Tageconomics

On the Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs

Bull shit jobs

David Graeber writes:

This is a profound psychological violence here. How can one even begin to speak of dignity in labour when one secretly feels one’s job should not exist? How can it not create a sense of deep rage and resentment. Yet it is the peculiar genius of our society that its rulers have figured out a way, as in the case of the fish-fryers, to ensure that rage is directed precisely against those who actually do get to do meaningful work. For instance: in our society, there seems a general rule that, the more obviously one’s work benefits other people, the less one is likely to be paid for it. Again, an objective measure is hard to find, but one easy way to get a sense is to ask: what would happen were this entire class of people to simply disappear? Say what you like about nurses, garbage collectors, or mechanics, it’s obvious that were they to vanish in a puff of smoke, the results would be immediate and catastrophic. A world without teachers or dock-workers would soon be in trouble, and even one without science fiction writers or ska musicians would clearly be a lesser place. It’s not entirely clear how humanity would suffer were all private equity CEOs, lobbyists, PR researchers, actuaries, telemarketers, bailiffs or legal consultants to similarly vanish. (Many suspect it might markedly improve.) Yet apart from a handful of well-touted exceptions (doctors), the rule holds surprisingly well.

Even more perverse, there seems to be a broad sense that this is the way things should be. This is one of the secret strengths of right-wing populism. You can see it when tabloids whip up resentment against tube workers for paralysing London during contract disputes: the very fact that tube workers can paralyse London shows that their work is actually necessary, but this seems to be precisely what annoys people. It’s even clearer in the US, where Republicans have had remarkable success mobilizing resentment against school teachers, or auto workers (and not, significantly, against the school administrators or auto industry managers who actually cause the problems) for their supposedly bloated wages and benefits. It’s as if they are being told “but you get to teach children! Or make cars! You get to have real jobs! And on top of that you have the nerve to also expect middle-class pensions and health care?”

Full Story: Strike! Magazine: On the Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs

See also: Time Wars

Corporations Are “Bad AI”

Tim Maly writes:

One of my favourite recurring tropes of AI speculation/singulatarian deep time thinking is mediations on how an evil AI or similar might destroy us. […]

And all I can think is: we already have one of those. It is pretty clear to anyone who’s paying attention that 1. a marketplace regime of firms dedicated to maximizing profit has—broadly speaking—added a lot of value to the world 2. there are a lot of important cases where corporate profit maximization causes harm to humans 3. corporations are—broadly speaking—really good at ensuring that their needs are met.

I don’t think that it’s all that far fetched to suggest that maybe they’re getting better and better at ensuring their needs are met. Pretty much the only thing that the left and right in America can agree on is that moneyed influence has corrupted American politics and yet neither side seems able to do much of anything about it.

Full Story: Quiet Babylon: The Singularity Already Happened; We Got Corporations

See also: Yes, There is a Sub-Reddit Dedicated to Preventing SkyNet

Time Wars

Mark Fisher describes the contemporary economy and the precarity it involves as a “Time War” in which more and more work of our time is dedicated to work:

To understand the time-crisis, we only have to compare the current situation with the height of punk and post-punk in the UK and the US. It’s no accident that the efflorescence of punk and post-punk culture happened at a time when cheap and squatted property was available in London and New York. Now, simply to afford to pay rent in either city entails giving up most of your time and energy to work. The delirious rise in property prices over the last twenty years is probably the single most important cause of cultural conservatism in the UK and the US. In the UK, much of the infrastructure which indirectly supported cultural production has been systematically dismantled by successive neoliberal governments. Most of the innovations in British popular music which happened between the 60s and the 90s would have been unthinkable without the indirect funding provided by social housing, unemployment benefit and student grants.

Full Story: Gonzo Circus: Exclusive essay ‘Time-wars’ by Mark Fisher

(via Bruce Sterling)

See also: Radical Atheism

American Conservative: Raise The Minimum Wage

The American Conservative, a magazine founded by Pat Buchanan, is running a report calling for an increase of the minimum wage to $10-$12 an hour, nation wide. The report wasn’t written by the magazine’s own staffers, it’s a report from written and originally published by a think tank called The New America Foundation, which I’ve generally associated more with progressive causes than conservatism.

Full Story: The American Conservative: Raising American Wages…by Raising American Wages

I won’t go into the paper itself here, though I worry that small businesses might not be able to absorb that sort of brunt increase in wages, and I’m hardly a fiscal conservative. What’s interesting to me is this particle edge of the right that seems to be coming around to much of what the left has been saying for some time now (it reminds me of seeing liberals end up as conservatives during the Clinton years and following 9/11).

American Conservative has published a few other pieces that veer into this territory over the past few years, including an article saying that Hispanics don’t commit more crimes than whites, one on the revolt of the rich and the co-architect of Reagonomics Bruce Bartlett’s article disavowing Reagonomics, saying that Paul Krugman was right and that the Republican Party has lost touch with reality.

Previously:

New York City Fast Food Workers Go On Strike, Demand $15 An Hour

Who Makes More: A McDonalds Manager Or a Skilled Machinist?

Who Makes More: A McDonalds Manager Or a Skilled Machinist?

Adam Davidson writes for the New York Times:

Throughout the campaign, President Obama lamented the so-called skills gap and referenced a study claiming that nearly 80 percent of manufacturers have jobs they can’t fill. Mitt Romney made similar claims. The National Association of Manufacturers estimates that there are roughly 600,000 jobs available for whoever has the right set of advanced skills.

Eric Isbister, the C.E.O. of GenMet, a metal-fabricating manufacturer outside Milwaukee, told me that he would hire as many skilled workers as show up at his door. Last year, he received 1,051 applications and found only 25 people who were qualified. He hired all of them, but soon had to fire 15. Part of Isbister’s pickiness, he says, comes from an avoidance of workers with experience in a “union-type job.” Isbister, after all, doesn’t abide by strict work rules and $30-an-hour salaries. At GenMet, the starting pay is $10 an hour. Those with an associate degree can make $15, which can rise to $18 an hour after several years of good performance. From what I understand, a new shift manager at a nearby McDonald’s can earn around $14 an hour.

The secret behind this skills gap is that it’s not a skills gap at all. I spoke to several other factory managers who also confessed that they had a hard time recruiting in-demand workers for $10-an-hour jobs. “It’s hard not to break out laughing,” says Mark Price, a labor economist at the Keystone Research Center, referring to manufacturers complaining about the shortage of skilled workers. “If there’s a skill shortage, there has to be rises in wages,” he says. “It’s basic economics.” After all, according to supply and demand, a shortage of workers with valuable skills should push wages up. Yet according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the number of skilled jobs has fallen and so have their wages.

Full Story: New York Times: Skills Don’t Pay the Bills

Good comment from someone on Hacker News:

I think it is important to note that the fast-food jobs with comparable pay are low level managerial positions, not entry level ones. You can start working for minimum wage at a fast-food job without any previous experience and/or skills. These jobs require very little training, and allow employees to add value almost immediately (and well before promotion to the $15-$20 an hour positions).

Contrast this to the skilled manufacturing jobs which require up front experience. Though many blue collar fields offer entry-level positions with on the job training, apprenticeships, and opportunity for advancement, this doesn’t appear to be common practice in manufacturing. Why not? I think the main reason is that it is very hard for a low skill worker to add value to a manufacturing company. There aren’t any comparable entry-level positions that allow the employee to learn while still being productive.

Because of this, hiring an unskilled employee for the purpose of training them is a huge risk, since it requires a significant investment. And since this industry is already very unstable with razor-thin margins, it’s not something many employers seem willing to do, which is unfortunate.

So maybe the solution is coming up with better training programs, so that manufacturers can hire new employees without taking on such large risks?

Other commenters discuss the paths from low-skilled labor to high skilled careers within a company that have been followed in the past. Are those days truly gone?

Previously: Even (Relatively) Low-Skilled Jobs Are Going Unfilled

Alternative Currency Thriving in Greece

Yet another example of alternative currency thriving in a collapsed economy:

What rules the system has are designed to ensure the tems continue “to circulate, and work hard as a currency”, said Christos Pappionannou, a mechanical engineer who runs the network’s website using open-source software.

No one may hold more than 1,200 tems in the account “so people don’t start hoarding; once you reach the top limit you have to start using them.”

And no one may owe more than 300, so people “can’t get into debt, and have to start offering something”.

Businesses that are part of the network are allowed to do transactions partly in tems, and partly in euros; most offer a 50/50 part-exchange.

“We recognise that they have their fixed costs, they have to pay a rent and bills in euros,” said Pappionannou. “You could say that their ‘profit’ might be taken in Tems, to be reinvested in the network.”

Choupis said she thought the network would have grown even faster that it has if people were not so “frozen, in a state of fear. It’s like they’ve been hit over the head with a brick; they’re dizzy. And they’re cautious; they’re still thinking: ‘I need euros, how am I going to pay my bills?’ But as soon as people see how much they can do without money, they’re convinced.”

The Guardian: Greece on the breadline: cashless currency takes off

(via Brainsturbator)

The real question is not whether these types of systems work during times of economic crisis, but how they can persist once organizations like the World Bank step in to “restore order.”

See also: The New Currency War.

Nomad Economics and E-Commerce

My old friend Abe Burmeister was interviewed about the philosophy behind his company Outlier by Dan Gould for PSFK:

A few hundred years ago most products were sold directly from the maker to the user. If you wanted forks and knives you went to a silversmith. To get shoes you went to a shoemaker. The industrial revolution exploded all that, and gradually layer upon layer of wholesalers, distributors, buyers and salespeople have been added into the purchasing process. In the end you often find dozens of people separating the designers from the end users.

The internet has the potential to explode this game, but perhaps more importantly it also provides an economic incentive to. Most of those layers separating the designer from the user are layers that raise the price of the product and reduce the profit margins of the manufacturer. Gut out the layers of wholesalers and distributors and you wind up reducing the price of products and making more money at the same time. But to do this requires boldly throwing out the old business model. Of the established companies, Apple is close to the only large one confident enough to do it.

One of the craziest things about selling design on the internet is that there are no sales people. Not only can you eliminate layers of middlemen between the designer and the user, but you also eliminate the persuader at the end of the line. All of a sudden the product basically needs to sell itself, and anyone who knows how to google can turn themselves into an expert in hours. It’s a new environment and one in which the designer takes a much more important role in selling the product than they have in the past.

PSFK: The Internet Has Changed the Way We Make Products

This is an application of theory that Abe wrote about in his master’s thesis Nomad Economics. Abe’s very seldom updated blog Abstract Dynamics was one of the best blogs of the early to mid 00s and he’s still one of the most interesting people I follow on Twitter.

When Microfinance Goes Wrong: Over 200 Microfinance Related Suicides in India

The AP reports that it has obtained internal documents that link SKS Microfinance to a rash of over 200 suicides in India. According to a report commissioned by SKS, the company’s employees had verbally and physically harassed borrowers, even going so far as to tell a borrower to commit suicide. One employee watched another borrow drink pesticide in a failed suicide attempt. Another blocked a women with a sick child from going to the hospital, demanding payment first.

Tent Cities Still Spreading Across the U.S.

Here in Portland we’ve had a squatter settlement called Dignity Village since long before the financial crisis in 2008. It was joined by a new downtown settlement last year. But I haven’t been hearing much about the tent cities that have sprung up in Sacramento and elsewhere since 2008.

The BBC confirms that not only have these not gone away, but they have actually been growing:

Tent cities have sprung up in and around at least 55 American cities – they represent the bleak reality of America’s poverty crisis.

According to census data, 47 million Americans now live below the poverty line – the most in half a century – fuelled by several years of high unemployment.

One of the largest tented camps is in Florida and is now home to around 300 people. Others have sprung up in New Jersey and Portland.

BBC: America’s homeless resort to tent cities

(via Acrylicist)

Do Entrepreneurs Really Create Jobs?

Barry Ritholtz has an iconoclastic take on entrepreneurs and job creation:

BI is a digital media property. The print industry (aka dead trees) has been fighting a losing battle versus online competition for years. The print news industry itself is shrinking, while the online industry is growing — but online’s gains are not nearly as large as offline’s losses.

Those 75 jobs Henry mentioned? Twenty-five years ago, they would have been 250 jobs at various newspapers and magazines. Writers, copy editors, artists, printers (Humans, not HPs), etc. The enormous gains in productivity allow far fewer people to do the work formerly employing far more people. This is the inevitable path of technology. Ever since the first human sharpened a stick to hunt, that curve has been the accomplishment of more production with fewer people.

What entrepreneurs actually do is facilitate moving workers from one firm to another — from the less productive business model to the more productive one — as they battle it out in the marketplace.

Economonitor: On Job Creation, Creative Destruction and Technology

(Note: It sounds from Ritholtz’s piece that Blodget is claiming that BI created jobs, but Blodget actually does not claim this. The original piece is here)

I do think that in some cases entrepreneurs create economic opportunity where none existed before – this would especially seem to be the case in the “shadow economy” that thrives in squatter settlements all over the world. But many enterprises now are in the business of destroying jobs through technology. Many more jobs now exist for computer programmers. I benefit from the IT revolution as a journalist in that I rather doubt there would be nearly as many people employed as technology journalists otherwise. But the companies that employ these people, the companies that I cover, are upending entire industries, such as legal services and travel agencies.

In the past we could assume the luddite fallacy was indeed a fallacy. However, reading Race Against the Machine or Slate’s Robot Invasion series it appears that concept may soon need to be renamed the luddite principle.

It doesn’t matter when you were born, we’re all a part of generation sell now. But are we about to turn a corner?

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