To Fight Bullshit Jobs, Run The Economy Really Hot

I finally got around to reading the late David Graeber’s masterful book Bullshit Jobs: A Theory. Graeber brilliantly explores the hidden underworld of “bullshit jobs,” which he defines as “a form of paid employment that is so completely pointless, unnecessary, or pernicious that even the employee cannot justify its existence even though, as part of the conditions of employment, the employee feels obliged to pretend that this is not the case.” He furthermore notes “second-order bullshit jobs,” which are non-bullshit jobs performed in service of supporting bullshit jobs, as well as the general “bullshitization” of the economy, whereby an increasing proportion of people’s time at all levels is devoted towards administrative or bureaucratic nonsense that essentially serves no purpose and we’d all be better off without.

Graeber paints a colorful picture of this phenomenon as a sort of neo-feudalism, arguing that the role of our great capitalist and managerial elite has transitioned away from competing to build a better mousetrap for the masses and towards something more akin to extracting loot from the economy as treasure and then surrounding themselves with an entourage of feudal retainers in order to flaunt their status. It certainly matches some of my personal experience, as well as other accounts of contemporary economic failings (such as the Akerlof and Shiller book Phishing for Phools, about economic looting of a darker sort). To explain why the bullshit is proliferating, Graeber discusses forces on three levels of causality: 1) the individual level — why do employees accept bullshit jobs? 2) the structural level — why are bullshit jobs proliferating throughout society? and 3) the cultural/political level — why doesn’t society do anything to stop it?

Despite the latter two clearly being society-wide in scale, what the book didn’t do for me is draw a macroeconomic connection, which I figured there surely must be. Graeber briefly mentions lax competition/antitrust laws but doesn’t put much weight on this. He also ties the structural explanation to financialization, arguing that shifts toward financial business models eroded company loyalty among both managers and workers and led to an economy no longer really based on making things.

But I think the macroeconomic connection is to be found in how to solve the problem. Unlike most texts on social ills, Bullshit Jobs does not come with ready-made policy suggestions for solving the problem, although Graeber does think that a Universal Basic Income (UBI) would help. Clearly reallocating coordination rights — altering competition laws to change who has power — would go a long way too. But there’s another tool in our box that I think needs to be looked at: ramping up aggregate demand until it outstrips the economy’s supply capacity.

Excess demand is normally viewed as a bad thing because it creates shortages and potentially inflation, and that’s right, but if done carefully and temporarily there can also be many benefits. Another reading I was doing by Ed Nell helped connect the dots on this. In an amazing piece called “Capitalism, Socialism, and Effective Demand,” Ed Nell lays out a clear-eyed contrast between the workings of a demand-constrained economy and a resource-constrained economy. While he short-hands these as ‘capitalism’ and ‘socialism’ respectively, planning and ownership of the means of production aren’t really the issue so much as the level of aggregate demand: in demand-constrained economies, demand for goods and services is normally less than capacity, whereas in resource-constrained economies it’s normally greater than capacity.

While there are many fascinating points of contrast in the article, the relevant one here pertains to technological innovation and use of the labor force, where Nell’s basic claim is that the two different states of affairs encourage different types of innovation. For demand-constrained economies, according to Nell, competitive pressures to sell to a limited number of customers leads to developments that promote “separation of function and division of labor. Tasks and designs are simplified, clarified, broken down and made more precise.” But when aggregate demand is substantially above supply capacity so that the economy is resource-constrained, innovation takes a different character:

…generalized shortage sets up pressure for innovations that can meet several needs or perform several functions at the same time — two birds with one stone. In the face of chronic shortages, jobs must be accomplished without the proper tools or materials, which provides an incentive for redesigning products and equipment, and redefining jobs; equipment and work teams must be adapted to multiple functions… functions are combined, rather than separated, and tasks are multiplied instead of divided.

Consider again innovations under chronic excess capacity: because there are always resources that can be absorbed when requested, firms can design new methods and procedures to be just so, tailored perfectly and efficiently to fit some exact need. This has the general result of atomizing the production process, turning machines into single-use devices and workers into niche specialists. This can mean though that nobody truly ends up knowing how the parts fit together, which is why Adam Smith said that division of labor would cause people to become as “stupid and ignorant as it is possible for a human creature to become.”

By contrast, Nell says, when innovations happen in the face of shortages, they are essentially about diversifying, adding new skills to old and creating multi-purpose machines and generalist workers who can get the job done with whatever is lying around. Rather than having a “slack” labor market and workforce, a resource-constrained economy is an all-hands-on-deck situation, and each person must contribute in any way they can to solving whatever challenges arise, improvising if necessary and learning along the way. New machines or work processes cannot be made just so, because the additional resources needed to support this simply cannot be found. (I think one way to understand this is that in shortage economies, the cost of additional resources rises much higher than the cost of resources you already have, forcing substitutions towards towards the latter.)

Think pineapple corer vs. Swiss army knife. A pineapple corer is a niche gadget with a single-purpose. If you own one, it just sits there doing nothing most of the time, and the only way it makes sense for it to be mass produced is if society has enough capacity that we can afford to have all those bits of metal and plastic sitting dormant between pineapples rather than being used for other things. Not to mention inventors who find it useful to devote their time towards finding slightly easier ways to accomplish tasks we can already do. (And now imagine the pineapple corer were alive and we required it to justify its existence in order to eat…it’s probably going to start finding reasons for people to eat more pineapples!)

A Swiss army knife by contrast can perform many tasks, and people who own them use them on a daily basis for all sorts of things. It’s exactly what you need if you’ve got severe limits on how much metal or space you can use. And the point of inventing it is that people are in a real jam and need something rough and ready to get the job done in a pinch, even if it’s not a perfect match to the task at hand.

You can use either of those tools to cut a pineapple, but should our economy be producing pineapple corers or Swiss army knives? Clearly there should be a balance, because there are costs and benefits to each approach. In terms of efficiency the Swiss army knife is obviously a more economical use of physical resources, but the pineapple corer gets the job done with much less effort. Or consider resilience: if you lose your pineapple corer then coring pineapples becomes a problem, but if you come to depend on your Swiss army knife for 20 tasks and then you misplace it, now you’ve created 20 problems at once. In terms of our research potential, it’s good to have people thinking deeply about how to solve narrow problems, but it’s also good to have people turning their eyes towards interdependence and integration of many aspects of complex problems.

But perhaps our economy has swung too far towards turning workers and machines into pineapple corers, and we could use some time developing them into Swiss army knives. I have no doubt that Graeber is right that bullshit jobs serve as feudal props for the powerful in a sick society with vast inequalities. But you can also see bullshitization as a logical extreme of an economy that’s geared towards always creating the next pineapple corer rather than the next Swiss army knife. At a certain point it stops being a luxury and starts being flat out waste. So perhaps the way to deal with it is to run the economy so hot that bullshit becomes a luxury that we cannot afford.