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Why Don’t you get a Real Job?

This post is part of our Work Symposium. An introduction to the symposium can be found here; all of the posts written for the symposium can be found here
Back in April, Saul’s wrote a post on the 15-hour work week (or lack thereof), that post itself would be a worthy contribution to this symposium, but what I want to focus on today is an article Saul inked to in the comments section about “Bullshit Jobs“. I meant to write about it at the time, but other distractions turned up and the Symposium seemed like a good time to revisit the topic.

In the article David Graeber, and anthropologist at LSE, makes the argument that the decline in employment in agriculture, manufacturing and domestic service should have led to a drop in hours worked. Instead we have seen a proliferation of new jobs, most of which are administrative or similar “paper-pushing” type jobs that Graeber doesn’t think need to exist at all. Weirder than that, Graeber appears to believe, I kid you not, that this is some kind of conspiracy by “the ruling class” to keep people complacent.
I was utterly flabbergasted when I first read this article, it generated in my mind a sort of 30-wrong pileup where every time I started to form an objection to one premise another problem would rise up and distract me. In no particular order, here are my major objections to Graeber’s thesis:
  1. The group of business and government figures who would comprise Graeber’s “ruling class” do not all share identical interests, and are as likely to be subject to coordination failures as any other large group of people. Even if it were true that all these people had an equal stake in keeping workers down by giving them jobs, every one of them would have an incentive to spend less of their own money hiring people, and let the others pick up the slack. This would lead the entire conspiracy to collapse. In all honestly Graeber’s proposed explanation makes the moon landing hoax look almost plausible by comparison.
  2. The supposed reason for the “ruling class” over-hiring is that if people worked less they’d be happier and therefore more likely to cause dissent. This is why the public celebrates whenever a recession hits and rioters always look so happy.
  3. I’m not exactly sure how Graeber thinks people are being forced to do jobs they don’t want. If you ask most people why they keep working a crappy job you’ll find the answers boils down to food, shelter and the purchase thereof. The driving factor in the supply of labour isn’t some conspiracy of business interests, its the tyranny of thermodynamics.
  4. The entire argument is basically the Argument from Incredulity – Graeber doesn’t understand what something is, so he dismisses it as unimportant. I submit anthropologists, a group trained to examine and analyse pre-industrial civilisations, may not be the people best equipped to understand the nuances of a post-industrial society. It’s important to understand that coordination is what large firms do, the reason large corporations exist at all is because some goods can only be produced profitably by establishing a bureaucracy to coordinate a large number of disparate people. As it takes less and less labour to produce stuff coordination becomes cheaper, making it possible to have ever more complex organisational structures to make things that would otherwise be impossible. Basically, as a structure gets larger, a larger fraction of it has to be devoted to holding the rest of the structure up, and this is as true for structures made of human behaviour as it is for ones made of steel. In fairness, I get that the theory of corporate-structure-as-coordinator might have not penetrated very far yet, after all Coase only published The Nature of the Firm in 1937.

Graebar’s article was a soup of fallacies that I often see in socialist thought (note, I define “socialist” in the now-archaic sense of someone who wishes to abolish market capitalism in favour of some form of government or community-driven economy, not in the modern sense of “whatever the Republicans don’t like this week”). You may wonder why I would bother tackling socialist thought in this day and age, but some of these fallacies persist in dilute form outside of socialism:

The false dichotomy of the Marxist Dialectic – the “working class” and the “ruling class” are distinct, stable groups with homogeneous opposed interests (even if they don’t realise it). This came up as part of the Occupy ___ movement. The reason only a small number of people rallied behind “We are the 99%”, is that 99% of people have next-to-nothing in common.

Second, there’s the attitude of “anything I don’t understand isn’t important”. This is exactly the “wise in its own conceit” attitude that Adam Smith warned about. Fooling about with a dynamic system you barely understand can cause massive problems that come at you from out of nowhere. Don’t believe me? Ask a climatologist.
Third is the “Lump of Labour” fallacy. This is the idea that there is a fixed amount of work to be done, and that unemployment is caused by there being more workers than work. The problem is that labour demand doesn’t just fall out of the sky, it depends on the prices of labour and other goods. As some jobs wither away, this free up labour for new applications. Big manufacturing could only happen when those workers were no longer needed to make enough food. As manufacturing employment recedes, new jobs come into being to make use of the newly-available labour.
Finally, there’s the excessive focus on the tangible – as if something can only be good if it exists outside of people’s heads. But one of the key things to remember in the social sciences is that what people do depends on what they think. Preferences are as real to an economist as gravity is to a physicist. Not only can the good be intangible but all good is intangible because good can only be defined by the thoughts of people. And if someone thought your job was sufficiently worthwhile to sacrifice some of their purchasing power to get you to do it, then your job has value and that’s far from bullshit.
It’s this last point that is perhaps the only useful thing I took from Graebar’s article – that there may well be a lot of people who underestimate how much they contribute to the world because the causal chains from input to outcomes are now too complicated for most people to understand. Employers should do more to help their employees are contributing to the Bottom Line, and the world at large, if for no other reason than paying people satisfaction is cheaper than paying them money.
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154 thoughts on “Why Don’t you get a Real Job?

  1. I talked about this a bit yesterday in JB’s post on Marxist Alienation.

    I think the BS jobs thesis comes from two forms:

    1. A Platonic Ideal-Utopian Way of Thinking; and

    2.The sense of alienation and futility that a lot of office work seems to produce at all levels. This is the shop class as soulcraft argument.

    Physical work is hard but it produces something tangible at the end of the day. The furniture maker can see their chairs, tables, cabinets, etc. The baker their bread, the farmer their crops, etc. The craft economy sprouted up around the time of the Fiscal Crisis and it does have an explicit rebellion against the alleged useless ness of office work. Post Industrial Capitalism seems to bewilder people on many levels. Not to the extent of BS jobs as a thesis but I think it is fairly common for office workers to feel like their work produces nothing and serves no purpose even when it does or to find the generation of a powerpoint or quarterly report as less than thrilling and psychologically positive.

    2. The platonic ideal part comes from his example of the punk rock friend who became a corporate lawyer upon reaching dadhood. I think artsy and academic types (myself included) have a hard time understanding that not everyone has artsy or academic dreams. I love being a lawyer. I think it is interesting, fulfilling, and enjoyable but would still use a genie wish to be a theatre director or at least a tenured professor of theatre at a well-respected SLAC or university in the Northeast or Northwest. I was just realistic enough to know the chances of either those happening was impossible. Law did suffer a serious blow in the last few years but I am doing much much better than I would in theatre or academics.

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    • Let’s not forget that Marx was talking primarily about alienation of what today we would call blue collar labor. My mom and dad both worked in factories. My dad did something or other on a semi-trailer an assembly line, my mom soldered wires to bits of metal on electronic devices. My dad lost part of a finger, my mom developed carpal tunnel. The tangible thing they produced? They didn’t identify with it. My dad never boasted about a flatbed Fruehauf trailer on the highway, “I helped build that.” My mom never felt a small thrill of excitement when she saw a GE clock radio.

      Poor white collar people alienated by their paper pushing…do you really think most of them are pining for physical labor?

      The craft labor movement is a tiny little intellectually romantjc movement that previous few people will join and even fewer will stick to when they realize that hard work is hard work, that few will make decent money at it (but kudos to those who do), and that you can’t eat satisfaction.

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      • I don’t disagree and I don’t identify with the craft economy movement for the reasons you outlined even if I do like the products.

        The far left and far right have a strong pastoralist and rural streak in them. They both have their own variants of pre-Industrial pastoralism that resembles a smurf village or the shire where everyone takes only what they need or self-produces. Unfortunately there does not seem to be anything you can do to shake people that this is actually a possible or desirable outcome.

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      • White collar labor is much easier on the body than even the most automated blue collar labor. To a certain extent this might be contributing the obesity crisis but at least people aren’t suffering as many physical injuries from work that they did in the past.

        I still think that there might be a problem with the end product of work being abstract for too many people though. I’m an immigration lawyer, when my clients get status in the United States I get to see happy people and a good result for my labor. I derive a lot of emotional satisfaction from this. A doctor probably gets much emotional satisfaction from healing people even if that doctor isn’t particularly empathetic. Many white collar workers do not get to see the fruits of their labor to the ultimate conclusion. They might not even be sure of what the ultimate conclusion is. if people had a better idea of the what their labor is going to, if they could see the end than they might be more happy.

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      • Poor white collar people alienated by their paper pushing…do you really think most of them are pining for physical labor?

        Whenever I feel the need to bitch about my job, I think about my dad getting up at the crack of dawn to work as a carpenter, sometimes coming home with stitches, and putting away savings to put me through college so I could work a job that paid substantially more and bitch about the AC not being set quite right. What are we, animals?

        He found his job fulfilling because he liked to see the things he built, but he and I agree that I’m probably better off with the job I have now.

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      • I still think that there might be a problem with the end product of work being abstract for too many people though.

        Sure, but my point is, a clock radio as the end product of soldering clumps of wires together is also too abstract for many people. A flatbed trailer as the end product of some machine that smashes something or other together with enough force to take off a finger is also too abstract. Sure, the trailer is a very concrete object, but the connection between that one task you do on the assembly line and the completed trailer? That’s abstract. And while I can see someone feeling extra proud that they work on the Corvette production line, I doubt flatbed trailers inspire that same type of feeling.

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      • Poor white collar people alienated by their paper pushing…do you really think most of them are pining for physical labor?

        When I was at my most alienated, I wasn’t pining for physical labor (though that *WAS* the conclusion of Office Space, wasn’t it?), I was pining for knowing what in the hell good I was actually doing.

        “Jaybird, there is a division of the company that is working on making LEDs that are both long lasting *AND* powerful enough to be used in lightbulbs. There is another division of the company that is working on making ink that will last on the page for matters of record *AND*, at the same time, is biodegradable. You’re patching the server that serves the D portion of their R&D.”

        Something like that? Holy cow! I’m doing something important!

        As it is, I came in, sat down, looked at my schedule and saw that I was patching server Juliet07 at 10AM. “What’s Juliet07 do?” “Why do you care?”

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  2. “As manufacturing employment recedes, new jobs come into being to make use of the newly-available labour.”

    …liiiiiiiiike…?

    Graeber is actually right that a lot of jobs in the back half of the 20th century were bullshit. Where he fails is in not linking that with the concept of structural unemployment.

    It was not real-estate price uncertainty that killed all the white-collar jobs in 2008. It was the fact that computers were finally good enough (and web access ubiquitous enough) to replace most of the paper-pushing that those white-collar workers did. We no longer need to have a large department of dedicated compliance-class trainers; I watch a presentation on my computer over lunch, and that’s it, I’m trained.

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    • …liiiiiiiiike…?

      If I knew that I’d be a billionaire. But all through the industrial revolution entrepreneurs found a use for all those agricultural works who weren’t needed any more, and I see no reason to believe it will be different this time.

      Graeber is actually right that a lot of jobs in the back half of the 20th century were bullshit.

      …liiiiiiiiike…?

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      • I do. The jobs that are coming (and there will be some) are not going to be “service jobs” or “blue collar jobs”. And a lot of people will be fundamentally ill-suited for them. You can call it lack of intelligence if you like (Them’s Fighting Words!) or “poorly psychologically adapted” (Weird Personality doesn’t make people fight).

        Besides, Autistic folks are already marginalized out of most jobs. That’s a substantial, if small, part of our economy. They simply can’t take “modernity” very well.

        In the future, I predict a lot more folks are going to be out on their ear. In particular and foremost, the Foremen and Overseers (oh, I can call them Brownshirts, if I want to be nasty about it — same people, different economic/governmental structure). We simply have less and less need for people whose skills are in bullying people around.

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    • “I watch a presentation on my computer over lunch, and that’s it, I’m trained.”

      No, you’ve watched the video, and for “compliance purposes”, the company can claim this when it has to defend against a lawsuit or regulatory action. Weather or not you actually KNOW how to deal with a situation correctly is still in question.

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      • When I worked at one of our national nuclear weapons labs, everybody had to go through beryllium awareness training in a little online app. I’ve never been exposed to beryllium dust, but I’ll tell you that I still check my sheets for that shit before I go to bed. Put the fear of the beryllium god into me, it did.

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      • Frog
        Yah, in my industry we have the “if you don’t know for sure, talk to ‘insert relevant expert'”. Don’t decide for yourself you’re in compliance with export / import laws, ask the guy who’s job it is to KNOW. That’s also an acceptable response when the export/import auditor shows up. :)

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  3. “Third is the “Lump of Labour” fallacy. This is the idea that there is a fixed amount of work to be done…”

    Quod ore mumpsimus Domine… or should that be Quod ore lumpsimus Domine?

    Let’s get this straight: the fallacy claim is the bonehead, straw man version of the dogma that came to be known as Say’s Law: “supply creates its own demand” or “a cheap market will always be full of customers.” Say’s Law is sort of true most of the time… but when it isn’t, it isn’t.

    The fallacy claim, however, attributes an absolute absurdity to one’s opponent in a debate and smugly declares victory. Except… where is it written that there can only be an imbalance between the number of workers looking for work and the amount of work available (that someone is willing to pay to be done) if there is a “fixed amount” of work?

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    • My extremely limited understanding of this issue is that there is an essentially infinite demand for the provision of services, if the price is low enough.

      To which I have the following response:

      Based on my extremely limited understanding of the history of economics (paging Brad de Long), the longest-lasting societies have been essentially feudal. It is a very new and still rare idea that we are going to tax the rich to build both physical and human capital at the level currently found in the US. But even if we continue to do so, there is no guarantee that there will be work available commensurate with their talents. If the forces driving inequality are so strong, the truly rich will have no further demand for services (how many dog walkers do you need, after all) and everyone else won’t have any surplus available, unless the price of labor plummets.

      And, for lots of reasons, wages are sticky. Therefore, un- and under-employment exists as the market fails to clear quickly. Government can help. A. It can hire people and run a deficit. B. It can inflate the nominal money supply so that the downward pressure on nominal wages is reduced.

      Corrections are welcome.

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      • Look a bit further. If the rich have no need for us, why should they fucking care about global warming? It helps them, and hurts us. If there will be mass genocide, it will be because we, as a worldwide civilization, have decided that helping people is simply too costly.

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    • Except… where is it written that there can only be an imbalance between the number of workers looking for work and the amount of work available (that someone is willing to pay to be done) if there is a “fixed amount” of work?

      That’s a weaker form of the same fallacy, it assumes that the amoutn fo work and the amount of people to do it are somehow independent which, if you think about where the demand for workers comes from, is absurd.

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      • No, James K, “if you think about it” is not an argument. It’s an assertion.

        And, no, the non-identity between the number of jobs and number of workers doesn’t assume that the amount of work and the number of people are independent. It simply assumes (based on observation and experience) that there is not a one-to-one correspondence between them.

        Keynes “thought about it” and came to the conclusion that the economic system is not self-adjusting:

        “Put very briefly, the point is something like this. Any individual, if be finds himself with a certain income, will, according to his habits, his tastes and his motives towards prudence, spend a portion of it on consumption and the rest he will save. If his income increases, he will almost certainly consume more than before, but it is highly probable that he will also save more. That is to say, he will not increase his consumption by the full amount of the increase in his income. Thus if a given national income is less equally divided, or if the national income increases so that individual incomes are greater than before, the gap between total incomes and the total expenditure on consumption is likely to widen. But incomes can be generated only by producing goods for consumption or by producing goods for use as capital. Thus the gap between total incomes and expenditure on consumption cannot be greater than the amount of new capital that it is thought worth while to produce. Consequently, our habit of withholding from consumption an increasing sum as our incomes increase means that it is impossible for our incomes to increase unless either we change our habits so as to consume more or the business world calculates that it is worth while to produce more capital goods. For, failing both these alternatives, the increased employment and output, by which alone increased incomes can be generated, will prove unprofitable and will not persist.”

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      • Read what Keynes wrote. I excerpt a summary of the narrative:

        “On the one side were those who believed that the existing economic system is in the long run self-adjusting, though with creaks and groans and jerks, and interrupted by time-lags, outside interference and mistakes. … Those on the other side of the gulf, however, rejected the idea that the existing economic system is, in any significant sense, self-adjusting. … On which side does the essential truth lie?”

        “Now I range myself with the heretics. … the school that believes in self-adjustment is, in fact, assuming that the rate of interest adjusts itself more or less automatically…. This is, however, pure assumption. There is no theoretical reason for believing it to be true.”

        Keynes is, in fact, arguing against the orthodox belief that markets self-adjust in the long run. In Chapter 19 of the General Theory, his quarry is the persistence of unemployment, even in the case where wages are downwardly flexible. Disagree with Keynes, if you want but don’t claim (or assume) that he was saying the opposite of what he was saying just because that is what you believe.

        Again: READ THE KEYNES.

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      • Again: READ THE KEYNES.

        I don’t know if you’re a regular reader (I don’t recall seeing you comment before, but you could be a long-standing lurker for all I know), so you may not be aware I have a Masters Degree in economics and work as a government policy analyst (though admittedly not in the macro-stabilisation area). I bring this up to help clarify that I am aware of Keynes. I am also aware of the 7 decades of macroeconomics that have happened since Keynes.

        There are many on the left who see Keynes as some kind of iconoclast – the prophet of a left-wing economic paradigm that promises to tear down the old, right-wing classical economic framework. This might be reasonable – if you live in 1940. Keynesian thinking has been integrated into mainstream economics for decades, and some of the limitations of Keynesian thinking became apparent in the 1970s since stagflation is impossible to reconcile with basic Keynesian theory.

        Almost all macroeconomists these days are both Keyneisans and Classicals, combining modernised forms of these two theories, varying only in subtle degrees of emphasis. In summary, quoting the General Theory at me isn’t going to get you anywhere.

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      • In summary, quoting the General Theory at me isn’t going to get you anywhere.

        That is obvious. But just to be pedantic, it wasn’t the General Theory I quoted, it was a 1934 BBC radio address, “Is the Economic System Self-Adjusting?”

        Keynesian thinking has been integrated into mainstream economics for decades, and some of the limitations of Keynesian thinking became apparent in the 1970s since stagflation is impossible to reconcile with basic Keynesian theory.

        Be that as it may, the point YOU were making (“supply creates its own demand”) is pre-Keynes and was repudiated by Keynes. I think we actually agree that standard economics has, in some sense, gone back to assumptions that Keynes claimed were untenable. The difference between us is that you view it as progress and I view it as regression.

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      • I wouldn’t consider myself a Keynes fundamentalist by any stretch of the imagination. There have been trenchant critiques of Keynes and of the “Keynesian synthesis” that I endorse. All that I was trying to do was to call attention to a cogent argument by Keynes against a particular point of view (the self-adjusting economic system). If Keynes was part right and part wrong, it makes more sense to throw out the parts that were wrong and keep the parts that were right.

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  4. I think it’s pretty clear that Graeber’s theory is bullshit.

    But in a larger sense, I think there’s a real phenomenon that he’s inexpertly grasping at.

    Because the amount of work we do isn’t a matter of economics: it’s a matter of culture. We don’t have a forty hour work-week because that’s what the market demands, we have a forty hour work-week because that’s what society demands, even if the actual amount of work that the market wants is much more or much less than forty. To the extent that some careers have fifty or sixty hour work weeks, that’s more an example of the specific cultural demands of that profession than the operation of market forces.

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    • I’ll sign on. We are dealing with cultural factors that say it is better to work a longer week than a shorter one because it shows someone to be useful, not idle, and stoic.

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    • We don’t have a forty hour work-week because that’s what the market demands, we have a forty hour work-week because that’s what society demands, even if the actual amount of work that the market wants is much more or much less than forty. To the extent that some careers have fifty or sixty hour work weeks, that’s more an example of the specific cultural demands of that profession than the operation of market forces.

      Aye firmative sir!

      The 40 hour workweek is a cultural innovation less than 150 years old. It seems embedded as a permanent part of our culture, but that is largely because it has been enshrined in labor regulations and employment laws like the fair labor standards act. If the FLSA were amended to require payment of premium wages for more than 30 hours per week, or for more than 50 hours per week, I predict we would see employers expectations of their employees expand or contract to fill this amount.

      Of course, the 40 hour per week number got into FLSA for a reason, and that was a result of agitation during the unionization movement of the late gilded age. Lots of professions, lots of different kinds of work and ways of life, never adopted this cultural norm, and still do not to this day. This is true for white-collar workers like lawyers or doctors, it is true for blue-collar workers like farmers, and it is true for government employees like firefighters.

      What a surprise, then, that the law conforms to the cultural norms applicable to these various professions: exceptions to regulations that disincentive eyes more than 40 hours of work per week are found for all of the kinds of work that never adopted the cultural norms of factory labor. As I wrote in my post contributing to the symposium, I suspect that the cultural norms regarding how much work one has to do would alter if we were to move away from the cultural idea that employment is contractual in nature. This does not mean that we would work less, it means that are cultural expectations of workers and employers would alter. Perhaps, workers would wind up working more, and everyone would be happier about that.

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      • I also believe there are several other norms that are indexed to the 40 hour week. For example, lots of service management works 50-60 hours a week purely on the basis of “well, you’re on salary, which means you can work more hours and we don’t have to pay you extra”. If the law went to 50, those employees would be working 60-70, and if it went to 30, they’d probably be working 40-50.

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      • “~40 hour work weeks is close to what leads to peak labor productivity”

        Probably in a factory… 70 years ago. That’s when and where the last extensive research was done. The theory (S. J. Chapman’s “Hours of Labour”) suggests a progressive decline of the optimum length of the work period (day, week, annual hours) with advancing technology, due to a combination of objective and subjective factors.

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      • Probably in a factory… 70 years ago. That’s when and where the last extensive research was done.

        That’s a very good point. There’s a huge difference between working on an early 20th century Ford assembly line doing repetitive tasks and doing modern office work. I find that my most productive days working at home are either about 4 hours of really intense problem solving or 10-12 hours of low intensity ash and trash cleanup.

        The number of hours I work in a week vary almost as wildly, and longer working hours don’t seem to cause much greater productivity. There’s a correlation, but the causality appears to be mostly the other direction: when I’m being productive, I’ll continue working until my productive streak is over, and when I hit a block, I’ll stop working and go grocery shopping or work on the house. When I was in the office, I was equally “streaky” in terms of productive hours, but the unproductive hours were largely wasted because I was sitting in an office.

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      • otoh, it’s taken a long time to recognize that the people engaged in repetitive tasks while doing office work are at risk to injury as the factory worker. (e.g. the technological obsolesce of the manual carriage return on the typewriter gave rise to increased carpal tunnel injuries)

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      • The number of hours I work in a week vary almost as wildly, and longer working hours don’t seem to cause much greater productivity.

        The conventional measure of productivity tacitly assumes a metaphor of standardization that is inappropriate when extended to work outside the factory model. Consider, for example, Jack Torrance’s literary output in The Shining: hundreds of pages of “All work and no play…”

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    • I think it’s pretty clear that Graeber’s theory is bullshit.

      I think his attribution is bullshit. You can’t just handwave why the ‘rulers’ would be hiring people for pointless jobs, especially when by all obvious perception, they are blatantly trying to do exactly the opposite of that.

      However, he’s entirely correct. A huge portion of the jobs out there are bullshit. But looking at those jobs he’s identified, we see something else entirely: Those jobs were often created by self-sustaining bullshit-industries, usually in an attempt to siphon off funds from the people who actually did things. To redirect money in their direction.

      Usually it’s zero-sum, so that entities (Both human and corporate.) are forced to use them. You need advertisers, because your competitors have them, and thus will take your business. You need lawyers so you aren’t tripped up by the other side’s tricky lawyers. You need hedge fund managers because otherwise the hedge fund managers run off with the good investment returns.

      Now, this seem obvious, but ask the next question of ‘Why?’, and you actually do hit a conspiracy there, or at least a structural issue there. It’s because there are more people than there are useful jobs, and those excess people need some way to get money. Solution? Invent non-useful jobs that manage to suck money out of the useful jobs. It’s not a ‘conspiracy’, it’s just a natural product. It’s the same reason that fraud has increased.

      Useless jobs are because of income inequality, but not between the rich and the poor, but between the poor and the nothing. They are make-work, but not make-work that the rich create…they’re make-work that the jobless create. (Although, in reality, the upper-class tend to slide into them, causing everyone below them to slide up. But they exist, fundamentally, due to lack of real jobs.)

      So here’s the obvious question: What really would happen if we spread out the existing jobs more by reducing the work week?

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      • What really would happen if we spread out the existing jobs more by reducing the work week?

        What percentage of time at work is spent working (as opposed to wandering around hallways with a manila folder in one’s hand, at the water cooler, complaining about one’s job on facebook, etc)?

        If there are jobs where one is present for 40 hours but works, oh, 32 of them, one thinks that we could easily have a 4-day workweek with the 8 “wasted” hours spent in the house rather than in the office.

        It never works like that, though…

        Part of the issue is that I have work weeks where I might work 55-65 hours and then complain that I didn’t have more time to do the stuff I needed to do… followed by a week or two where my most productive time is spent going through the weekly logs in the lab that doesn’t get used anymore.

        (And I compare to when I worked in the restaurant and how I worked from the moment my apron was tied to the moment I threw it in the laundry bag.)

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      • If there are jobs where one is present for 40 hours but works, oh, 32 of them, one thinks that we could easily have a 4-day workweek with the 8 “wasted” hours spent in the house rather than in the office.

        I’m not asking in an attempt to make things more efficient. I’m not operating on the assumption that we would reduce total hours worked in those companies. I don’t want that.

        I’m asking what would happen if we had twice as many people people working for 20 hours a week. (But they only actually work 16 of them, under this premise.)

        Now, the obvious assumption is that they would be paid half as much. Except, the other part of these premise is that there are basically large sections of ‘parasitic’ jobs that exist solely to get money out of this system that they don’t have jobs in. If they do have jobs in the system, wouldn’t the system overhead go down? Wouldn’t deflation basically level things out to where they are now? And, on top of that, everyone would have a lot more free time?

        Or to state my assertion another way: The 40 hour work week was correct for 1900. It should have been slowly decreasing this entire time, and should not be very low. If it had done that, we wouldn’t have the sort of pointless make-work jobs we seemed to have filled up the economy with.

        Instead, the masters of the universe took our increased productivity gains, and slowly but surely reduced the amount of people participating in the system, instead of reducing each person’s individual participation. They did this because if they kept the ‘standard’ at 40 hours, than they have to pay people enough to survive if they work 40 hours, whereas if the standard drops to 35 hours in 1925 or whatever, than they have to pay people enough to survive on 35 hours.

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  5. and I have previously discussed the Post-Work Society. It’s worthy of note, if that does come to fruition (and economists are skeptical, I should note), the wealthy giving the everybody else a bunch of BS jobs recommends a more positive solution and a certain public mindedness that I can deal with. Because if there aren’t enough “real” jobs to go around, phony BS jobs are better than nothing. The first alternative to BS Jobs For All most likely is not the 15-hour workweek or a redistributionist utopia. It involves people begging for work, BS or otherwise.

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    • Actually, it involves the vast majority of us dying – possibly of typhoid.
      You see, people begging for work are people who are dissatisfied.
      And dissatisfied people have this tendency to riot and otherwise be inconvenient for the rich.

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  6. Troublesome Frog: “Whenever I feel the need to bitch about my job, I think about my dad getting up at the crack of dawn to work as a carpenter, sometimes coming home with stitches, and putting away savings to put me through college so I could work a job that paid substantially more and bitch about the AC not being set quite right. What are we, animals?”

    And your grandfather probably worked a far worse job, either on a farm, or in a thoroughly nasty factory, which was still better than the farm *his* father worked in. And that great-grandfather, when in a grateful mood, was happy that none of his children had starved to death, like some of his aunts and uncles occupying teeny little graves.

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  7. The supposed reason for the “ruling class” over-hiring is that if people worked less they’d be happier and therefore more likely to cause dissent.

    Straw man.

    . I submit anthropologists, a group trained to examine and analyse pre-industrial civilisations

    You don’t know what anthropology is.

    The false dichotomy of the Marxist Dialectic – the “working class” and the “ruling class” are distinct, stable groups with homogeneous opposed interests (even if they don’t realise it). This came up as part of the Occupy ___ movement. The reason only a small number of people rallied behind “We are the 99%”, is that 99% of people have next-to-nothing in common.

    Straw man and hand-waving assertions. Which is basically what the entire post is. Which is why this is the tone, and content, of my response.

    there’s the attitude of “anything I don’t understand isn’t important”.

    You’ve decided he doesn’t understand it, therefore he has this attitude. It’s psychoanalysis, not argument.

    This is the idea that there is a fixed amount of work to be done, and that unemployment is caused by there being more workers than work.

    Straw man.

    Finally, there’s the excessive focus on the tangible – as if something can only be good if it exists outside of people’s heads.

    Given how much he talks about on what’s in people’s heads, I’m wondering if you read the article.

    I do not, and it’s pretty clear that Graeber does not, think that there’s some sort of deliberate, conscious conspiracy by the “ruling class” or the 1% or whatever, to keep the working and middle class in line. He’s not suggesting that a bunch of people get together once every quarter to discuss the latest details in their diabolical plan to make us buy X-Boxes and eat at moderately expensive restaurants so we have to keep working to support our lifestyles. Hell, he even says the system arose organically. It’s clear from your interpretation of his point that you have absolutely no exposure to the last century or so of social theory from the left, because the point he’s making is a pretty common one, well fleshed-out in many places, and not that difficult to understand. If you’d like, I’d be happy to give you some references, though it would not be difficult to find this stuff on your own.

    I understand that you disagree, and I understand that most market people, particularly the zealously pro-market people, will disagree. But if you’re wondering why people on the left have a hard time taking libertarians seriously — and I say this as a person on the left, a person who is decidedly not pro-markets, but who hangs out here with a bunch of libertarians, so I clearly take them seriously — consider a post like this that so poorly addresses an article the author purports to have read that it’s impossible to take seriously. If you want people on the left to address what you are saying, and not a straw-libertarian they have in their head from Rand Paul sound bites, bits of Ayn Rand they’ve learned about on liberal blogs, and a few bad apples here and there, you should probably start by treating them the way you want to be treated, and addressing what they actually say.

    tl/dr version: Here on this blog, and in a lot of liberal fora, we get a lot of straw man versions of libertarianism from liberals and the left. This post was written as a reminder that libertarians aren’t always so good at presenting even remotely accurate pictures of the left either.

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    • You, know when I first read the article, I honestly did wonder “have so utterly misunderstood his point? He can’t possibly be that stupid”. I persisted only because I honestly couldn’t see an alternative interpretation of his words. Let me elaborate what I think are the two most important thing’s Grabar’s getting wrong:

      1) He asserts that employers are, en masse, paying people to do things that don’t need to be done, in spite of the fact that for-profit companies are known for cutting costs by cutting staff. Why does he believe this is happening? Let me quote:

      The answer clearly isn’t economic: it’s moral and political. The ruling class has figured out that a happy and productive population with free time on their hands is a mortal danger (think of what started to happen when this even began to be approximated in the ‘60s).

      Is it really a strawman to conclude from this passage that Graebar thinks that a group of people called the “ruling class” believe inventing jobs and paying people to do them is the key to avoiding dissent? As to the conspiracy angle, go back to my point about coordination. If it is in the interest of a group of people to have x done, but there a cost to making x happen, it takes a lot of coordination (and likely enforcement) to make it happen. This is not merely theoretical – if collective action was easy, we would not need governments.

      2) On the idea that he’s dismissing things he doesn’t understand as unimportant, in his attempt to explain “bullshit jobs” he says:

      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

      I don’t think it’s unreasonable to interpret this as “there are a lot of new jobs doing things that I don’t understand, and I don’t think they need to exist”. And as I noted above, Coase furnished an explanation for this “strange alchemy” in 1937, not long after Keynes first postulated his 15-hour work week.

      Having said that, I realise that I am the least qualified person on Earth to evaluate whether I am responding in an unbiased way, so I’d like you to work with me here. If you have time, I’d like you to have a go at summarising Graebar’s thesis in your words. That will give me an alternative perspective to react to.

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      • James,

        Is it really a strawman to conclude from this passage that Graebar thinks that a group of people called the “ruling class” believe inventing jobs and paying people to do them is the key to avoiding dissent?

        Here is where you show your fundamental misunderstanding, and a clear lack of familiarity with socialist, Marxist, or general left wing social theory. You, perhaps because you are a libertarian, are thinking of a bunch of individuals acting independently, acting on conscious beliefs and calculations. Graebar, on the other hand, is thinking structurally, with the class divisions (the analysis of which you are also unfamiliar with, as evidenced by the fact that you think he, or most leftists, think they are static and internally homogeneous while being externally entirely heterogeneous). Individual people, and perhaps no specific person, has “figured out” that social control is important in order to maintain power, but that’s the way the system works, and over time the “ruling class,” the “elite,” the 1%, capital, power, whatever, organically and dynamically develops ways, within the system, to exert social control. This is, again, a pretty standard position on the left, and one that you haven’t grasped if you continue to think it’s a deliberate conspiracy that is being discussed.

        It’s true that the left often speaks in anthropomorphic terms about class and social structures, but this is a shorthand that people familiar with the left will understand. And they’re not writing for you. You are, at least from the standpoint of someone who disagrees with you as thoroughly as I, and they, do, a lost cause. This isn’t a dig, just a fact of the matter. But if you really want to understand the left and Marxism and both historical and contemporary socialism, instead of just waving your hand at its cluelessness, I can, again, recommend some reading.

        I don’t think it’s unreasonable to interpret this as “there are a lot of new jobs doing things that I don’t understand, and I don’t think they need to exist”.

        Yes, it is, because the entire point of his article is to offer at least a bare outline of why he thinks they exist! If you don’t get that, you’ve missed his point entirely. And his point, at its most abstract level, is that you can’t explain their existence on strictly economic grounds.

        Waving around references to “The Nature of the Firm” doesn’t answer him, either, because that’s simply an argument about the costs and benefits of certain levels of staffing in the abstract. And it is, I suspect, an analysis that Graebar would agree with in the abstract, but he’s making a point that is not at all inconsistent with it. He’s arguing that there are additional costs, social and political (which are, because we’re a market-based system, ultimately economic) costs, and that these costs are not accounted for without analysis of the social and political costs of reducing the number of employers or the number of hours employees work (which is what he’s ultimately getting at, and which still isn’t really answered by Coase).

        Now, I think he is a bit flippant himself when he just nods to the 60s and says, “see,” so the one place where I think your misinterpretation is excusable is in that part of your response. He’s not arguing that happier people are more likely to riot. He’s arguing that, in essence, a social or political class that does not need the system that lets them work 40+ hours a week so that they can maintain a reasonable comfortable lifestyle, will be less and less inclined to support that system, and more and more inclined to advocate other, more equitable systems. This is sort of the opposite of riots as a result of unemployment, which can be pretty effective at overturning political regimes, but only rarely at overturning economic and social ones. It is instead a basic divergence of values and the time and energy to advocate for them.

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      • “the super-rich vacuuming up all the rising efficiency of the last century,”

        and I’ll just say again that even according to the Pikettys, Krugmans, DeLongs, et al that discuss this at length (and for years it’s not empirically true. The defining characteristic of the 20th century (besides the wars – but they actually do play a part) was a mid-century deviation from the norm of ‘the super-rich vacuuming up all the rising efficiency” – first due to the Great Compression, then due to the lingering social and economic effects of WW2.

        (then air conditioning made the South habitable, interstate highways made it navigable, which was then followed by two waves of globalization – first, containerization, then the collapse of Marxist ideology – and the game completely changed)

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    • Chris,

      You have a strong complaint, but not a well fleshed out argument.

      Why does Graeber think a happy population revolt? Do you agree with him?

      Is it really plausible that cost-cutting firms hire useles workers? Isn’t there a collective action problem (if we need to hire useless people to prevent revolutions, I’ll let your firm carry the cost, and I’ll free ride on your efforts).

      As to anthropologists, yes and no. They’re trained to look at more than preindustrial societies, yes. But if they’re going to talk intelligently about economics, they’ll need to study more than just anthropology.

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      • , yeah, I wasn’t trying to flesh out an argument. I agree with some aspects of what he’s saying, but not others, and in other parts he doesn’t flesh things out for me to know. He didn’t write the article for me, though. My impression is that he wrote the article for an audience that hasn’t thought a lot about this stuff, as a way of presenting ideas.

        Do I think that cost-cutting firms hire useless workers? Yeah, every day. I’ve never worked at a job that didn’t have useless workers, even the relatively small companies. There may be reasons for this other than “we have to have useless people or they’ll drop out like the hippies,” but it is an inevitable aspect of business because organizations have multiple levels of inefficiency.

        But on top of that, I think he’s trying to make another point, which is that the jobs aren’t so much unnecessary within the current organization, but that the organization itself is built in such a way that it requires what amount to bullshit jobs. I could be just inferring too much, though.

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      • the jobs aren’t so much unnecessary within the current organization, but that the organization itself is built in such a way that it requires what amount to bullshit jobs.

        In which case, I think James’ point about not understanding what he’s looking at stands.

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      • Yeah, I’m not sure it does, but this is going to be a fundamental disagreement. James K is right when he says that the amount of administration required is proportional to the complexity of the organization, but these things are at least in part dynamically related, instead of having a single causal direction. That is, the administration itself adds complexity, requiring more administration, so that the function of the organization, or the firm, or whatever we want to call it, becomes more and more managing the managing of the firm rather than anything directly related to production. It’s not so much that the jobs are unnecessary within the organization as it is structured and as it continues to develop organically from its initial conditions, but that the jobs are unnecessary from an external perspective, because the firm’s organization is inefficient. Much of the administration could be automated, for example, reducing the number of required FTEs, or reducing the number of hours that count as one FTE, while still effectively administering the organization that manages the productive capacity of the firm.

        I know that pretty much any time I start to bring up my own political views, I mention Marcuse, but what Graebar is saying is basically an extremely watered down version of Marcuse from the 60s. And I suspect that it is consciously so.

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      • Having zero workers is like having zero fraud, you can do it, but the costs are high and you will miss out on valuable people in the process. Just because a bank doesn’t eliminate all fraud and a supermarket doesn’t have zero theft does not mean that they are allowing those things for some overarching system, it’s just that the costs of getting to zero outweigh the benefits.

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      • No one’s talking about having zero workers. The idea is that you can reduce the amount of work individuals do by eliminating organizational bloat, but that there is little incentive for companies to do this because the social and political costs outweigh the more straightforward economic benefits of doing so. It’s an argument Graebar hasn’t fleshed out, and that I won’t flesh out here (though I may write a post about it in the future, since Graebar is touching on some of the things that are pretty basic in my own political ideology), but the basic point should be pretty clear from his article, at least if you have at least a passing familiarity with what’s been going on in socialist/Marxist/leftist social theory since Marx.

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      • The idea is that you can reduce the amount of work individuals do by eliminating organizational bloat, but that there is little incentive for companies to do this because the social and political costs outweigh the more straightforward economic benefits of doing so.

        I see that you’ve said that you are not interested in fleshing this argument out, but there are a few obvious questions that come to my mind when I read something like this. The most basic question is: on what exactly is this claim based? Does it come purely out of the application of post-structuralist theory or is there some objective or empirical observation that backs this claim.

        Does Graeber know much about economics, industrial organization or management? Has he ever run a business or managed large groups of employees? Did he talk to anyone who has or even talk to people who have supposedly been terminated from productive work to make room for the bullshit jobs?

        If the answer is no, is it possible to say something meaningful about areas in which he has no actual knowledge and only the most surface level of understanding?

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      • But on top of that, I think he’s trying to make another point, which is that the jobs aren’t so much unnecessary within the current organization, but that the organization itself is built in such a way that it requires what amount to bullshit jobs.

        It’s kind of hard to be both a necessary job and a bullshit job, though. If my laundry business needs an extra washing machine and I have a few people hand washing garments until I can restructure to buy more washing machines, those jobs aren’t “bullshit” jobs. They’re just what I need in my currently less-than-ideal business structure.

        That being said, there are a lot of jobs whose marginal product is very hard to estimate. It’s easy to figure out roughly what the salesman who found you the new whale customer is worth. You probably don’t want to figure the engineer who invented the revolutionary new gadget that’s making you tons of cash. But there are lot of support jobs that may or may not be necessary, and it’s hard to know for sure. I suspect that means that there are a lot of support people who are underpaid and plenty of people who could disappear tomorrow and not affect the overall business one iota. In that case, I suppose you could call those “bullshit” jobs.

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      • jr, the answer is yes. He’s written on money, value, and his Debt: The First 5000 Years from a few years ago has sparked a great deal of discussion (mostly on the left, but the left is not, as some imagine, a monolithic entity). Economics on the ground is a large part of what his academic research is focused on.

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      • You know, as someone who is about as far left as humanly possible, I confusingly find myself in agreement with j r and James K.

        If Graeber wants to talk about structural issues, he shouldn’t say things like ‘The ruling class has figured out…’ unless there’s some actual evidence that this is happening on purpose….which, as has been pointed out, would require them sabotaging their own profit-making, and is a claim that is blatantly counter to the very thing they’ve been doing for the past two decades of reducing their workforce.

        The phenomenon is real, it is worth talking about, and it has basically nothing to do with ‘the ruling class’. What is has to do with is the lack of real jobs, so people are forced to invent new ones. Not the ‘ruling class’, which would happily sit there while we starve to death. It’s the middle-class that’s been desperately attempting to figure out how to get money from a stone by inventing jobs that aren’t very useful, (But needed if your competitors have them) and somewhat succeeding. You need an army of lawyers because that other guy has an army of lawyers, despite the fact you’re just writing a basic contract of goods for money and in a sane world could just download a template off a government website. The ‘ruling class’ hardly wants to spend all their money on the lawyers, it’s the lawyers who want them spending all their money on lawyers. It’s the stockbrokers who have set up a system where you need stockbrokers. Etc, etc.

        And, no, I don’t care if ‘the ruling class’ is some secret code of the left meaning ‘a gestalt of society’ or now extends to the middle class or whatever and I didn’t get my leftist decoder ring. It’s nonsense. These jobs are not due to the ruling class, except in the sense the ruling class has made off with all the money and people have made pointless jobs to try to get it back.

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      • It’s kind of hard to be both a necessary job and a bullshit job,

        Not at all. It;s possible for a job to be necessary and bullshit at two different levels of analysis. It’s necessary within the current organizational structure, but the organizational structure was built in such a way that it required all sorts of stuff that, in a more productive or optimal or rational structure, wouldn’t need to be done, because they don’t have any real impact on production, just on the management of the management of the production.

        You know there’s a whole cottage industry around teaching organizations to streamline these processes, right? They were particularly popular in the 90s, influenced by the success of things like Six Sigma in manufacturing. There were all sorts of bullshit jobs that, as the processes were laid out, were absolutely necessary, but when efficiency folks were hired to come in and audit the processes, they’d inevitably that you could just do an end-run around the existing process and accomplish the same thing with significantly less bullshit between administration and production.

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      • becomes more and more managing the managing of the firm rather than anything directly related to production. … firm’s organization is inefficient.

        The second doesn’t necessarily follow from the first. Yes, firm’s can bloat, buy complexity does not necessarily mean bloat.

        It’s easy to look at a large firm from the outside and assume it’s bloated. It’s even easy to look at a firm from the inside and think it’s bloated. But one of the things we learn from studying organizations is that how people perceive the organization is highly dependant on our position within it. What the grunt knows often isn’t known by the manager, but likewise what the manager knows isn’t known by the grunt. It’s extremely difficult for them to know what each other knows because their different structural positions necessatily reveal and obscure different bits of information.

        So even an internal person who thinks he seed bloat may not know the actual necessity of certain jobs. And when someone from wholly outside claims they see bloat, their position is necessarily and unavoidably one of such vast ignorance that the claim cannot be tsken seriously at all. It could be correct, but more as a matter of random chance than real perception.

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      • As left as possible, eh? Socialist? Syndicalist? Anarchist?

        If Graeber wants to talk about structural issues, he shouldn’t say things like ‘The ruling class has figured out…’ unless there’s some actual evidence that this is happening on purpose….which, as has been pointed out, would require them sabotaging their own profit-making, and is a claim that is blatantly counter to the very thing they’ve been doing for the past two decades of reducing their workforce.

        For someone so far left, I see you’re not familiar with the context in which he’s discussing these things either. No, it doesn’t sabotage their own profits. It protects them. And it’s not independent of the creation of “needs.” There’s a cost benefit analysis going on, it’s just not the one you’re thinking of. He has oversimplified it in that article, to an annoying degree to be frank, but check out some of his other work on economics or anarchism.

        The phenomenon is real, it is worth talking about, and it has basically nothing to do with ‘the ruling class’. What is has to do with is the lack of real jobs, so people are forced to invent new ones.

        Oh man, you are definitely not as left as humanly possible if you don’t think it has to do with class ;). Sure it has to do with class. Just not in the way that James seems to be interpreting it (or, it seems, you are).

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      • @chris

        I also consider myself a social democrat and am skeptical of the BS job argument but Chris might just consider me to be a squish liberal like the rest of my left friends :) (1)

        David, how are you defining a “real job?” What makes a particular job real or not? There are lots of jobs that I would find to be horrible and mind numbingly boring but I do know plenty of people who seem to really enjoy the work. Examples of this include marketing, event planning, and PR. I consider PR to be somewhat close to at least a neutral evil profession. But I know people who really enjoy the work and it seems wrong to me to call their work BS.

        This is partially because I don’t buy the tautologies and axioms of the farther left but it often seems to me that people who buy the BS jobs movement:

        1. Have a pastoralist-utopian streak and imagine humans living happily in something that resembles the Smurf Village and that sounds rather unpleasant to me. I love social democracy and the welfare state but no commune for me please. I’ll take Brownstone Brooklyn or London.

        2. Can sometimes seem very close to sounding like a street preaching hippie about to say “Wake up man, you are being fooled by the man and not really free.” I find it rather insulting to tell people whether they are free or not.

        This is one area where it seems to me that the farther left is almost certainly in the minority and potentially wrong because of this vast subjective definitions of freedom and liberty. I am not into Allegory of the Cave type of argumentation because it seems rather presumptive for anyone to think they are part of the Gaurdian/Englightened class.

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      • I should confess that I don’t think “bullshit jobs” is a very useful concept. I do think that social control through markets and what I think of as the work imperative is. Graebar and I would probably agree on what that entails to a large degree, even if we part ways at “bullshit jobs.” But I figure someone has to defend him, and since folks who are as left as humanly possible aren’t, it’s gotta be one of us centrists.

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      • I agree that the concept of social control is indeed useful and my desires and wants and steps are almost certainly the products of social control.

        I grew up in upper-middle class professional New York during the 80s and 90s. I achieved an advanced education simply because I knew it was expected of me because of culture and parental expectations. It wasn’t even explicitly stated until I was half way through grad school. I just knew that my parents had grad degrees so I should get one. I am happy for my advanced education and proud of it.

        The way I grew up also certainly influences the way I want to live and this is probably true for a lot of people. I am not the first or last would be artist who discovered that making a living as an artist is really hard and headed to law school. This does not mean I think law school is BS like the corporate lawyer punk rocker in the essay though.

        The whole things are about values and wants and the prejudices of a lot of medium chillers/15 hours a weekers is for more leisure time over nicer stuff. That is fine for those who want it but I don’t think there is anything wrong with preferring a lifestyle that requires more work but lets a person eat at nicer restaurants more often. I like nicer restaurants.

        So where do you think I would be without this social control? Which might just sometimes be growing up in a particular environment and saying “Hey I like environment X and want to stay here and will do the work that is required to do so.”

        Though I know you think I am enthralled to the culture industry :) I just don’t think the world is going to become filled with medium chill. But I am an intense New Yorker according to my friends. I don’t know chill :)

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      • My girlfriend, also a New Yorker (though she grew up on Jamaica Ave, probably not quite like where you grew up) also has no conception of chill. Someone recently joked that I am laid back, to which she responded, “Dead might be a more accurate word.”

        That is fine for those who want it but I don’t think there is anything wrong with preferring a lifestyle that requires more work but lets a person eat at nicer restaurants more often.

        This is where you and I disagree on both a personal and a moral level, but it’s an issue of basic social philosophy, not merely of economics and politics. However, you are correct in guessing that I see someone like you as pretty deeply entrenched within a system of manufactured needs and desire for status that creates and reifies class divisions and interrelationships and, more generally, exerts social control and promotes existing power, but that’s a long discussion. I’m trying to touch on some of this in a post for the symposium, but there are issues of the length of explanation needed since it’s pretty clear that many people here, most of the regular commenters at least, have very little familiarity with the ideas of the left proper.

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      • As left as possible, eh? Socialist? Syndicalist? Anarchist?

        Syndicalism. And goddamn ‘confiscate all fortunes over one hundred million’ leftist. (Although I’m usually not actually promoting those things here.)

        For someone so far left, I see you’re not familiar with the context in which he’s discussing these things either. No, it doesn’t sabotage their own profits. It protects them.

        Just asserting things doesn’t make them true.

        There’s a cost benefit analysis going on, it’s just not the one you’re thinking of.

        No, it’s that secret cost-benefit analysis that’s going on that you appear unwilling to explain. You keep asserting there are ‘political and social’ costs, but will not actually state what they are.

        In fact, I’d like some evidence that the ruling class actually worries about any ‘political or social cost’ from anything they do. Or how the hell they even hypothetically suffer from ‘political cost’, considering they essentially operate politics.

        Oh man, you are definitely not as left as humanly possible if you don’t think it has to do with class ;). Sure it has to do with class. Just not in the way that James seems to be interpreting it (or, it seems, you are).

        I didn’t say it had nothing to do with ‘class’. Almost everything has something to do with class.

        I said it didn’t have anything to do with ‘the ruling class’. The ruling class does not want to have to pay for these make-work jobs. They certainly aren’t deliberately setting up a system where they exist.

        The make-work jobs exist to pull more money from their pockets. In their ideal world, they’d pay one third of the workers, have the same output, and make even more money. The excessive people on payroll are literally the exact opposite of what they want. It’s a stupid hack the system has come up with to keep from dying. It’s ‘The people that own everything don’t want to hire us, let’s invent a way to make them hire us’. (Except it’s not done on purpose, it’s merely the result of a high level unemployment.)

        The only explanation I can think of is that you have some entirely different definition of ‘ruling class’ than what people would assume.


        David, how are you defining a “real job?” What makes a particular job real or not? There are lots of jobs that I would find to be horrible and mind numbingly boring but I do know plenty of people who seem to really enjoy the work. Examples of this include marketing, event planning, and PR. I consider PR to be somewhat close to at least a neutral evil profession. But I know people who really enjoy the work and it seems wrong to me to call their work BS.

        I’m not making a moral judgement. They are doing those jobs because they need money. Those jobs exist because they need money. Yes, they are, in a sense, parasites, but they’re parasite because the economy is operated by a few dozen rampaging elephants that have entirely devoured all actual food, so being parasites on the elephant is the only way to live, if that metaphor makes sense.

        Have a pastoralist-utopian streak and imagine humans living happily in something that resembles the Smurf Village and that sounds rather unpleasant to me. I love social democracy and the welfare state but no commune for me please. I’ll take Brownstone Brooklyn or London.

        I think that conception of what ‘less work’ would be like is one of the most insidious and detrimental ideas of the last century. Certainly in the top 10.

        Our standard of living increases because we do things better with less effort. Much, much, much less effort. In fact, if we’d actually gained the fruits of our labor (Instead of having the people who own everything keep getting richer and richer.) over the last century, we already would be barely working. To actually keep civilization running, at current levels, probably takes about one man-hours a day per person. And we could reduce it a lot more if we’d stop playing silly buggers with the huge amounts of time and effort we spend just moving money and rent and imaginary property around.

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      • I’m not making a moral judgement. They are doing those jobs because they need money. Those jobs exist because they need money. Yes, they are, in a sense, parasites, but they’re parasite because the economy is operated by a few dozen rampaging elephants that have entirely devoured all actual food, so being parasites on the elephant is the only way to live, if that metaphor makes sense.

        Not sure if I agree, but beyond simply making sense, it’s absolutely beautiful.

        I think your contribution is the one that I am looking forward to the most. I’ll probably disagree with every word of it including “a”, “an”, and “the”. :)

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      • David, over 1 million? Hmm…

        Just asserting things doesn’t make them true.

        It’s not just an assertion. I’ve actually outlined the argument in this thread (see my responses to James K, who, by the way, is the James to whom I was referring in that last comment, not James H, though see my responses to him as well).

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      • , no pressure, then! (Though it does make me more motivated to actually try and finish it.)

        , I meant to add that at least now I know that when I start yelling for a general strike, one other person here’s going to be on board ;).

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      • Probably. Jamaica Avenue is very, very long though and goes through multiple and very different neighborhoods.

        I am not sure that I agree with you and one issue I have with that line of argumentation is that it is seemingly impossible to encounter. We are both the products of thousands of years of civilization and cultures and ideas that came before us. I think the various developments are more or less natural and disagree with the Roussean noble savage ideal that sometimes seems to exist on the left. Variety is the spice of life as they say. The idea of pastoralism is not that appealing to me. Do you think there is any way to disprove your argument on my wants and desires and their origins?

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      • Dude, if you get that general strike going, I’ll join in out of sheer laziness. I doubt you’ll get me to go back to work in your syndicate, though; not after I get a taste for striking.

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      • Saul, sure, we’re both making empirical claims. Data is what we need. I know of a bunch of data. It’s a long discussion, though. I really am going to try to put some of these ideas out there, not just in a work symposium post, but in a more general, “Here’s the crazy ass shit that Chris believes” series of posts. But I dunno when.

        Also, it’s not about pastoralism or the noble savage. Those are different sorts of leftists, the dropping out sort, return to the soil sort. I am in favor of certain things that some of them are — no private property (property, not possessions), for example — but I am also in favor of turning the productive capacity of our society away from profit-motivation and needs manufactured to ever-increase profits, and towards necessity, autonomy, and dignity. But like I said, it’s a long discussion.

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      • Saul,
        what I find most illuminating is where your desires and wants conflict with your ideas of what you’re going to like.

        You lay out a case for liking “low budget cinema” (where special effects etc are done as cheaply, rather than as expensively as possible) — and then don’t want to watch Game of Thrones.

        I don’t ascribe much classist sentiment to these paradoxes, mind.

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      • “In fact, if we’d actually gained the fruits of our labor (Instead of having the people who own everything keep getting richer and richer.) over the last century, we already would be barely working. To actually keep civilization running, at current levels, probably takes about one man-hours a day per person.”

        I believe Piketty and most others that have made a similar hypothesis points to the current era of r>g as being *well* short of a century (and normally coinciding with the election of Reagan, but sometimes just Bush II)

        I also doubt that in the span from 1914 to 2014 that any scenario exists to scaled agricultural practices so that today the entire global farm industry is operating under first world practices with the entire world eating first-world diets.

        And that’s not even attempting to figure out how to get the entire developing world to a post-industrial service economy right now when neither Nasser socialism nor Nehru’s non-aligned movement were able to do the job.

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      • Chris, this book is a case study of me.

        I’ll be interested in those posts. My big preemptive question is whether your preferred state involves banning the profit motive or a change in what people want. That makes all the difference in the world to me.

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      • It’s not just an assertion. I’ve actually outlined the argument in this thread

        Chris, you keep doing this in this thread. Saying that you’ve explained things somewhere, or that if people understood some other theory they’d understand this.

        No one understands you. No one understands Graeber. I’m pretty damn far left, and I don’t understand you. No one understands why on earth the ruling class would want to pay more of the money they have looted^Wearned to operate pointless positions in their own companies, or, as I was focusing on, the entire industries that appear to provide no actual benefit to anyone, like stockbrokers.

        You keep saying there is a reason for this, you hinted at ‘social and political’ costs if they didn’t do it, but, like I pointed out, those guys pay no social or political costs for anything they do. (You know it’s true.) They’re not going to walk into their yacht club and get booed for trimming some middle-management, the entire idea is surreal.

        If the left needs a super-secret decoder ring for other people to figure out what it’s talking about, it’s making a pretty shitty argument.

        Especially since, as I pointed out, the premise of this argument is actually true. It’s just being caused by the super-rich vacuuming up all the rising efficiency of the last century, getting the same amount of money while having much less payroll costs. So other people are inserting inefficiency into the system in a somewhat systematic way (Although completely uncoordinated and unplanned) so we don’t all starve to death. What this article is talking about is actually happening, and it actually is a condemnation of the system…it’s just not a damn deliberate action of the ruling class, it’s a reaction to them.

        I meant to add that at least now I know that when I start yelling for a general strike, one other person here’s going to be on board ;).

        Well, I’ll be on board for calling for one, at least. I already own part of the means of production that I work at. I guess we’ll get a lot more business during the strike?

        But there’s basically no way that’s going to happen.

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      • “Fire economy is good again? ;-P”

        Not explicitly. The economy can be balanced any which way, but does presume that agricultural employment remains well below 10, and industrial employment significantly less than half. Even Scandatopia maintains a 70% ‘service economy’.

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      • the super-rich vacuuming up all the rising efficiency of the last century,

        This is where I jump ship, for the reason you explicated on my post. If efficiency makes things cheaper, all who consume those things are vaccuuming up the rising efficiency.

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      • David, dude, you should at least read the Graebar article. He makes explicit where he thinks the social and political costs come from, even if he does so only in passing.

        Now, as I said, I don’t believe that “bullshit jobs” is a useful concept, but the argument he’s making is not that hard to grasp: a public that has a lot of free time has a lot of time for thinking and activism that comes from it, and a lot of activism by people who aren’t in power hurts power. And power, in our system, is money.

        And it’s not hard to see actual evidence for this. It’s part of why the group with the most free time, in the aggregate at least, has been the source of so much of the world’s political radicalism and revolutionary movements: students. And if you don’t think this can create huge problems for powered elites even in today’s developed world, I point you to student-led protests in Maidan starting last November and culminating in the collapse of a government, with global implications, affecting everything from U.S.-Russian relations to the price of oil.

        But our students have are too invested in consumer culture, with their iPhones and their designer clothing, to agitate too much. This is where I see the social control, not in “bullshit jobs.”

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      • Now, as I said, I don’t believe that “bullshit jobs” is a useful concept, but the argument he’s making is not that hard to grasp…

        The argument is hard to grasp if you are not already steeped in this sort of left-leaning, post-structuralist thinking. It is a bit discernible to me, because I have some basic knowledge of these modes of thinking, but it still does not quite make sense to me.

        The argument for some sort of discernible nexus of social control strikes me an awful lot like the argument for intelligent design. It makes perfect sense if you already happen to believe in creationism. If, however, you are trying to square it with the set of beliefs and facts that exist outside of that particular system of belief, it starts to look like an exercise in circular logic.

        Despite my skepticism, I think that this would be an excellent topic for a longer post and longer discussion. I have a lot of affinity for Marxist and quasi-Marxist interpretations of certain social relationships. As human beings are often status maximizers, class analysis has its value. The problem for me is that this way of thinking becomes a closed system that tries to refute all attempts at criticism by simply assimilating the criticism and using it as proof for the validity of the system.

        The way to convince me, and perhaps others who are as skeptical as me, is to show how this way of thinking squares with actual empirical observations. In that regard, I think that Graeber does quite poorly. Most of his supposed observations are quite plainly just his arbitrary judgments about what is and is not a bullshit job and how companies make or do not make certain decisions and about how people may or may not feel about their jobs.

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      • Chris,

        It would be hard for me to overemphasize how much I disdain the sneering moralism of claiming other people’s stuff is just bullshit. Even if you’re including your own stuff in there, you just have no way to get inside their head and their lives to make that determination.

        If my approach is superior in any one thing it’s this–we don’t sneer at humans for their false conciousness. For fuck’s sake, humans are social animals–all our wants beyond basic food, shelter, sex and companionship are socially manufactured, so it’s such a broad concept it doesn’t really mean anything. In mid century Galbraith made the manufactured wants argument, and used it as a justification for limiting private consumption and promoting public amenities, like art museums, orchestras, etc. The rebuttal by–I forget who, maybe Doug North–was that those were manufactured wants as well.

        Change society’s structure however you prefer, and the wants people will have will still be manufactured wants. What is your basis for determining that they’re actually better off under your preferred set of manufactured wants–or if it’s not actually a specified set, your preferred structure/process for socially manufacturing wants–than under the current one?

        If it’s about there not being the great divide between the rich and poor, well, it’s easy enough to achieve that, but how do you do it without ending improvements in the standard of living? Or is ending improvements in the standard of living the goal because that’s all about manufactured wants?

        I’ve heard this stuff over the years, and honestly it’s never seemed to me to add up to anything but a combination of romanticism and condescension to the poor beknighted masses (but thank god we’re enlightened enough to see that even we are trapped in this system).

        This is why I asked about the means–do we ban profit-seeking or do we hope that social attitudes change so that people want less stuff? Because a libertarian can be totally on board with the latter. If people just start wanting less stuff, then that’s what people want, and a good libertarian–whether or not he personally understands why they want less stuff–shrugs his shoulders and says, “sure, if that’s your subjective value, go for it.”

        This is why you need to actually write those posts. You’re going to get container-shiploads of pushback, but at least we can see how you answer these objections.

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      • jr, the nexus is not “discernible” in the sense that you can somehow delimit it and then fine it out in the world by simply cutting it off at a certain income, or SES, or something to that effect. It is systematic, it’s a function of the nature of power and the nature of capital and the nature of markets and the political system that serves those things. When someone like Graebar talks about the “ruling class” or whatever, I almost get the sense that they’re trying to put a face on something that is much more nebulous. That’s not to say that history isn’t the history of a few supported by the labor of many, but that’s saying something different than “the ruling class is doing _____.” In Graebar’s scholarly work, he appears to be more careful, though.

        James, I’m not sneering, I hope that’s clear. I’m not generally the sneering type, though there are cases in which I will sneer (someone just bought an F-250 to drive around town? he or she’s an asshole; that’s what my sneering looks like). And I’m generally not going to judge people’s individual choices, because dissecting the causes of individual choices is difficult, if not impossible, in many cases (though not all — someone just bought some Beats earbuds? I have a pretty good idea why, but no sneering). The issue is over-consumption in the aggregate.

        I’ve said before that I don’t expect everyone to live like me. I certainly wouldn’t try to legislate it. I only hope that, as a society, we take a turn towards minfulness: mindfulnes of our consumption, mindfulness of our needs, mindfulness of the effects of our consumption on others, on the environment, etc.

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      • The issue is over-consumption in the aggregate.

        Extending it to the aggregate doesn’t really solve the sneering problem, because it’s not just this or that person’s consumption you’re condeming, it’s this, that, and every other person’s consumption you’re condemning. What’s critical is what is your justification for looking at everyone and defining their choices as “over” consumption? If it’s a personal standard, I’d call that sneering. If it’s a standard based on a particular philosophical theory that is appealing to you, I’d call that sneering. If it’s based on empirical psychological evidence that our consumption is harming people psychologically, I’ll give you a serious listen, both because that would be an objective basis and because it’d be within your discipline (and unlike talking to somebody outside your discipline, I wouldn’t have to put up with pop psych journalism about how nobody’s talking to each other anymore as “evidence”).

        I really do have a serious intellectual objection to such broadly aggregate claims. Remember that I’m a methodological individualist, who also believe humans are by nature (evolved nature, no less) social animals. That means I think people need and are very responsive to the other members of their society (language acquisition, internalization of social norms, etc.), but that they also have an individual identity that is not wholly defined by their social membership. Any theory that looks wholly at the social level and treats the individual as pure output seems deeply flawed to me. Again, this is one of the advantages of economics–by focusing on rationality in decision-making and response to incentives and keeping preference formation largely in an economic black box, it allows for preference formation to happen in any which way, including social norms and pressures, while still recognizing that individuals ultimately have the capacity for autonomy of choice. Any theory that says (sneers, I think), “sure, you have an ‘autonomous’ choice between Pepsi and Coke,” really misses the point (from my perspective).

        But then it’s hard to know what exactly I’m arguing about, because you’ve continued to use your position as a critique of other positions without really getting explicit enough about yours to know if the critiques of it are addressing a reality or an inadvertant strawman.

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      • Chris, following up:

        I certainly wouldn’t try to legislate it. I only hope that, as a society, we take a turn towards minfulness:

        Left at this, as a libertarian I have no problem with it. As long as society’s turns aren’t toward coercion and violence, I’m happy to let society go, even if it means a return to disco, bell bottoms, and fondue parties.

        mindfulnes of our consumption,

        That’s what needs justification. It assumes consumption is something we need to be mindful of. But that’s not self-evident–there either is a reason why consumption needs to be mindful, or else we do not need to be mindful of it.

        mindfulness of our needs,

        Again, why? This assumes we need to distinguish between our needs and wants. And everyone says so (even me, in fact), but to what end? Why can we not appreciate the fact that we’ve reached a stage where for most of us our basic needs are met, and just joyously and thoughtlessly enjoy the ability to fulfill pure wants, for the pure joy of it? Aren’t humans better off if we can fulfill wants as well as needs? And how are we defining needs? Is entertainment a need? Status sure seems to be a human need. Put those two together and you’ve covered the majority of our supposed wants.

        Really, without further explanation, this just sounds dourly moralistic, like the old puritan worry that someone somewhere might be having fun. And I know you’re not a puritan in that sense, but can you see how this focus on being mindful of our needs can come across that way?

        mindfulness of the effects of our consumption on others,

        Well, sure, we should always be mindful of how we affect others. But when I note that my consumption of pure wants has the effect of moving Cambodians out of poverty people get outraged. So I’m left a bit puzzled as to just how we’re supposed to be mindful here.

        on the environment,

        Economists agree, of course. That’s why they developed all that theoretical and empirical work about externalities and collective action problems and common pool resources. Of course their take is that you shouldn’t actually have to be consciously mindful of your affect on the environment (although it’s ok to be so, certainly), but that it’s more efficient if you simply respond to a price that appropriately reflects your consumption’s affect on the environment. That’s one of the beauties of the economic mode; it’s parsimony in demands on the consumer, if (and they know it’s a big if) we can get the affects properly priced into the market.

        I can’t remember who it was that said this (I don’t think it was an economist), but I once read a quote that went something like this: “We’re always told to think about what we’re doing, but in fact society has advanced as we’ve been able to do more things without having to think about them.”
        ____________________
        Edit: It was Whitehead, chapter 5 of An Introduction to Mathematics.

        It is a profoundly erroneous truism, repeated by all copy-books and by eminent people when they are making speeches, that we should cultivate the habit of thinking of what we are doing. The precise opposite is the case. Civilization advances by extending the number of important operations which we can perform without thinking about them. Operations of thought are like cavalry charges in a battle — they are strictly limited in number, they require fresh horses, and must only be made at decisive moments.

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      • the super-rich vacuuming up all the rising efficiency of the last century,

        This is where I jump ship, for the reason you explicated on my post. If efficiency makes things cheaper, all who consume those things are vaccuuming up the rising efficiency.

        But efficiency hasn’t made thing cheaper to extent it should have. We’ve had stagnation and even drops in wages, without a corresponding drop in the actual cost of goods. Companies make things cheaper, but they don’t sell them cheaper, or pay workers more…instead, they pass the money on to their CEO as absurd salary, or their stockholders as profits, or the dump the money back into the corporation to increase the stock price.

        And, yes, supply and demand and all, if other companies can make it cheaper they will, blah blah blah, but prices and wages are sticky, and for decades have been somewhat off-kilter with the actual cost of producing goods, lagging behind the change by a noticeable amount. A technological advance manufacturing something 10% cheaper gets followed with…no wage increase and a 3% price decrease. And the next company to invent it has a 4% decrease. Maybe in ten years the price has dropped by 10%…while there’s been another 10% increase in efficiency.

        When the cost of goods have dropped largely, it’s usually due to extremely low costs because of offshoring, and even there the drop is not proportional and somewhat laggy. (I.e., a 80% drop results in a 20% price decrease at first.) And there’s never, ever, ever a wage increase due to increased productivity.

        However, as I pointed out, there has been a pushback by working people to create increasingly useless jobs. So the super-rich haven’t actually been able to vacuum everything up, because there’s some guy looking around going ‘Hey, I can make a ton of money being a banker and managing their money’, and he does just that. Or, rather, five guys do that, all overpaid, but if the rich guy doesn’t use them, other people will out-compete him in banked-ness or whatever the hell we’re paying bankers huge amounts of money to do. (Bankery? Rhymes with wankery?)

        But that doesn’t mean we wouldn’t be better off if we had those people in pointless jobs actually making things and getting paid a reasonable amount to do so, instead of whatever pointless little circle-jerks they’re doing.

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      • James, Re: that last comment,

        I don’t want to speak for Chris about this, but I think there’s a difference between viewing mindfulness as sufficient for certain types of ends, and mindfulness as an end in itself which is in turn sufficient for certain types of behavioral changes. I think you’re challenging Chris to defend the first interpretation, while I think Chris (here I go, speaking for Chris!) is actually more concerned about the second one.

        One way to flesh the idea out without too much baggage is that mindfulness, in practice, requires paying attention to the specific motivations and reactions which sorta unconsciously determine our actions. So given that most of those actions – choices, beliefs, responses, etc – result from reflexive reactivity, almost by definition they’re things the actor isn’t aware of. Becoming more aware of those motivations will entail a break in the reflexive action pattern, a break which permits conscious reflection to enter. And not necessarily about the external impacts of those actions. Internal stuff can be, and will be, questioned by the mindful person as well.

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      • James,

        I like that Whitehead quote. He’s onto something important there, but it just can’t be right as it’s phrased. For example, consider his view with this change in language:

        Civilization Fascism advances by extending the number of important operations which we can perform without thinking about them.

        It’s true that the having to think less in order to act is an important part of progress. If we all had to stop to reinvent the wheel all the time we’d be bumping along on rocky ride. I think he needs to narrow down the type of operations we perform without thinking relevant to the advance of civilization. At least weed out the bad kinds, if nothing else.

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      • Well, we have to be mindful about something; mere mindfulness is a bit of a nonsequitur, I think. And Chris tied mindfulness to specific things. He could be meaning it as you suggest, but the uncertainty of meaning makes it hard to know just what we’re talking about.

        Re: Whitehead. I don’t think fascism really works as a substitution, because that’s a particular political structure, whereas the term civilization doesn’t necessarily presume any specific political structure. Nonetheless, I don’t think you’re necessarily wrong to be uncomfortable about that word. Whitehead lived at a time when “civilization” evoked a clear distinction between “civilized” or “advanced” societies and “backwards” ones. Today we tend to be less in love with that concept of civilization. I’m not sure what word would work better, though.


        But many goods have gotten cheaper. In the 1950s it took the average worker several weeks of work to afford a television. Today, with a much better television (color, high def) it takes the average worker two or three days of work to afford one. My first computer cost $1500 in 1992. That’d be almost $2500 today. It was a desktop with 50 megs of memory. Today I can get a touchscreen laptop with 500 frickin’ gigs of memory for $300–that’s $182 in 1992 dollars, that’s 12< % of what I paid for a computer that doesn’t even begin to compare to what I have now.

        That doesn’t happen with all goods, but it does happen.

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      • When someone like Graebar talks about the “ruling class” or whatever, I almost get the sense that they’re trying to put a face on something that is much more nebulous.

        This is why I likened it to creationism. I can understand why someone like Marx would put together a system of understanding the world based on class dynamics. That’s what he had a the time. And I can understand why this way of viewing the world still appeals to lots of people.

        However, the question stands: why settle for attempting to impart some sort of false teleology on a set of phenomena that can be better explained through other methods? We have a whole set of social science tools (economics, sociology, psychology, game theory, etc.) that can do a much better job without the political baggage. Although, I suppose that the political baggage is part of what people find appealing about someone like Graeber.

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      • I’ve said before that I don’t expect everyone to live like me. I certainly wouldn’t try to legislate it. I only hope that, as a society, we take a turn towards minfulness: mindfulnes of our consumption, mindfulness of our needs, mindfulness of the effects of our consumption on others, on the environment, etc.

        I have to say that I generally view use of the term “mindfulness” to be a red flag, could you elaborate?

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      • We need to be mindful of our consumption because disposal has been decoupled from consumption. The true cost of consumption is largely hidden, and much of it is externalized.

        That garbage patch in the Pacific didn’t make itself :)

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      • James, when I speak of mindfulness, I mean trying to be aware why we do the things we do, why we consume the things we do, and what the effects of doing and consuming those things are. If it turns out, for example, that we buy a certain type of car because we like the image it projects, but it turns out that type of car has an inordinately large impact on the environment, say, then being mindful means at the very least being aware that we’re choosing image over the environment. And it means being aware that we could have made other choices, with perhaps different but related images, that would not require the same tradeoff.

        Basically, I’d want people to choose to change their behavior because they are aware that their behavior is destructive or counterproductive or whathaveyou. This is why I contrast it with legislation: I want people to make more conscious choices, not to have the choices made for them.

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      • That’s a pricing problem, no? It’s one that might have to be solved by regulation, obviously, since externalities don’t naturally get priced into markets, but if policy can couple the disposal costs to the purchase price, or in some other way give an accurate disposal price to the consumer, then mindfulness isn’t really necessary.

        Or from another direction, to riff off Chris’s discussion of mindfulness, if the consumer values environmental protection as well as status, then a rational consumer takes in all the readily available information about how their prospective purchase affects those two things. The trick there is to make the information cheap so that rational ignorance doesn’t become a problem. If “mindfulness” really boils down to just having the information necessary to make purchases that reflect one’s preference order (and I’m not saying it is, but that appears to be a possibility), then it’s not really at odds with standard micro-econ, is it?

        And if it is more than that, does it boil down to a “people should think and care about the issues I think and care about” position? I suspect that’s where James K’s red flag pops up, and mine, too. I mean, as far as caring about the environment goes, I’m an environmentalist. But I’m less concerned with whether people are mindful about the environment than the effects of their actual choices–I don’t care what they think as long as what they do is ok. And that’s the beauty of pricing–they don’t need to care about the environment, or even to know that a higher price is because through policy we’ve priced negative externalities into the sticker price; they either don’t buy (as though they were mindful) or they’ve paid the cost of the harm they cause.

        That type of mindfulness can be important for political purposes, of course. We don’t get that policy if we don’t have enough folks who are mindful. But it’s easier to get people to be mindful about general policies than it is to get them to be continually mindful about all their purchases.

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      • But many goods have gotten cheaper. In the 1950s it took the average worker several weeks of work to afford a television. Today, with a much better television (color, high def) it takes the average worker two or three days of work to afford one. My first computer cost $1500 in 1992. That’d be almost $2500 today. It was a desktop with 50 megs of memory. Today I can get a touchscreen laptop with 500 frickin’ gigs of memory for $300–that’s $182 in 1992 dollars, that’s 12 % of what I paid for a computer that doesn’t even begin to compare to what I have now.

        I didn’t say that prices didn’t reduce. I said they didn’t reduce proportionally, and were laggy as hell. The question isn’t how much it costs to buy, the question is how much it costs to buy compared to how much it costs to manufacture.

        Cost of labor to make a television has literally dropped a thousand-fold. (Less people, and they’re people paid pennies an hour.) Cost of the parts hasn’t dropped quite so dramatically, but it has dropped maybe one hundred fold. Cost of shipping the item has stayed the same…they come across the ocean now, but they’re a fraction of the size and weight. Should televisions really only cost a tenth of what they used to cost?

        The same thing with laptops, except there you can see an interesting issue. There haven’t really been any large technological developments in computers over the past decade that would make them cheaper to make in general…and yet the price keeps slowly decreasing. (Barring weird hiccups like the hard drive shortage.)

        Why? Because the price is wrong, it’s always been wrong, and the free market does work…eventually. That doesn’t mean corporations don’t, as I said, vacuum up increases in efficiency until the prices correct, which can take a very long time.

        I wish someone would create some sort of chart showing how much corporations actually spent on non-top-level employees in the 1950s, and how much they spend their money on corporate profit and CEO pay and what not. That is where the increased efficiency goes. It doesn’t trickle down to lower prices until much later, and then only partially. (Although, as I said, the middle-class fights back with an insulating layer of middle-management and other pointless jobs.)

        I don’t actually think you dispute much of this, you’re just having an issue with my conclusion, that with our technological advances, we should be a certain point. We should be at a 20 hour work week, or even a ten hour work week. If 40 hours was enough to live in 1914, uh, we’ve made a lot of progress since then, and as I keep pointing out, things don’t get more expensive because they’re better, which people tend to think is our ‘problem’…things get cheaper, at least in costs of production.

        So we really can support our lifestyle with very small amounts of work…and yet somehow it costs us a lot more work than that, because there’s a huge amount of productivity being sucked out of the system at the top, and out the middle of the system because people need to survive in this completely screwy economy we’ve built.

        (Also, you didn’t have 50 megs of memory in 1992, in a $1500 computer. People in 1992 tended to have four megs of memory. Maybe eight.)

        That doesn’t happen with all goods, but it does happen.

        Except when it doesn’t happen at all, like with houses, which have been completely out of wack of the cost of manufacturing them for decades and decades. (Because that market is less competitive than other markets.)

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      • I didn’t say that prices didn’t reduce. I said they didn’t reduce proportionally, and were laggy as hell. The question isn’t how much it costs to buy, the question is how much it costs to buy compared to how much it costs to manufacture.

        That sounds like the labor theory of value to me. And I disagree with it.

        Should televisions really only cost a tenth of what they used to cost?

        Sure, why not? Opportunity costs, after all. Prices get competed down to the costs of production. That includes “normal” profit, although it’s difficult to say what normal profit necessarily is (I think it’s a bit tautological–normal profit is the profit you get when prices are competed down to cost of production…including normal profit). But it also has to include opportunity costs, which isn’t always remembered (in fact I don’t think my econ profs ever explicitly mentioned that). If the returns to the firm go below their opportunity cost, the returns they could get from doing something else, they’ll shift to doing something else.

        Also, when you consider the technology improvements in that computer, the price is much much lower than 1/10 of what I paid. What would a 500 gig computer have cost back then? I mean, it obviously wasn’t available as a desktop, but it could have been built, given sufficient space for one. If I’ve done my math right, $1500 for a four meg computer is $375 per meg, while $300 for a 500 gig computer is 1/10 of a cent per meg. That’s 200ths of 1 percent what it used to cost. (Feel free to double-check me; no-one should ever trust that I didn’t drop a zero or two, but I’m confident the general point will stand.) And that’s not even counting touch screen technology and probably other things I’m too much of a luddite to understand.

        Because the price is wrong, it’s always been wrong,

        I think that’s a normative judgement, and I don’t think normative judgements about prices are very meaningful.

        and the free market does work…eventually. That doesn’t mean corporations don’t, as I said, vacuum up increases in efficiency until the prices correct, which can take a very long time.

        What this overlooks is that some corporation could be vacuuming up even more profit if they dropped their price below their competitors and increased their market share by enough to more than offset their lower price.

        I don’t actually think you dispute much of this,

        Well, yeah, I sorta do. ;)

        (Also, you didn’t have 50 megs of memory in 1992, in a $1500 computer. People in 1992 tended to have four megs of memory. Maybe eight.)

        I’ll take your word for it. My memory is faulty on such things (maybe 50 megs was the replacement I put in a few years later). But, really, that point rather works to my advantage.

        Except when it doesn’t happen at all, like with houses, which have been completely out of wack of the cost of manufacturing them for decades and decades. (Because that market is less competitive than other markets.)

        The housing market has all kinds of whack that keeps it from being a proper market. There’s artificial scarcity due to building restrictions (which may have their value, but do distort the market), the tax code provides a special capital gains exemption for selling owner-occupied housing, and the Fed’s efforts to boost the economy by putting more money into it creates bubbles, which sometimes occur in the housing market. If we’re going to critique how markets in general work, housing is not a good example to use (but if we want to look at what various well-intended interventions do, it’s a good place to start).

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      • But it’s easier to get people to be mindful about general policies than it is to get them to be continually mindful about all their purchases.

        It is certainly easier, but mindfulness is never really easy. However, I do want people to think about every purchase they make. I try very hard to, and fail at times, but if you’re ever in Austin and come by for a beer, you will see the consequences of doing so.

        And of course I want people to share my basic, core values. That’s part of what it means to have such values. I don’t want to force them, however; I want to convince them. My view of social change is a discursive one.

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      • That sounds like the labor theory of value to me. And I disagree with it.

        I’m not sure what you mean by ‘sounds like’, but is seems to be the exact opposite to me. Yes, I’m sorta using the labor theory of value to determine how much stuff objectively costs to create, speaking in terms of ‘man-hours’. (I’m unsure of any other way to determine the cost of making things when my entire point is how much labor required has been reduced.)

        But I’m pointing out it isn’t true, that the actual cost of making things has very little bearing on the price.

        You said ‘If efficiency makes things cheaper, all who consume those things are vacuuming up the rising efficiency.’ I pointed out that lower prices in no way match efficiency gains. Efficiency makes manufacturing cheaper, it doesn’t make prices cheaper or wages more. (Or, rather, it takes a long time to do that.)

        In a way, it’s you assuming the labor theory of value, and I’m the one saying it’s not true.

        Granted, I’m also saying it should be more true than it is, i.e., we shouldn’t have to wait so long for increased productivity to filter to prices. (And while I haven’t really said why, this is due to structural problems in the economy. There’s not a way to fix that problem by itself. It’s a symptom, not the disease.)

        Sure, why not? Opportunity costs, after all. Prices get competed down to the costs of production. That includes “normal” profit, although it’s difficult to say what normal profit necessarily is (I think it’s a bit tautological–normal profit is the profit you get when prices are competed down to cost of production…including normal profit). But it also has to include opportunity costs, which isn’t always remembered (in fact I don’t think my econ profs ever explicitly mentioned that). If the returns to the firm go below their opportunity cost, the returns they could get from doing something else, they’ll shift to doing something else.

        I don’t understand why you think this applies. I’m saying in some ideal free market, if a technological innovation was discovered that allowed manufacturing costs to be cut by 10%, prices of that thing would also drop by close to 10%. Not because of the ‘labor theory of value’, but simply because how supply and demand works. If the manufacturing costs decreases by 10%, the supply increases by 10%. If supply increased by 10%, prices decrease by 10%. (Assuming steady demand.)

        Do you disagree with this? It seems to be exactly what you mean by ‘Prices get competed down to the costs of production.’

        Now, obviously this process takes time. The entirety of my claim is it really seems to be taking more time than should be expected. Much more time. Because we’re not in an ideal free market, not even close. And that is where the rising efficiency goes, not ‘all those who consume things’.(1) That might eventually trickle down to the middle class, but it takes a hell of a long time. Which was, again, why I brought this up.

        Also, when you consider the technology improvements in that computer, the price is much much lower than 1/10 of what I paid.

        Like I said, laptops aren’t a very good example. My point is how long technological innovations in manufacturing take to cause a drop in price…and laptops haven’t really seen a technological innovation in manufacturing in a while. Hence the price is, as expected, slowly decreasing over this last decade to the ‘correct’ amount, the competitive amount.

        The housing market has all kinds of whack that keeps it from being a proper market.

        Well, it stopped being a ‘housing market’ at all for a while, and turned into the equivalent of the stock market, where the point was to trade abstract pieces of paper where the value was determined entirely by speculation. There might be all sorts of regulations that ‘distort’ the market, but what broke it was what broke the stock market, a very long time ago, turning it into a zany madcap casino where people own things solely because they think the value will go up, instead of an actual market where people purchase things because they want to own those things. (And, sadly, while people do not need to own stocks, they do need housing.)

        Or, to put it back in the context of this discussion, the ‘useless jobs’ people found another place where they could get access to the super-rich’s money, and started playing there also. That place, unlike personal nutritionists and stockbroker, turns out to be a very idiotic place to let useless-job people play.

        1) And a lot of the rest, as I said, ends up getting wasted by jobless people building inefficiencies into the system, entire goofy cabals of people that seem to exist for no apparent reason except those people need jobs and they’ve managed to get people to pay them for something.

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      • Oh, I should admit, with regard to housing, you’re right in that idiotic regulations do keep prices a bit higher than they should be, because they interfere with innovation, of which there is a lot. For the most obvious example, pre-fab housing has long run into problems, with stupid outdated rules.

        However, I suspect another issue is simply that there’s almost no market at all, compared to anything else. Houses are a very rare thing to make, vs. jars of pickles or books or even cars. So changes in the price of newly manufactured houses would be correspondingly slowed down. (And, of course, are drowned out by the dumbass housing bubbles we’ve decided to have every few decades.)

        A better example of the oddity of housing prices might be the fact we literally have six times as many houses already manufactured than potential customers. Seriously, there are 12 million empty houses, and maybe 2 million people who are ‘underhomed’. (Either homeless or doubled up.) It’s crazy. It’s like if Sony had 1 billion Playstation 4s sitting on the store shelves in the US.

        And yet, with that nearly insurmountable imbalance in supply and demand, housing prices have not dropped. (They’ve ‘unbubbled’, but not really dropped.)

        The housing market makes almost no sense at all in any economic model I’ve ever seen, and I think that’s mostly because it’s a lot more concentrated than people think. But, regardless of the reason, it makes no sense.

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      • housing prices have not dropped.

        You should come to my town. And that, I think, is the key to that puzzle. Jars of pickles can readily be transported from where there’s little demand to where there’s high demand. Houses, not so much. A lot of those empty houses are in places where the job market isn’t growing much, and folks who need a house aren’t going to move to where there aren’t many jobs just to buy a house.

        There’s no doubt we were overbuilding, though. We’re in agreement with that. It’s my (probably vain) hope that the media will finally stop treating housing starts and prices as a good economic indicator.

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      • OK, I withdraw the labor theory of value comment. I misread you as saying only the labor “should” determine the price.

        I pointed out that lower prices in no way match efficiency gains. Efficiency makes manufacturing cheaper, it doesn’t make prices cheaper

        I’m still not seeing that. My example seems to me to rebut it.

        or wages more.

        I don’t see why it should make wages more. Efficiency gains, overall, are about gains in consumer value, not employee wages. Wages are set by the replaceability of the labor.

        Sure, why not? Opportunity costs, after all. Prices get competed down to the costs of production. That includes “normal” profit, although it’s difficult to say what normal profit necessarily is (I think it’s a bit tautological–normal profit is the profit you get when prices are competed down to cost of production…including normal profit). But it also has to include opportunity costs, which isn’t always remembered (in fact I don’t think my econ profs ever explicitly mentioned that). If the returns to the firm go below their opportunity cost, the returns they could get from doing something else, they’ll shift to doing something else.

        Now, obviously this process takes time. The entirety of my claim is it really seems to be taking more time than should be expected.

        My question is, how would we know just how long it should take?

        Like I said, laptops aren’t a very good example. My point is how long technological innovations in manufacturing take to cause a drop in price…and laptops haven’t really seen a technological innovation in manufacturing in a while.

        Are you looking only at the manufacturing process? Because maybe we haven’t had a great leap forward in reducing the costs of assembling the pieces of a laptop, but we’ve certainly had great leaps forward in the cost of manufacturing bits of memory, or processing speed–that is, we may not be able to produce the same amount at less cost, but we can produce more for the same cost.

        And I’m missing something on how this would help your example. If we haven’t seen the necessary technological advances to reduce costs, why have prices for consumers dropped so much? I guess I’m again not following you.

        entire goofy cabals of people that seem to exist for no apparent reason except those people need jobs and they’ve managed to get people to pay them for something.

        I really don’t understand the dynamic of that. Why would a profit-maximizer give you a job that doesn’t do anything? How, as a consequence of you needing a job, do you get them to pay you for something?

        That’s a particularly puzzling claim given that most of the complaining I hear is about how employees are powerless, and have no leverage. If they can get somebody to pay them for something that doesn’t need to be done, I’d say they’ve got a lot of freakin’ leverage!

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      • the nexus is not “discernible” in the sense that you can somehow delimit it and then fine it out in the world by simply cutting it off at a certain income, or SES, or something to that effect. It is systematic, it’s a function of the nature of power and the nature of capital and the nature of markets and the political system that serves those things. When someone like Graebar talks about the “ruling class” or whatever, I almost get the sense that they’re trying to put a face on something that is much more nebulous.

        I always suspect that people emphasize the nebulousness, the inability to identify something clearly, as a way of avoiding serious scrutiny of it. It seems like a way of protecting the hypothesis from challenge. The phrasing I use for my students is that we operationalize variables so we know them when we see them, because if we can’t know if we’re seeing them we can’t actually test our hypotheses.

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      • My question is, how would we know just how long it should take?

        Well, first, I’d like to point out that there are really two things I’m saying.

        My original point was value-neutral…I was simply pointing out that a large amount of increased manufacturing efficiency was being eaten by delays in price changes. It doesn’t really matter if the delays are ‘perfectly natural’…if it takes a decade for a manufacturing cost change to ripple out to price, that’s a decade in which corporations, not workers or consumers, are the ones benefiting from the increased manufacturing efficiency. It’s true even if that’s a 100% completely natural part of the free market.

        However, I don’t actually think it is, because the free market, as currently operating, is extremely…non-ideal? I guess that’s the phrase. It has all sorts of abnormalities in it, which cause the delays to be longer.

        For the most obvious example, corporations find themselves making decisions based on their stock price, instead of their actual profits. There was an article I read somewhere, can’t find it now, that points out that the corporate equivalent of ‘point shaving’ is expected business practice. Multi-million dollar corporations regularly hit their expected profits exactly to the penny, or are off by less than five cents. This is, of course, impossible to happen by chance. They’re manipulating the numbers because the estimates of their profits and hitting them are more important than their actual literal profits!

        But while I’ve said that ‘delays are slower than they logically should be’ and provided a reason they could (I mean, really, I could just generally wave my hand at how corporations currently operate.), I’ve still got no evidence that delays actually are slower.

        Well, let me think. How about…cheap sunglasses? There is no possible reason for something made out of plastic like that to cost more than $1. We figured out plastics in frickin 80s, and now they’re made in China. And yet, there they sit, at $15 or so. Sure, occasionally you come across a $5 pair, but that’s still too high, and very rare.

        What’s going on? Well, that market is dominated by a few people, and the locations sunglasses are sold likewise are too few.

        Granted, I’m not sure how to prove this is specifically due to the ‘price failing to drop after technological advances’, instead of ‘small amounts of manufacturers and sellers overcharge due to limited competition’. In fact, it probably would be reasonable to say what I’m claiming is a *separate* issue is actually just part and parcel of the general crapiness of the market nowadays.

        Are you looking only at the manufacturing process? Because maybe we haven’t had a great leap forward in reducing the costs of assembling the pieces of a laptop, but we’ve certainly had great leaps forward in the cost of manufacturing bits of memory, or processing speed–that is, we may not be able to produce the same amount at less cost, but we can produce more for the same cost.

        It’s only ‘more’ if it sells for more. Which it doesn’t really. What is happening in computers is, in a sense, tech inflation. The numbers keep going up, but the thing customers are willing to exchange for it is steady.

        And don’t get me wrong. The advances are a good thing, and customers benefit from it. But it doesn’t increase prices, and is completely separate from the cost it takes to make the things. This is why I keep saying it’s a bad example…people hear ‘technological advances’ and think computers, but we’re talking about manufacturing advances.

        And I’m missing something on how this would help your example. If we haven’t seen the necessary technological advances to reduce costs, why have prices for consumers dropped so much? I guess I’m again not following you.

        We *did* have massive technological advances in manufacturing computers, especially laptops, thanks to people figuring out how to make LCD screens cheaply and reasonable batteries. That was a decade ago. The prices have been on a slow decline since then. ‘slow’ is the keyword there.

        And computers have never been *that* uncompetitive to start with. (You want an electronic device market that’s uncompetitive, look at cars. LoJack, the service-less burner cellphone that still somehow costs $700. Christ, that thing has like $20 worth of parts in it.)

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      • I remain unconvinced, but I think we’ve both laid out our positions. And it’s been pretty friendly for a discussion between a syndicalist and a libertariian.

        Heh. I’m only a syndicalist because I think an ideal free market would work best…but I’m also not actually sure we can reach a moderately free market in any reasonable manner when such a small amount of people hold so much capital, and corporations are so large and hold so much power.

        I.e., market socialism is the best, but you can’t get there from here. Not that I can see. So syndicalism…and then reintroduce ideas of the free market. In some sort of imaginary world where I could have that happen…except I have no idea why I think that’s more likely to happen than market socialism, so maybe not.

        I was, however, sorta waiting to convince you that the free market did often have extreme price stickiness, and you would blame it on regulation. ;) I think that’s how the conversation between a syndicalist and a libertarian was supposed to go.

        Some day, I wish everyone, on every part of the spectrum, would stop assuming the free market is full of spherical cows in a vacuum…except, of course, their own pet peeve, which is totally distorting things, and if we just got rid of that one thing, the magical super-ultimate ideal free market would appear. I’m guilty of it too.

        In reality, there are parts of the market that work very very poorly for all sorts of different reasons (Some of them, like you pointed with houses, are probably impossible to correct, and we just need to accept that.), and in that last post I half convinced myself that the price stickiness isn’t anything to do with technological advances per se, and is just because the large sections of the market are extremely unresponsive due to lack of competition.

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      • , I say it’s nebulous because it’s not really a nexus, it’s more systematic. Granted, in Marxist thought (at least in the 20th century), the “nexus” was more specifically defined as the owners of the means of production, but “means of production” itself was/is a pretty nebulous concept, and the ownership of it, to the extent that it can be identified as a clearly delimited “class,” is more and more distributed. Not a small amount of ink has been spilled in the last 30 years or so on trying to operationalize this stuff, and there are a lot of disagreements about where put dividing lines, but I’m firmly on the side of treating it as a system rather than a specific group, with class defined not by a specific property of individuals or collectives, but by functional position within the system.

        I know that’s somewhat vague, and I will definitely try to lay it out more clearly in a post, but I’ll understand if until then you see me as trying to dodge the issue. I would probably see myself that way too.

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  8. The most BS job I’ve ever had was also my only actual position as an engineer out of college at the dying corpse of AT&T Technologies. I was labeled a “Process Engineer” and pointed toward a couple of ovens and told that my job was to improve the yield rate of these thin-film circuits through a baking cycle. Minimal guidance or mentoring, not really part of a team, just a body thrown at an old problem that the senior guys had already milked for years. But even that was better than when they called me a Product Engineer and put me in charge of quality improvement of a circuit at the end of its life-cycle and strongly suggested I couldn’t actually spend money on it. As far as I could tell my actual role in the organization was to fill a budgeted position and expend an allotted amount of salary funds by simply existing.

    At the other end of the spectrum I spent one summer in college working for my BIL who is a general contractor. We started with a hole in the ground, setting forms for the foundation, and three months later had a completed house. My handiwork was literally all over that thing from top to bottom. That was my sister’s home and I always felt a bit of personal satisfaction whenever I visited them.

    What I do now is very cog-in-a-machine-y but I’m the critical cog that actually performs the work that creates the revenue. Everyone else in the company exists to support what I do. And, granted it’s not brain surgery (or rocket science– Hi, MRS!), but I’m damn good at what I do, one of the best in our company as measured by driver ranking stats and I take some satisfaction from that. I just wish it paid better and I wasn’t away from home so much.

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    • one of the best in our company as measured by driver ranking stats

      , you may have told us before, but what factors go into that measure. From an outside perspective I’d guess percent of on-time deliveries and safety. Is that part of it? What have I not thought of?

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      • , Yep. Safety, on-time performance, and also productivity as measured by average miles per week. At my performance level, Platinum, the requirements are no preventable accidents, no preventable service failures, and something like 2000 average miles per week. All the averages are over the last 52 weeks. The only higher level, Diamond, is just maintaining Platinum for 12 straight quarters. I simply haven’t worked here long enough for that. So, basically it’s just work hard and don’t fuck up. And they’re pretty fair about what counts agaainst you and what doesn’t because lots of crap can happen out here to fuck you up that you have no control over.

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      • Thanks. Is that 2000 miles per week based at least in part on speed limits and hours of service rule? I mean, there has to be a hard top end of what’s possible within those two constraints, right?

        Although looking at that rule, an average of 70 hours a week max times a guesstimated average max top speed of 70 mph would equal a possible 4900 miles a week! Obviously you’re not always going 70 (I hope), and with downtime between loads or waiting at loading/un-loading docks I don’t know if you’re able to actually average 70 hours of drive time per week or not.

        But at least the calculation suggests to the outsider that your firm’s standard may be a not unreasonable expectation.

        Maybe this interests me because I used to be a bike messenger, which is just another niche in the transportation/delivery business. We weren’t held to formal standards in the way you are–we got paid per delivery, so the harder (and smarter) you worked the more you made, and because of the nature of the job the not-so-good employees weeded themselves out very quickly. But downtime, routes, average speed you could travel, wait times, all those constituted the major factors affecting performance.

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      • : The rule is actually 70 hours working/driving every eight days rather than a week, which works out to 8.75 hours per day. On the other hand, the daily limits are such that you can burn through that in five and take a weekend, which I used to do on my last job. Anyway, my truck is governed to 62 mph max to make the insurance company happier. And then there’s downtime, etc., as you noted.

        Bottom line, in a good week running long loads on freeways out west I might make upwards of 3000 miles, maybe even 3500. But 2500 is closer to average taking into account hometime and such. I’ve never had any issues meeting the requirements. In fact, I was amazed to find out there were drivers that didn’t — by choice! Why the heck someone would sign on to be away from home for weeks at a time and not maximize that time earning is beyond me. And why the company would retain drivers like that in todays employment environment is also something of a mystery. I mean, capital utilization is a real, bottom-line sort of thing. Anyway, they pay me more, so there’s that.

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  9. James,
    “Is it really plausible that cost-cutting firms hire useless workers?”

    Of course it is. Mostly through institutional inertia. You tend to find these “useless” workers in the highest echelons of power, rather than in the lower branches. Most of the time, no one’s actually bothered to ask whether this job could be done by a computer [n.b.: there may be regulatory reasons for this], or needs to be done at all.

    Furthermore, even if some of these “chief” jobs are automatable, the automation is not likely to become widespread, because such automation is rightly proprietary and a “trade secret.”

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      • I thought the dispute was over whether “Wonder Twin Powers Activate” should be our official slogan with the geeks saying yes and the others just hitting their heads against the wall?

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      • The liberaltarian alliance lasted until a Democrat got into office and did liberal things. Of course we all got along when there were dumb tax cuts without cuts in spending and a war on false pretenses.

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      • I’ve had birch beer, and its taste was completely within the range of root beers. Ginger beer is much more flavorful than ginger ale. My favorite is Reed’s (made with pineapple juice as well as fresh ginger), though Bundaberg (from Australia) is also quite good.

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      • The liberaltarian alliance lasted until a Democrat got into office and did liberal things.

        That’s not really correct. I may have caused confusion by cheekily shifting the grounds from liberal-libertarian alliance to liberaltarianism, which isn’t precisely the same thing. Or rather, is an attempt at going beyond alliance to have fusion.

        I think to some extent you’re right about the liberal-libertarian alliance, which was just one of voting convenience. Folks like me who couldn’t stomach the despicable Bob Barr had a choice between Obama and McCain, and McCain made too strong a pitch for war mongering to satisfy most libertarians. Several polls reported libertarians, particularly younger ones, generally favored Obama over McCain. Hooray for Democrats who aren’t war-mongerers (seriously).

        But that was a choice of the lesser of two evils, not a choice about real desire. From my perspective, I was offered either a tray of dog food or a tray of dog shit (two trays of dog shit counting Barr), so I chose the tray of dog food.

        Liberaltarianism goes beyond a voting alliance of convenience, and attempts to meld the ideologies together. I’ve been called a liberaltarian, and maybe fairly so. But most libertarians never accepted it, and in 2010 a couple of the leading figures in the movement, Brink Lindsey and Will Wilkinson, left Cato amid rumors of a “purge.” (There’s no proof of a purge, and I suspect they left just because they felt increasingly at odds with others there, too marginalized.) I think liberaltarianism briefly rose in prominence because it coincided in time with that that voting alliance of convenience, and may have fallen in prominence in part because of the same dynamic.

        At any rate, the liberaltarians are still out there, still a possible point of merging between liberals and libertarians. But at best, so far, I think liberals see them as libertarians who you might not be appalled to meet at a party. I think liberaltarianism represents more of an acceptance of liberalism by libertarianism than an acceptance of libertarianism by liberals. And that’s natural, given the relative size of the two groups–a minority, for good or ill, always has to do more adapting than the majority. (That is to say, I’m not making a normative judgement of liberals when I say that.)

        Of course liberals aren’t monolithic, so some will find liberaltarians more acceptable than others. Neoliberals are far more likely to find them amenable political allies than someone further left, like you. And that’s natural, too. In fact I can see that strategically someone like you could reasonably dislike liberaltarians even more than straight-up libertarians, even though they’re marginally closer to your positions, just because they could potentially make it even harder to move the Democrats in your direction. I’m not trying to say you do, as I obviously don’t know. Just saying that there’d be a good strategic logic to it, so it’d be a fair stance.

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      • Birch beer is kind of disgusting but if you grew up in the North East you were exposed to it on field trips to local colonial recreation sites. Think of it as primative, non-industrial root beer.

        Ginger beer has a more vivid flavor than ginger ale.

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  10. Does Graeber, an anthropologist, really understand economics?

    Here’s Alex Tabarrok commenting on the BS jobs article.

    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. [snip: JH]…

    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.

    And here’s Jeff Hummel on Debt:

    Graeber…makes several different historical claims, not all of them compatible:

    (1) Credit transactions preceded and dominated spot transactions in early human societies.

    (2) Media of account emerged before media of exchange.

    (3) Barter was unknown (or at least extremely rare) WITHIN early human societies.

    Notice that point (1) is incompatible with either (2) or (3). Early credit transactions must have involved barter (contradicting number 3) or media of exchange (contradicting 2). There is no other logical possibility. Yet because Graeber’s peculiar concept of barter excludes a farmer trading a pig for delivery of an ax in two weeks (to use Murphy’s example), his claim that barter was non-existent tends to become true by definition. …

    Graeber’s terminological tautology appears to stem from his confusing (a) the limited ability of credit to mitigate the problem of the double coincidence of wants with (b) the substantial ability of multilateral exchange to do so.

    I read an interview with Graber, and indeed he treats getting a cow now for some unnamed consideration later, which turns out to be a bunch of chickens or something, as only a debt exchange, and not barter. To me that smacks of playing word games with definitions so you can predetermine the conclusion.

    These are basic errors.

    I also employed my general practice of reading only the 3 star reviews at Amazon (it weeds out the acolytes and the irrational haters), and, my, was it interesting. Graeber responds to a lot of the critical comments. And in a nutshell, his argument seems to be that of course he understands economics, it’s those mainstream economists who don’t because they’re all ideologically blinded. I don’t know about others, but I never can take it seriously when someone comes in from outside a field and claims to have a better understanding of it than the majority of its practitioners.

    He does get a lot of praise for his anthropology, and that seems appropriate.

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    • It always seems to me that one of the problems with outsider critiques of public policy is that they suffer from egregious nirvana fallacies. Whether it’s engineers talking about energy policies or anthropologists about economic distribution, or even economists about most forms of regulation. They always work from THEIR theoretical models which have no real comparative institutional basis in the real world. And then they say that their model is necessarily superior to existing institutional arrangements, without factoring in the reality that policy bodies will mangle the hell out of whatever you try to implement.

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      • Yes, this. I saw a column by Krugman recently in which he was talking about errors, and admitted (to his credit) that he had been in error to predict the collapse of the eurozone (and he was hardly the only economist to do so, and in fact I was more aware of others saying so, than him). He said he’d underestimated political leaders’ commitment to the zone. Which was what I’d been saying about those economists’ predictions all along, amazed that none of them seemed to realize that the Eurozone was ultimately more about WWII than about economies.

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      • He both underestimated political leaders’ commitment to the zone, which was one error, and overestimated the citizenry’s response to austerity.

        Which fell within the normal parameters of “people are pissed off enough to demonstrate and/or yell at public meetings, but not pissed off enough to blow stuff up”. There’s no populist movement really agitating to break up the Eurozone yet.

        We will see if it continues. I make no predictions myself, but the fallout is still drifting down from the sky.

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      • The European Union is such a bizarre beast. It can’t seem to overcome nationalism, but there’s a quasi-nationalist impulse among Europeans to keep committing to it as an alternative to state competition. It’s ultimately almost full proof of the constructivist nature of IR politics.

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      • I think the Eurozone made sense when everything was going really well but is now getting second thoughts in a really bad recession. But really bad recessions can increase xenophobia and nationalism easily. Far right nationalist politics never really disappeared from Europe, they just like to pretend it did.

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      • Patrick,
        I’m pretty sure Greece was blowing shit up. Spain’s almost to that point, but for largely non-Eurozone reasons.
        And France is certainly dangerous enough that I’m scared to go there.

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      • The continuing presence of the far right is one of the reasons political leaders see the continuation of the Eurozone as so crucial. And if that wasn’t enough, they’ve got a nice little reminder in the Ukraine-Russia conflict (for those who’d already forgotten the conflicts of Yugoslavia’s disintegration–and it’s worth thinking consciously about the meaning of that term dis-integration).

        That’s what puzzles me about those economists. They can’t be ignorant of Europe’s war-filled history, particularly WWI and II. And if they’re paying enough attention to the news to be aware of the Euro crisis, surely they’ve paid enough attention to know that the far right is still a presence that sometimes makes itself known in violence and sometimes in electoral successes. Yet it seems they didn’t plug any of that information into their models of Europe, and treated the Euro as purely an economic issue.

        You didn’t have to be a political scientist or policy expert to recognize these things. They aren’t rarefied concepts understood only by those thoroughly professionalized into a discipline. They’re public knowledge. They’re in the media.

        At least Krugman seems to have become aware of it. Hopefully some others do, too.

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      • The Eurozone was…poorly thought out, in some ways.

        For starters, nobody ever sat down and thought “Okay, what would happen in a recession? How would monetary policy work over all these member states? What if, just to make a random example, Germany was doing well and Italy wasn’t?”

        In the US, this isn’t such a problem because of all the automatic transfers built into the system — frankly, if California is doing great and Alabama isn’t, well — it does suck a bit to be Alabama but even as their federal payments go down (because their state’s economy isn’t doing so well), the money pouring in increases (unemployment insurance, things like that). It’s not like the US says “Welp, Alabama, you’re doing poorly so we’re cutting your SS payments too”.

        Europe doesn’t really have a unified welfare and unemployment system, so each member country has to balance those on their own. Which means, like recently, Greece and Italy needed exactly the opposite monetary policy as Germany and there was NO relief.

        Someone was gonna get screwed, obviously.

        And you’re quite right about where getting screwed like that can lead.

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      • James, you’d think so but lots of very intelligent people seem capable of operating with very high levels of willful blindness. The prosperity and spirit of the post-World War II years and the sheer discredit to the Far Right after World War II probably made the architects of the European Union blind to the downsides.

        Morat20, another problem with the European Union were that the democratic organs of it were powerless for a long time. It really was a civil servant run supra-state. This alienated many people, especially when things weren’t going well.

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      • Morat,

        Keep in mind that the Framers of the Constitution didn’t consider those things, either. We developed them piecemeal over time as we recognized needs. No body of humans can create a fully realized institution from scratch–it will always evolve as they bump into new problems.

        It’s easy to say they should have thought about recessions, but even the creation of the Euro was just a step forward in a much larger process. It was part of a particular goal that was a consequence of past problems, and that was their focus. Overlooking some things should be forgiveable.

        Also, they may not have overlooked recessions at all. It may have been that trying to structure it to work for that particular problem was beyond the bounds of what was politically achievable at the time, and their thoughts were that it was better to get the Euro into place with an imperfectly realized structure than to not get it into place at all, and when recessions hit that will open up the political potential for dealing with that particular problem. Obviously that’s not a risk-free scenario, but presumably their judgement–if this analysis is the case–was that the risk was worth taking.

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  11. , I will try to defend it, though it won’t be in the work post. That will mostly be about work, and that “work imperative” that I mentioned somewhere in this thread I think. I’ll try to start a “Crazy shit Chris believes” series, though, soon. I actually started something a while back, but never finished it (it’s a draft in the system I think). Maybe I’ll start there.

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    • I’d really welcome it. If I seem harsh, it’s because in grad school I was poking around between a focus on constitutional law, political philosophy, and political economy. Con law seemed too truly post-modern to me (if anything convinced me po-moism does have a meaningful critique, it was reading legal decisions). Political philosophy had the upper hand over political economy going in, but then I was introduced to Marcuse and Foucault, and to North and Buchanan and Demsetz, and the latter seemed to have a much firmer insight into reality than than did the former, their work seemed more explanatory and less superficially interpretive. Much of this may just be intrinisic preferences for particular modes of thought, of course.

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      • That’s kind of weird in a way. While Foucault wasn’t ever particularly influential to me (he was interesting, but too convoluted in my tastes) it was when I started looking into New Institutional Economics that made me reject policy positivism and push toward a more constructivist view of public policy. (And eventually pushed me into policy school over political science/economy as a field of study)

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    • a “Crazy shit Chris believes” series,

      That’s something I’d be innersted in readin. Nfact, I think it’d be inspiring to hear some folks crazy views and ideas on things. SOmetimes the dang sobriety of this place gets a bit heavy. We’re all so doggone cautious….

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