Friday, 23 August 2013

No, these jobs are really pointless

I've just heard David Nobbs, on Radio 4, restating the advertising slogan from Reginald Perrin's chain of shops called Grot: 'All objects for sale in this shop are guaranteed useless'.  It is extraordinary how the modern economy thrives on making a success of the useless.

The anthropologist David Graeber, who wrote an important book recently about money - challenging the mistaken claims of economists about its origin - has been writing about what he calls 'bullshit jobs'.  This is what he says:

"Say what you like about nurses, garbage collectors, or mechanics, it’s obvious that were they to vanish in a puff of smoke, the results would be immediate and catastrophic. A world without teachers or dock-workers would soon be in trouble, and even one without science fiction writers or ska musicians would clearly be a lesser place. It’s not entirely clear how humanity would suffer were all private equity CEOs, lobbyists, PR researchers, actuaries, telemarketers, bailiffs or legal consultants to similarly vanish."

This is not quite fair, nor is it intended to be - I know exactly what would happen without actuaries or bailiffs.  The pensions industry would collapse and nobody would pay their debts.  But there is an important message here about the way the modern world creates pointless jobs which gives people incomes but little satisfaction.

I remember Douglas Adams, struggling to come up with the most pointless job of all, for The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, came up with telephone sanitisers.

Graeber's point is that this explains the attitude of some Republican types about jobs: if you are a nurse or a car-worker you have the satisfaction of a 'real' job - why should you want a pension too?

It is certainly bizarre the way the pointless jobs tend to be paid more than the useful ones, but there are two other categories of pointless jobs which Graeber misses or skates over entirely.

One is the category of jobs created by peculiar bureaucratic institutions, like NHS markets.  I would like to be paid £1,000 a day as an NHS coder, challenging the codings by which foundation trust hospitals bill their local commissioners - and vice versa of course.  But could I live with myself doing something so utterly pointless?

But even this misses the point. The American reform writer, David Osborne, a trenchant critic of command-and-control, estimated that 20 per cent of American government spending was devoted to controlling the other 80 per cent, via armies of auditors and inspectors. When Vice-President Al Gore led the National Performance Review in 1993, they found that one in three federal employees were there to oversee, control, audit or investigate the other two. 

 If you take some estimates that ten per cent of public spending goes on auditing, then it might come to around £50 billion in the UK. There is some confirmation of this because, if you work it out according to Osborne’s formula, it comes to somewhere around the same figure. By the end of the New Labour years in 2010, the wage bill for one in five of UK public sector staff was around £48 billion.

More on the way the UK public service system was built - to check on process rather than make things happen - in my book The Human Element.

But the other bullshit jobs missing from the list are truly pointless. These are the drones, often in Far East call centres and 'factories', which are manufacturing virtual realities, like Facebook 'likes'.  It takes time to manufacture Facebook people who can do the liking, and that is what they are paid to do.

Chinese factories are paying semi-slave rates to do online gaming – creating online ‘gold’ that can be sold to rich American gamers (there are supposed to be 400,000 of these, and that was years ago, doing what is known as 'gold-farming').

Here is the peculiar paradox of the modern economic system.  It is supposed to be so efficient, but it is paying people to do useless, inconsequential things, while it can't afford to pay people to do many of the useful things - teaching children, looking after old people.

Strange but true.  So don't please tell me that the economy is efficient.  It is busily creating pointless work in the hope that little bits of the proceeds will filter down to do useful things.  


Blissex said...

«estimated that 20 per cent of American government spending was devoted to controlling the other 80 per cent»

That would be a pretty low overhead... People like to point at the public sector, but having experienced both I think that the private sector may well be rather worse at this.

However you raise a general point that is very valid:

«So don't please tell me that the economy is efficient. It is busily creating pointless work in the hope that little bits of the proceeds will filter down to do useful things.»

No, no. The pointless work is there to create two things:

* Pointless jobs to keep people busy and worried to keep social order; and to keep official unemployment stats low.

* Offer extra sales and profit opportunities to big business and property owners.

People doing pointless work in pointless jobs has a technical name "underemployment", which is employment in activities where value added is less than compensation.

Underemployment used to be very common, in the past mainly in two big areas:

* in agriculture where 8 people would do a job that could be done by 3; where the 8 people were the farmer's family, and since they all had to be fed, they might as well be put to work even if it was not strictly necessary.
* house servants as a status symbol, as a way to do a favour to some retainers, to buy the loyalty of some families.

I think that underemployment is back today, in a lot of pointless jobs in finance, marketing, entertainment.

The symptom of that is how desperately governments in the past 50 years have been trying to create those make-believe jobs and to massage creatively unemployment statistics.

For example something that you fail to mention in your book, where you spend a lot of time on a symptom, the search for "good schools" and don't mention at all the cause, which is infuriating.

The cause is that university enrollment has gone from 5% of the relevant age group to 50%, almost entirely pointlessly.

Except from the point of view of government: 3-4 years at university for 50% of population has some great advantages:

* Takes 50% of the working age population out of the labour market for 3-4 years, reducing the unemployment rate by probably around a couple percentage points, and this at the unemployed students' own expense.

* The money the students spend on their pointless degree employs a large number of university bureaucrats and academics and clerical staff; but this is a minor detail as the spending per-student has been constantly driven down.

Parents try hard to get into a "good school", where "good school" is measures entirely in the chances for admissions to a top university, because only a degree from the top 10% universities is still worth as much as a degree was worth 50 years ago.

Dan Falchikov said...

Except that telephone sanitisers were not pointless as humanity was wiped out through a virus transmitted by dirty phone receivers.

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