Bullshit Jobs and Unemployment

In my discussions about Basic Income and Job Guarantees, I learned that you don’t make many friends – at least not among relatively young adults – by speaking in favour of jobs. This is not mysterious. A lot of people, especially younger people, don’t like their jobs. They don’t think what they do is worthwhile. They’d rather do less of it. They can’t see how I could possibly think there aren’t enough jobs – there are too many! I’ve been accused of ‘work fetishism’ – probably the most interesting fetish anyone has ever suspected me of harbouring.

My reply to those who make these accusations is simple: I don’t think it’s really jobs that you don’t like. I think it’s unemployment. We’re on the same side. You just don’t realise it.

David Graeber wrote an piece – ‘On the Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs’, which seems to have inspired a lot of people (check out #wrongtowork on Twitter). Here is how it starts:

In the year 1930, John Maynard Keynes predicted that technology would have advanced sufficiently by century’s end that countries like Great Britain or the United States would achieve a 15-hour work week. There’s every reason to believe he was right. In technological terms, we are quite capable of this. And yet it didn’t happen. Instead, technology has been marshaled, if anything, to figure out ways to make us all work more. In order to achieve this, jobs have had to be created that are, effectively, pointless. Huge swathes of people, in Europe and North America in particular, spend their entire working lives performing tasks they secretly believe do not really need to be performed. The moral and spiritual damage that comes from this situation is profound. It is a scar across our collective soul. Yet virtually no one talks about it.

Think, though, about why people continue doing these jobs if they secretly believe them to be pointless. Why not just stop turning up, or get yourself fired? The answer, in a word, is unemployment. ‘When more and more people are thrown out of work, unemployment results,’ as Calvin Coolidge reminded us, and people would prefer bullshit jobs – would prefer, indeed, most things – to unemployment.

People want to avoid unemployment – this is true almost by definition. ‘Unemployment’ doesn’t just mean lack of paid work – it means such lack combined with a desire for paid work. It would be very strange to say that for the hundreds of thousands of years before capitalism everybody was unemployed. They weren’t because they had no desire for paid work. Now where does this desire come from?

I’ve told this story a hundred times before, but I’ve refined it with the help of some valuable interrogation from critics. Imagine that we are a village of five people, the strongest of whom is ‘the Chief’. Every year the Chief demands that each of us pay her one special token. Unfortunately, only she can issue the tokens. We’re now all unemployed. We desire a way to earn tokens.

So. That’s where unemployment comes from. It comes from the State demanding tax payments in a currency that only the State itself can issue. People offer their labour as a way to earn the required tokens. Until the offer is taken up by the State, the people remain unemployed. Simple.

But in the real world, most people aren’t employed by the State! And many people who work for a living don’t have taxes to pay! How does that fit into this model? Ok. Imagine that I hold the only piece of fertile land near the village. Recognising my advantageous rentier position, the Chief wisely puts the whole tax burden on me – let’s say three tokens a year. She then pays three tokens to the other villagers – maybe for free, maybe in exchange for some of their labour (in this toy model it doesn’t matter; in the real world it certainly does).

So where do I get my tokens? Say I get one by selling the Chief a year’s worth of food. I get another three by selling each of the other villagers a year’s worth of food, at one token each. Then I raise my price. For one token, the villagers can only buy half a year’s worth of food. To get the other half, they have to pay me another token. Thus for the second half of the year, they are unemployed. They seek a way to earn tokens, in order to buy their food. Thus the Chief’s imposition of a tax burden on me, the rentier, is translated into unemployment for them.

In this circumstance, it must be noted, the Chief has made it possible for us to resolve the unemployment problem on our own. I can let the other villagers earn the tokens they need by working on my farm. Here is the ‘balance sheet’ for the village showing each stage of the cycle:

  Chief Me Other Villagers
Chief pays out tokens -3 (tokens) +3
Chief buys food -1 +1
Villagers buy food +3 -3
Villagers work for me -3 +3
Villagers buy more food +3 -3
Chief taxes me +3 -3

Of course I actually accumulate 1 token through the period and the Chief actually ends up with a deficit of 1 token per year (issuing more tokens than she takes in taxes). To see this, here’s the balance sheet again with new columns to track the Chief’s deficit and my accumulation of tokens (in my ‘vault’) at each stage (these are mere accounting records that don’t go into the actual balance, hence each row still nets to zero):

  Chief Chief’s Deficit Me My Vault Other Villagers
Chief pays out tokens -3  3  0 +3
Chief buys food -1  4 +1  1
Villagers buy food  4 +3  4 -3
Villagers work for me  4 -3  1 +3
Villagers buy more food  4 +3  4 -3
Chief taxes me +3  1 -3  1

So by the end of the year I end up with 1 extra token in my vault. I’m saving at a rate of 1 token per year; the Chief is running a yearly deficit of 1 token per year (it doesn’t matter for her, since she can issue as many tokens as she likes).

Now suppose that, for whatever reason, the Chief decides to run a balanced budget. The easy way for her to do this is to simply tax the food she needs from me rather than buying it by issuing 1 token to herself and then paying it to me. If everything else stays the same, then her balanced budget will also mean that I can’t accumulate my 1 token per year. By the end of the year, my vault is empty:

  Chief Chief’s Deficit Me My Vault Other Villagers
Chief pays out tokens -3 3 +3
Villagers buy food 3 +3 3 -3
Villagers work for me 3 -3 0 +3
Villagers buy more food 3 +3 3 -3
Chief taxes me +3 0 -3 0

But suppose I don’t want it to be empty: I want to accumulate 1 token per year. I try to turn a profit by charging the other villagers more for food than I pay them for their labour. So let’s say I lower their wages from 1 token per year each to 2/3 token per year each. Now I get my surplus back in the first half of the year. But in the second half, the villagers have, in total, only 2 tokens to spend on food, whereas they need 3 to buy enough for the whole year. Suppose, however, that I let them buy the rest on credit. And suppose that the Chief also accepts part of my tax payment on credit, to be paid off when the villagers pay their debt to me. Now we have this:

  Chief Chief’s Deficit Me My Vault Other Villagers Their Debt
Chief pays out tokens -3 3 +3
Villagers buy food 3 +3 3 -3
Villagers work for me 3 -2 1 +2
Villagers buy more food 3 +3 4 -3 1
Chief taxes me +3 0 -3 1 1

Now I am satisfying my desire to accumulate. But the situation leads to unemployment for the villagers. After all, they will eye off their growing debt and seek a way to earn enough to pay it down. They’re unemployed again. Well, technically they’re underemployed, but the principle is the same. They seek extra work; they need to earn more than they’re earning.

THIS, I submit, is what creates the situation that bothers Graeber. Think about what the villagers will do to try to get that extra 1 token per year. First, they’ll offer to work longer hours, even if all the production the village needs can be done in less time. Once they run out of genuinely productive work to offer, they’ll start offering to do ‘bullshit jobs’: polishing my cutlery (or the Chief’s), telling our fortunes – basically anything to try to earn that missing token.

In short, unemployment is responsible for the phenomenon of bullshit jobs. It is the reason people seek to work far more than is necessary to produce what society needs. They need the money. But if the private sector as a whole desires to net accumulate money (and it is in the nature of capitalism that it does), and if the government does not run a large enough deficit to cater to that desire, then people just can’t all get the money they need. Either they go hungry or they run up debt. And as they compete to get the money that is available, they work harder and harder at more and more pointless things.

So there you are. There are bullshit jobs because there is unemployment. There is unemployment because the government runs too small a deficit to cover the private sector’s desire to accumulate money. What’s the solution? Overthrow capitalism, purge capitalists of their desire for accumulation, or educate politicians into recognising that they don’t always need to balance the government’s budget (indeed they rarely should). You decide.


3 thoughts on “Bullshit Jobs and Unemployment

  1. NeilW

    What everybody is talking about is a lack of liquidity in the jobs market, and that causes the same problem as a lack of liquidity in any market – misplacing and misallocation.

    Basic income people want to take demand out of that market by removing those people who don’t like to work or don’t see why they should work. But in doing that they impose on everybody else the requirement to create stuff to support those people, and unsurprisingly everybody else refuses to accept that burden. Because it isn’t fair.

    The alternative – increase the supply of useful jobs – is far easier to do and fits in with not just the prevailing moral framework, but the very nature of how humanity shares things out. Increase the liquidity that way and people start moving jobs to find something that better fits their needs. Bad jobs are competed out of existence. Everybody is doing something and the sharing around is then seen as fair.

    Mutual scratching of backs is what apes do. We need to accept that.

    1. axdouglas Post author

      Really I guess the point is that it seems perfectly fair to demand that if people draw benefit from society they should contribute to it, relative to their ability. Work in that sense seems fine, and money could *in principle* serve as both the measure of somebody’s contribution and the access-ticket to social goods. Much (though certainly not all) of the perversity in the current system seems to arise when people have to compete for an ultimately insufficient stock of money. Or not?

      1. axdouglas Post author

        In other words, it makes no sense to demand contribution from everyone and then ration the opportunities to contribute, which is what our current system seems to do. The Basic Income solution is to stop demanding that everyone who can contribute should do so. But that seems to attack the sensible part of the arrangement. What we should rather get rid of is the rationing of opportunity. I guess that’s a roundabout way of saying the same thing you say: increase the supply of useful jobs.

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