrinchams tried to solve using their B Ark (couldn't we use an imminent meteor impact/alien invasion for similar purposes, assuming we keep the modern equivalent of telephone sanitizers?). Unfortunately their plan resulted in the human population of the Earth, possibly providing a better explanation of our current predicament than Graeber's theory. I also recall that social anthropologists were part of the B Ark's complement.

"The ruling class has figured out that a happy and productive population with free time on their hands is a mortal danger": lame on so many levels.

Graeber really is silly.

Like all Marxists, he's hung up on the concept of alienation, so he calls a job bullshit when the worker thinks it's "meaningless, contribute[s] nothing to the world, and... should not really exist." So he completely neglects the perspective of the employer, i.e. the person who wanted the job done in the first place!

If my cleaner is happy to live in a messy apartment, she may think that cleaning mine is pointless. But that doesn't make her job bullshit, because I'm the one paying her, and I'm the one who wants it cleaned.

A real bullshit job is one where the employer doesn't even care if the work is done, or where the act of having the person employed is all that matters (e.g. Employing loads of servants just so you can say "Look how many servants I have"). That does happen - but mostly in bullshit fields like cultural anthropology.

So, in your model where employers are omniscient, how do you explain microsoft shareholders not kicking out Ballmer earlier to unlock those $18 billion in value that his departure resulted in?

I've read Salem's post three times, and I still can't find where he said they were omniscient, although it stands to reason that on average they'd have a better idea than the employee about the meaningfulness of the job TO THEM. Not that it's even an apt analogy since were talking about jobs not specific people, but playing along anyway, you complain that MS shareholders didn't recognize the drag Ballmer was having...well, neither did Ballmer, and I suspect he never would have.

Of course they recognized it, they reacted instantly the moment his departure was announced.

The point I was making is that the actual employers have no clue about who they're paying to do what. It's hidden behind 15 different information-asymmetric relationships. I don't really have to repeat the entirety of our knowledge of Corporate Finance, but it's obvious that the people in charge of hiring and firing decisions are 1) far removed from the shareholders, and 2) have completely different interests from them. So saying "we pay you therefore the job isn't bullshit" is ridiculous.

Agree. Graeber comes across as a pretentious douche- who appointed him arbiter of worthwhile/worthless activity? That call belongs solely to the person(s) funding it.

Yeah, I love this part....

"""While corporations may engage in ruthless downsizing, the layoffs and speed-ups invariably fall on that class of people who are actually making, moving, fixing and maintaining things; through some strange alchemy no one can quite explain, the number of salaried paper-pushers ultimately seems to expand""""

Yep, some "strange alchemy" out there causing them to expand at the same pace as the bloated regulatory state.

You all have some really high job satisfaction. The majority of office workers I know would agree that the project they are working could go away, and mankind would be just fine.

I'm really surprised that there is some much ranting against Graeber. Just because an employer is paying an employee to do something, does not mean the employer values the work. In large orgs the employer may have no idea of what the employee does. The value of my work has sometimes been to generate paper for the sake of generating paper. Just because I was paid to do so, and we are assuming that my employer actually wanted a report to dump into the circular filling cabinet, does not mean that I contributed anything to the world.

At any given time, I think at least half of the paper could be eliminated and society could move on just as well.

A few petty examples.

I had to travel for work. I had to fill out a request of travel and justify why I was going to travel. I didn't want to travel; my work was requiring it for their reasons. Why did I need to justify to travel, who has no idea what I do, why I needed to travel to do something I didn't think needed to be done in the first place? Then after travel authorized this training, I had to go to a different website to request airline tickets. I wasn't allowed to purchase them myself, and "travel" could only authorize, not purchase the tickets. All the information that I had entered into the first website had to be re-entered into the second. The second site gremlins, after a week of doing nothing, rejected my travel because the email given in one of the 100+ blocks was not the one I was supposed to use for this business unit. Guess what? Since the travel was rejected, I had to re-enter all the info from the first site from the beginning and redo from scratch.

I'm 37. This has been normal occurrence in my life since I resigned to my fate and became an adult. Maybe others older or younger or with better life choices are in different worlds than me. But the boundless incompetence of the white collar world that I inhabit could easily cut half of the nimrods out and still accomplish the same overall good it does today.

Kruger Industrial Smoothing.

#2 was hilarious. I liked this: "what does it say about our society that it seems to generate an extremely limited demand for talented poet-musicians?"

The interesting thing is that Keynes and Mr. Graeber had it backwards. If we think in terms of hours of work, instead of dollars, there is not a diminishing marginal utility to time worked as an indivdual's income rises. Markets keep making really awesome new things, so as incomes rise, people wish to work and earn more. Individuals with lower income don't see as much gain from an hour's work, which is exacerbated by the redistribution policies, so they work less and take more leisure.

This, along with the issue of obesity among all economic levels, is one of those things that people from previous generations would have thought bizarre. If you had written science fiction 200 years ago in which poor people worked less and were overweight, it would have been read as farce. How else could you read it?

I don't believe there is any news so good that some people can't work it into a conspiratorial bitch session? Our society certainly doesn't have an extremely limited demand for that!

It's almost as if Graeber is completely unaware of the general concept of the coordination problem. Much of what he thinks are bullshit jobs, and probably the individuals doing them think are bullshit jobs, are jobs that involve coordinating different groups of people, products, or services. In many instances, those coordination problems relate to external or internal compliance/risk management with policies or regulations that are intended to prevent low probability but high negative impact outcomes. At other times, they determine the allocation of resources within a firm, or production inside or outside of the firm. Still others are involved in one way or another in selling the goods or services produced. All of those jobs are complicated, and in sufficiently large companies are highly fragmented such that many of the participants can't see the impact their job has on the firm. And yet, a pencil is produced and sold, consistent with regulations and government common-denominator contract standards, etc., without most of those people understanding their place in the chain required to make that pencil. There need be no "I."

And really, aren't most claims of alienation from production by Marxists some variant on "I don't understand or receive the fruits of my labor, because I am only part of a vast, specialized, value-addition network instead of a simple artisan?" Learn to love the network, it is the organizational form of the 21st Century!

I have had a lot of jobs. The only one I felt was pointless was in auto dealer advertising. A great deal of energy spent completing dealer to dealer. Buy a Mustang from Bob or from Jim. It is the same car, at pretty much the same price.

Perhaps that is one of the "rents" mentioned above, given Tesla's difficulties with direct sales.

It is indeed one of the rents. Auto dealers have lobbied into existence laws requiring auto sale go through them. The original justification was prevention of manufacturer monopoly pricing.

These dealers compete with each other, but this competition requires resources. Think sexual selection for peacocks' tails and deer antlers. Given the competition among manufacturers, the falling barriers to entry and the availability of internet sales, this level of competition is unnecessary and would disappear were it not mandated. It has disappeared in comparable retail situations.

I think much of Graeber's analysis is questionable, but there are bullshit jobs, and they seem to arise from some combination of rents and agency problems - in short, they involve the expenditure of OPM - "other peoples' money".

It's all about OPM, after all. As in the old Wall Street joke - "Where are the customers' yachts?"

More than a few "free market" types have been gulled into protecting those dealers over the years.

The key to finding a bullshit sector:

1) Is the service itself necessary in some form
2) Is the marginal employee doing it zero sum
3) Is it hard to figure out who/what is productive

If these are present there will be a lot of bullshit. For instance, most of my career could be boiled down to "figures out what price something should be". Now, certainly someone has to set a reasonable price if your going to sell a product/service. However, a reasonable price could be determined through fairly simple and straightforward methods. I'm employed because I try to game the system. I've got some data and I try to figure out small price shifts whose goal is to transfer just a little more value to my employer (and thus myself). These aren't large price shifts and they don't impact the amount of the goods/services produced/consumed. The pie remains the same. We simply try to get a little more of the pie by hovering up the little crumbs whenever some opportunistic moment shows up. Via large numbers even these crumbs can add up to a good salary after my company takes its cut.

If I didn't do my job nothing would change. The same patterns of production/consumption would be present. That consumer surplus will still be there and someone would get it.

3. From the link: "In a 2001 paper based on her work as a Ph.D. candidate at Harvard University, the 43-year-old labor economist documented that chief executive officers at U.S. oil companies got raises when their company’s fortunes improved because of changes in global oil prices beyond their control. The same pay-for-luck phenomenon occurred with multinational businesses when currency fluctuations, rather than management strategies, boosted results, she found."

Again, there must be room to say that even if there is no such thing as pay for good luck (euphoria-driven stock market boom, rising commodity prices etc.), there can be a norm for CEO pay that says "that's enough."

Completely aside from whether CEO pay is actually deserved or not, it seems like mostly an exercise in demagoguery. If we turned all Fortune 500 CEO's into dollar-a-year men and distributed the rest of their salaries to all Americans, each person would be looking at something like $100/year? Whether CEO pay is deserved or not, it's hardly worth getting riled up about unless you're more concerned about rich people having too much than about poor people not having enough.

15 Now if the foot should say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” it would not for that reason stop being part of the body. 16 And if the ear should say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” it would not for that reason stop being part of the body. 17 If the whole body were an eye, where would the sense of hearing be? If the whole body were an ear, where would the sense of smell be? 18 But in fact God has placed the parts in the body, every one of them, just as he wanted them to be. 19 If they were all one part, where would the body be? 20 As it is, there are many parts, but one body.
1 Corinthians 12

I spent a few years working in marketing, and while we spend "alot" of money on advertising I never could really tell if it was worth it based on metrics. We spent much effort in trying to spin the numbers to show results however. I do think it would be fair to say that a high % of the spending was effectively flushed down the drain.

It may be that a high % was waste, but unless you can identify what is wasted and what is useful, you may not be able to cut, so it doesn't mean the work is bullshit. As Wannamaker said,

"Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted; the trouble is I don't know which half."

But the question is why the vispys seem 4 years after the financial crisis seem never tto have heard of the idea that monetary policy was deficient? That ZLB is some sort of problem for a central bank that wants to maintain NGDP growth? That worse Eurozone growth perormance is due to even worse policy by ECB?

Tyler should know that blog traffic is lowest in the weekend and peaks on mondays. That tells us something about how many of these BS jobs there really are.

Related to #2 I sometimes ponder that it would be impossible to all the crap that Government makes us do if we did not have computers. The burden of Government on business has gotten to absurd levels.

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