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Category: The Pamphleteers

Anthropologist David Graeber’s new book, Bullshit Jobs: A Theory, raises some excellent questions about jobs, value (economic), values (cultural/societal) and the future of work. I thoroughly recommend the book to anyone who cares about those matters. But the book explores these issues through Graeber’s anarchist-leaning lens and is self-confessedly short on answers that align with Graeber’s own intense scepticism about achieving desirable change through conventional political institutions.

In this pamphlet, I shall attempt to look at the same issues through a Long Finance lens. I won’t pretend that I am long on answers myself – I think the future of work is one of the thorniest long-term problems with which our society needs to grabble at the moment – but I do have some ideas and at least hope to frame some darned good follow up questions.

In the summer of 2015, I was asked to write a futurology piece for SAMI Consulting – the result was Machine Learning and Professional Work – A Lookahead To 2040. Coincidentally, that summer, I first met David Graeber and realised that his seminal 2013 Strike Magazine article, On The Phenomenon Of Bullshit Jobs, was very relevant to my piece. If the world is awash with “bullshit jobs” now, what will it be like in the coming decades when a large proportion of today’s meaningful jobs are either automated away or become bullshit-protected jobs?

So when I chatted with David Graeber again on these matters in April 2018 and he kindly gave me a draft of Bullshit Jobs: A Theory, I decided it was time for me to revisit these crucial issues; this time from a Long Finance – specifically an Eternal Coin - perspective.

Bullshit Jobs: Some Inconvenient Truths

A great many jobs are utterly pointless or even societally harmful – not only from an external, independent perspective, but from the subjective assessment of the people performing those jobs. Graeber reminds us of John Maynard Keynes prediction that, by the year 2000, the standard working week would have been reduced to 10 to 15 hours through automation and productivity gains. Instead, suggests Graeber, we have created swathes of meaningless jobs and protected swathes of obsolescent ones. 

According to Graeber, his article, On The Phenomenon Of Bullshit Jobs, led to a flood of e-mails from people with tales of their bullshit jobs. It also led to YouGov polls in the UK and elsewhere in Western Europe, in which 38% to 40% of respondents declared their jobs to be pointless. Most of those people also stated that they were rendered miserable by their jobs.

We can question the rigour of elements of the research method.  Self-selecting individuals with tales - sometimes monstrous behaviours, sometimes hilarious scenarios of pointless activity, often a combination of tragedy and comedy at the hands of hapless managers – are surely not a representative sample. Nor to some extent are responses to a YouGov survey, however careful the survey method and choice of wording, when the question is a leading one, along the lines of “do you think your job is pointless?”

Yet, almost everyone who reads the book is likely to agree that Graeber is onto something. Bullshit jobs is “a thing”, as the young folks say. Moreover, it is a thing that is likely to become increasingly prevalent as automation’s relentless expansion potentially gobbles up more and more jobs.

Most of us can think of examples we have encountered in the world of work – be it ludicrous bureaucracy or visible employees who can be seen doing little or nothing at all by way of meaningful work.

Those of us familiar with Parkinson’s Law - the original article is still a highly recommended, cracking good read - will recognise the notion that work expands to fill the time available in which to get it done. While Graeber doesn’t reference Parkinson’s Law (surprisingly perhaps), the ideas are quite closly related. Parkinson doesn’t just focus on individuals filling their time, he also quotes, for example, Admiralty statistics that show, laughably, that staffing in the Admiralty continued to grow substantially, even after the British Navy had shrunk markedly.  Many of those Admiralty jobs must have been bullshit jobs; C Nothcote Parkinson was simply too polite to use that term.

Bullshit Jobs: Some Really Good Questions

Graeber sets out three really good questions on page 154, looking at the problem on three levels:

  • Individual: why do people tolerate bullshit jobs?
  • Economic/social: what has led to the proliferation of bullshit jobs?
  • Political/cultural: why isn’t the proliferation of bullshit jobs seen as a societal problem and dealt with?

In his rigorous yet chatty style, Graeber takes the reader on a whistle-stop tour of the history of work, pointing out that the idea of treating time as a monetary currency is a relatively recent social construct, founded at the time of the industrial revolution and steeped in the labour theory of value that, resultantly, emerged in that era. The notion of work being an inherently virtuous way to pass time is not much older, originating during the mediaeval, feudal period, in England and some other parts of Northern Europe, subsequently becoming known as “the work ethic”. Graeber suggests that managerialism is the agent of modern feudalism.

Although this historic analysis doesn’t directly address the above questions, Graeber suggests that this history leads to most people’s sense of dignity and worth being intrinsically linked to work and specifically their job. The irony that so many people largely define themselves by, yet simultaneously hate their jobs is not wasted on David Graeber, nor on me.

Another paradox, which touches on all three questions, is the notion that our society has a (religious or mythological) cosmology imagining that work is an appropriate place for human beings.

Actually, Graeber raises a further darned good question (omitted from the above list) when he suggests that there seems to be an inverse relationship between social values and pay, wondering why this might be the case. He suggests that the answer might, in part, sit with the mediaeval work ethic idea that social value work is done for love whereas paid work is done for diligence and need. In service sector jobs, much of the value emerges from the care element of the work, which is, paradoxically, the least quantifiable element.

Graeber wonders whether the information revolution might be in part the cause of the proliferation of bullshit jobs, simply because information sector jobs and roles tend to be intangible, with benefits hard to measure and value difficult to quantify. He also wonders whether the distinction – perhaps even opposition – between value and values, might eventually lead to a revolt by the caring classes.

An Eternal Coin Perspective On Issues Raised In Bullshit Jobs

The Long Finance concept of the Eternal Coin is a thought experiment about  virtual coin that might represent value, wealth and exchange, sustained over a very long time – see Dr Malcolm Cooper’s paper, In Search of the Eternal Coin: A Long Finance View of History.

In that 2010 paper, Malcom Cooper set out the history of value, starting some 4,000 to 5,000 years ago. David Graeber, coincidentally, covered a similar period in his excellent 2011 book, Debt: The First 5000 Years.

The history element of both of those works is fascinating, but the stored value element, which is the Eternal Coin’s focus, is intrinsically linked with what such a coin might exchange for in the future.  When Cooper starts to discuss what the current and future Eternal Coin might comprise, there is some even more intriguing foreshadowing of Graeber’s ideas in Bullshit Jobs. For example:

“Time and information have always been important contributors to wealth creation, but in the past both impacted on a scale which was measurable. It is no longer clear if this is the case...”  In Search of the Eternal Coin p25

From an eternal coin perspective, it is understandable that many people tolerate their jobs (bullshit or no) simply in order to contribute income towards their individual or family’s existence, while avoiding being a drain on the family’s stored wealth or indeed that of the state.

Further, most people consider aspiration to be a mostly virtuous characteristic in people and in societies.  Cooper again:

“All of our Eternal Coins were driven by aspirations, and for much of the last couple of centuries these have been underpinned by a general belief in human progress towards a wealthier, more comfortable, more secure future. What happens to Long Finance if this belief falters? One of the more compelling historical truisms is that revolutions are often caused by decelerations in the rate of progress and frustrated ambition (thus the place of the middle class in the vanguard of most modern revolutionary movements).” p28

On a potentially more positive note, I have long been intrigued by thinking around information as a model or societal syndrome. I referenced Pat Gratton, Chris Phoenix and Tom McKendree in my 2008 Gresham Lecture, Commercial Ethics: Process or Outcome? Those thinkers, like Graeber, struggled to place idealists - such as inventors, authors of Wikipedia entries and designers of public domain source code - into the conventional, binary divide of societal syndromes, commercial or guardian. They settled on the notion of information syndrome to describe this type of activity. One interesting observation is the economic or value characteristics of such activities. Guardian syndrome activities (which would include bullshit jobs) tend to be negative or zero sum in terms of value, commercial syndrome activities tend to be positive sum. But information syndrome activities are not only positive but potentially unlimited sum activities, as information assets can be widely shared and enjoyed. That is potentially a hugely positive thing for society, but only if we are able to harness for good the rapidly changing characteristics of the things we might do to add value to society.

So, in my view, we don’t inevitably face a dystopian future, or at best a dystopian transition to a better future. It is surely possible to envisage a progressive, positive, evolutionary course through these changes.

Ideas And Aspects Worthy Of Further Exploration

David Graeber only makes one firm policy proposal in Bullshit Jobs: A Theory; a universal basic income (UBI) for all citizens. This is not a new idea, indeed the Permanent Fund Of Alaska is to all intents and purposes a UBI. Further, UBI has recently been trialled in Finland – although personally, I wonder how “universal” such a trial is when merely piloted with 2,000 citizens in a Finnish town.

Of course, most developed nations have something akin to a UBI in the form of benefits systems – they are in theory a safety net to ensure that all citizens have their basic needs covered.

But I am attracted to a similar but subtly different type of system, also not new but barely tested, which I call a universal benefits and income tax system. One of my great bugbears in developed nations such as the UK is the extreme complexity of the benefits and taxation systems. Add to that the lack of integration between those two systems and the result, almost everywhere, is excessive bureaucracy, many instances of unintended consequences, perverse incentives and unfair outcomes. The fact that some of the very highest levels of marginal taxation in the UK occur at very low levels of income, when workers lose benefits and pay tax and pay national insurance contributions strikes me as ludicrous as well as grossly unfair and regressive. A single universal system could iron out much of the complexity, bureaucracy and unfairness in the tax and benefits systems. It would also deliver many of the benefits Graeber and others boast for UBI.

David Graeber also flirts with the idea of centralised economic planning in Bullshit Jobs: A Theory, wondering whether improvements to computerised modelling techniques might right most of the wrongs of Soviet-style economic planning. This was one of the few places in the book where I disagreed with David profoundly – I think macro-economic modelling is one area where the onset of technology couldn’t help unless the society was unbearably repressive, as the same advances that would enable theoretical state-level planning would also enable private sector operators to emulate and game the state-based planning system. It is a surprising suggestion from Graeber who is, for the most part, a small-state anarchist thinker rather than a statist.

What I do believe is that advances in technology and systems can help address many of the social ills that Graeber observes and anticipates, but more through providing infrastructure for bottom-up societal movements than models for top-down state-driven ones. For example, I have long favoured, in theory, local exchange trading systems (LETS) and in particular a subset of such systems known as time banks.  Michael Mainelli discussed these in his 2009 Gresham Lecture Local or Global Network Economics And The New Economy. I explored them further in the a monetary context in my 2010 lecture Changing Money: Communities, Longer Term Finance and You. But despite my enthusiasm for these ideas conceptually, back in 2010 I identified practical problems:

“Yet, word from the front line of LETS is that organising a currency, even a simple, local time bank one, can be very hard work.  Many volunteer-based schemes disappear as rapidly as or even faster than they appeared.  Very few LETS make a transition from community organisation to influencing significant chunks of local business.” Changing Money Transcript p9.

I now believe that advances in distributed systems, not least mutual distributed ledger (or blockchain) technologies could enable many LETS and time banks to flourish beyond the  attractive but small-scale initiatives achieved to date.

I also believe that such technologies could be transformative in the simplification of tax and benefits systems; not only for developed nations such as the UK (discussed above) but also in  developing nations, where many people face far more basic problems, e.g. the inability to prove their identity and/or financial exclusion. Those who are financially excluded are mostly condemned to perform either shit jobs or bullshit jobs. Coincidentally, the various estimates for financial exclusion range between 30% and 40% of the global adult population. Similar to the “problem percentages” that emerge from David Graeber’s research into bullshit jobs and certainly as important if not more important, if our aim is to improve lives, reduce misery and value individual’s contribution to society more fairly.

Further Reading

David Graeber, Bullshit Jobs: A Theory, Allen Lane (15 May 2018), ISBN 0241263883.  See also: On The Phenomenon Of Bullshit Jobs, Strike Magazine, 17 August 2013, http://strikemag.org/bullshit-jobs/ 

Dr. Malcolm Cooper, In Search of the Eternal Coin: A Long Finance View of History, Long Finance, Eternal Brevities Series, March 2010, http://www.longfinance.net/Publications/In%20Search%20Of%20The%20Eternal%20Coin.pdf

Ian Harris, Machine Learning and Professional Work – A Lookahead To 2040, SAMI Consultiung 25th Anniversary Series, 7 October 2015, https://samiconsulting.wordpress.com/2015/10/07/machine-learning-and-professional-work-a-lookahead-to-2040/

Carl Benedikt Frey and Michael A. Osborne, The Future Of Employment: How Susceptible Are Jobs To Computerisation?, September 17, 2013, http://www.oxfordmartin.ox.ac.uk/downloads/academic/The_Future_of_Employment.pdf

C. Northcote Parkinson, Parkinson's Law, The Economist, Nov 19th 1955, https://www.economist.com/node/14116121

Ian Harris, Commercial Ethics: Process or Outcome?, Gresham College, 6 November 2008, https://www.gresham.ac.uk/lectures-and-events/commercial-ethics-process-or-outcome

Michael Mainelli, Local or global? Network Economics and the New Economy, 26 January 2009, https://www.gresham.ac.uk/lectures-and-events/local-or-global-network-economics-and-the-new-economy

Ian Harris, Changing Money: Communities, Longer Term Finance and You, 16 November 2010, https://www.gresham.ac.uk/lectures-and-events/changing-money-communities-longer-term-finance-and-you

David Graeber, Debt : The First 5000 Years, Melville House Publishing (2014) ISBN: 1612194192

Michael Mainelli and Ian Harris, The Price of Fish: A New Approach to Wicked Economics and Better Decisions, Nicholas Brealey Publishing (2011) ISBN: 1857885716 

An eternal coin perspective on a problem forces us to think globally and to think sustainably. Current paradigms about jobs, value, values and work are neither equitable nor are they viable in our changing world. Humankind no doubt has the intelligence to recognise the problems and invent workable solutions, but do we have the strength of character and leadership to adopt and implement those solutions?

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