Some 37% of workers believe their jobs are pointless, and if we include the jobs that exist to serve those pointless jobs in some way, it's possible that half of the jobs in our economy today (mostly residing in the informational sectors of white-collar work) could disappear with no ill-consequences. In this episode we read and hear from listener-submitted examples of pointless jobs, explore the nature and causes of this phenomenon as outlined in David Graeber's book on the subject, and imagine a world where such pointless assaults on our soul can't happen.
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[0:07] I’m David Torcivia.
[0:09] I'm Daniel Forkner.
[0:11] And this is Ashes Ashes, a show about systemic issues, cracks in civilization, collapse of the environment, and if we're unlucky, the end of the world.
[0:20] But if we learn from all of this, maybe we can stop that. The world might be broken, but it doesn't have to be.
[0:34] I have several bullshit job stories. The most scandalous one is this: I spent from 2010 to 2018 working on a gigantic software project that got finally canceled. It’s purpose was to manage a public Spanish university and around 15 qualified people worked full time on it. This project was supposed to be deployed in production on January 1, 2012, but since it was so gigantic and complex by that date only a tiny fraction was completed, let’s say 2%. Despite the overwhelming evidence that this application was too complex to handle, our Spanish government kept paying for it. 2012 pass by, 2013 passed by, 2014 passed by, 2015 passed by, 2016 passed by, it was just too much, there was no end in sight. It was trying to build a whole city from scratch. Finally in 2017, they decided to abort. But because they didn’t know what to do instead we kept working on the project for months despite being already canceled. We even kept having meetings with end users, some of them new functionalities, despite everybody knowing that they were not going to be used. It wasn’t until early 2018 that our bosses once and for all told us to stop working on the project. Eight years of work were deleted and we have never talked about it since. Nobody was held responsible, nobody was fired, nobody was even publicly criticized. Officially the project never existed and millions of hours were wasted on a horrifying, meaningless point.
[2:36] So that was one of our listeners from Spain.
[2:39] Listener and good friend, Daniel.
[2:41] Who sent us that audio clip on his particular job which has experienced what some have now been calling bullshit, this idea that there are a lot of jobs out there today that really just don't need to exist they're just plain bullshit right and this term was coined by the anthropologist David Graeber initially in a 2013 article in STRIKE! Magazine. The concept is that there are tons of employees out there working for a boss, working for an organization, who genuinely, by their own admission, believe that the work they're doing is pointless, that they have to pretend to work even though there's no work to be done, and that if their job or sometimes even the entire industry they work for were to disappear completely, and well, society wouldn't miss it. In fact we might even be better off, and this has extraordinary implications for the human psyche, for our emotional well-being, not to mention the economics of our society. And David this is kind of a good episode to follow last week's topic on loneliness because I want to read you a comment that a listener left for us in our subreddit, specifically about that episode. So this comes from coffecat. [3:59] And they say “Looking at the people in my life who are either clinically depressed, chronically miserable, or generally unhappy with their lives, I see common factors. The primary one is bullshit jobs. If you're spending half of your waking time, and most of your energy, on work that's unfulfilling, you'll have little time and energy remaining for more substantial endeavors. Compounding this is the pattern of putting on a phony face and pretending to like your job, which now creates a layer of separation between you and a large number of the people in your life. (Ultimately, I believe that bullshit jobs are intrinsically linked to the concept of money -- any economy in which money exists is one where labor can and will be commodified, and where workers can be persuaded or compelled, in a fluid way and on an unlimited scale, to do work which is valuable to some other party but not to themselves. And hence to collectively, to form a machine in which each component labors solely for the benefit of some other part of the machine.) According to the Torcivia hierarchy of needs, a lack of satisfying work should cause a deficiency in need #5: it causes people to dislike themselves. I believe this should be at the base of the hierarchy because those who like themselves are able to be themselves, to share themselves with others and form meaningful friendships. Whereas people who dislike themselves are inclined to isolate themselves, put on a phony face around others, and as a result, are more likely to lack needs #4, #3, #2, and #1. I also believe that an essential ingredient for self-esteem is to do work that one feels proud of and sees as valuable. When this opportunity is denied to people, they dislike themselves as a result, and if this lack of self-esteem cascades to other parts of their lives, they're led to believe that this is because they have a mental disease, or because they are failures. And when people feel this way, they seclude themselves.” That's the end of the quote and of course that last part about feeling like a failure is only exacerbated by the individualistic narrative that we talked about last week like the ones to get rid of your loser friends and evaluate everyone in your life and cut those out who aren't making enough money and all that type of stuff so.
[6:25] I really love this comment, Daniel and I realize I didn't respond to it on the subreddit so sorry for that coffeecat but you nail it.
[6:32] It's okay I did.
[6:33] You nail a lot of really great concepts here and it ties so closely to what we're talking about today, the episode last week about loneliness about alienation to this idea of bullshit jobs in the fact that the work that so many of us, we believe, even us the ones doing, is bullshit. And so we reached out online, we made some posts on different forums, we talk to different people and asked tell us Ashes Ashes boys about your bullshit jobs, because this is what is interesting, because so many of us if you asked “is your work of consequence do you think you're doing something important or if you just disappear or your job disappeared will society care?” A lot of us are going to say yeah you know what I'm doing is bullshit and this is absolutely true for me, Daniel, and we'll talk about that a little bit later on in this episode. So we reached out with your tell us your bullshit job stories and we got so many responses to this so we're just going to sort of give a couple these very quickly and then talk about them. So one person wrote us to tell us about their job as a copy editor for a small local newspaper and I'm going to summarize this information out to protect them but most of what they’re doing as a copy editor is supposed to be sitting around and catching typos, helping them adjust the edit for the flow of the language what they’re trying to do with the piece, polish it up so it looks really great and it's something of consequence wanted finally published. [7:53] This person is good at their job to getting 99% of their errors out of that paper but it doesn't matter the boss is constantly berating them, double checking on their work, basically doubling the amount of work that needs to be done on each of these, for ostensibly reasons of control, or what they might call accuracy, but [8:10] That aside the bigger problem here is that they start influencing things in an editorial way where certain types of stories aren't being written there because this person doesn't agree with them politically or ideologically and this extends even farther to the journalists writing this stuff who maybe want to write something that's negative about one of the local businesses who's doing something bad, but because this is a small local paper dependent upon the advertising sources of these small local businesses these journalists aren’t able to write these stories. This copy editor can’t pass through and be published because it'll bankrupt the paper, put everyone out of work, and in the business. The very purpose of this newspaper, it's supposed to be talking about truth, problems in the community, the journalistic things that people need to know to live their lives, but because the double-sided realities of the economic situation of the paper and its dependence on local advertising lots of important stories are ignored, canned, and people are missing out on this vital information because it's not compatible with the economic model that exists. So what should be a real important job, publishing this information that everybody needs and making sure it's legible, the tone is right, that our copy of it our friend is supposed to be doing, is made bullshit by the corruption of this system.
[9:25] So basically this person's a copy editor for a newspaper but has no control over anything that ends up in the paper.
[9:33] Yeah and the journalists don't have this control either, they can start writing a story but it gets canned even if it's an important valuable story because it could threaten the viability of the paper.
[9:42] A lot has been said about the censorship of newspapers and the underlying forces that kind of steer stories in a certain direction, leave some out. A lot of people know that concept by the name “manufacturing consent,” Citations Needed the podcast goes in depth on topics related to that so there's no doubt there's a lot of bullshit in that industry, and here's another one that was submitted to us, David, by this person who says they work for a privatized ombudsman office which is basically an organization that monitors companies within a certain sector or industry based on the complaints they receive, and this particular company deals with power utilities. [10:25] And so what this person's job is to collect complaints about various power companies. And then ostensibly this company will try to reach out to these companies to address the underlying root causes of these problems. This person writes: in reality the companies don't want to fix anything that would hurt their profit or take any extra work and my workplace is too conservative to pressure them effectively whereas we don't actually get enough data to run analysis on because we only see a small subset of all complaints so in reality I repeat to my management what the front line staff tells me about problems and it gets left there. I've also ended up in charge of creating more BS reporting requirements for others in my workplace at my boss's behest. The highlight of my work day is my bowel movement because it's an escape from an open-plan office. This message was typed from my porcelain throne. I'm grateful that for the most part my job doesn't actively harm anyone, it's low pressure on the people aren't reprehensible. I'm planning to stay long enough that I can get some training on offer and that it won't look too short on my CV. [11:29] And that was really interesting to me, David, because it covers some of the concepts we're going to talk about, one how the privatization of certain traditionally government roles doesn't necessarily lead to efficiency in some cases, actually makes things a lot worse, and actually creates even more bureaucracy than this case you have. As someone who is effectively a bureaucrat who has no power to do the job that they're tasked with, the other idea that I think is important here is how this person chooses to stay at this job, because of the way it will impact their their resume, their ability to get a job in the future, and it's an interesting time we live in where we spend our time doing bullshit jobs so that we can get another bullshit job. And keep putting these bullshit jobs on a resume for this purpose of climbing this ladder that we just assume is natural and that's one thing I want a question here, is why this even exists in the first place, this concept of always having to climb the ladder, granted it's kind of required if you want to get by in life but something we don't think about enough. Here's here's another one David this person works for a company that helps phone books get on the internet. [12:46] This person writes that their clients these phone book companies “we make them an app or website to search their data basically a clunkier, less complete alternative to Google Maps only works in one city I can see their traffic numbers and most of them solve very little use,” they go on to write how basically all they do is they take their phone books and they input into an Excel format. And that allows them to get it uploaded onto the internet and because a lot of these formats are all the same, this person, just automated, the whole process with Python a little computer programming. And by the time they left the company they were just doing about a couple hours a week of actual work. In addition to some customer support and phone calls and stuff like that and that's another concept we're going to be talking about is how it is really two concepts, one the creation of bullshit jobs so these are the jobs themselves don't need to exist, by the employees own admission, whole industries don't need to exist, but for jobs that are actually important. [13:47] By the employees own admission, something like a teacher who's doing really good work, you have the bullshitization of those jobs. Versus like school teachers are now doing more and more administrative tasks or in this case, this person is doing perhaps some meaningful work. But then a lot of time is taken up doing bullshit tasks. And as David Graeber writes in his book, it's estimated that some 37% of all employees think that the jobs they do are worthless and that if you could cut out all the bullshit in our economy all of us could work less than 15 hours a week and this person that writes in literally says “I probably only spend 10 to 20 hours a week actually doing work at this company” so at least for this person that kind of matches up with the number.
[14:36] And sometimes these larger systemic components of how our economy works, things we take very fundamentally for granted, like competition and the fact that it's supposed to be a naturally good thing, can turn around and bite us in the ass turning what should be good work into bullshit jobs so, somebody else wrote us and told us about their work in the AI machine learning industry and they're doing something they said is ostensibly undoubtedly a public good. This is a product they're making it's probably some sort of health-related thing that digs up information and is making the world a better place using this machine learning. But here's the thing there's probably 20 or 30 other companies doing the exact same thing that this person's company is also doing. And the way machine learning works is that most of the neural networks that are being used to train these final black box algorithms that get whatever information that is necessary from the data we input are more or less the same, there's dinner packages that are tweaked a little bit. The big difference between the different products is what data you use to train them and how you classify that data. But the product itself did the machine learning that generates the final useful good that we're all looking forward to is something that is more or less at this point standardized. I don't want to simplify this too much I know the computer science engineers out there are yelling at me but the fact of matter is this is much more similar than we might find with different operating systems or different ways of writing software. [16:01] The big difference is data, what data you use, how much data you have, and how you classify it and so all these companies are competing against each other trying to make the same product in that process, keeping all this data away from each other, locking it off making it private, making it their own data, and not sharing anything. And when they're all supposed to be working on this public good that means they're all using slightly less and worse data because of it rather than if they could combine this need, or use it as publicly available information. And create a better product because of it, so this process of competition is supposed to give us better results and that's that's one of the fundamental ways but that economy working, in theory, is actually making all of us have worst products in this important public good whatever it is, because everyone is keeping their data hidden and secret and therefore not sharing it with greater neural networks and machine learning processes. This is turning what should be once again good for humanity, it's one of the phrases that they use, and turns it into something that is much worse, is crippled in its capabilities and in this person's view because of that a bullshit job.
[17:09] I wonder too because this data is like locked up I wonder how much of promoting these artificial intelligent companies comes down to just clever marketing.
[17:18] Run the course marketing itself is a big big bullshit job industry as somebody who profits heavily off of that.
[17:25] Right because of the ideas that you can't open up your data to scrutinization and allow people to really evaluate what it's doing. A shortcut to showing how this service is valuable to companies is just pay marketers and PR people, to make it look good and also reminds me obviously of episode 33 All Rights Reserved about how the locking up of data, sectioning it off, actually harms innovation like you’re talking about it also like episode 29 War Machine where we talked about artificial intelligence and these black box algorithms are being used for offensive weaponry, and of course, like facial tracking as we talked about in other episodes. Without having access to that data, there's really no way to tell if it's even doing its job because, but it's locked up these companies, these governments can get away just using it even with the errors because there's no one to counter that, there's no one to say look the algorithms are racist or or whatever because we can't look at them, meanwhile the empirical evidence might show otherwise.
[18:24] Rambling a little bit here because we have so many examples and there's a lot they were admitting and we'll get you some more in a moment, but if we keep using this phrase bullshit job, and that is something that I think a lot of us can intrinsically field, but maybe it would be better off if we could define that and that is a lot of what David Graeber did in this book Bullshit Jobs, so look let's talk about what is a bullshit job.
[18:48] Will first and foremost the definition of a bullshit job can't come necessarily from the outside from you or me David because ultimately were talking about subjective values here right I mean some people might think that. [19:11] You might actually really value the corporate lawyer who's helping you with that and so the best way to evaluate whether or not a job is bullshit is from the employee's perspective. Like who is better to tell you the job is worthless than the person who was actually doing that, and if you get a whole group of people who are saying that about a whole host of similar jobs you might be able to infer from that, the whole industry might be bullshit right. And so that's really what this is based on and this is why we want to provide a lot of examples of these types of jobs and how people find them bullshit but that's criteria number one, that you are an employee and you look at what you're doing, you realize that is pointless and, you have to pretend a lot of times that what you're doing is meaningful because, if not, you might be fired or you might be judged by your co-workers or broader society, but it ultimately comes down to the employee doing that job. And to help conceptualize this Graeber lays out five broad categories of bullshit jobs that we might put these various things into.
[20:12] So without further ado here are the five categories of bullshit jobs according to David Graeber and remember these are people who are self-defining their work as bullshit and it's important. Number one are what he calls flunkies and these are people whose whole purpose more or less is to make somebody feel more important. This could be the assistant or somebody who sits at a desk just to make things look more official like this person is so important that they have people waiting on them and it's an important common business tactic but ultimately means someone is sitting around and is basically nothing more than a, you know, the same as a very fancy diploma or framed picture with the president on their desk to let other people know that this person has power over others.
[20:59] And it's not to say that all receptionist are these flunkies in fact a lot of receptionists or you know assistants end up doing a lot of the work for their bosses which kind of makes their boss obsolete. There's also a lot of a lot of people who sit at desk who are really just there to you know add decor to the office or make something seem a little bit more efficient. My favorite example from the book David comes from the world of finance actually. And it comes from a guy who describes his job as a cold caller for stockbrokers his whole job right, is you have all these stock brokers in Wall Street making these trades and they all want to be important, I want to seem like a big dog right. So they hire these people that you know dollars an hour and they give him a list of all their clients, or people they want to call, and they have the their assistant this cold caller call everybody and the whole purpose of this job is to call a client say to the broker’s too busy to speak to you but he wanted me to reach out to you to see if you're interested in this deal he's working on or whatever. The idea is that if the broker is too busy to call a client he must be pretty important right. And meanwhile the brokers just sitting there, in addition this also makes him look better to his supervisor so he's hoping to get promoted from the pit, from the trading floor to maybe a corner office upstairs but it's completely pointless other than that.
[22:17] I know people that do stuff like this now where they got some sort of startup or something and then trying to feel more important so they pay somebody and oftentimes if somebody is working remote from India or somewhere, pay them a small fee to act as their assistant, ask their assistant, hey call this person. The assistant will call this person say hey Ryan or whoever wants to speak with you can I put you on hold for one second, person says okay, they put them on hold, they transfer it back to the person who just asked him to call for them, and then they connect them and the actual phone call occurs so everyone just got 5 or 10 minutes of time wasted for the charade of looking like this startup person is so important that they already have a secretary and that makes him so successful.
[23:01] What's the trope on TV like my people will call your people that type of thing.
[23:06] When somebody answers the phone and they're like one minute, yes Mr. Torcivia is busy just one second and then they change their voice right, and they’re like, Yes Mr. Torcivia here, that’s the same thing except you're actually paying somebody a salary to do that job. But moving on to the second category of bullshit jobs is something that David Graeber calls goons.
[23:27] A goon carries like a visceral like physical idea that you think about someone like with a baseball bat right.
[23:34] Yeah exactly.
[23:35] And that's kind of the idea right like if you're a criminal organization in one city and you're competing with another one you need all these Goons to protect you from the other guys guns and so what do you think is that companies do the same thing.
[23:47] Yeah and it's very first thing that comes to my mind, and actually the word goons is often used for this, is lawyers attacking other teams of lawyers on behalf of some company lawsuit that has little to nothing to do with anything that actually occurs in the real world, what is just some sort of machinations between the business deals of all this stuff. And in people what do they call those lawyers, they are my hired corporate goon lawyers, that's a phrase that people say, using this word that is exactly defining this stuff it's not just lawyers it's a lot of like lobbyists, I'm coming out and trying to speak on behalf of an industry to politicians or to other people.
[24:25] I actually know a small business owner David who a few years back was sued, he got a lawsuit I don't know how it works in the mail or whatever you know saying hey.
[24:34] You've been served.
[24:36] I would like a number like, hey but if you want to stop this if you want to settle give us a call and basically what it turned out to be is that there's attorneys that are employed by the various companies who go around looking for small businesses to sue, with the idea being that a lot of small business owners have business insurance. And what their business insurance contract stipulates is in the event of lawsuit, if it's possible to settle, they have to settle. And of course this is expensive for the small business owner but less expensive than a drawn-out court case in which the business insurer has to pay for, and well this particular business owner that I knew didn't have insurance so he called him up and said look - I don't care if you sue me I don't have any money, he said he well give us the name of your insurer we will call them, if I don't have business insurance, oh you don’t? And they hung up, and then they drop the lawsuit. They weren't interested in suing him for any particular reason other than if he had insurance they could force the insurer to make him settle.
[25:36] Just like a really legal insurance scam, what a great corporate law system we have. In this country anyway, I think we get the idea. The third category is what he calls duct tapers. And these are people who fix things that should have never been broken in the first place and I do this a lot and some parts of my job. But say you have a device that was built but it was built sort of cutting corners and they have to hire engineers to come in and fix that problem or a car has a problem, is built poorly and now all the stuff is going to a mechanic to replace things because it's, there's a recall or something, these people are duct tapers, exist solely to fix the mistakes of others of these large companies who made those mistakes in the first place because they're just trying to make things as cheap and shity as possible.
[26:27] And you can see how these things can proliferate and cascade upon one another if a company hires a team of goons just for the sake of competing with another company with goons but then those goons themselves, because they're not there to do a particular task well but just like serve in this like superfluous role they might make mistakes that the company then has to hire somebody else to go behind them and clean up their mess.
[26:50] The fourth category are box-tickers and this is maybe one that we can most relate to because even if it's not our own job we definitely experience people in our day-to-day existence because society has built so much around bureaucracy. And these are people who more or less exist to say things are being done to check those boxes on a piece of paper, to pass the form on, but are actually themselves and not really doing anything except being just a cog in this larger machine of endless paper trails and processes that for some reason we built up ostensibly to streamline our interactions with each other but really just make it byzantine and impossible to figure anything out.
[27:30] You're very often also, box stickers exist to prove that something is being done even though in the real world is not being done at all and there's a ton of examples of this so I'll wait for that to elaborate.
[27:43] Right the last category are taskmasters and these are probably the most reviled section of the bullshit jobs categories here. These are your middle management, your bosses that you know are doing basically nothing except just ordering people around to abuse their power. They aren’t actually getting any work done or helping the work that is being done they just exist because there's this hierarchical structure that we assume is the way that things have to be, and somebody gets plugged into that and then abuse that power I guess.
[28:18] Right well that there are four other categories of bullshit jobs clearly there's someone telling those people what to do right and that's often the taskmasters and there's two basic categories of these. There are those taskmasters who are creating new jobs, are creating tasks for people to do that are ultimately just bullshit and then there are those that simply distribute bullshit tasks. So you might think of the difference being like the head administrator at a university whose given 10 staff members that need job so that administrator has to come up with something for them to do, versus a middle manager at a large bureaucratic corporation, who's own supervisor is the supervisor above them hands down all these tasks and then he just maybe forwards an email to his staff letting them know what the task is. And then there's like a sixth minor category that he’s describes in the flak catcher and that's basically someone who just exists to be the buffer between maybe a supervisor and some other underlings right. The idea being that maybe there's some conflict or drama and rather than two parties directly in the same room to deal with that conflict, you just hire people to kind of be the go-between and kind of diffuse some of that drama.
[29:30] Which is kind of what one of those earlier examples was doing, the Ombudsman is a whole industry that exists to act as an in-between. Or the customer who's been wronged and the company that did the wronging and then unfortunately they're supposed to pick out a problem and solution but as this person wrote us to tell that sorry most of the time the company doesn't care and the problem goes unfixed.
[29:53] Yeah okay David before we go into like some other broader concepts and maybe why these jobs exist and what has changed over time. I went ahead and like summarized a majority of the examples from David Graeber’s book and it has a lot of examples but I think it's important because before I read his book I couldn't have come up with any good examples because I mean just haven’t worked that many jobs where I could imagine how both of job could exist in industries that I would normally consider to be very useful you know, logistics and technology and creative industries, and you know attorneys even like these are industries that I would have thought bullshit proliferated. But the fact of the matter is most bulshit jobs occur in the white collar sector and then that makes sense right. If you're a mechanic even though you might not be paid very well, you might hate your job, you probably recognize that it's useful, you wouldn't consider it bullshit necessarily if you are actually fixing someone's car, that's that's pretty valuable. If you drive a bus, if you clean a building if you salt the road. These are the types of jobs that serve a clear function at least in terms of our infrastructure and civilization but when it comes to the white collar sector these informational jobs that's when we see different story so let's look at some examples.
[31:10] So I mean the book is just chock-full of examples in a huge portion of what the actual text is. It's a great book please everyone go buy it. To just summarize a couple of these. So the first example in this book and one that we all sort of know about is the excess and ridiculous amounts of bureaucracy that exists in the military and especially where, this government organization and the large amount of rules and regulations go with that, butt up against private industry in the ways that private industry can take advantage of these regulations and systems so he talks about this person who is a contractor that does something that he calls IT logistics for the German military, and so what this contractor is doing is working for this contracting company that works with another contractor and their contracting company. And so say I'm a German soldier and I want to move my computer. You know that seems pretty easy right then I just pick it up and I move it to the desk next to mine but because of all these inefficiencies in the systems and in the bureaucracy going on it's not that simple. First he's got to file these forms, these giant packages of stuff and all the stuff is so difficult to fill out that the soldier can't do it so he's got to pass it off as contractor. So this example contractor is now filing 15 different pages of paperwork, driving between these bases for hours quite literally. [32:29] 5 to 10 hours to finish one task to file these different pieces of paperwork, ultimately so that this computer, in our example this is a real example, to be moved 5 meters down the hall to a different office. And his whole purpose in this process the thing that is being paid for is just no filing papers, moving all the stuff around. With somebody in a reasonable and sane world could just pick this computer up move it down the office put it down and that would be it.
[32:57] And I know you mentioned like with government bureaucracy we see the confluence of that with private industry, we have these problems but this is really an example of privatization where if the if the military was just one entity we can imagine the lieutenant just walking down the hallway, hey move your computer boom done. But because in the German military case and the U.S. as well, we see similar things. Everything has been outsourced, this contractor was actually the subcontractor of another contractor who was the subcontractor of another contractor so you have what used to be one single entity. Well now that the logistics have been outsourced and that logistics companies outsource it and in that IT companies to outsource HR and all these layers of bureaucracy are created essentially to siphon off the budget of the military.
[33:49] It's a what what would have started originally, somebody pitching like a we can save money here in the military by saying you know we don't need to hire IT people to take care of their computers, we’ll hire a company to do that for us, is it time to train the soldiers whatever, it's a great idea on paper but now you have contractor subcontractor subcontractor subcontractor who has to have all these different things, file these papers so that everyone in this huge chain of sucking up money from the German states knows exactly what share they're getting and how it's all divided and the soldiers can’t touch this computer that they're the ones going to be using and move it to somewhere else, because the logistics company would lose track of that, and you create an entire not even just one bullshit job Daniel but an entire bullshit industry.
[34:30] Right. And we'll talk about kind of how that fits into to the overall framework of our new economic paradigm. Moving on to another example is a Spanish civil servant who didn't show up to work for 6 years before anyone noticed. [34:44] Another one is Rachel who got a degree in physics, and then worked as an insurance catastrophe risk analyst where her job mostly consisted of forwarding emails, copying numbers in Excel, and creating visual mind maps in which her bosses told her to color code, things that were nice to have, must have, and would like to have in the future. She quit shortly after that one and then David there were many examples from the book of advertisers who considered their jobs to be bullshit, one digital artist is being paid over a hundred thousand British pounds per year who spends his whole life correcting the blemishes on celebrity faces for commercials. You started out in the in the industry doing you no visual effect type stuff, like explosions for films and stuff, but now he mostly does commercials and it really feels like it's a waste of time. And then you have digital advertisers who meticulously craft highly produced and expensive movie-like website banner ads for big companies like car companies with the knowledge that their ad agencies fudge the numbers on how many website users actually ever click or even look at these ads, which is practically zero, so these are digital artists who went into this business thinking they would be making films end up getting paid by something like Toyota. [36:02] To make this elaborate commercial that just goes into a banner ad on a website.
[36:07] Yeah I've been been part of those.
[36:11] And what's frustrating to this particular person is they write in and say look at my company has all the data and it's clear that no one looks at these ads. But we would lose business so we fudge the numbers and then our marketing and PR team pitch these to these big companies as like really effective.
[36:30] I mean the advertising world really strikes close to home for me Daniel because a lot of my work is advertising based and I mean I've been on projects that have cost six figures easily, which is smaller than a lot of the advertising world, to make a corporate video that ultimately gets you know three or four thousand views on YouTube and all the like labor hours involved that we put into working to make this product, money aside you know that is such a colossal waste of everything to create this. Product that ultimately no one sees but the company still keep making them and sponsoring them because somebody out there has the bullshit job of selling this fact that oh yeah it's great for your brand, going to making a brand recognition you got to have this content, you just have to otherwise people are going to forget you exist.
[37:13] What is kind of like a podcast to write where a lot of companies today say what we can't you know we don't have an effective marketing platform if we don't have a podcast so they create like a company podcast to go to the website that no one ever ever watches it just like 15 minutes long.
[37:28] It has like five episodes and then never make a sixth one. You just have to to hop on whatever whatever bandwagon you can in order to just suck somebody out of this giant economic system with examples. One analyst at a travel company spends his whole day receiving plane schedules by email and then puts them into Excel by hand. Another one at a different company that receives emails of forms made by other employees that have IT needs and then they copy them onto a different form in this is a method of bullshit jobs that we talked about called duct taping.
[38:03] Betsy is a full-time worker at an elderly community. And spends her days having residence fill out forms related to their activity preferences which then go into file cabinets never to be read or acted on and that's a perfect example of a box sticker, someone who, that you know on paper is asking residents what their activity preferences are just for the sake so that the company can say we ask all our residents this but then ultimately never actually do anything because it's much easier to quantify data-fy boxes on a piece of paper than it is to something like say quality time the resident actually experiences or happiness or you know social meaning or something like.
[38:45] But to be fair a lot of box picking jobs make sure companies are complying with certain rules, U.S. Foreign Corrupt Practices Act requires companies to do due diligence ensuring they don't do business with corrupt and legal entities overseas so this ultimately means that companies are hiring people at minimum wage work from home just to type company names into Google and then write these very complex detailed reports about how no corruption was found.
[39:12] Clarence is a contractor for a global security firm working as a museum guard who guards an empty room and a wing of the museum no one visits and isn't allowed to read or do anything while on the clock so he ends up sitting in a chair for 7 hours a day doing nothing.
[39:27] I think for me this was the quintessential example of the bullshit job. You could argue maybe about some sort of value being done but for poor Clarence he's guarding an empty room, and he's not allowed to spend his time do anything productive even though no one is trying to break into this empty room and why is he supposed to do that like why isn't he allowed to at least enjoy his time there because, some boss decides that we can't have you slacking on the job, you know that job is ultimately pointless it's just such a great example of how ridiculous the system is and the small tyrannies that can happen in these relationships between stuff because of the way that we interact, and have created culturally our idea of the boss and the employee, but moving on.
[40:14] Well you raise a good question David like why does his job exist, I guess at least for Clarence he can put on his CV you know, or resume something like manager of asset security for a global international firm and then like maybe like dress it off so it looks nice for his next employer but, speaking about how oppressive some of these work environments are I think the absolute worst example that I found in this book comes from Nigel who works for a company that was hired by corporations to scan company loyalty applications, you know these are, you go to a retail store, they ask if you want to get 10% off by signing up for the reward program, you don't really want to but you do it anyway because you want to 10% off. [40:57] You really just fill the form with bogus phone numbers and addresses who don't actually contact you, at least that's what I do, so these are the forms that Nigel works with and the company that employs him has a software that automatically scans these forms. But there's like a very small chance that this software will make errors so to compensate for that this company promises clients, you know those retail stores that they will triple check every form to make sure that it's accurate. So everyday Nigel got bussed in along with other temp workers so that for 8 hours they could stare at these forms every day and try to spot errors all the while being surveilled not allowed to talk to each other and basically treated like garbage. And here's a relevant quote from Bob Black’s essay on the Abolition of Work: [41:50] “The official line is that we all have rights and live in a democracy. Other unfortunates who aren't free like we are have to live in police states. These victims obey orders or-else, no matter how arbitrary. The authorities keep them under regular surveillance. State bureaucrats control even the smaller details of everyday life. The officials who push them around are answerable only to the higher-ups, public or private. Either way, dissent and disobedience are punished. Informers report regularly to the authorities. All this is supposed to be a very bad thing. And so it is, although it is nothing but a description of the modern workplace.” I think Nigel's job and Clarence's global security job really highlight the oppressive nature of so many of these bullshit jobs.
[42:39] And sometimes bullshit jobs don't just impact an individual making them feel like they're not doing anything useful with their time. It could have effects with wasting people who should be doing something better and forwarding society, helping all of us with what is basically meaningless tasks work, one example is a man named Ramadan who graduated from a top-notch engineering university and hoped to go to work researching and designing new technology, something that we would all love to see happen, but instead he was hired as the control and HVAC engineer and his entire day consists of doing basic efficiency checks on the company's air conditioning unit, and is just taking that, filing it away with other paperwork, and spending the rest of his time watching movies, it is a huge waste of talent, man hours, and the education that we that we put into this person and that is one of the teams that runs through these bullshit jobs. What are we doing with all this time and energy, we're just turning it into system that exists for most of us, we have no idea why it's existing why this is happening in the first place, all we know is that it's a waste.
[43:42] Yeah and you know we don't have to go through many more of these examples but, these bullshit jobs proliferate, even at roles we would consider to have tons of responsibility. One example comes from Charles who was hired as an associate producer for a big video game company in Los Angeles. He was supposed to act as the bridge between designers and programs but there just wasn't any work so eventually he was asked by his boss to draft instructions, the program is to implement sound designs, but after he did that he discovered there was already a team and he was hired just for that purpose and that by doing their work his boss had made a mistake. [44:18] Charles was fired to save face for his boss, and there are tons of other examples of people in these high roles that we would consider to be of massive responsibility who end up doing nothing, like film and TV Executives for example, the wrote in to say that, really there just hired by financial funds and conglomerate corporations who then employ these Executives who don't know anything about film and TV, listen to the same TV idea pitches from the same writers having no idea if it will succeed or fail because they know nothing about it and they're afraid to take any responsibility in approving or rejecting ideas, and a lot of this speaks to like the influx of managers in the economy right, everything middle management, everyone hates the middle manager. There's a reason and that's because ultimately we don't really need to be managed if we're doing work that has a purpose, right if you're just highlighting forms for some bullshit company loyalty program, you might need a manager because you don't want to do that it's pointless you want to talk to your colleague again. There's no reason to do it so you need a boss to say hey do this or else we're going to fire you and then you won't be able to pay your rent but when it comes to things that do serve a purpose we never really need a manager do we.
[45:29] No because you already clearly know what you want to do in and yeah you know maybe a manager can help break up the work and stuff but there's no reason that you can't talk to your teammates and do that as well, we sort of have decided that we can't divide work and figure out how to tackle problems without somebody being the leader in that process but that's absolutely not true and there's tons of examples of places with that function ultimately without somebody in the designated leader role and function well.
[45:54] When clear examples of that were discussed in our pirate show, Golden Age. David I used to work at Blimpie, a sub shop and when I was young I would notice as usual there was no more than three of us working at a time. And one of us would be more senior to the other and we kind of defer to that person and there were days where we come in to open the shop, the senior employee would call our supplier of food and place an order in as part of opening the shop, we would go out back and collect all the groceries that were delivered by the truck and then we start baking the bread we make the sandwiches when the people came in but only at the end of the day did the manager show up to raid the cash register and go home and while we mop the floors and closed up, it really highlights like what exactly is the owners role in that. Let me go to any Waffle House at 2 in the morning there's no boss there people know how to run things. But we've introduced these managers because ultimately what their purpose is, at least in this case, is to siphon up that money and take it somewhere else.
[46:57] Once again Daniel I think we're rambling a little bit through these examples and trying to illustrate this stuff in this book there's so much stuff in here, there's so many concepts about what it means to be working in the modern day within the United States, with their very unique warped sense of work and how we turned this, unfortunately, into the giant identity of Who We Are, and of course when you're working a bullshit job if you think your job is bullshit, and as an American you're told that you are what you do if it's not you know who you are what you eat, then your whole sense of self is warped in that process and we run into that problem like we started with the show that your fifth section of the Torcivia hierarchy of needs and loneliness is not being met, and because of that, everything else is compromised, so let’s just talk through a couple of these main concepts, there's so many of them in his book, the book is really worth reading but let's talk about this Daniel just share with me some of the main concepts you pulled away from this text, of the workplace of Who We Are, and bullshit jobs.
[47:58] I mean is it like you said there's so many concepts but I think what becomes apparent to anyone who's been in the situation is that having a bullshit job is an assault on ones soul really and you think about what it means to be human being like, yes socializing is part of that and having meaning and all this but at a fundamental level there's something really satisfying and important about being able to have an impact on the world. I mean as studies show even like one of the earliest signs of development in a baby is when they connect the idea that when they move their hands, their hands touch something, and that something moves. [48:37] And that realization that that change that occurred in the world came from them is something that it is extremely pleasurable. It brings a whole bunch of satisfaction, it could be said to be the basis for what it means to be a self and that if you restrict that from a baby, if once a baby has discovered that ability and you take that away, you have emotions of rage that begin to manifest but that quickly gets replaced by something else and then that's a withdrawing away, when someone loses the ability to impact the world what ends up happening is, in an erosion of self this kind of withdrawing and an inability to engage with the world end in secluding from other people in, when we talked about last week again and loneliness about the hikikomori right Japanese youth who have no function in this world and so they end up just locking themselves in their rooms for decades and I think that's really intimately connected with this bullshit ization of our economy, if ultimately what you're doing doesn't matter when you're not having an impact on anything you know who who are you what is the what is the purpose for your existence, what, who, where do you belong, it is deeply troubling to experience that.
[49:50] We talked about a little bit of this on the show before I mean oh that so much of it ties into the alienation and loneliness we talked about last week but also just this larger conception that our work defines us, and that sort of I think just something that emerged because we're so busy, we don't have time for the things we’re actually passionate about and love and would like to have the resources to engage in because we're too busy trying to survive with these jobs that unfortunately are often bullshit jobs, there are lots of jobs that aren't bullshit jobs that are important and but are shit jobs and this is one of the point Graeber makes in his book. And it's just because a job sucks and because it doesn't pay us fairly whatever does not make it a bullshit job, there are lots of jobs that are shit jobs that shouldn't be or we should at least reward them and pay them, who are the difficulty that they posed this is a lot of manual labor this is a lot of things like teachers I mean you have to love teaching and to do it I don't want to call a bullshit job, but it really can be really tough, and we should be conversating it in that way and paradoxically allow these bullshit jobs especially things like middle management stuff are well-paying. Yeah a vast majority of my work is bullshit jobs and I mean I'm self-employed so for listeners of the show I mention my work sometimes but I guess I really should have never gone in depth about it but I work. [51:12] In the film industry, I am a colorist which is someone that comes in and makes a video look really great, I fix all the colors and balance it, it is kind of like mastering for audio but I do for video. [51:22] And I work on all sorts of things. I do music videos, I do movies, I do TV shows, I do a lot of advertisements and if I disappeared today and if my entire job disappeared the world will not really change all that much. I mean you would maybe have slightly worse looking products on TV and YouTube and stuff but nothing of consequence will be lost and I don't want to disparage art [51:44] In the same way I think there's a lot of value to art being created those are my favorite projects when I can have something creative and incidentally those are also always be worst paying projects that I engage in. So to reinforce this idea that bullshit jobs pay well, when I'm doing my most bullshit work which is advertising, which is often times never seen or is not affected if it is seen but has huge amounts of money spent on it. Charging a gigantic disgusting amount of money to these people, and that pays for all the time that I put into these passion projects for people who actually want to create something that they care about and that's sort of how I balance out the bullshit elements of my work. All of us don't have that sort of luxury because their bullshit jobs are either too time consuming, but they don't pay enough if they can can make this work life balance, but even if our job isn’t wholly bullshit, these sort of bullshit parts end up working their way in, so this is something I think I ask you a lot of similarities to the hikikomori last week or yeah there's a large amount of people who are complete hikikomori. But there are 70% of people in this age group who say either up I strongly feel like I'm
[52:55] Who identify.
[52:56] Sympathetic to or at least partially hikikomori, I just can't bring myself to the final bit or I I cut myself off from everything in the same sense you know maybe not all of us would define all our work as bullshit jobs either because of the cognitive dissonance or because we are doing some useful things in some parts of our day but there's so much other bullshit we have to engage in just to do what is our stated task and work the thing that we actually chose this job for if we were lucky enough to be able to choose a job.
[53:22] Well there's data to back us up too David. According to the US 2016-2017 State of Enterprise Work Report, office workers spent just 39% of their time on actual work duties in 2016 which was down from 46% in 2015 due to the rise of other tasks like administrative ones, emails, and pointless meetings like you mentioned. And another thing that stands out to me about this David is how these trends are becoming ingrained and they start becoming earlier and earlier on the timeline that is our lives and so we see this bullshitization of schoolwork happening in both primary schools and universities. It's well-known that the institution of public education in the West, arose largely out of the need for like industrial employers to have access to a growing pool of labor that was trained and following orders, working in tedious repetition, that they could show up on time. I mean you know about the time public education sprouted out we had really the introduction of the time clock which was important for industrial factory work but wasn't really a significant part of people's lives right I mean you got up and you did what task you had to had to do but there wasn't a rigid timetable for everything. So that's one of the reasons public education was created, to indoctrinate people into a very scheduled, on the clock way of living.
[54:46] And rest assured listeners we will absolutely get into this at great depth at some point.
[54:52] Right but now we're seeing something similarly happening, in our higher institutions of learning which were once a place exclusively for independent thought experimentation, pure research and exploration, but today universities are filled with students working university jobs that are essentially pointless, in no small part due to this explosive growth of student loan debt, because now we're seeing that the federal government encourages students who take on debt to also enroll in some sort of work program while in college and ostensibly its to you know relate the work, to their coursework and prepare them for you know what their major is preparing them for, but in reality what it means that many students end up doing pointless things like scanning IDs, pretending to monitor empty rooms, sitting at front desk of buildings and dorms, for no reason, to even bus driving, which isn't a bullshit job it's a really important job, and this was something that was super common at my University I went to the University of Georgia and almost all of the buses were driven by undergraduates and it was actually considered one of the best jobs a student could get on campus, it paid something like over $15 an hour and like I said that's not a pointless job but for a college setting it's certainly one that lends itself to this regimentation into the supervision and management.
[56:07] What also I mean, they’re supposed to be in this environment where they're free to explore and learn things but because of the financial realities we were resigning them to spend huge amounts of their day driving just to be able to engage in this University where they're supposed to be exploring stuff, but can't because they're too busy driving, And we’re in this vicious cycle and I think that's one of the things that Graber doesn't quite go into enough in his book. But the fact that some of these jobs, and I guess he says that we shouldn't try and point to a job and say that bullshit, that people have to define it, but the fact that somebody has to drive this bus instead of being able to explore, find the true purpose of knowledge in this University setting like they're supposed, well maybe not a bullshit job, but it is bullshit and I feel justified in saying that.
[56:52] And we can see how this definitely plays a role in the larger a framework of our economy. Remember that, going back to that example you highlighted earlier in this episode, David, about that engineer who got a degree in engineering but ended up doing some pointless air condition monitoring, the same way forcing people who are in debt to have these types of regimented pointless managerial jobs in college prepares them for the reality that after college they're not going to be using their degrees in the way they thought they were, they're going to get an engineering degree and then they're going to sit in the office and type into a report that the AC is working correctly, but if you can indoctrinate them into those habits and lifestyle prior to graduation it is a natural and seamless transition right. But I think that's just one of the things that really stood out to me is how these ideas become ingrained and then it becomes an expectation and then we have this world that we have today where so many these broken systems just become normal and then everyone thinks this is how it's always been how it should be, and why bother trying to change it. Meanwhile everyone's miserable.
[57:56] Meanwhile, everyone's miserable. Thanks for listening to Ashes Ashes.
[58:00] But wait there's more.
[58:02] There's a lot of concepts here. One other thing I wanted to touch on was the idea that our time belongs to someone else and that time can be sold, and in some ways you know way back when labor was first trying to define itself and define what labor rights were, we were just basically bought out wholesale and all your labor would belong to somebody and then we fought for the 8 hour work days, a lot of anarchists fought and died for this sort of stuff, and it became a larger labor movement beyond that, May Day is coming up to celebrate some of these things, that concept of weekends was established where time would belong to yourself but it's sort of had a double-edged sword of this where well it's that time belongs to you, and you're free to do what you want with it, that means the other eight hours that I'm paying you for belong entirely to me, and that if you're not engaging in productive work that whole time and you are essentially robbing me of the time that I'm paying you for. [58:58] And we see this this idea all the time. If you've ever worked a retail job or something or service industry, you probably had a manager who said, you know I'm not paying you to sit around and do this, you're stealing from me by not working right now. This idea that just because you are on the clock means you have to be constantly working when most people's position is not an infinite amount of work that needs to be done constantly, like you have the work you finish it now you wait around for more work to be done. I can't tell you how much time I spend sitting around waiting for files or things to render so I can do more work, but it's like this and lots of industries. [59:34] And we find it increasingly that the more autonomy you give your employees over how they spend their time and often times even the less amount of time you end up working then the more productive they become. Isn't that some experience going on right now with four-day work weeks and the finding that people in four days are doing more work than other people do in five, even though on paper you’re working less hours. Those hours are spent more productively because people are overall happier and more empowered because they find that they have more time to pursue the things they actually care about and want to do outside of this industry in that spare time and it makes them more committed to finishing the rest of their work in the time that they've allotted so that they can enjoy the rest of that and be free.
[1:00:14] Do you know the people that end up doing that are kind of the lucky ones because there's two things going on: one working a bullshit job where you can also work on other things means that you can't have a manager who is always breathing down your neck and you know surveilling you and monitoring your computer right, but the other part of that is that, you also can't be drained going back to that spiritual you know soul-sucking nature of all this, how you reduce someone to a meaningless cog and it saps your energy. These can be hard to do things and so even people who find themselves at these pointless jobs and have a computer in front of them and ostensibly could spend a few hours every day, learning a language, learning how to program, never mind the fact that it's kind of ridiculous. We consider it a blessing that someone can go on YouTube and learn something but they don't have the opportunity to be a part of a physical community where people could actually teach them things and they can explore these with other human beings, I mean nevermind.
[1:01:09] There you go with the c word.
[1:01:11] Yeah community but never, you know, so putting that aside even people who have the quote on quote “blessing” of being able to search a computer oftentimes don't have the energy to do so. I mean that you're sitting at work, I mean how many people are really motivated to learn a language in that situation. Graeber actually addresses this, I want to read something the he wrote that relates to why we might see this rise of social media that we've seen over the past several years. quote, “the most common complaint among those trapped in offices doing nothing all day is just how difficult it is to repurpose the time for anything worthwhile. [1:01:46] One might imagine that leaving millions of well-educated young men and women without any real work responsibilities but with access to the internet might spark some sort of Renaissance. Nothing remotely along these lines has taken place. Instead the situation has sparked an effervescence of social media, basically forms of electronic media that lend themselves to being produced and consumed while pretending to do something else. I am convinced this is the primary reason for the rise of social media, especially when one considers it in the light not just of the rise of bullshit jobs but also of the increasing bullshitization of real jobs, what we are witnessing is the rise of those forms of popular culture that office workers can produce and consume during the scattered furtive shards of time they have at their disposal in workplaces where even when there's nothing for them to do, they still can't admit it openly.
[1:02:41] Yes so you have people who end up giving new employees instructions like, if you’re ever not busy you know grab a clipboard walk around. Back when I was working on film sets if you had nothing to do you were supposed to grab a cable and just stand there with it so it looked like you were doing something and people were waiting on you, so that they didn’t think, oh what are you doing, you're not doing anything this moment you must be on essential let me fire you because like I said we don't all have to work all the time. There are times where we have down time with nothing to do and that's okay because some jobs happen to burst, they’re not constant streams of stuff, but the way that we try to quantify and schedule everything and the way that bureaucracy tries to define those in the same process, really encourages us to think about things in that constant stream of work way because it's easier to schedule, for us to make schedules for others around that process, but there's a lot of work especially work where things are fine, and then there's a crisis you solve the crisis, and then things are fine and you have nothing to do for a moment. That's okay there's all sorts of stuff but just like our society is not compatible with people who are late risers and built for people who are our early morning birds, society is also not compatible with jobs that happen in bursts, and instead very much prefer things that are steady amounts of work over the course of a day. Like an assembly line because that is how for the most part these businesses are still trying to view us as cogs in a machine for this greater assembly of a final product and that's really the case as economies got more specialized and we grow up with more specific jobs and roles in all these processes.
[1:04:10] And I'm going back to University jobs. I actually had the university job David I was you know, front desk at a gym and I remember always looking over my shoulder because we always had to look busy so if, you know, if you weren't talking to a client or sitting there you had to walk around with a rag and pretend to clean machines and you weren't allowed to sit down and all these things, but you know what I want to definitely hit this idea that it's not just the public sector which is the common perception right. Given the rise of free-market ideology around the world that government is inefficient therefore we need to replace it with private organizations to solve that problem, we saw empirically with that German it guy example, that's not always the case but there's also more data to back that up, so while yes we do see tons of pointless bureaucracy in the public sector no doubt it happens just as much if not more in the private sector. Between 1985 and 2005, as tuition costs were skyrocketing, universities in the United States saw a 56% increase in student enrollment but only a 50% increase in actual teachers. However there was a whopping 240% increase in staff. [1:05:22] 85% increase in administrators now that was across the board but that rate of change that was occurring in the number of administrators was double at private schools then it was a public institutions. One possible explanation is that like when you have teachers and administrators who are subject to public criticism it's a lot harder for an administrator just hire a whole bunch of staff to serve his or her whims but if you're a private institution, Graber points out all your supervisors are essentially trustees who are extremely rich who are used to this bureaucracy station of corporate empires and don't bat an eye when a private administrator hires all these flunkies to use that word to do pointless jobs for them, but David let's talk about some of the broad reasons, some of the underlying structures that are occurring in our economy that that have led to this massive proliferation of bullshit jobs.
[1:06:21] This is I think really important to understand because if we buy into the traditional theories of well, capitalism as it exists is the most efficient process of allocating labor and capital and other resources, and because of that, because it's so inefficient to pay somebody to guard an empty room well you know the system isn’t going to support it so it shouldn't happen. I mean as we talked about with all these endless examples and of our own experience is in our lives, and I'm sure everyone listening can relate to this, these types of jobs exist all over the place constantly so why is this system that's supposed to say everything is dependent upon efficiency, if this job isn't making money or if it's not a good allocation of resources it shouldn't exist, the market to naturally make eliminated. I mean what was that statistic 37% of people feel their jobs are entirely bullshit and many more of us feel at least huge parts of it are so.
[1:07:18] And then real quick David something we didn't touch on, but if 37% of jobs are bullshit we have to remember that there's also going to be jobs to support those jobs right. If you have a whole office building full of people doing these pointless jobs will you still need cleaners to clean their office, you still need electricians to wire up their lights and you need people to connect their computer so we could estimate the many more than just 37% of the population is engaged in bullshit, but just some of that going to be indirectly to support all of these directly bullshit job.
[1:07:51] Right I mean with this entire system that's supposed to be so efficient but we all end up invariably miserable in our various positions within it, how do we get here and then that's the question that we asked so much on the show. What things led to this process and why do these jobs still exist? Why are we wasting all this capital and all these labor hours on these useless position?
[1:08:14] I think there's two broad concepts to think about and that's number one, this need for jobs that we have imbued in the public consciousness and in our various political ideologies of the day where we hold jobs themselves as this irrefutable good and that if you create jobs [1:08:33] You know you're doing a public service, you're progressing the economy. We never stopped to question if we actually needed those jobs in the first place because it's just assumed that if people are employed, all is good for whatever reason in the end. The second concept I think that plays a really important role in the proliferation of this bullshit is financialization. Just as the returning of our economy from like real meaningful physical tangible things to just shifting money around in various ways and we'll get to that but what we saw is that after World War II we had this broad economic restructuring of economies generally, that have all aimed at full employment whether that was the Soviet Union's policy of directly providing jobs for every single working class person, or the emergence of the capitalistic models that we saw in the west which sought to use economic policy to encourage the private sector to employ everybody, with the caveat being that a small level of unemployment in a capitalistic framework is seen as positive because it gives additional power to the employer class over labor but the need for employment and jobs has been internalized within our society again, the idea being that all jobs are good and that if the market produces a job it must serve purpose, and so both sides of the political aisle this very narrow political aisle that we have here in the West broad. [1:09:59] They both really support jobs whether it's the right wing version of giving tax breaks to the so-called job creators, or a more left-wing type approach demanding jobs for union workers whatever and all this kind of creates a contradiction you know we discussed on episode 28 Debt End, the moral contradiction of believing it's morally good to always pay your debts while simultaneously believing it morally evil to engage in usury or predatory lending, it was in the same way we've been caught in this trap [1:10:29] Individually wanting our jobs to have meaning, and protesting and complaining when they don't yet on a societal scale. We simply demand jobs without really having any language to demand that those jobs actually matter, right David in episode 61 Owning Change where we discussed philanthropy you mentioned the hypocrisy of philanthropic organizations who vehemently opposed this Affordable Care Act provision that would have helped pay for universal healthcare in America, because it would reduce the amount of donations that individuals would end up making to these philanthropic organizations, which by the way existed for the purpose of managing the problems caused by lack of health coverage they protested, in the same way Graeber highlights the absurdity of the statement by President Obama made when he was supporting the maintenance of our status quo for-profit private health insurance industry during the early debate days of the Affordable Care Act, here's what Obama said “I don't think in ideological terms I never have. Everybody who supports single-payer healthcare says look at all this money we would be saving from insurance and paperwork, well that represents 1 million, 2 million, 3 million jobs filled by people who are working at Blue Cross Blue Shield or Kaiser or other places. What are we going to do with them, where are we employing them.”
[1:11:51] This is so ridiculous and it's one of the largest arguments against switching the medical system to one that is a Universal Health Care based type. And they say what about the insurance people think of all the jobs you'll be destroying, and I started to say creating because I'm so used to saying jobs creating.
[1:12:10] Right right.
[1:12:11] We never say jobs destroying but I mean we switch to universal healthcare, it be millions of people put out of work because their jobs aren't useful anymore cause we don't need them and I mean the immediate reaction is one of the economic admission that if you are working, then you're dying that you have no nowhere to live, you were not to be able to afford to feed yourself and that is a larger problem in this economy and I think sort of tacitly being admitted here that the state itself is not going to be able to take care of these people, and they're not going to go take care of themselves and the employment industry is going to be able to create enough jobs to push them into something like this so well that whole system is broken but it is enormously, inefficient, expensive, terrible way of administrating our health, because it's creating these useless bullshit jobs that shouldn't exist in the first place. Look if the entire insurance industry disappeared and we could just go to the doctor and then walk home from it, nothing of value would be lost but this is millions of people this is billions of dollars that are being spent on this huge waste of money from everyone because at the top some people are able to scoop the rich cream of cash off the very top of this system, become hugely wealthy off that process and then turn around, use that wealth and power to make sure that the system continues to feed them meanwhile people are dying. [1:13:36] Meanwhile medical bankruptcies are the leading cause of bankruptcy meanwhile there are thousands, soon to be hundreds of thousands of millions of people who can't afford essential things like their insulin because they've lost their insurance, because they can't afford insurance, because those products are unavailable to people financially speaking without insurance instead of talking about this, instead of talking about the huge loss of life and quality of life that exists because of the insurance industry, we're saying well we can't imagine anything better because we might lose some jobs. Job position exists in the first place, and if you ever wanted to talk about the status quo and how we defend the status quo, and how we lock ourselves into defending the status quo this is such a great example.
[1:14:19] Yeah yeah it is also just a great example of the contradiction here where the fact that those jobs are going away is what makes universal healthcare affordable because we don't have to pay for what is a bullshit industry this private health care in what is essentially the cost of competition in marketing because we don't need competition among insurance we can very easily make that much more affordable by just using a single-payer. And I think what it really reveals is a true nature of our economy so this leads us to the second main point here which is financialization where what our economy is engaged in principally at this point, and we saw the rise of naturalization primarily after the 1970s, is just pure moving money around and Graeber has a good metaphor for this and he calls it managerial feudalism to speak broadly about the economy but I want you to put yourself David in the shoes of a feudal Lord back in medieval Europe or so.
[1:15:15] Done and done.
[1:15:17] Pretty easy right what is your income, where does your wealth come from David. If you're a feudal Lord and you have the biggest estate right clearly your funding that estate with something.
[1:15:29] Yeah I guess the local taxes I levy on people to live on this land or area that that I occupy and I don't want to say own because whatever land i’m occupying is owned by the king or the queen of my larger area, and I’m occupying it on their behalf.
[1:15:47] Taxes, if the simple answer is that you have all these peasants are growing food for themselves right because that's how they're living. And then you as the Lord is saying I'm going to take half of all your food so now you have a bunch of food David, but what you’re going to do with all that food, you need a way to protect it so you’re going to use that food, which we will just call Wealth at this point, to accumulate soldiers, people who can guard your estate but that's just going to be a small part of the pie so now you need accountants, you need people to clean the baseboards of your estate you need equestrians, you need all these things and again it's not going to take up the whole pie and because you have so much wealth eventually people are going to start accumulating on your estate. Now you can do one of two things you can dry them off with your soldiers then you might have a political crisis on your hand so why not just give them some of that wealth and just give them some fancy title give them some bullshit jobs right throw some parties festivals.
[1:16:42] I'm done with this feudal party life.
[1:16:44] Right the end what we see in this example is that the whole institution of this feudal manor and the people associated with this have come about, from the need to distribute goods, this loot, that was essentially taken from the people who created it and financialization is really the same thing. We can think of this industry as what is known as FIRE but it stands for financial insurance and real estate. And these three go kind of hand in hand in this financialization process where you have huge landlords that own all the property, and they extract wealth from the people who live in those properties or who work in those properties think of those as The Peasants and that's the initial wealth that's being scooped up [1:17:27] Just like in that feudal example now you have all this money that needs to be distributed somehow so all these industries start to crop up purely for the sake of handling that money. We've eluded two in episode 61 Owning Change and episode 59 Bankrupt Ethics the example, the networks of nonprofits and NGOs that all exist to funnel money from one source like a wealthy donor or a wealthy government to another such as a social program or foreign aid money but in any system that is designed for moving money around, inevitably what happens is that these layers and layers of bureaucracy merge so that part of those resources can be siphoned off at every layer in this and get quite perverse, so in 2006, banks in the United Kingdom were found to have been defrauding their insurance clients. [1:18:15] And as a result they were ordered to give that money back but to do that, a bureaucratic procedure had to be created to help distribute those funds to their rightful owners and this was handled primarily by the big four accounting firms so that's your Deloitte, your PWC, Ernst & Young and KPMG. From Graeber's book one of the people that wrote in to say his job was bullshit, is a man named Elliott and he was an accountant at one of these big fours and he recalls that because they were paid for each case to distribute this money, and they paid him by the hour, his managers deliberately mistrained all these analysts for these jobs so that the contract would inevitably have to be extended. And this would happen over and over all for the sake of milking more money out of the process, here’s Graeber quote: “One could argue that the whole financial sector is a scam of sorts since it represents itself as largely about directing investments toward profitable opportunities and commerce and industry when in fact it does very little of that. The overwhelming bulk of its profits comes from colluding with government to create and then to trade and manipulate various forms of debate, just as much of what the financial sector does is basically smoke and mirrors so are most of the information sector jobs at accompanied its rise as well.” And here's one more quote from Graeber I think sums it up pretty well and then we can move on David quote. [1:19:38] “The more the economy becomes a matter of the mere distribution of loot the more inefficiency and unnecessary chains of command actually make sense since these are the forms of organization best suited to soaking up as much of that loot as possible.” So financialization, the need for jobs.
[1:19:56] Well that's a lot of stuff once more Daniel end this episode is sort of all over the map we have a lot of examples that we're getting just a very cloudy concepts of things and I'd love to explore more depth again in the future, especially sitting down with David once his schedule opens up when we can find if you have the time. [1:20:13] There's just a couple of things left that I think we need to touch on before we go out of it that's all under the larger umbrella of what can we do and there's a lot of different things individually, culturally but also in terms of the way that we have redefined our economy and what it means to survive today. And again this is another topic that we can explore in more depth but it deserves touching on just a little bit and it is UBI, or universal basic income. The idea that just for living in a nation, [1:20:43] I want to see because it's been tested on various cities, you get a check, you don't have to qualify for anything, you don't you don't work for it you just you are paid, say $1,000 a month just for being. And so the idea emerges because there are certain things that we assume people should be able to do certain inalienable rights I’ll even reach to say, but the fact that you should be able to house yourself and if I can you should be able to feed yourself and you should be able to do that irregardless of your ability to work or your current level of employment. I think it's a really important concept in something that Universal basic income guarantees, and pushes across I've got lots of personal problems with with various ways that people have talked about implementing UBI, maybe we can talk about them in a moment we'll definitely talk about them in the future. There are also alternative systems where we, there’s a talk right now as part of the Green New Deal to introduce a federal jobs guarantee. It's sort of a related concept but a very different way of implementing it and something I think that is right for creating a whole new field of a bullshit jobs potentially, but just quickly back to UBI if you want to take this for second Daniel.
[1:21:51] I want to introduce the concept of universal basic income David a little bit unconventionally, cause there's a metaphor the Graber employees in his book that I think is really powerful and a little bit odd at first but so much of office life today is oppressive, we have bosses and taskmasters who make us act a certain way. You know we're not allowed to talk to each other we're not allowed to look at our phone we have to do certain things that we don't want to do, scrub the baseboards, copy numbers into Excel that don't need to be copied and it's a form of domination pure and simple. And Graeber relates this to the BDSM community David. Yes that's the sexual games that people play where you have these sexual roles of submission and domination. [1:22:41] But there's a crucial difference between these two situations where in the sexual games that people play with these whips and hot wax and all that, there's always a safe word those who play the role of the submissive can anytime make it stop. They can say a word and those roles that they've assumed will go away and what you're left with is two people or maybe more who, just care about each other and want what's best for each other but we have organized our society of work largely around the same roles, we have those who dominate and those who must submit except there is no safe word, there's no escape, a person forced to highlight forms or guard an empty room for 7 hours a day while being abused by their bosses and supervisors ultimately they cannot say that magic phrase I quit because that role is the only means by which they can live but a basic income would solve that, it essentially allows us to transform the oppressive nature of work into the playful one of choice, where a boss can no longer abuse someone without consequence because that person can always just walk away. So this kind of gets us into the the reasons why we would want something like a basic income because it's decouples the need for a livelihood from that of work. It decouples wages from work and it unfreezes society to reframe our values from one of wealth creation to that is you know jobs just for the sake of it. [1:24:10] Accumulate wealth and it allows us to turn our values instead to the social, the moral to the kind of questions we would ask like what kind of people do we want to be around, how should a human act what should a good neighbor look like, we can't really ask those questions right now because we're too caught up trying to accumulate wealth so that we can afford to live. As an illustration David, I have a friend that doesn't make a lot of money is quite poor in fact but every time they see a homeless person on the side of the street sleeping without clothes on, in some other precarious situation they are compelled to stop whatever they are doing they often drive to the store buy some clothes, food, I've even seen this person by a whole tent from Walmart, just so that they can bring it back to this person, see if they're okay, she's not doing this because she works for some organization or some nonprofit, it looks like much of her time is spent trying to find a job and often she'll end up working as a cashier for a fast-food joint or something like that. And it makes me wonder how much of our society loses out because people like this who yearn to connect with others who want to spend their time helping others to solve a need in their community [1:25:20] Have to instead divert their efforts to molding themselves into a cashier role because that is the only work our society values. We don't pay people to help others out of the goodness of their heart so from the perspective of our society's moral views on work, married to the system of wage labor as it is, my friend is more valuable to society making $8 an hour serving burgers or whatever it is then she is seeking out people in need, asking anybody you know their own personal feelings and that's clearly not the case we would clearly value of that type of person over someone who would just choose money over helping other people but it makes me think David like what would this person be able to accomplish if instead as a society we told her look, don't worry about housing don't worry about food that's provided that's what we as a society have decided is worth everyone having. Now you go do what you want. [1:26:15] I guarantee you this person would be spending her time making the world a better place and because there would be more people like her who are freed up to do the same, we might see her individual actions collaborated with others we might see whole collective of people joining together and using their collective effort to fill these needs and I think that's really what this idea comes down to is we need to separate this idea money with our values we need to decouple these values from work because right now the only way that we really truly signify status in our culture is through consumption right who has the best car who has the Versace belt who has the best apartment the best house that's how status is established. [1:26:57] It is because of this economic system but if we could decouple this idea of consumption status and this need to work to survive, what other ways might we create status in this is so important because so many people say, well look if we just provide everyone's needs why would they work and to me it's a ridiculous question what do you mean how many people go exercise they're not being paid to do that they're doing it for a social reason. We all act out of social traditions of habit we want to look good to other people who want to help other people, if we could free our time up from this pointless bullshit economy to actually serve human needs we might value people differently, instead of who has the best car becomes who's the best neighbor, who hosts the best parties, who's the best dancer, who's the best musician, who was the best person to go to for advice, who makes the best cookies. We have all these new values that we can create in our society that we can't right now because the only way we can live is bullshit job that pays our rent.
[1:27:59] Oh that is so completely true Daniel and I think those words, I hope they are, inspiring to people listening to this, but I mean there's this fear in all of this process especially about UBI as well, if we're just giving people money, why would they work, why would they want to do anything, they’re just going to be lazy and sit around and do nothing if we provide them with houses and food then what motivation do they have to go out and make things, to build stuff. And this is such a ridiculous notion and one that has evolved entirely because of so many bullshit jobs that we have where so many people resent their work and they say, well yeah if I wasn't getting paid if I didn't have to do this why on Earth would I, but there's so many examples and Graeber she talks about this in a book, people who create things who work jobs where they're not bullshit jobs they can see the products of their labor they're not alienated from this process. [1:28:53] And then they hit a big and win the lottery or something, but they don't quit their working and relax like all of us in upper management or working in an office, imagine doing every day when we hold that $2 lotto ticket and hope we strike it big. Instead they go back to work and keep doing it because it's something they enjoy, it is something that's rewarding it has value. It turns out, and I always hate saying this phrase, but there is some sort of human nature, that likes to create, that likes to build things and then we can absolutely call that work it's just this busy work that we created because of the strange constraints of our economy and the needs put people into creating whole industries that shouldn't exist except to lube up this ridiculous way that we decided allocate resources, things like advertising, lobbying whatever, we want to create it's the human drive to build things, to make new ideas, to explore new concepts. [1:29:49] This not only is rewarding to us individually but there is a social component to this, like you mentioned you turn to someone to say wow that's an incredible song you've written with an incredible piece of art you've made while this invention that you put together is really inspiring and helps my day-to-day life thank you for this. I mean there are examples of this in history and again I'm not a crazy about turning to the Soviets for examples of stuff but they had these things they called innovation workshops where it was a workshop, you would come in and they had all the tools and supplies you might need and raw materials and stuff and you could just create you could just invent things. People did, they came in, there was no pay for this there was no reward but people just wanted to make their life a little bit better and the government would come in and see somebody had created something, had value, and start producing then giving it to the rest of the people of the Soviet Union as well. There were lots of problems in the larger way that all the stuff was structured but the very different value of work in the way that they sell work where's the way that we saw were we absolutely came out on the losing side of this and we are all the worse off for it and the resentment we feel in the office when we talk about it's a Monday, the way we look forward to weekends, the way that our souls are being constantly abused by these processes, by these bullshit jobs either completely or in part that we have to deal with everyday is that legacy.
[1:31:13] Finally David, basically what can we do, and there's one thing I want to just throw out there which is we all live in this bullshit economy at this point but we still have this moral conception of how valuable work is and how important it is to be disciplined and stuff, there's a lot of conflicting emotions that people experience in these bullshit jobs where they realize that what they're doing is not important, yeah they still feel guilty if they're not always looking busy and making their managers think that they're up to something and I want to say for your own personal health, don't feel guilty, these jobs represent spiritual violence, they are in an assault upon our soul, they undermine the foundations of what it means to be human, to have a meaningful relationship the world around us, to socialize, to impact our environment and so resistance to this is a form of self-care, a way to reassert our humanness if your job makes you feel less than human then fight back anyway you can and don't [1:32:11] Dare feel guilty about that, what if you steal paper clip from the supply closet, good keep doing it, don't stop you know if you pretend to work while in reality you study foreign language, you read novels, or listen to your favorite podcast Ashes Ashes, good, and maybe share it with your co-workers, the managers and supervisors who claimed to own our time don't own us and neither do they deserve your respect. Now true if you do want to get ahead in the corporate world, climb that ladder you may have to play the game a bit, look the part, and that will include telling your boss what they want to hear and playing nice with your co-workers but inside your heart [1:32:49] don’t ever give in, your soul deserves to be free and anyone that attempts to contain it is not worth your guilt or anxiety but that's a lot to think about.
[1:32:58] And think about it, we hope you will. You can find more information on all these topics, find a link to David Graeber's book, as well be the full transcript of this episode on our website at ashesashes.org.
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