The Daily Parker

Politics, Weather, Photography, and the Dog

David Graeber on Bullshit Jobs

I've just started reading anthropologist David Graeber's book Bullshit Jobs. It's hilarious and depressing at the same time. For a good summary, I would point you to Graeber's own essay "On the Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs" that ran in Strike seven years ago:

A recent report comparing employment in the US between 1910 and 2000 gives us a clear picture (and I note, one pretty much exactly echoed in the UK). Over the course of the last century, the number of workers employed as domestic servants, in industry, and in the farm sector has collapsed dramatically. At the same time, ‘professional, managerial, clerical, sales, and service workers’ tripled, growing ‘from one-quarter to three-quarters of total employment.’ In other words, productive jobs have, just as predicted, been largely automated away (even if you count industrial workers globally, including the toiling masses in India and China, such workers are still not nearly so large a percentage of the world population as they used to be.)

But rather than allowing a massive reduction of working hours to free the world's population to pursue their own projects, pleasures, visions, and ideas, we have seen the ballooning of not even so much of the ‘service’ sector as of the administrative sector, up to and including the creation of whole new industries like financial services or telemarketing, or the unprecedented expansion of sectors like corporate law, academic and health administration, human resources, and public relations. And these numbers do not even reflect on all those people whose job is to provide administrative, technical, or security support for these industries, or for that matter the whole host of ancillary industries (dog-washers, all-night pizza delivery) that only exist because everyone else is spending so much of their time working in all the other ones.

These are what I propose to call ‘bullshit jobs’.

It's as if someone were out there making up pointless jobs just for the sake of keeping us all working. And here, precisely, lies the mystery. In capitalism, this is precisely what is not supposed to happen. Sure, in the old inefficient socialist states like the Soviet Union, where employment was considered both a right and a sacred duty, the system made up as many jobs as they had to (this is why in Soviet department stores it took three clerks to sell a piece of meat). But, of course, this is the sort of very problem market competition is supposed to fix. According to economic theory, at least, the last thing a profit-seeking firm is going to do is shell out money to workers they don't really need to employ. Still, somehow, it happens.

The book expands on the essay's themes, and adds scholarship, so it's therefore even more depressing than the original column. But he suggests an alternative: public policies to redistribute wealth back to the people who created it, and actually free up our time from these bullshit jobs.

Too funny, except it's not

I had planned to talk about this thoughtful article on congestion pricing and how free roads aren't really free, but just a few minutes ago I saw a headline that made me laugh out loud:

President Trump is planning to nominate former GOP presidential candidate Herman Cain to the Federal Reserve’s board of governors, two people familiar with the push said, a move that would significantly escalate the White House’s effort to exert political pressure on the U.S. central bank.

A Senate GOP leadership aide, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss the nominee’s prospects, predicted that Cain would ultimately not have the support to be confirmed.

Sen. Sherrod Brown (Ohio), the ranking Democrat on the Banking Committee, suggested Cain and Moore were both underqualified for the Fed board.

"I thought it was a joke at first when I heard that, but I guess it's at least as serious as Stephen Moore," he said. "I'll just leave it at that for now."

"Underqualified." No, I'm underqualified for the Fed. The administration's proposed nominees are so unqualified laughter is the only option at this point. Remember, Cain is the guy who ran for president in 2012 without the slightest guess about the location (or names) of several strategically-important countries, making Rex Tillerson look like a Rhodes scholar.

Remember, these guys hate competence, especially in government. But wow, I didn't think they'd go this far. It's hard to believe Trump filed for bankruptcy all those times, with his giant brain.

More winning by the administration! Well, the Putin administration, anyway

Paul Krugman points out how President Trump's alternating bluster and surrender over trade has left us "less trusted, less respected, and weaker than we were before:"

On U.S. unreliability, consider the way the current administration has treated Canada, probably the friendliest neighbor and firmest ally any nation has ever had. Despite generations of good relations and a free-trade agreement, Trump imposed large tariffs on Canadian aluminum and steel, invoking national security as a justification. This was obviously specious — in fact, Trump himself basically conceded this point, justifying the tariffs instead as retaliation for Canadian dairy policy (which was also specious).

The lesson for the world is that America can’t be trusted. Why bother making deals with a country that’s willing to slap sanctions on the best of allies, and clearly lie about the reasons, whenever it feels like it?

Meanwhile, the sudden retreat in the confrontation with China shows that we talk loud but carry a small stick. It would be one thing if the U.S. had changed course on the merits. But backing down so easily, after all the posturing, tells the world that the way to deal with America is not to bargain in good faith, but simply to threaten the president’s political base, and maybe offer some payoffs, political and otherwise. (I’m still wondering about those floors China’s largest bank rents at Trump Tower.)

Meanwhile, Michelle Goldberg looks forward to the multiple congressional inquiries launched this week as "Trump's TV Trial."

As America and the West get weaker, Russia gets stronger. So much winning. Just not ours.

Stuff that piled up this week

I've had a lot going on this week, including seeing an excellent production of Elektra at Lyric Opera of Chicago last night, so I haven't had time to read all of these articles:

And I shall begin reading these...soon. Maybe tomorrow. Sigh.

Whither Chicago's middle class?

The University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC) has published a study of Chicago income by census tract, and has found a disturbing trend:

Chicago’s middle class, once the backbone of the city, is declining so swiftly that it’s almost gone, and a set of maps from a local university lays that reality bare.

The dynamic stands to affect nearly everything about Chicago going forward, from politics to schools to who will live here.

“It raises a lot of questions as to what kind of city it will be,” said Janet Smith, co-director of the Nathalie P. Voorhees Center for Neighborhood and Community Improvement at the University of Illinois at Chicago, which compiled the maps that document Chicago’s shrinking middle class — and an increasingly polarized city — over the past five decades.

UIC’s maps show that fully half of the city was middle income in 1970, including large swaths on every side of town. Today, just 16 percent of the city’s 797 census tracts are considered middle income. Those middle income areas are confined mostly to the corners of the city, and to thin strips between areas of wealth and poverty.

Lutton goes on to examine the economic, cultural, and other trends that are driving this change.

Lunchtime reading

I had these lined up to read at lunchtime:

Meanwhile, for only the second time in four weeks, we can see sun outside the office windows:

Bankruptcy laws in the US

Whether the US bankruptcy code intended to create a new indentured class of university graduates, its prohibition on discharging student-loan debt has done so.

But the code really helps badly-run businesses, and not just at the criminal scale of Sears. The private-equity fund that owned a grocery store chain in Indiana has done very well under the code, while destroying the future of the chain's retirees:

The anger arises because although the sell-off allowed Sun Capital and its investors to recover their money and then some, the company entered bankruptcy leaving unpaid more than $80 million in debts to workers’ severance and pensions.

For Sun Capital, this process of buying companies, seeking profits and leaving pensions unpaid is a familiar one. Over the past 10 years, it has taken five companies into bankruptcy while leaving behind debts of about $280 million owed to employee pensions.

The unpaid pension debts mean that some retirees will get smaller checks. Much of the tab will be picked up by the government’s pension insurer, a federal agency facing its own budget shortfalls.

“They did everyone dirty,” said Kilby Baker, 70, a retired warehouse worker whose pension check was cut by about 25 percent after Marsh Supermarkets withdrew from the pension. “We all gave up wage increases so we could have a better pension. Then they just took it away from us.”

Truly, the law is a ass. It's also working as its Republican authors intended.

How sellers use Amazon's monopsony power against each other

Via Bruce Schneier, a report on how third-party Amazon sellers use Amazon's own policies to attack their rivals:

When you buy something on Amazon, the odds are, you aren’t buying it from Amazon at all. Plansky is one of 6 million sellers on Amazon Marketplace, the company’s third-party platform. They are largely hidden from customers, but behind any item for sale, there could be dozens of sellers, all competing for your click. This year, Marketplace sales were almost double those of Amazon retail itself, according to Marketplace Pulse, making the seller platform alone the largest e-commerce business in the world.

For sellers, Amazon is a quasi-state. They rely on its infrastructure — its warehouses, shipping network, financial systems, and portal to millions of customers — and pay taxes in the form of fees. They also live in terror of its rules, which often change and are harshly enforced. A cryptic email like the one Plansky received can send a seller’s business into bankruptcy, with few avenues for appeal.

Sellers are more worried about a case being opened on Amazon than in actual court, says Dave Bryant, an Amazon seller and blogger. Amazon’s judgment is swifter and less predictable, and now that the company controls nearly halfof the online retail market in the US, its rulings can instantly determine the success or failure of your business, he says. “Amazon is the judge, the jury, and the executioner.”

An algorithm flags sellers based on a range of metrics — customer complaints, number of returns, certain keywords used in reviews, and other, more mysterious variables — and passes them to Performance workers based in India, Costa Rica, and other locations. These workers choose between several prewritten blurbs to send to sellers. They may see what the actual problem is or the key item missing from an appeal, but they can’t be more specific than the forms allow, according to Rachel Greer, who worked as a fraud investigator at Amazon before becoming a seller consultant. “It feels like it’s a bot, but it’s actually a human who is very frustrated about the fact that they have to work like that,” she says.

The Performance workers’ incentives favor rejection. They must process approximately one claim every four minutes, and reinstating someone who later gets suspended again counts against them.... When they fall behind...they’ll often “punt” by sending requests for more information....

Scary. And an example of why monopolies are bad. As Schenier says, "Amazon is basically its own government—with its own rules that its suppliers have no choice but to follow. And, of course, increasingly there is no option but to sell your stuff on Amazon."

Note that I say this while watching an old TV show on Amazon Prime, waiting for Amazon to deliver a replacement Fitbit band, and on and on.

Wow, who could have seen this coming?

New Republic's Alex Shepherd lays out how the Amazon HQ2 "sweepstakes" is a scam that will not do what Amazon claimed:

The company not only garnered free, widespread publicity, but also drove up its asking price, as some competitors raised their bids by billions. It’s possible that the plan all along was not to open a second headquarters, but to open two, smaller satellites. What’s unlikely, however, is that the deals being offered to Amazon will change significantly, even though the company is effectively halving their investment.

Amazon has already faced backlash for its handling of HQ2. The $1 trillion company is hardly in need of public handouts, and yet it has benefited greatly from taxpayer dollars in recent years. It may have sensed there would be further backlash over its decision, which would explain why the news broke on the eve of the midterm elections, effectively burying it. Unlike other localities, which made their offers public, not much is known about the bids from New York City and Virginia. But the public scrutiny of HQ2 will only intensify as the details—and the social consequences of HQ2—become clear.

Amazon likely chose Washington and New York for obvious reasons, making the pageantry surrounding the yearlong search for an HQ2 site all the more absurd. These are attractive places to work, and, as national hubs of politics and media respectively, they influence the national discussion. But they’re also among just a handful of major cities that could meet Amazon’s needs, in terms of infrastructure and talent. That was always true, and the company cleverly exploited it, using cities that never stood a chance to extract concessions from the few that did.

But all this was obvious from the start. And it does not make anyone look good.