Author Topic: David Graeber and nonsense jobs  (Read 5789 times)

Leisured

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David Graeber and nonsense jobs
« on: September 03, 2013, 06:07:12 AM »
I saw this interesting article, which suggests that much of the work of administration and  management is not much more than make work.


http://www.smh.com.au/national/-2sy3j.html


In the early fifties, the science fiction author Kurt Vonnegut wrote a prophetic novel, Player Piano, about automation. In the novel, low skilled workers made redundant are given make work, but the workers know it is make work, and that leads to social unrest. In our world, it is often well educated people, with non science skills, who are given make work, which is the point made in the article. Even today, most of these people do not realise that they are given make work, and are often well paid. No science fiction writer predicted such an extraordinary outcome. Those familiar with automation will understand the meaning of the novel’s title.
 
David  Graeber quoted John Keynes’ legendary essay. Keynes in 1930 saw the world moving up towards a golden future, over a hundred years, and he did not pay much attention to making a final, considered transition to the Good Life. The rich societies are now about half way up the hill, and it is clear that those willing and able to make the transition to Keynesian advanced societies will need to make conscious political decisions. Those with intelligence and scientific training will find it demeaning to live in societies where the ignorant and foolish believe in indefinite growth, and I see intelligent young people getting restive in the future. Keynes’ essay should be compulsory reading.

http://www.econ.yale.edu/smith/econ116a/keynes1.pdf

I do not agree with Graeber that there is a conspiracy by the elite to keep the treadmill of work going, but suggest that many people fool themselves.

mgreczyn

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Re: David Graeber and nonsense jobs
« Reply #1 on: September 03, 2013, 07:52:04 AM »
I find it interesting that Graeber notes that at least the amount of time actually spent working by many white collar professionals has met Keynes' expectation.  Keynes just didn't predict that the power dynamics of modern office work would force so many workers to put in so much useless face time in the name of keeping their jobs.  Also, it seems that Keynes accurately predicted the concept of an extremely early retirement if not the exact form.  Rather than spend 40 years laboring at 15 hours per week, by avoiding needless consumption those who don't like putting in useless face time so much can take the blue pill and spend 10 years working 40 hours per week and the rest of their lives in "retirement".  His corporate lawyer friend could have, had he had a MMM or ERE website to guide him, become a lawyer at an early age, clocked out at 32 or so and THEN become a poet or indie musician or whatever, making whatever he pleased while living off his investments.  Think about how much better the world COULD be if more folks followed that route instead of doing it backwards: fewer cranky, debt-ridden, overworked lawyers leading to more churn in lawyer ranks and more job openings for new grads (thus solving the lawyer unemployment crisis) with the added bonus of more poets and indie musicians.  Alas, the very creative fuel needed to produce angst-ridden poetry and music is probably destroyed the moment somebody says to themselves "I should become a corporate attorney."  Maybe not? Any corporate attorney / indie musicians out there care to comment?
« Last Edit: September 03, 2013, 08:23:16 AM by mgreczyn »

LalsConstant

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Re: David Graeber and nonsense jobs
« Reply #2 on: September 03, 2013, 08:47:02 AM »
In the early fifties, the science fiction author Kurt Vonnegut wrote a prophetic novel, Player Piano, about automation. In the novel, low skilled workers made redundant are given make work, but the workers know it is make work, and that leads to social unrest. In our world, it is often well educated people, with non science skills, who are given make work, which is the point made in the article.

I wouldn't get too excited about anything Keynes penned, I rather look at him and Hayek like the Sigmund Freuds of economics: technically wrong with the benefit of modern hindsight, but very important in getting us to a better place.

However both were smart men who said some things of value that seem to be true still even if the greater body of their work didn't hold up over time; in particular, Keynes once quipped:  "The ideas of economists and political philosophers, both when they are right and when they are wrong, are more powerful than is commonly understood.  Indeed the world is ruled by little else.  Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influence, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist."

With all that said, here's my take:  I am of two minds on this.

In the first mind, I agree with the article (except for its unnecessary political jabs against strawmen that don't contribute to its substance) because there's more to work than productivity.  There are also cultural considerations, that you wake up and go to work so often for so long.  It isn't a deliberate conspiracy per se but there is definitely  a group of people who have power who are enforcing the 40 hour week.

Over time how much we work is trending down, many attribute it to labor unions but I see them as incidental to a collective realization that it made economic sense to pare down to the now standard 40 hour work week.  It used to be everyone worked every day for at least 11-12 hours because tedious tasks like picking cotton took that long.

Even now, casual days, flextime, telecommuting are freeing small numbers of people.  I benefit from flextime myself, and I could reduce my cost of living and stress incredibly if my employer would allow telecommuting on any kind of consistent basis.

In fact before I started, it was apparently normal for about half the office to be out telecommuting on a given day.  Considering I can analyze data extracts anywhere with an internet connection, this makes sense to me.

However this alarmed the senior staff, who were panicking that no one was at their desk, and telecommuting was restricted to special circumstances like working on vacations or weekends only.  I have literally heard one person tell me he was concerned that when working from home, employees were prioritizing the most important tasks first and getting their work done in just a few hours and not really doing anything the rest of the time.  But he wasn't concerned with giving them more work (there are good reasons he can't easily always do this I won't go into) he was concerned with seeing them pound sand for eight hors.   An observer from outside the organization (like a brand new employee) can see how absurd this concern is.  Cultural conservatism (which I don't condemn, it has benefits too) backfires.

On the one hand this has been good because a lot of external reports get reviewed now.  On the downside, the reviewing is just done to fill time and isn't that productive all considered.  Also this is work that any reasonable person who can type a grammatically coherent sentence could perform, you don't need degreed people for this.  If I were in charge, we'd have a web portal where you could create an account, read and write the review summaries and we'd have one person whose duties would include feedback and approval on the summaries.  We'd open it up to the public, it'd be the perfect work from home job for a legitimately needed service and a great job for a disabled person or just a good way to make $5 when you were bored at 11 PM.

I don't know how to program it myself exactly but I know it could be done with some development, and we have the resources to make it.  But that's exactly the kind of thinking my management can't stand: using resources to automate tasks to eliminate time spent on them in the office is so counter to their thinking.

I'm 32, and I hear constantly from those twenty years and more my senior we should work like they did for the sake of living as they have.  It's true, my industry used to be a lot more time intensive, using columnar paper and colored pencils to do the same work I now do in minutes with software.  I should have to do long tedious things too.  They don't phrase it that way, but that's what they mean.

It's perfectly understandable really, if you can remember spending your youth going to school for 9 hours a day, then coming home and doing chores for 5 hours, then homework for 3 hours, none of which involved sports or extracurricular activities, and you spent most of your twenties and thirties working 84 hours a week in entry level positions (my own father spent his twenties working 6 days a week, 12-14 hours a day as an engineer), you might resent younger people who have no concept of such a world.

Of course not all people have this attitude, my grandmother for instance toiled most of her life and broke her body doing hard work, and it was her sincere wish to see a world where people didn't have to do that any more.  She reportedly wept for joy when I graduated from college.  She later told me that was such a proud moment for her because it made her feel like all her hard work was for a reason.  She'd be thrilled if the automated society came to pass.

But there does seem to be a strong social craving to preserve a norm for the sake of a norm.  While I rued that social conservatism was working against us, one of the benefits of conservatism is that it shields us from the unpredictable.

I don't know if we're ready for a society where "work" looks like people lacadaiscally strolling about, stopping to hit buttons for a few minutes every once in a while, and then resuming their reverie.  I mean really would most people suddenly start producing music?  It's nice to think so, but there's a famous saying about idle hands.

I see how the reduced work time could and really should happen for many, I truly do, but I don't think Keynes foresaw the cultural barriers.

The reality is, I see in my own job that while I do some things of value and necessity, I see ways I could easily have a four hour workday.  Not at all times during the year of course, but there's similarly no reason they couldn't just give me entire months off after a busy season, it'd be the same effect.

Ironically, I only got to do a job that has some actual value because I spent years in jobs I knew were, to borrow the article's phrase, bull shit jobs.

The flipside of this is, if you actually let someone in a position like mine just work four hours a day, do you pay me only half as much?  The implication seems to be that the bulk of what I get paid is earned in my productive time, so if we're really trying to make economic sense, I should be getting paid roughly the same for providing those services timely regardless of how long it takes me to perform them.

Let's say culturally, we can get over that emotional hangup that so many people should earn that kind of money for "part time" work and we put that four hour day in place.

What's the first thing I'm going to do?  Get another job, it doesn't matter if it's a job at McDonald's, any other job going directly to my savings would mean YEARS off my working career.  I'm a more desirable employee than the average person in any number of jobs not related to my "main" job.  Granted, I would quit it after I had reached my FI goal, but in the short term am I not displacing someone else from the labor pool?

What's more is because of conflicts of interest and the relative complexity of other jobs requiring training I can't easily get (for example being a doctor and a lawyer at the same time is possible but hard to achieve), my secondary career is not likely to be something highly skilled, more likely it is to be something with a low barrier to entry, meaning I would displace someone with fewer economic opportunities than I have.

Is that something we can handle?  Huge swarms of unemployable people displaced by the better educated?  Of course most people with a white collar job seem to think they're "too good" for such jobs despite the heroic work hours culture.

But the point is, each person not filling up 40 hours a week at work might be something we're not ready for yet either.  Handfuls of people are figuring it out I think, FI forums are full of the self employed.  But only people with high skilled technical trades whose work can easily be subdivided or freelanced can viably become self employed.  That's not most of us until cultural considerations change.

I think we'll find new social conventions to make such a world work and it will work out in time, but predictions are usually wrong.

the ignorant and foolish believe in indefinite growth

It is precisely because of the thimble full of intelligence I possess that I believe it's quite foolish to surmise there's some kind of "cap" on what humanity can achieve for itself in an economic sense or any other sense. 

It's probably not correct to assume growth can continue indefinitely, surely we're constrained at some point, but that assumption is probably more correct than assuming anything else in a pre-singularity world.

It was predicted at several points that:

- A rocket would never leave Earth's atmosphere.  Also manned space travel was impossible.
- There would never be 6 or 7 billion people, long before that most people would start starving to death and the world population would never reach such levels.
- Trains could never travel as quickly as stagecoaches.  Additionally, the automobile was a niche technology that would never rise beyond the capabilities it had at the dawn of the twentieth century.
- There would only be a handful of computers by now, perhaps as many as a dozen depending on who you ask, and each unit would weigh around a ton.
- The Iphone would have little to no market share.
- Interest rates would go up.

And so on, and so on.  Many very intelligent people with the best education, shrewd intellects and razor sharp wits have been rendered apparent (but not actual) fools in hindsight by saying it couldn't be done, that humanity was somehow limited. 

Science is great, it is fantastic and wonderful and we should all do more science.  However we should avoid scientism very carefully.  Indeed it anecdotally seems the only people who can get the future right sometimes are those who use intuitive, emotion based interpretations and personal speculations, such as fiction writers.  It seems the more technical, the more grounded in facts and details, a prediction is the more likely it is time eventually makes the predictor look silly.  That actually makes a great deal of sense to me, someone focusing on the speculative can guess where the facts might ultimately wind up than someone who is more focused on understanding the implications of current facts.  I'd guess if we could test it somehow, we might be able to conclude that the more creative the thinking is, the more likely it seems to be to actually occur.

I suggest to the reader it's worthwhile to speculate whether scientific thinking, which is constrained by evidentialism, is not in and of itself limited in what understanding it can impart due to incompleteness (incompleteness in the Gödelian sense).
 
Of course this may be a self fulfilling prophecy in some cases: other people see the idea and consciously or subconsciously try to make it happen.  I can't argue any of this conclusively either way of course, who could?   

I am just posting some food for thought that perhaps science in and of itself is but one tool in our species' cognitive toolbox, and that perhaps it's not so foolish to assume growth is unlimited at this point in time.

However if anyone reading this can predict the entire future accurately in a way not attributable to simple luck, you are a better human being than I and at least ten orders of magnitude more intelligent and I salute you for it.  There's a million perfectly intelligent predictions made every moment every day and most of them seem to be wrong despite being reasonable and well grounded.

mgreczyn

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Re: David Graeber and nonsense jobs
« Reply #3 on: September 03, 2013, 09:35:59 AM »
Good points about both Keynes and Hayek, and really no, I don't think everyone would go around producing music and the like. However, working a high-paying job for 10 years or so while maintaining a low-consumption lifestyle would definitely free people to pursue work more suited to their temperament, and it's reasonable to expect that some of these people would love producing art.  If nothing else, large numbers of people doing this would create plenty of work for economists for decades.  I suspect, though I haven't done any firsthand research, that if you went down to one of the art festivals that many cities put on and interviewed the folks selling their work, you would find a few former attorneys, engineers, business executives, maybe a former economist or two, manning booths alongside the starving artist types.  MMM as a former computer engineer and current carpenter is a great example of this. He's also a great example of why this sort of thing doesn't happen more often: witness the cries of protest against a low-consumption lifestyle in the comments section of mainstream publications when he gets interviewed. 

I think casual days, flextime and the like are all concepts under pressure in the current environment, or at least they seem to be if you track stories in the media about Yahoo, banking interns dropping dead in London from working until 6 AM and the like. Your own story backs this idea up. With high unemployment, the expectation seems to be not only that people will physically be in the office, but that they will actually work MORE than 40 hours whether there is enough actual work to occupy that time or not.

I've experienced a interesting twist on this in my past; in the military I was aircrew on a large aircraft that took a minimum of 17 crew to operate.  When not deployed our average number of training missions per crew-member seemed to be about 2 - 4 per month.  So for a squadron that needs to be able to field 4 crews, that's 80+ individuals who spend at most 8 working days per month on their primary task (one day to plan / brief, one to fly).  What to do with the other 12 days?  We can't very well have a bunch of military folks working part time, so we invent desk jobs (and buy a bunch of desks, thus keeping the desk-makers at Unicor occupied) to keep them busy. To continue OP's play on literary references, Catch 22 makes it clear that there is always something to count in the military, modernization hasn't changed that. With automation, though, roughly 60% of those crew positions can be, and in more modern platforms actually have been, been eliminated.  Most, but not all, of those eliminated positions tend to be enlisted positions such as radio technicians, feeding into the theme of lower paid, more manual work being automated.

With respect to the idea of a cap on human potential, I tend to think that if our economy is to continue to grow then it can do so only if we eventually either move most of it to the information realm (you hint at a singularity) or somehow find a way to create more room for the physical economy, which could happen by actually creating more space or by making things really, really small. Eventually, it seems intuitive that continuous growth of both population and the physical economy will overwhelm the earth's resources, though as you point out, past predictions that this would happen haven't worked out. You provide some great specific examples of advances in the past that were once though impossible; it seems to me that these all happened because the paradigm shifted in one way or another.  Clever people found ways to shift the goal posts or the playing field and that made all the difference.  It will be exciting to see what shifts in the future make continued economic growth possible, I'm sure they are out there.
« Last Edit: September 03, 2013, 09:41:25 AM by mgreczyn »

Jamesqf

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Re: David Graeber and nonsense jobs
« Reply #4 on: September 03, 2013, 12:35:14 PM »
...with the added bonus of more poets and indie musicians.  Alas, the very creative fuel needed to produce angst-ridden poetry and music is probably destroyed the moment somebody says to themselves "I should become a corporate attorney."

We might also wonder whether having much more angst-ridden poetry is really such a good thing.  Perhaps the world is over-supplied with it as it is?  Certainly a simple supply & demand analysis would suggest that this is the case.

As far as living a good life, instead of looking at Vonnegut, take a clue from a story (I think by Frederick Pohl) called "The Midas Curse", in which automation produces an endless supply of consumer goods.  (There's some reason, though I forget what, why production must keep runnning.)  The poorer people are, the more of these goods they're required by law to consume, so they have to spend all their time using things in order to wear them out.  Really rich people can live in a small cabin in the woods, plant their own gardens, etc.

mgreczyn

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Re: David Graeber and nonsense jobs
« Reply #5 on: September 03, 2013, 01:18:36 PM »
Surely some of it would be non-angst ridden.

Leisured

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Re: David Graeber and nonsense jobs
« Reply #6 on: September 04, 2013, 05:01:10 AM »

Thank you for your responses.

Research gains in agriculture are different to research advances in other fields. If scientists find a better way of making steel, cement or any other product, that benefit is permanent, or until it is superseded by an even better method. In agriculture, if scientists improve food production by say ten percent, that benefit is eliminated in ten years of population growth. People with big families expect agricultural scientists to bail them out of trouble, generation after generation, and are not even ashamed at destroying advances in food production by having large families.

I have been watching these matters since the sixties, and I have spent most of my working life in an agricultural research station in Australia. During the Green Revolution of the late sixties and seventies, all the scientists involved were uncomfortably aware that all they could hope for was to buy time to allow the rate of population growth to slow, or preferably, stop.

One poster elsewhere likened managing agriculture as the same as managing assets, the assets in agriculture being soil and water. It is important to have some safety margin, say 10%, so that the world, as policy, produces slightly below full potential.  Food is vital; all the more reason to be conservative at the load we place on agriculture.

Nearly all the technical advances since science began have been created by scientists, not by non scientists. It is true that scientists are sometimes pessimistic about the prospect for advances in a field that is not their own, but in the main advances in electronics are made by physicists, advance in chemicals by industrial chemists and so on. There is a magnificent bridge spanning the Dardanelles, thus joining Europe to Asia. Designed by engineers.

The long term goal of science is to allow people to live the Good Life in the future, and the Good Life does not include packing as many people into the world as possible.






Albert

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Re: David Graeber and nonsense jobs
« Reply #7 on: September 04, 2013, 10:43:48 PM »
If UN estimations are to be believed world population will stabilise very soon (ca 2050) due to falling birthrates everywhere except few hotspots. In the West some large families are needed to compensate for all the people who have no kids or have only one.

Leisured

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Re: David Graeber and nonsense jobs
« Reply #8 on: September 08, 2013, 02:52:22 AM »
LalsConstant wrote: The flipside of this is, if you actually let someone in a position like mine just work four hours a day, do you pay me only half as much?  The implication seems to be that the bulk of what I get paid is earned in my productive time, so if we're really trying to make economic sense, I should be getting paid roughly the same for providing those services timely regardless of how long it takes me to perform them.  EndQuote.


A good point LalsConstant. Visionaries in the past assumed that we would move into a prosperous short work week over a long period. Keynes made the point in his 1930 essay that for many decades on the run up to a leisured prosperous society, life would be business as usual, as we accumulated capital and engineering knowledge. He implied, but did not say, that as society gets close to the transition to an automated society, people would need to understand that a transition was looming, and would prepare for it. We now know that this does not apply for most people, in which case the Transition is only for the intelligent and astute.  So be it.

I see the Transition taking place over a doubling of productivity, caused by using more machines, and lasting perhaps 30 years. Those willing to make the Transition will agree that the incomes they receive at the start of the Transition are adequate for their needs, and will agree that increases in productivity will result in a gradual shortening of the work week rather than increases in income.



mgreczyn

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Re: David Graeber and nonsense jobs
« Reply #9 on: September 08, 2013, 08:38:55 AM »
The flipside of this is, if you actually let someone in a position like mine just work four hours a day, do you pay me only half as much?  The implication seems to be that the bulk of what I get paid is earned in my productive time, so if we're really trying to make economic sense, I should be getting paid roughly the same for providing those services timely regardless of how long it takes me to perform them.

You mean like this guy: http://www.bravenewlife.com/07/retire-by-35-an-update/ ?

Leisured

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Re: David Graeber and nonsense jobs
« Reply #10 on: September 10, 2013, 01:59:58 AM »
I've experienced a interesting twist on this in my past; in the military I was aircrew on a large aircraft that took a minimum of 17 crew to operate.  When not deployed our average number of training missions per crew-member seemed to be about 2 - 4 per month.  So for a squadron that needs to be able to field 4 crews, that's 80+ individuals who spend at most 8 working days per month on their primary task (one day to plan / brief, one to fly).  What to do with the other 12 days? 

Interesting point about underemployment in the military, mgreczyn. This has been a phenomenon of standing armies throughout history. Soldiers get up early, have breakfast, attend a class or engage in a military exercise, then things tail off after lunch, and soldiers stand down for the rest of the day. This does not apply during a major military exercise, or during a war.

The military are an example of a large economic installation which is not fully utilised. Electric power generation is another example, where demand for electric power varies widely throughout 24 hours, so installations like hydroelectric power stations only work a few hours  day.

In an advanced society of the future, automatic factories will switch on and off depending on demand. If stocks of paper clips run low, an automatic paper clip factory will switch on, build up stocks, then switch off. Domestic refrigerators work the same way, switching on and off to achieve a set low temperature. If water in a town water tower gets low, an electric pump automatically switches on to refill the tank, and then switches off.

It is not unusual for salaried staff to be underemployed. Rather than fill their time with nonsense activity, which is how this topic started, it is better if such staff are allowed to go home early if things are quiet at the office.




Leisured

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Re: David Graeber and nonsense jobs
« Reply #11 on: September 10, 2013, 02:24:25 AM »
As far as living a good life, instead of looking at Vonnegut, take a clue from a story (I think by Frederick Pohl) called "The Midas Curse", in which automation produces an endless supply of consumer goods.  (There's some reason, though I forget what, why production must keep runnning.)  The poorer people are, the more of these goods they're required by law to consume, so they have to spend all their time using things in order to wear them out.  Really rich people can live in a small cabin in the woods, plant their own gardens, etc.

Thank you for the reference, jamesqf. Pohl's short story, The Midas Plague, was made into a light hearted BBC TV feature about 1970.,

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M04y8yVylNA

mgreczyn

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Re: David Graeber and nonsense jobs
« Reply #12 on: September 11, 2013, 09:52:27 AM »
The military are an example of a large economic installation which is not fully utilised. Electric power generation is another example, where demand for electric power varies widely throughout 24 hours, so installations like hydroelectric power stations only work a few hours  day.
Interesting that you bring that up; my current job is in wind energy, which is not fully utilized for a totally different reason; the fuel is available sporadically, though productivity as measured by net capacity factor has gone from 25-35% to 40-50% over the last 5 years alone, so that is rapidly improving.  The measure of utilization across the generation fleet has a variety of drivers and is heavily impacted by market type; in a de-regulated, competitive market the cheapest power to generate gets dispatched first on up the chain to the most expensive. Solar and wind are always the cheapest marginal generators, so if the sun / wind is there they go first.  Coal / nuke / hydro and most nat gas generators are next.  Nat gas peakers are almost always the most expensive, so they go last, often only generating a few hours each year.


In an advanced society of the future, automatic factories will switch on and off depending on demand. If stocks of paper clips run low, an automatic paper clip factory will switch on, build up stocks, then switch off. Domestic refrigerators work the same way, switching on and off to achieve a set low temperature. If water in a town water tower gets low, an electric pump automatically switches on to refill the tank, and then switches off.
As Warren Bennis said: "The factory of the future will have only two employees, a man and a dog. The man will be there to feed the dog. The dog will be there to keep the man from touching the equipment."

Those automated factories will also switch on and off based on the spot price of electricity.