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.

Stuff to read on the plane

Just a quick post of articles I want to load up on my Surface at O'Hare:

Off to take Parker to boarding. Thence the Land of UK.

Wieners Circle closing?

The owner of the property that houses Chicago's infamous Wieners Circle hot-dog stand has put it up for sale:

The Wieners Circle, that Lincoln Park institution known as much for its late-night insults as its hot dogs, may soon have to take its shtick somewhere else.

The hot dog stand's longtime landlord has hired a broker to sell the Clark Street property and an apartment building next door, potentially setting the stage for a developer to raze the 36-year-old restaurant and put up apartments or condos in its place.

"Obviously, a 700-square-foot, single-story restaurant is not the highest and best use for that lot," said Jeff Baasch, senior vice president at SVN Chicago Commercial, the brokerage marketing the property to investors.

Under current zoning, a developer could renovate the five-story apartment building, which "needs work," Baasch said, and also put up a building with ground-floor commercial space topped by about six residential units on the Wieners Circle site.

That's too bad. The Wieners Circle is a Chicago legend. And here, via Conan O'Brian, is a glimpse through the doors:

The Thick of It is now

In a column last summer, UC Berkeley professor Ned Resnikoff saw Armando Ianucci's British sitcom The Thick of It as a warning:

As scathing as The Thick of It can be in its depiction of craven, self-interested political behavior, it’s difficult to imagine any of its protagonists engaging in criminality on a scale equal to what Trump’s inner circle may have committed.

Nor can The Thick of It capture the dizzying instability of American politics in 2017, though it has occasionally gotten close. The conventions of the sitcom genre usually demand that, for all the frantic activity in one episode or another, very little ever really changes; the prime minister might get ousted and the opposition may become the governing party, but the political system itself remains static. It’s barely five years later that we understand just how fragile that apparent stasis was all along.

Indeed, one can imagine a contemporary version of The Thick of It in which its starring hacks cross the murky boundary between unethical behavior and blatantly illegal acts,the usual unprincipled goons suddenly finding themselves locked into a partnership of convenience with committed racists; and in which the collateral damage they wreak has expanded to institutional and geopolitical dimensions. While that show does not yet exist, one can see the seeds of proto-Trumpian government-as-PR-crisis in old Thick of It episodes, like a warning we all failed to heed.

Yes. We're longing for the halcyon days of Malcolm Tucker. Welcome to the Trump Administration.

Link round-up

Today is the last work day of 2017, and also the last day of my team's current sprint. So I'm trying to chase down requirements and draft stories before I lose everyone for the weekend. These articles will just have to wait:

We now return to "working through lunch," starring The Daily Parker...

 

A classic from McSweeney's

There is one musical play, out of all of them, that I loathe more than any other. My hatred of this play far exceeds my antipathy towards Mitch McConnell, such that I would gladly prefer an evening reading his floor speeches than to listen to one single song from this abomination. Rogers and Hammerstein, you should be ashamed.

Way back in May 2011, Melinda Taub wrote a gem for McSweeney's that suggest she agrees:

Dear friends, family, and Austrian nobility,

Captain Von Trapp and I are very sorry to inform you that we no longer plan to wed. We offer our deepest apologies to those of you who have already made plans to travel to Salzburg this summer.

Those of you on the Captain’s side of the guest list are probably aware of the reason for the change of plans. I’m sure by now you have received that charming “Save the date!” card in the shape of a mountain goat from the Captain and his new fiancée, Maria.

I must confess to being rather blindsided by the end of our relationship. It seems Captain Von Trapp and I misunderstood each other. I assumed he was looking for a wife of taste and sophistication, who was a dead ringer for Tippi Hedren; instead he wanted to marry a curtain-wearing religious fanatic who shouts every word she says.

The first time I read the line about "the eldest daughter, who seems intent on losing her virginity to the mailman" I snorted tea out my nose.

Brava, Ms Taub. Brava.

Trump-proofing your company

Last week's Economist had a semi-serious "letter from the CEO" on Plan C:

When I left the White House yesterday, after another two-hour round-table with the president, I knew in my gut that it was time to put in place “plan C” for this great company. The boxer, Mike Tyson, had a point when he said “everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.” But so did Winston Churchill when he observed that “plans are of little importance, but planning is essential.” We owe it to our investors, customers and 131,000 employees globally, to have a reset.

It is now clear that dysfunction at the White House and in Congress means plan B is off the table. The markets agree. Sure, equity prices are still up. But after the election, bond yields soared in anticipation of an economic boom, only to give up half of their gains. The “Trump Bump” has faded. Yet life won’t return to normal. Our firm faces many risks. We have to fight back.

That calls for plan C, which has three elements: winning, tackling and the future. I like to use the acronym “WTF”. For a start we have to win profits from our proximity to power.

But plan C also requires us to recognise new dangers coming at us hard and fast. They need to be tackled—stopped and brought down. One of the Wall Street bankers I know likes to say that the president has three personalities: chairman, showman and con man. It is the last two we need to worry about.

If companies are thinking anything like this columnist believes, we should expect economic stagnation for the next couple of years.