The Zero-Sum Economy

Yves here. This post is sufficiently thought-provoking that it seemed worth featuring here, even though some of you may have already seen it.

I’m not keen at all about Graber’s “bullshit jobs” formulation, because in historical terms, indoor work that isn’t backbreaking is a luxury. Admittedly, there are places in Africa now where hunter-gatherers spend only a couple of hours getting and preparing food and can faff off the rest of the time. England before the foreclosure movement was a time when yeoman farmers, between hunting, having some livestock on common pasturelands, and some homecraft work, could live comfortably working a few hours a day. However, the historical norm, as Hobbes famously said, was that life was nasty, brutish and short. The idea that, say, working in a call center was oppressive would be laughed out of the room any time prior to 30 years ago.

And many highly paid jobs are bullshit jobs. In Frank Partnoy’s Wall Street classic FIASCO, on his days as a derivatives salesman at Morgan Stanley, he recounts a session in his office where all the professionals agreed they’d rather be doing anything other than what they were doing, like digging ditches….were it not for the money.

By Adair Turner, Chairman of the Institute for New Economic Thinking, former Chairman of the UK Financial Services Authority, and Chair of the Energy Transitions Commission. Originally published at Project Syndicate; cross posted from the Institute for New Economic Thinking’s website

The anthropologist David Graeber has argued that as much as 30% of all work is performed in “bullshit jobs,” which are unnecessary to produce truly valuable goods and services but arise from competition for income and status. But the deeper problem is that more and more economic activity performs a merely distributive function.

Across the global economy, the potential for automation seems huge. Adidas’ “Speedfactory” in Bavaria will employ 160 workers to produce 500,000 pairs of shoes each year, a productivity rate over five times higher than in typical factories today. The British Retail Consortium estimates that retail jobs could fall from three million to 2.1 million within ten years, with only a small fraction replaced by new jobs in online retailing. Many financial-services companies see the potential to cut information-processing jobs to a small fraction of current levels.

And yet, despite all this, measured productivity growth across the developed economies has slowed. One possible explanation, recently consideredby Andrew Haldane, chief economist of the Bank of England, is that while some companies rapidly grasp the new opportunities, others do so only slowly, producing a wide productivity dispersion even within the same sector. But dispersion alone cannot explain slowing productivity growth: that would require an increase in the degree of dispersion.

However, to focus on how technology is applied to existing jobs may be to look in the wrong place, for the clue to the productivity paradox may instead be found in the activities to which displaced workers move. David Graeber of the London School of Economics arguesthat as much as 30% of all work is performed in “bullshit jobs,” which are unnecessary to produce truly valuable goods and services but arise from competition for income and status.

Graeber usefully views the world from the perspective of an anthropologist, not an economist. But the phrase “bullshit jobs” and his focus on demotivated workers doing pointless work may divert attention from the essential development: individual workers may regard as stimulating and valuable many jobs which cannot in aggregate contribute to total welfare.

Suppose, for example, that you cared passionately about the objectives of a particular charity, had a flair for fundraising, and successfully increased that charity’s share of available donations. You would probably feel both motivated and good, even if all you had done was divert money from another charity about which another equally motivated fundraiser was equally passionate.

The crucial economic question, therefore, is not whether individual jobs are “bullshit,” but whether they increasingly perform a zero-sum distributive function, whereby the dedication of ever more skill, effort, and technology cannot increase human welfare, given the skill, effort, and technology applied on the other side of the competitive game.

Numerous jobs fall into that category: cyber criminals and the cyber experts employed by companies to repel their attacks; lawyers (both personal and corporate); much of financial trading and asset management; tax accountants and revenue officials; advertising and marketing to build brand X at the expense of brand Y; rival policy campaigners and think tanks; even teachers seeking to ensure that their students achieve the higher relative grades that underpin future success.

Measuring what share of all economic activity is zero sum is inherently difficult. Many jobs involve both truly creative and merely distributive activities. And zero-sum activities can be found in all sectors; manufacturing companies can employ tax accountants to minimize liabilities and top executives who focus on financial engineering.

But available figures suggest that zero-sum activities have grown significantly. As Gary Hamel and Michele Zanini point out in a recent Harvard Business Review article, some 17.6% of all US jobs, receiving 30% of all compensation, are in “management and administrative” functions likely to involve significant zero-sum activity. Meanwhile employment in financial and “business services” firms has grown from 15% to 18% of all US jobs in the last 20 years, and from 20% to 24% of measured output.

Hamel and Zanini argue that if we could only strip out unnecessary management jobs, productivity could soar. But the growth of zero-sum activities may be more inherent than they believe. As technological progress makes us ever richer in terms of many basic goods and services – whether cars or household appliances, restaurant meals or mobile phone calls – it may be inevitable that more human activity is devoted to zero-sum competition for available income and assets.

As our ability to produce higher-quality goods with fewer people increases, value may come to lie more and more in subjective brands, and rational firms will devote resources to activities like market analysis, financial engineering, and tax planning. Eventually, almost all human work might be devoted to zero-sum activities.

Whether or not robots will ever achieve human-level intelligence, it is illuminating to consider what an economy would look like if we could automate almost all the work required to produce the goods and services human welfare requires. There are two possibilities: one is a dramatic increase in leisure; the other is that ever more work would be devoted to zero-sum competition. Given what we know about human nature, the second development seems likely to play a significant role.

As I argued in a recent lecture, such an economy would probably be a very unequal one, with a small number of IT experts, fashion designers, brand creators, lawyers, and financial traders earning enormous incomes. Paradoxically, the most physical thing of all – locationally desirable land – would dominate asset values, and rules on inheritance would be a key determinant of relative wealth.

In John Maynard Keynes’s words, we would have solved “the economic problem” of how to produce as many goods and services as we want , but would face the more difficult and essentially political questions of how to achieve meaning in a world where work is no longer needed, and how to govern fairly the inherent human tendency toward status competition. Seeking to resolve these challenges through accelerated technological development and faster productivity growth would be like pursuing a mirage.

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  1. Steven B Kurtz

    This scenario includes two fallacies well known to whole-system thinking ecological economists. First is the Cornucopian Fallacy: assuming that peak energy sources, peak resources (minerals, clean top soil, aquifers, clean air, etc.), peak biodiversity (large fauna, pollinators, fish stocks, birds, etc.) are not real bottlenecks. Second is the Techno-optimist Fallacy which is widespread, thinking that human ingenuity can solve all problems, irrespective of physical challenges.

    The quadrupling of our numbers in the lifetime of my 94 year old mother, tripling in mine, doubling in my 44 year old son’s… represents what is called (by biologists) Plague Phase in large social mammals. We have been too successful as a species, have overstretched our finite planetary ecosystem, and are ripe for rebalancing. Nature bats last.

      1. MyLessThanPrimeBeef

        Perhaps it’s easier to understand zero-sum as conservation of energy (of the all whole planet).

        What we have on this rock, plus the solar energy we get every day (and occasionally extra energy from asteroids, etc), is all we have.

        We can’t get more sum out of that.

        1. susan the other

          kinda what I thought too. Turner was quite profound saying we can’t resolve our intended goals thru tech development and higher productivity because competition sinks all boats. And a different approach would be better. If productivity is a form of energy (and it is) it is dissipated constantly by entropy – aka competition and spinoff. Like sea worms colonizing volcanic vent tubes. So we might consider a pending competition death of the economy – unless we find a way to use it less productively – too ironic. To prevent a zero sum game from shutting down the economy we would have to promote a reduction in productivity. Maybe start a competition to see who can be the least productive and most leisurely while still achieving human welfare. The solution is in the question. I think I love it.

          1. Amfortas the Hippie

            ^^”To prevent a zero sum game from shutting down the economy we would have to promote a reduction in productivity. “^^
            this points to an as yet nebulous idea I’ve been thinking about for a number of years, regarding the eternal problem of lack of parity in farm to market(cheap food=poor farmer).
            I think about the one, enormous egg factory, churning out great gobs of boring, flavourless eggs(at the expense of the rights of chickens, which sadly, only PETA ever says anything about)—-versus a million little henhouses like mine, producing several dozen eggs a day with happy chickens and more wholesome inputs(no enforced cannibalism).
            The latter system produces higher quality in my experience, and doesn’t really require that much actual labor on my part. (turn them out in the morning to be bug police, turn them in in evening, and collect and wash eggs)…but I’m stuck with the prices dictated by the former…the egg factory…and it’s economies of scale, and regulatory capture(and I must adhere to the biased regs so produced), as well as the deals it makes with stores to exclude little guys like me.
            You can put this outline on whatever agricultural product you like…it’s more or less the same.
            and if you add in government subsidies….for which the very small are de facto not eligible( cost of regs further diminishes already skewed returns)…it’s even worse.
            To your point, maybe “efficiency” is not the end all be all in everydamnedthing….in a similar manner that health is not all that compatible with Free Markets(holy, holy).
            Of course, I have no idea how to go about any of this…aside from tiers of regs based on a more granular sizing, and somehow enforcing local market access…and probably a rejiggering of the way we do subsidies, currently geared towards the very large, and mainly for export(food as weapon).
            and since there is Big Money benefiting almost exclusively from the current arrangement, it’s unlikely that meaningful reform is even possible.
            if allocation of money, under the Moloch System, is a precise indicator of what we value as a society(… an economy), it seems we don’t value work and quality and care, at all….and instead place the most value on thieves and shysters.

      2. Jeremy Grimm

        Do you really give so little credit to the capacities of your fellow readers? Overpopulation has been discussed repeatedly in the past and the fallacies of increasing production in an age of peak resources has also been discussed. Techno-optimism is the refuge of die hard denial.

        As for “Nature bats last” — I think Guy McPherson is a little bit much. After listening to a few of his podcasts I’m ready to don sackcloth and ashes, grab a whip, and travel the countryside whipping myself and chanting or grab my flagon, a willing wench and find a fat barrel to tap. But plant a tree, move to higher ground, or learn to grow potatoes? no.

    1. johnnygl

      Excellent first paragraph, stronly disagree with 2nd one. There aren’t too many humans, there are too many wealthy consumers. We have yet to figure out what the ‘good life’ looks like without massive resource consumption. If we had USA population and no one else on the planet, we’d STILL have climate change and other environmental problems.

      1. Wyoming

        I very strongly disagree with the statement that there are not too many humans. This is just wrong.

        And it is NOT just highly affluent humans who are the problem. Look at the carbon emission figures for Africa. Not even close to carbon neutral. IF everyone on Earth only emitted carbon at the average levels for Africa the ppm of CO2 in the atmosphere would still be climbing at a steady rate. And we are on pace to increase global population by another 2+ billion by 2050. Global carrying capacity is declining significantly and added population will certainly make that curve worse. And need I point out that none of those poor people intend to not increase their consumption if at all possible. The struggle to survive and increase one’s affluence will strip the Earth bare eventually.

        Civilization is not sustainable in any meaningful sense. We can stretch the timeline out if we try really hard with technological advances and a complete overhaul of our economic systems, but we cannot solve the problem with what we know today. But having that time is essential if we are to reach a situation where we can sufficiently balance global civilizational and population needs with the Earths ability to support us.

        Excessive population is problem number 1 as every person contributes to emissions. If we don’t dramatically reduce global population soon there is no possible way to solve climate change and global carrying capacity issues. Period.

        1. lyman alpha blob


          And that carrying capacity can be a real b*%ch. We don’t know exactly what it is and even if we did, we aren’t going to just bump up against it gently.

          I remember the example given in a statistics class of an island with two deer that has a carrying capacity of 80 deer and the population doubled every year. Everything’s fine the first several years as the population goes from 2 to 4 to 8 to 16 to 32 to 64. The next year there are 128 deer and only enough food for 80 and then they all starve.

          Everything’s fine until quite suddenly it isn’t.

    2. MyLessThanPrimeBeef

      The author’s last sentence:

      Seeking to resolve these challenges through accelerated technological development and faster productivity growth would be like pursuing a mirage.

      seems to me to be in accordance with what you say…techno-optimism as a mirage.

    3. Bulfinch

      Nice stuff, Mr. Kurtz – I like your style. And I agree with your observations — particularly with the second fallacy you cite above: the vanity of the technocrat is really something to behold. It seems like much of modern technology serves less as a midwife to the advancement of humankind and more like a means of fantastic distraction from our sure slide into oblivion.

    4. Richard Kline

      The really interesting issues latent in Graeber’s poorly framed but potentially notable thesis of ‘bullshit jobs’ seem to me to have been almost willfully shouldered out of subsequent discussion. Adair Turner’s techno-utopian phantasizing in this post is scarcely an improvement. Steven Kurtz’ comment on the salient flaw in the latter is germane to Turner’s line of argument, but not to the underlying questions. In a nutshell, does ‘work’ have ‘value’ that is calculable? Further, whether it does or not, is the over-supply of human labor presently manifest (and entirely likely to increase) an economic issue or a political one? At core, Graeber seems to have raised the concept of worth in work-activity as distinct from value of work-production, two vectors not the same thing at all which are typically and unthinkingly conflated in economics (but definitely not in anthropology).

      Graeber’s concept had an unfortunate beginning in a throwaway remark, which he subsequently did not choose to re-state to better effect. His first point as I understand it, is that by the self-conclusion of some/many workers, their work has no value added whatsoever, or even negative value produced, and that this was a source of considerable personal dissatisfaction for those involved. This is not a new thesis, but has been explored for at least forty years, and more like sixty. That personal dissatisfaction is quite separate from the intrinsic personally received value of a more comfortable existence. Capitalism wants to express labor as simply a work ± personal cost = compensation equation. “Stop bitching, you’ve got a soft job,” is an entirely capitalist valuation, and for us to think that way is a complete a win for the bosses. It’s simply ‘market discipline of labor’ with velvet gloves. The ideas that personal dignity, optimal personal calling, actual contribution to team or society have anything other than a purely econometric calculus are not just foreign to capitalism, but received by capital, correctly, as a hostile infection of self-awareness and autonomy by a potential worker or work force. Labor, in any anthropological or sociological sense, cannot be stated ‘ex emotional valuation,‘ as economics is eminently keen to do. This, I think, is an essential point in Graeber’s insight, but one he fumbled away by a poor methodology attempting to come up with metrics for ‘dissatisfaction.‘

      The second point I find interesting in Graeber’s thesis, which he has done precious little to develop to this point, is that value in labor cannot be reduced to any straightforward econometric formulation. This is true even without an attempt to reincorporate the squishy ‘worth of effort’ into ‘value of production’ because of the way that ‘production’ is framed in Western economics to exclude putatively externalized costs. The function of labor may have nothing to do with product but something to do with excluded factors, for instance. Makework jobs to buy labor docility may have real value for capital and economy, for instance, but any calculus of this kind is several levels of order away from econometric evaluations of a particular work output, or the personal experience of the worker involved. Indeed, this is an political anthropological equation rather than political economic one, showing again the weakness of economic analysis. It could even be said that economics is the science of removing all the facts from observation so that the figures come out ‘right,‘ but that’s another day’s screed.

      The definition of labor in economics is grossly impoverished. This is deliberate, both incidentally and intentionally. It is hard to put a metric on ‘emotional worth of labor output,’ not least because the personal response of individuals is highly varied, and even varies over time for the same person. Thus, it is simpler, if grossly distortive, to simply factor this quanta out of the picture entirely. Then too, neo-metaphysical theonomics reserves all of the operative power in its equations for ‘heroic capital’ taking ‘risks’ and ‘genius innovation’ meriting ‘rewards.‘ Labor isn’t even expressed as a human action. Proles don’t enter the calculus in even as untermenschen; they are subtracted out of existence and replaced by mere numbers, that could as well be—or even better be—rendered by machines, or cyborgs. The point is to eliminate any social obligations to non-capitalists and partition them off to die as inexpensively and noiselessly as possible once capital predation has eaten all useful bits off their faces and organ meats.

      It must be said that the idea of ‘work’ is almost entirely modern, and would not be understood in most traditional societies. People did what their elders taught them, both for basic subsistence, as a social obligation to their immediate group, and out of personal interest, not all of which factored into any one activity. There was little specialization. ‘Work’ as something distinct from social participation would have been difficult to conceptualize. Once specialization of labor began, zero value ‘jobs’ have always existed. The great majority of individuals who labor in religious bureaucracies provide zero to negative value. They are funded by the rest of society as a payoff to the gods, a protection racket payout more or less, so if there is a net positive value there it is, on the evidence, entirely psychological. The huge majority of personal and household servants provide no positive value added. For some, this is because their labor is entirely unnecessary but serves a status function—or no function—for their magnate employers. For others, the work may be productive, but it is offset by the nonproductive idleness of those freed from household or other work if nothing productive results (in an economic sense).

      It is true that for most agrarian societies, 70-90+% of potential workers labored on the land in subsistence agriculture or stock raising of some kind, and so however much or little they actually had to labor there was some degree of positive value of production. So in most agrarian societies, zero net value ‘jobs’ were far outnumbered by positive net value jobs. In modern societies, those often backbreaking small net value added jobs have been massively curtailed or eliminated. Most would say, good riddance, but that is a separate evaluation. That work is gone, raising for the first time ever the question of “What are we to do?” even as population numbers soar.

      This question, “What are we to do?” is inherently and obviously a political question—to anyone but an economist! Worth in work, as distinct from value, is a political issue exactly because it is the diametrical opposite of ‘value of work’ metrics in the calculus of inhuman capitalism. The armchair potting about on ‘a better arrangement’ by Turner is of the ‘let’s convert the lions to veganism’ type. I seriously doubt that any capitalist controlling a robot work force will, voluntarily and out of a sense of social mission, share the wealth resulting. This fact seems so self-evident it should hardly need to be stated, and cannot be denied. Securabots will be the first class perfected we may be sure, not least because they can’t sympathize with labor, having no feelings, and will activate punition regimens without the ghost of a conscience. Spy tech explores this territory now. Having no need of labor, and finding the sub-untermenschen troublesome, A Great Die-off can be seen to be highly advantageous to uber-capitalists. Don’t imagine that this thought hasn’t crossed the minds of numbers in boardrooms on high. This may be one factor in the manifest indifference of capital to global climate disruption: They figure they’ll survive, and have concluded it would be better for them if most of us didn’t. It would be much in their best interests if we all Go Die, and quickly in large numbers, so the Earth’s resources can be husbanded for the putatively meritorious. In that light, it is easy to see that not only is “What are we to do?” a political question, it is an urgent one indeed. As in, “What are we to do—with them; before they have done with us?”

      I have no notion that apex capitalists will hand out robot-served pie in the sky voluntarily. Industrial capitalists had to be fought to less than a draw by labor a century ago, and that requiring mass organization and varying but never trivial degrees of bloodshed. Anybody thinking that ‘value’ will be distributed to the masses in any technofuture with any less effort than that is going to wake up outside Paradise Acres in The Barrens policed by killer drones, frankly. Naivety is in the interests of no one but the bosses, I’ll say that. —Which is why the concept of worth in work is not trivial or tangential: It is the best tool to enforce re-distribution of value while that is still an option. Worth in work has a pathway into political accommodation because it enters the minds of others via expectations of mutual social obligations to ‘the group,’ getting away from a purely value produced = compensation/money received false balancing. Insisting on a ‘worth premia’ for labor when, where, and while labor is still needed is the optimal, low bloodshed approach to getting a solid agreement on techno-cornucopian outputs such as they may be. If they come to pass at all, an outcome itself in doubt. But even if we get no robot grails of plenty but live on into a poorer and less forgiving world, insisting on a ‘worth premia’ will have value for those who labor because it is pushback along the best vector for success against capitalist inhuman predation. That is my view.

    5. Gary

      The global economic system could be considered the ultimate bottleneck. This is a system of overproduction, overconsumption, waste, pollution which is overwhelming environmental “sinks.” This system (in terms of cause and effect) has formed the social conditions favorable for “the quadrupling of our numbers in the lifetime of [your] 94 year old mother.” This global economic system is (imperialistic generalized-monopoly) capitalism.

      It would take a ruthless totalitarian world government to address “a plague of people” (i.e. how we maintain and reproduce our population size), but there are ancient and modern historical examples of radically reforming and changing the ways we do business.

      Isn’t the Anthropocene currently being driven by capitalogenic perturbations of climatic conditions?

  2. sd

    I am having a hard time relating to this article based on my own experience at work as well as that of friends.

    Over the last 15 years, management has bloated at the expense of those lower down the totem pole who actually do the work. Lower down has taken on more work to compensate for those above who collect big checks but do nothing to the point of not even coming to work. Each time someone new gets more up top, it’s taken out of those below. So where it might have once been 2 managers up top and 10 employee below, now it’s 4 managers up top and 6 employees below with those 6 employees doing the work of 10 and the 4 managers doing the work of 2.

    1. MyLessThanPrimeBeef

      For every soldier, there is a general.

      With that kind of loving leadership, one would assume that’s an all-world, all-nature conquering army.

    2. rd

      Take a look at your organization to see if Parkinson’s estimate of a bureaucracy growth rate between 5.17% and 6.56% per year is accurate. He postulated this in 1955.

      In my experience in corporations, the bureaucracy bloats until there is a recession and then the bureaucracy becomes quickly unbloated. I have stayed focused on client-based work throughout my career instead of internal management politics, so have been able to survive multiple unbloatings as companies are always looking to retain revenue while jettisoning costs.

    3. French75

      This is precisely the point of the article. There’s clearly a gain in efficiency here (6 employees doing the work of 10), combined with the addition of zero-sum positions (2 managers).

      Much of the article is really about accounting; the work of the 6 employees “counts” towards GDP, but the work of the 2 managers does not.

  3. vlade

    The manual, outside work is backbreaking. The inside work, like in a call centre, can be mind/soul-breaking. Usually, effects of the former can be seen pretty quick. Effects of the latter are a different kettle of fish though.

    Agree that money play a role, but you have also extremely well paid back-breaking work. IIRC, Alaskan crab fisherman, crew, can make as much as 10k/week, if lucky – and can work only three months a year.

    So I think it’s actually pretty complex.

    1. PlutoniumKun

      Every year I join friends for some work on a mutual friends small farm holding. We spend the weekend helping him prepare for winter, cutting logs, repairing fences and walls and so on. All of us are pasty office workers, and we all love the exertion (aided by the beers to follow, and no doubt the local farmers consider us pretty odd to be doing it for free.

      1. Bulfinch

        I recommend Eric Brende’s rather excellent Better Off — which details the year he (MIT Grad) spent working on a Mennonite farm.

    2. jrs

      It’s also probably stressful in it’s own ways, which is none of the stress gets relieved by physical activity. So it probably rips up the brain and psyche in new ways just overloading people with cortisol and fear, being watched constantly (the fisherman probably isn’t, the office worker most definitely is), and able to lose a job for any and literally NO reason, and yes knowing this and still having to sit still instead of flee (which is the natural reaction to such a situation!). But yes the physical work might be backbreaking (but if it was always horrible there wouldn’t be anyone who prefers it and in reality there are people who prefer some types of physical work). And talk about someone who is very likely to get fired literally any day if they don’t make sales numbers: call centers.

  4. Parry

    @Yves – Graeber never presented the dichotomy that outdoor labour intensive work is better than bullshit indoor jobs. The point of his work is that for all the talk about efficiency, current capitalism has produced highly inefficient jobs that can easily be automated/done away and create more problems than they are worth. He is simply bridging the gap between ideology and reality.

    1. Ape

      And this directly connects with financial services accounting. If capital can’t account for assets then it’s possible to have economically irrational organizations. The market can’t discipline what can’t be measured. Neoliberalism is this nonsense at Soviet levels.

      And yes Graeber distinguishes between bullshit and shit jobs. The latter suck but are rational exploitation.

    2. MyLessThanPrimeBeef

      The anthropologist David Graeber has argued that as much as 30% of all work is performed in “bullshit jobs,” which are unnecessary to produce truly valuable goods and services but arise from competition for income and status.

      1. How does he arrive at the figure, 30%? Is it just a guess. All work – as in looking at all the jobs, in every sector, every city, state and nation all over the world?

      2. Would ‘publishing academic papers’ be one of those BS jobs, defined (per above) as not necessary to produce truly valuable goods and services, but arise from competition for income and status (‘I’m a professor’…’I have published’….)?

    3. False Solace

      If I remember right, Graeber also had an argument that roughly 30% of the economy was making sure poor people don’t get an equal share of the stuff. Meaning jobs that protect and track property like law enforcement, accounting, security guards, prisons, companies that manufacture locks / barbed wire / fences, network security, the legal industry, etc.

      It’s kind of pathetic that 30% of jobs are focused on bullshit when “our crumbling infrastructure” has become a national catchphrase, nobody has the time or money to properly care for little kids or grandma, and vast parts of the country have been poisoned by our own waste. Nobody does anything about those problems, but we somehow have time for 30% of the population to push paper around and waggle their fingers in everyone else’s face about how “creative” they are. There’s plenty of work to be done but only the sociopathic bullshit gets funding.

      1. MyLessThanPrimeBeef

        He says 30% and everyone is quoting that.

        I’d like to see some data backing that, or if someone had reproduced that research.

    4. Yves Smith Post author

      I never said he said that. You are straw manning me.

      I am saying that what he calls bullshit work would be regarded as paradise compared to over 95% of the jobs as recently as 100 years ago. To sit at a nice desk in an air conditioned office with indoor plumbing and a water fountain and a snack machine and maybe even an on-premises cafeteria? So what if you did was silly and the bosses were pompous idiots?

      1. vlade

        I know of call centre jobs only a second hand, but talking to a few people who did work there, their main problem was what it was they were doing – which was really to be someone upset clients could scream at, or push stuff they knew was flawed.

        They had no power to help their “clients”, but in a number of cases had targes which were impossible to meet without lying and preying on the clients (the worst case of this was so called “retntion teams”, where they were penalised for every customer who actually left, but given little power to do anything about it). The environment there was evil, and conductive to selecting for psychopathy.

        I’m not saying it’s all like that – in some relatively recent cases I had extremely good customer experience with call centres (and while I usually avoid rating customer service, I try to make an exception when I get good one – people often take good customer service as given when in my experience it’s not).

        I guess what I want to say is “it depends”.

      2. makedoanmend

        I worked for a short duration in a call centre out in Long Island, New York. I was nominally the boss but more like a figure-head with responsibilities that largely rested outside of the call centre. But on occasion, when the “team” pep talk needing doing, I did it. Of course, New Yorkers being New Yorkers, many had suggestions that really were complaints – mostly about money and the monthly incentive bonus. On the rare occasion someone would complain about a structural aspect of the building, seating, etc., the company, within reason, always responded immediately. Not once did anyone complain about the function of the job; and the product being sold was legitimate, so no gripes there.

        On the odd occasion that we would socialise, I would ask certain key producers how they actually viewed their jobs. (I have no talent or skill for cold calling whatsoever and rather admire those who can develop a quick rapport with people over the phone.) Most people just considered it a decent paying job. Certainly people wanted more interesting jobs with big buck salaries, but who doesn’t?

      3. Comradefrana

        “I am saying that what he calls bullshit work would be regarded as paradise compared to over 95% of the jobs as recently as 100 years ago.”

        I don’t understand why should “jobs done 100 years ago” be the relevant metric.

  5. cnchal

    . . . it is illuminating to consider what an economy would look like if we could automate almost all the work required to produce the goods and services human welfare requires

    There is ‘requires’ and then there is ‘wants’, two very different ideas about living. Does human welfare require 500 HP luxury cars?

    . . . There are two possibilities: one is a dramatic increase in leisure; the other is that ever more work would be devoted to zero-sum competition. Given what we know about human nature, the second development seems likely to play a significant role.

    Here is the rub. The second development implies a race to see who can consume the most of the ‘automated’ production, which will leave those that prefer more leisure without the required resources to live, and will accelerate burning up the planet

    Hmmm, what to do? Why not tax the crap out of the richest, so they can’t pay for 500 HP luxury cars and use that money to pay people to consume as little as possible. For those that want moar leisure, their debts get wiped out, and the holders of that debt get wiped out too, preventing them from gorging on their status symbols. A win for the planet in my book.

    1. vlade

      “pay to consume as little as possible”? That’s a contradiciton of terms, as money is just deffered consumption

      1. NotTimothyGeithner

        Those commutes are disasters for the environment. Joining a bowling league or something people did more of in yesteryear doesn’t compare, or even saving more so they don’t have to work in retirement.

    2. funemployed

      I dislike Wall-E type thought experiments almost as much as I dislike economics/finance people’s too common tendency to opine on “what we know about human nature” which they’ve never actually studied.

      Firstly, our current trajectory is not leading us to Wall-E spaceship happy land, but a mass die off and systemic breakdown. Avoiding the worst of that will require rather a lot of human ingenuity and very non-zero sum work – more, perhaps, than we currently possess capacity to accomplish, even if we did make it homo-sapiens priorities number 1, 2, 3, and 4.

      Secondly, in the unlikely event we do manage to reorient our society toward sustainability, we will in several domains, necessarily need to become much less “productive” in terms of the ratio of human labor input to output of goods and services. For example, a shift to eating mostly locally produced, minimally processed, organic food would be terrible for agricultural “productivity,” and also make lots of our lives a lot better. Relatively locally produced, high quality, durable clothing instead of “fast fashion” that falls apart after 10 washes would also probably be seen as less “productive,” but we’d all have better clothes (not to mention more fun jobs for crafty folks and neat local fashions).

      Finally, re “human nature,” I love how business types don’t actually ever bother explaining what they mean by that. How much evidence do they need that homo economicus only describes sociopaths who are addicted to crap, power, and status.

      The dominant theory in psychology these days posits that human beings have three fundamental psychological needs: competence, autonomy, and relatedness (i.e. giving and receiving care). It is also known that more stuff and money doesn’t make people any happier once they have enough basic comfort, security, and a few modest luxuries.

      Explaining the willingness, even eagerness, of people trained in business and economics to act like experts on any and all fields of study they view as less mathy than theirs is going to get someone a PhD in history someday, if those still exist…

      1. funemployed

        oh yeah, what makes someone a sociopath is the absence of the psychological need for “relatedness (i.e. giving and receiving care).

      2. NotTimothyGeithner

        Its just a modern priesthood for people who like the certainty of numbers versus the issues with historical analysis (great man theory versus societal changes where claimed great men are really just glorified mascots; was my research on Obama wasted when I should have been tracking trends in yuppie behavior; that kind of thing) but had trouble with regular high school calculus!

        The field of economics gives a certainty to what is an uncertain world without too much thought just prayer and faith. Expertise or evidence doesn’t matter to priests as they are anointed.

  6. Eric

    The “foreclosure movement” is a slip of the tongue for the “enclosure movement”, 1600s thru 1800s.

  7. Eclair

    Reading through Turner’s ‘long form’ lecture, as linked to in his article above. But I haven’t finished; it is long.

    But, a few thoughts. Turner ends with this zinger: ” …. locationally desirable land — would dominate asset values, and rules on inheritance would be a key determinant of relative wealth.”

    Land. It’s availability is a definite limiting factor. The availability of vast tracts of land (once we had eliminated the people who had been living on it for centuries) was the basis for the great fortunes that were made in the ‘settlement’ of this continent. Lack of land, due to enclosures, changes in land laws (Sweden), basically theft by the powerful, was a key reason that drove European immigration in the 17th through 19th centuries.

    There is no more land. Most of it has been ‘privatized,’ or is on its way to being so enclosed. Our legal and philosophical system has made ‘ownership’ of land into a basic underpinning of our society.

    So, what happens when there is a finite amount of land and a few people with money and power have the ability to enclose more and more of it. And millions of other people, with no money, have no land. Not pretty.

    We are seeing the beginnings of this process … like the first runnels of an advancing tide. Go to Seattle, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago …. and watch the landless moving among the privileged bankers, Facebook and Boeing executives and Amazon workers.

  8. David

    I wonder if a lot of this isn’t due to the relentless process of the privatisation of basic services. Take communications, for example. Instead of one public organisation providing a service, you have four or five private companies selling services in competition with each other. Since the market is essentially saturated, the only way that one can increase its market share is by taking customers from the others. This produces a huge, parasitic army of salespeople, advertising, finance, accounting, lobbying and other droids, who add nothing to the quality of services but add substantially to the costs of providing them.
    It’s also partly because of the deformation of public services into quasi-private revenue-seeking entities. That’s why you get Senior Deputy Assistant Deans for Vulnerable Students, in case the students leave and take their money with them.

  9. Newton Finn

    There is a massive amount of work to be done by human beings using low and high technology. The problem is that this work does not produce private sector profit, and thus is either ignored or done haphazardly by charitable or individual effort. Here’s a boldly perceptive article about how we might put innumerable people to work doing jobs that are the polar opposite of BS, jobs which might give our species a decent chance at long-term survival. All it would take would be the education of the masses and the summoning of political will. But that’s the rub, isn’t it?

    1. anon

      There is a massive amount of work to be done by human beings using low and high technology. The problem is that this work does not produce private sector profit, and thus is either ignored or done haphazardly by charitable or individual effort

      I agree whole heartedly, though I would update your second sentence to read:

      The problem is that this work does not produce private sector profit, and thus is made even more nightmarish by exponentially increasing fake charities with outrageously paid VIPs, or ignored and done haphazardly by charitable, or individual effort.

      (The 2001, publically subsidized octopus of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships scandal, which many weren’t/still aren’t even aware of, comes to mind; not at all to say though, that many faux charities are not faith based™.)

  10. In the Land of Farmers

    Trying to understand; If productivity is growing and the economy is shrinking, doesn’t that just mean that the workers cannot afford the good produced? Wouldn’t this point to deflationary pressure?

    It is funny that I am seeing this play out in real estate. Luxury apartments staying empty because people cannot afford them but the companies that own them have the cheap money to keep the prices high.

  11. Uuuu123

    Regarding the intro to this article – a big problem with bs jobs isn’t that theyre oppressive. It’s the opportunity cost to society, in that they tie up the time of many of our most educated / intrinsically motivated / organized workers. Rather than doing bs jobs, in principle, they could be doing “s##t jobs”, which are actually productive – or better yet working on ways to make productive work more humane.

  12. Mike

    I think it’s worth noting that this argument is not contradictory to Graeber’s bullshit job formulation. The category of “non-productive jobs employed to compete for finite resource streams” is an implicitly detailed category in his book, and can be broken into both sheer wasteful jobs put forward to maximize grift (using the case of law firms structuring themselves inefficiently to bill as much as possible in massive class action suits) and in bitter competition for resources, both internal to firms and in the market on the whole.

    It’s hard to ascribe all personally unfulfilling work to this socially-maximizing logic, though (using another example from Graeber of the receptionist hired to sit at a desk for 8 hours a day, dealing with absolutely no one and providing no administrative support to the office, in order to show the firm was a ‘real company,’ with a full hierarchy inside), which limits the extent of the efforts to ascribe market rationality onto market outcomes driven by clearly irrational human concerns.

  13. John

    Since the job of working in a call center is referred to in the introduction, I would like to highly recommend Boots Riley’s new film, Sorry To Bother You. The main character works in a call center. The film is an excellent and in part very strange description of the crossroads of race, class and bullshit jobs in twilight capitalism.
    As for myself, my life of earning money has been in bullshit jobs…for varying amounts of money. I call my money earning life the slave ship. It’s the neoliberal poison of monetizing everything…the good and the bad.

    1. jrs

      I’d bet there are more people with some other options that choose outdoor work and physical labor than that choose to do telemarketing (just not every possible form of it, coal mining maybe not, mass processing dead chickens maybe not). But telemarketing also means one has no options.

      1. Which is worse - bankers or terrorists

        Yves has no options? She just made me think I should have been a telemarketer.

  14. Matthew G. Saroff

    When David Graeber is talking about “Bullshit Jobs”, he is not talking about charity fundraisers, who, after all, contribute to the well-being of that charity.

    Rather, he is referring to the tasks that involve collecting data, processing that data, and passing it to your higher ups so that they can issue reports to their higher ups, or means testing what should be universal social welfare benefits.

    There is a tranche of middle and upper level management positions where the bulk, if not all, of the work involves collecting data and creating reports whose primary purpose is to show that the work was done.

    On occasion, Yves Smith has referred to these people as, “Hillary’s Base,” and if they were all fired tomorrow, our lives would be easier, not harder.

  15. Tony Wikrent

    This is why I am a Hamiltonian not a Keynesian. Hamilton tried to arrange a financial system that was non feudal by emphasizing the creation of new wealth, which he defined in terms of increasing the productive power of labor through more and better machinery. See for example what I wrote a couple months ago about Hamilton versus shareholder value. Turner’s misconception of what value is shows why Keynesianism is not the answer, but republicanism is, with its emphasis on civic virtue (requiring the curbing of self interest) which is much more amenable to socialism and social welfare. It must be understood that USA was founded as a republic NOT as a capitalist economy, and that the principles of republicanism are actually quite conducive to socialist forms of economic organization. Now that we are near the point of machinery producing almost all we require, the Constitutional mandate to promote the general welfare dictates a large expansion of social welfare programs. Conservatives and libertarians want a new constitutional convention precisely to avoid this, and to move us in the opposite direction by eliminating the general welfare mandate. The Republican Party today is grossly misnamed.

    1. lyman alpha blob

      Hamilton tried to arrange a financial system that assured the already rich would continue to get richer, and he succeeded.

      This book on The Whiskey Rebellion is quite good and includes a lot of discussion of Hamilton.

      It’s always difficult to interpret history from a couple hundred years away, but that being said I’d still take Jefferson over Hamilton if I wanted to start a country from scratch.

      1. Tony Wikrent

        Simply compare the rich rulers of USA in 1800 with the rich rulers of England in 1800. The richest in England are still so. Such is not the case in USA. Hogeland is disproved by this simple evidence. He simply does not understand the basic economic fact that all wealth is ultimately based on science and technology and therefore cannot understand what Hamilton actually did. Again, just look at the richest in USA and the origins of their fortunes. Bezos versus Cavendish.

  16. Oregoncharles

    ” The idea that, say, working in a call center was oppressive would be laughed out of the room any time prior to 30 years ago.”
    Surprisingly, I think you’ve missed Graeber’s point about “bullshit jobs.” It isn’t that they’re hard or intrinsically unpleasant; it’s that they’re useless or worse. Work doesn’t just put food on the table (and buy the table); it provides the satisfaction of contributing. That’s why people volunteer, sometimes for very difficult work.

    And when things are working as they should, livelihood is society’s return for that usefulness. Of course, in the real world the connection isn’t all that close, but it’s one we’re always looking for.

    Your point that civilization brings with it backbreaking labor for most people, and luxury for a few, is also well taken. It’s the reason there are “green anarchists” – Zerzan, the chief theorist of that movement, happens to live in Eugene, just 40 miles away, and regularly writes to the local alternative paper. Always interesting; practical is another matter. The Transition Towns movement is one answer to the dilemma.

    1. lyman alpha blob

      I’ve dug ditches and worked in an office. I much prefer the office work to breaking my back with a shovel but will also readily admit that what I actually do in the office is pretty much useless in the grand scheme of things.

    2. jrs

      Yea to feel one’s work actually positively contributes to society would be the ideal. However work is still often preferable to unemployment and not just because people get bored doing nothing. That’s indirection, or it’s a lie more accurately, as that’s not what unemployment IS. Unemployment is not doing nothing (although it usually contains some of that).

      It’s doing things that don’t lead anywhere, sending out the 1000s of resumes into the black hole, going to interviews that ghost you afterward etc. It’s basically FORCED FUTILITY. It’s not really accurate to call that doing nothing, whatever the virtues or non virtues of doing nothing, it’s much more like learned helplessness dogs. And yet one is forced to do it for the hopes of money. And so meaningless tasks at a b.s. job are preferable (as of course is actually doing nothing! probably why people just make the switch to discouraged workers after not finding a job forever, because it’s preferable as a place to live in … like people literally can’t handle forced futility forever, doing nothing becomes the less painful option). B.s. work is unimportant and that’s not the same as futile, unimportant work at least achieves it’s aim.

    3. Yves Smith Post author

      I spend two summers working in call centers. I don’t buy the premise that they are bullshit jobs. I also swept stages and I didn’t regard that as bullshit either.

      I despise Graeber’s contempt for what he depicts as non-creative work. Guess what, most people are not creative. If you believe Myers-Briggs (which I think is crap for looking at one on one dynamics but actually does have some utility in larger group settings), roughy 75% of the people are “S” which is “sensing” or literal-minded. They like following procedures. Only about 25% are “N” or “intuitive,” which chafe at that sort of thing.

      1. Georg

        I have read several interviews with Graeber on the subject. At no point did I get the impression that he is contemptuous of non-creative work. The examples he used for societally-useful work were nurses and teachers (among others) which are not typically creative jobs. Moreover, his standard of judging if a job is bullshit is self-reporting by the worker. So if you do not think your callcenter work was useless he would not either by that standard.

  17. Observer

    Maybe I’m an idiot (am certainly not an economist), but I’m reminded of the movie, “Office Space.” Still relevant, and a more amusing exploration of bullshit jobs than the article. Every job has its “TPS Report,” “The Bobs,” and bureaucratic boss. Versus the service job, with its “37 pieces of Personal Flair.” Which is more essential? The food server, or the TPS report? Answer: Doesn’t matter, since both have been crappified with unnecessary bullshit. There is no longer any “dignity of work,” as Sherrod Brown points out. Zero sum productivity sounds like more clueless economist BS to me, which, as usual, misses the point that life is not a dichotomy. Reality is more subtle, and therefore, “a” does not always equal “b.” It seems to me that incentives based on what is valued are the real source of the problem, not how much more productivity can be squeezed out of workers, no matter what it is that they do.

  18. RBHoughton

    I think this describes the AngloAmerican dream. We are all asset transfer specialists transferring yours to mine. So long as we don’t get uppity and try for something more significant we submit to markets, customs and laws and allow the big owners to umpire the game.

  19. ewmayer

    “Whether or not robots will ever achieve human-level intelligence, it is illuminating to consider what an economy would look like if we could automate almost all the work required to produce the goods and services human welfare requires. There are two possibilities: one is a dramatic increase in leisure; the other is that ever more work would be devoted to zero-sum competition. Given what we know about human nature, the second development seems likely to play a significant role.”

    I agree that door #2, ever-increasing crapification and precaritization of the jobs landscape for the mopes, is more likely, but door #1 might also have its own negatives. From a cheesy 1961 SciFi flick which was done up by the MST3K crew, I found this one line of dialogue to point to a rather interesting Gedankenexperiment:

    Sessom: It’s true that our technology may be further advanced than yours, but then strange things happened.

    Capt. Frank Chapman: What was that?

    Sessom: We let our machines do all our work. People on Rheton became completely free of all labor, practically of all responsibility. Our people became soft and lazy. They did not know how to cope with their free time. They started to fight among themselves.

    Doesn’t “fighting among ourselves” nicely describe a large fraction of online ‘social’ activity?

  20. J-Ho

    Overall, the best critique I’ve read of Graeber’s “bullshit jobs” thesis was Jason Smith’s piece in the Brooklyn Rail. His position is best summed up by this quote:

    “The cashier makes, maintains, and fixes nothing. He is the paper pusher par excellence: he facilitates the process of exchange, by which possession of a good or service is transferred to a buyer in exchange for money. Such labor expedites, in a capitalist society, the ‘realization’ of the value added in production, its transformation into money which can be reinvested in production or spent on consumption by the business owner, at the same time permitting consumers access to commodities, whatever their social utility (Swiss chard, methamphetamine, baby formula, or assault rifle). So much of the labor performed by workers across the world, and particularly in high-income countries, is just this: subjectively pointless, yet objectively necessarily for the distribution of goods and services produced, as they are in our societies, by private firms whose sole objective is not the meeting of social needs but the transformation of an initial sum of money into a larger one.”

    1. Yves Smith Post author

      This as the attitude of a snob, someone who holds people who have menial jobs in contempt. The old snobbisme was to look down on garbage men and street sweepers. Now it is to look down on those who hold modest clerical jobs.

      In Australia, where the minimum wage was much higher in purchasing power terms than in the US, at least when I was there ($A 13.10, which in purchasing power terms was pretty much like $13.00 US, and this in 2002), the cashiers at the grocery stores were virtually all chipper, and it was not feigned chipper. What they were paid was a sign that their work had value.

      1. J-Ho

        His point is more that many of the jobs Graeber considers “bullshit” or “pointless” are very important to the functioning of capitalism, although they may appear to have no real social value. Under capitalism, very little of the work we do has social purpose. The point is to create and realize profit for a privileged few, and maintaining the institutional structure and facilitating the realization of that profit is a massive undertaking.

  21. Scott

    In the introduction to this post, I think you’ve inadvertently used the word foreclosure instead of enclosure . . .

    “England before the foreclosure movement”


  22. TG

    Automation is eliminating the need for human jobs and therefore we have a terrible labor shortage and must either have more babies or import massive numbers of third-world refugees or we will run out of workers and the crops will rot in the field and we will all starve. Also, because automation is eliminating much of the need for human labor, companies can produce more with fewer workers which is why overall productivity numbers are stagnant and declining.

    Suggestion: there is no paradox here. There is only tortured obfuscation of what’s really going on.

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