Monday, 9 September 2013

More on bullshit jobs

I linked before to David Graeber's article about bullshit jobs and called it "provocatively interesting". The only point I made in my previous post was simply to expand on Graeber's point that the most useful jobs tend to be the worst paid, which is a good line for a dinner party argument-starter, but I wouldn't put it more strongly than that as there are too many badly-paid crap useless jobs too, like telemarketing (an industry Graeber is obviously quite annoyed with).

However, I think the article deserves a bit more analysis. It turns out that the Economist agrees with me.
Let's go back to Graeber. This is his first paragraph and it effectively sets up what his article is all about.

"In the year 1930, John Maynard Keynes predicted that, by century’s end, technology would have advanced sufficiently that countries like Great Britain or the United States would have achieved a 15-hour work week. There’s every reason to believe he was right. In technological terms, we are quite capable of this. And yet it didn’t happen. Instead, technology has been marshaled, if anything, to figure out ways to make us all work more. In order to achieve this, jobs have had to be created that are, effectively, pointless. Huge swathes of people, in Europe and North America in particular, spend their entire working lives performing tasks they secretly believe do not really need to be performed. The moral and spiritual damage that comes from this situation is profound. It is a scar across our collective soul. Yet virtually no one talks about it."

The standard modern economist's answer to Graeber is given in, for example, this review by Richard Posner on the Skidelskys' book on precisely Keynes' point. In short, so the argument goes, although we could live like Keynes in the 1930s, we work harder now because we want to earn more money for more toys: as Posner says "Americans value leisure, but it is expensive leisure". And similarly Brits and Germans prefer almost as expensive leisure: with slightly fewer flat-screen TVs and a couple of weeks more holiday than Americans, but basically the same.

Ryan Avent has a different approach. He has a long post on the article in the Economist's blog about Graeber's article. He shares more of Graeber's starting point than Posner. Avent says that automation may come to make various tedious, low-level administrative jobs obsolete. (Anyone who has ever had a holiday job doing data-entry can well believe this to be true.) So he thinks that underemployment is not yet here but going to happen soon: "We can't be certain that the robots are coming for all our jobs. Disemployment in administrative jobs could create new, and perhaps highly remunerative, work in sectors or occupations we can't yet anticipate. If we're lucky, that work will be engaging and meaningful. Yet there is a decent chance that "bullshit" administrative jobs are merely a halfway house between "bullshit" industrial jobs and no jobs at all."

I strongly suspect that Avent has been influenced by Tyler Cowen's latest thinking. Cowen's futurology also relies on imagining computers taking over great tracts of human tasks. He predicts the results to be vast fortunes for people who are good at marketing or life-coaching (or vast fortunes, absent Avent-style redistribution of wealth, one assumes).

(As an aside, Cowen's vision of the future also includes this disturbing passage. "Take your smartphone on a date, and it might vibrate in your pocket to indicate “Kiss her now.” If you hesitate for fear of being seen as pushy, it may write: “Who cares if you look bad? You are sampling optimally in the quest for a lifetime companion.” Those who won’t listen, or who rebel out of spite, will be missing out on glittering prizes. Those of us who listen, while often envied, may feel more like puppets with deflated pride." I find it hard to imagine a more hateful sentence than "You are sampling optimally in the quest for a lifetime companion." I can only imagine that her app says "You are sampling sub-optimally: restore factory settings on this date immediately.")

So Avent (and Cowen) believe that in the future masses of people will be underemployed. Keynes believed that too. They all think that that will result in large amounts of leisure: Cowen even goes so far as to say that it will involve hipsters ("Berlin’s eastern neighborhoods and Williamsburg, Brooklyn, are a window onto our future. These urban areas are full of people who are bright, culturally literate, Internet-savvy and far from committed to the idea of hard work directed toward earning a good middle-class living", he writes, avoiding the word 'hipster' for no good reason).

So Graeber, Avent, Cowen and Keynes all see underemployment as happening or about to happen. But Graeber thinks something has happened to prevent underemployment turning into actual leisure, namely bullshit jobs. His theory is that that "The ruling class has figured out that a happy and productive population with free time on their hands is a mortal danger".

My first instinct is that I don't buy that for a moment. The ruling class can't build an IT system or a railway from London to Birmingham. Even if it spotted the risk of a happy and productive population, it would be powerless to do anything about it.

But let's look at Avent's theory about what will happen when we reach the underemployment situation that Graeber believes already to have arrived.

"The development of large-scale technological unemployment or underemployment ... would force rich societies to revisit a system that primarily allocates purchasing power via earned wages. And that, in turn, could allow households to get by or even thrive while working many fewer hours than is now typically the case—albeit through a pretty hefty level of income redistribution. They would then be free to write poetry or tutor disadvantaged children, though we shouldn't be surprised if most use their new leisure to spend more time with a beloved video game."

This is not the sort of thing you expect from the Economist. In effect, Avent is saying that the future will involve the massive redistribution of wealth in order to support idleness. Doesn't sound like a vote-winner to me. In fact, this sort of scenario makes the idea of a ruling class inventing some bullshit jobs to keep people off the streets almost plausible. In some ways, Avent bolsters Graeber's theories more than he undermines them.

So where are we left? Perhaps it's an empirical question. If you have a decent living without a bullshit job then there's some truth to Graeber; if you don't want to, then Posner's on the right track. But if all you want is to be a hipster with an intrusive lovelife app, then all you need to do is wait and see whether Avent is right that you'll get some welfare benefits to help with the cost of the download.

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