Sunday, April 24, 2016

Bullshit jobs and Civilization’s collapse

The idea for this post started innocently enough, researching the concept of what I called “make believe jobs”, or jobs that really added very little value (technically, whose cost to the employer were beyond the marginal benefit they added to the organization of said employer). It was to be an additional step in the series developing the General Theory of the Organization, as my initial hunch is that those jobs are much more prevalent of what neoclassical economic theory would predict (well, for that theory those jobs shouldn’t exist in the first place, so they could only be understood as a temporary deviance from equilibrium, and set to disappear as soon as possible as the market regained a minimum of efficiency). Such prevalence would be both a cause for pessimism (in this blog! Who would say!) , as significant amounts of improvement in aggregate demand could be absorbed without any improvement in the overall employment picture (as companies had a tremendous cushion of “hidden capacity” lying dormant as a fixed cost that they could turn to before they started hiring from the outside, and thus reducing the unemployment numbers) and an additional argument in favor of the rollout of a UBI, as that would be the only way to reduce such population of non-value-adding employees without the trauma of depressing even more the already paltry labor participation figures (as many of those are old enough to never be employed again if they were laid off).

Unfortunately (or fortunately), pursuing that line of thought I found myself having netted a much bigger fish (so big, indeed, that a single post may very well not be enough to tackle with it), but let’s not get ahead of ourselves, and try to present all of this in a somewhat orderly fashion. I’ll go through the three steps it took me to reach the overall conclusion (unsurprisingly, it all comes down to us being doomed in the short run… but do not worry, as I wrote about in another post Our sunny future 500 years from now our descendants will laugh at our current tribulations)

1.       They pay for it, but it’s still bullshit

Anybody that has worked in a big firm, doesn’t matter how apparently ruthless its HR policies, knows that they all harbor a great deal of slackers and deadbeats. In some cases they are astute, cunning fabricators that convince enough of their supervisors that they are actually doing something useful, and that their lack of results (for definition a make believe job produces no results, if it did produce some it becomes an overpaid job, or even a sinecure if It is safe enough, which is a totally different category) is due to some set of circumstances entirely out of their control. One would expect that time would put everybody in its right place, but that would be grossly underestimating human ingenuity, and the number of counterexamples I’ve seen to that maxim would be enough to fill a book to rival with the telephone directory of a city the size of New York.

However, the guy that really hides is inability to do anything mildly productive for years on end, while he collects his monthly salary and even get the occasional promotion, is just the tip of the iceberg, as there are not that many of them. Let’s call this class “the fancy dress make believe job”, as they really have to carefully camouflage their valuelessness, and pass it for some useful activity, apparently performing some valued function within the enterprise (normally accompanied by a fanciful job title). Needless to say, these species can only be found in the upper echelons of the corporate world, where “results” are notoriously difficult to measure, as in the lower ones a complete lack of production would be more immediately apparent (an engineer that didn’t produce any calculations, a designer that didn’t produce any drawings, or an operator that didn’t turn out any manufactured piece from his workstation would be soon reprimanded and duly fired if persisting in his lack of work, whilst an executive that didn’t do much at all is more difficult to detect).

There is a whole additional category of make believe jobs, reputedly more prevalent in government and the public sector, which we could call “the paper pusher of papers that should have never been printed in the first place”. Paper pushing (getting approvals of forms filled by somebody else, which has done the thinking) is already a questionable activity, which could add a sliver of value (even in these times of electronic forms, automated workflow information systems and paperless offices) sometimes, but surely could never justify the brigades, the divisions, the full armies of administrative staff that people most offices where the administered (that is, the whole of the population) has to deal with the administrators. Not just for government service (like filing taxes, registering the acquisition of landed property, transferring a business and the like) but for any modification the supply of most utilities, regardless of how much they are supposedly in private hands (water, electricity, gas and communications, and in most places the provision of health services).

I will not go into the vast swathes of workers in sales and marketing, as it should be self-evident that in a sane society we wouldn’t have millions upon millions of clever guys doing their best to try to convince us to buy (and sometimes pay outrageous amounts of money) things we don’t need. In this case, each individual salesperson can be extremely valuable for the company that employs him (indeed, in professional services organizations selling is the only ability people consistently need to show to get to the top, as the great challenge they face is convincing their clients once and again that what they bill them for is of any significance, or may cause any kind of improvement to their bottom line, regardless of it being true or not), but if we apply the rule of “imagine what happens if all the people doing this were suddenly abducted by aliens and taken to a far away planet” is difficult to envision a planet Earth significantly worse off (or worse off at all) by the sudden disappearance of all the Don Draper lookalikes…

Finally, there is the category of honest-to-god workers that are doing some activity that requires skill and commitment, and they are doing it competently and even with gusto, but for a completely counterproductive end, dictated by a society that has lost its bearings (more on that later on). Engineers, architects, middle managers, tradesmen, secretaries, the full works engaged in the construction of megalomaniacal infrastructure works that nobody will use, be them airports with no actual demand, trains that run empty, and the tons upon tons of advance weapon systems that were devised for a type of conflict that the world may not see again. It is amazing that, given how petty the public investment in most advanced countries has come to be seen, I raise the possibility that there are still spades of money being thrown at inexpedient projects, while basic infrastructure seems to be rotting at the roots and in a state of utter disrepair, but such is the sad state of things, and while well used highways, bridges and airports crumble and rot new, wholly unnecessary ones are being built everywhere, following decisions taken for political expedience (to favor the career and election prospects of their proponents, when not to inflate their secret bank accounts in fiscal paradises) rather than the ones dictated by their measured contribution to the greatest good. Let us call this last category the “good soldiers deployed in the wrong battlefield” to complete our categorization of jobs that add nothing to the collective output and would not cause any diminution in the real GDP if the people performing them were suddenly dismissed without notice (the third category is a bit more problematic, at least in the short run, as building a completely useless airport or train line does indeed count as part of the GDP while the construction is taking place, although it stops doing so the moment it finishes, as nobody then is willing to pay to use the service). 

2.       The economic impact of bullshit jobs

So I would ask my less experienced readers to take my word regarding the enormous number of people belonging to the three categories previously described (the more experienced ones already know it is true). No exhaustive measure of their ranks has ever been attempted, but I dare to say they constitute between 30 and 40% of the total working population (well above that in certain well-established sectors and industries, and below that figure in the ones subject to more competition and change). To have a better grasp of such figure, the current occupation rate of the USA (in theory a super-dynamic economy, with a most frayed and uncomfortable safety net that forces almost everybody to swim or sink) is roughly around 60%, after decades slowly falling. That means that a 40% of the population of working age is not working at all (and, given that the unemployment rate is just 5%, 35% of them are not even looking for a job, although much could be discussed about how voluntarily that giving up may happen to be).

 If we take as most likely figure of make believe jobs a 35%, that means that more than half of the working age population (40% + 35%*60% = 61%) doesn’t add zilch to the GDP (that probably includes you, kind reader, that instead of working is reading this silly post… just kidding, we both know you are a hard worker and a productive citizen), and the remaining 39% is doing all the work. Let’s not forget we are talking of working age population here. If we consider the fact that people is living longer thanks to the increase in life expectation at birth (and at any age, really, except if you are a middle age North American Caucasian, in which case you are expected to kill yourself by overdrinking, substance abuse or similar expedient methods any day now) we have to conclude that roughly 20% of the people keep society going, another 10-15% just goes along for the ride and pretend to work just as hard in order to have a solid claim in the distribution of the benefits, and the rest basically expect the truly working ones to maintain them in different levels of opulence.

That puts the claims of many conservatives about the unsustainability of the welfare state in some perspective, as really if 20% of the population working can achieve our current production level the idea that we can somehow magically find occupations (through creative destruction, technological advance, development of entirely new industries, the right incentives and whatnot) for at least the 40% that nominally could work is ludicrous. The size of the problem is not increasing the amount of jobs available by a 10 or a 20% by “unleashing the energies of the free market” or similar claptrap. To really materialize the rightists utopia of full employment for everybody (achievable by making any life situation different from full employment for each individual as utterly miserable as possible) you would need to more than double (and most likely triple) the size of the economic pie.

That is not only incompatible with the increasing automation of more and more activities, but with any kind of social organization we can dream of. As a member of the tory government one commented drily answering to the drive of their leader to turn the UK into a service economy, “we can not survive on cutting the hair of each other”… somebody somewhere must be doing something originally valuable to enable the distribution of such value in exchange for the provision of services (be such services cutting hair, flipping burgers or advising in innovative financial strategies to minimize the tax exposure). But when that somebody is so hard to find (one in five people) the problem should not be making more schlubs act like that uber-valuable (and most rare) individual, but in distributing fairly the product of that individual’s labor (product that is not only obtained thanks to his or her superior ability and moral worth, but also thanks to circumstances beyond his control, like a functioning society, the capital accumulated by his ancestors and pure and unadulterated luck).

There is another way, of course. Pay everybody a basic income and fire all the people in make believe jobs. But that's the kind of solution we would expect only a fully functioning civilization to settle on, and not a decaying one…

3.       Can civilization pull it off?

Sounds sensible, doesn’t it? The problem is, as we mentioned, everybody is pretty good at identifying the “bullshitness” of other people jobs, but quite blind to their own job’s. We have reached a point in the development of our complex, multiply interconnected, half real - half virtual economy when we do not know what is valuable any more, we do not know who is adding value to a product or an activity and thus, we do not know how to maximize the utility we derive from a certain allocation of our resources with alternative uses (which, by the way, is the definition of what Economics does, but in my last post I already said that Economics is basically a gigantic amount of malarkey with a side dish of baloney, so nothing new here). Not that such inability would keep me awake at night, as I have always said that thinking in those terms is counterproductive, and the whole maximization of utility thing is the wrong way of approaching how to live (a wrong way that, by the way, is enshrined in the dominant reason of the age, and foisted upon unsuspecting and innocent children since their first day on this planet, so those of them that have not been exposed to any countervailing influence may find it somewhat hard to adapt to a reality without those guiding principles), except for the little fact that I don’t think our civilization can survive without it, and that I see more and more signs around us that it has already lost it for good.

Because the proliferation of bullshit jobs is just one (especially salient) manifestation of the deeper malady I have just pointed to: the complexity of our current social organization and adjacent productive system has just surpassed a point of no return that makes it impossible to assign any intersubjective value to any good or activity. But as all (or most of) our institutions have been designed (and derive their legitimacy) from their ability to maximize value (under the guise of “utility”), the fact they can not discharge the duty they were constructed to fulfill (or that they can not satisfy the expectations that have been put upon them) will surely, sooner or later, lead to their demise. And the demise of a functioning civilization is never a nice thing to contemplate (even less to live), although I’m afraid that’s the lot we are bequeathing our children.

This is the “big fish” I mentioned at the beginning of the post, and it surely needs more than one entry in a paltry blog to be fully explained. It may also seem like too big a conclusion to extract from the fact that in some companies (OK, in most of them… OK, in all of them) there are a few slackers that do not really pull their own weight but their bosses don’t seem to notice (or if they notice, they don’t seem to care). The casuistic of make believe jobs was just the pointer, but once that particular clue leads you to suspect that may be the problem with our world-system affects  something pretty foundational, reveals something truly rotten at the very root of it, you start to see a number of apparently disconnected (or very loosely connected) threads in a completely different manner:

·         Global warming: may be it is incredibly urgent (like catastrophic floods and total disruption of the climate patterns in 50 years), may be it is not (like the same but in 200 years, whopeee!). May be it is 100% caused by man’s activities (most pointedly their burning of fossil fuels) may be man is causing just 90% of it. Fact of the matter, the climate is getting warmer, the potential consequences for the livability of the planet (its ability to sustain an enormous population of primates with very high metabolic demands) are devastating, and we are doing essentially zilch (if anyone seriously think the Paris climate accord are going to do anything at all to curb the emissions of greenhouse gases I have a bridge in Brooklyn I may be interested to show him). The whole thing is too complex, the temptation to free ride the efforts of other actors too big, the penalties for individually doing nothing too small (or inexistent) and the lure of being just plain old complacent (“it’s all a giant hoax, surely things are not going to be that bad, why bother at all”) has proved to be just overwhelming…

·         Part of what makes global warming intractable is that it is mainly caused by the most widespread of producing energy, and energy production in a complex, commercial, capitalist society as ours is non negotiable. Not just old style manufacturing, but communications, agriculture, construction (air conditioning in a sweltering planet!), sanitation, provision of health services, transportation (increasingly, if we move from internal combustion engines to an electric powered fleet)… all require modern societies to produce vast amounts of energy. And the news on that front are pretty dismal. Yes, photovoltaic energy is so cheap as to be close to (or have already reached, depending on who you trust) “grid parity” (a price low enough to be competitive without being heavily subsidized… which makes you wonder then why it keeps on being heavily subsidized everywhere, and why threatening to rationalize –i.e. reduce- such subsidies cause a universal cry of outrage from a misinformed public opinion). Yes, eolic energy is expanding (in this case, without even pretending to be cheap). In the most wildly optimistic scenario both may account for anything between 20% and 40% of humanities need (and that requires a massive overhaul of the distribution grid and a similar enhancement of our storing capacity, which today is for all practical purposes nonexistent at any scale bigger than your AAA batteries). As for the rest, carbon capture has not advanced much in the last three decades, ditto for nuclear, and fusion… is still a good two decades away, and will probably be three (or four, or five) decades from now. We have just, as a society, lost the ability to innovate technically. We have literally thousands of designs for new reactors (and for improving the efficiency of the current ones) but it is just too damn tough to get them approved by the regulator, so they sit for decades on the shelves, without ever being built (or, if we attempt to build them, the costs and schedules spiral out of control, see Flamanville, Olkiluoto and ITER). But hey, Moore’s law is alive and well, and we still get faster computers and mobile phones, and better software running on them (only the software is actually worse and more buggy, as that is other area where we have not learned to deal with complexity, and even the rate of replacement of technological wonders seems to be slowing, as people realize that the latest version of their expensive geegaws only serves to reduce the weight of their wallet, for very, very little additional convenience or functionality)

·         But probably the worst of it: in one of the most gripping pieces of journalism I have found in the last months I read in The New Yorker how the USA pacific coast will sooner rather than later be wiped off by a devastating Tsunami (as it has regularly been for most of its unrecorded history, the lovely advantages of the advances in the science of seismology allow us to gain this kind of knowledge): The really big one will not be where you expect it . and knowing this, we are just collectively unable to do anything at all about it! I find almost unbearable the mention, in the final paragraphs, of the schools and day care centers that are well into the inundation zone of a tsunami that has roughly one in three chances to strike in the next half century. We are collectively letting hundreds of kids stay as sitting ducks to inescapably drown under forty five feet of water and debris (along with a good number of hundreds of thousands adults and elders) because it is just too complex to take any fucking measure at all to put them in a safe place. They may make it to adulthood, but then it will be their cousins, or their own children the ones subject to such fate.  But hey, the Germans shut down ALL their nuclear power plants after the Fukushima earthquake and Tsunami for no friggin’ reason at all! And when disaster strikes in the NorthWest of the USA (notice that it is when, not if, as it will strike for certain sooner or later, it’s just the way of blind nature following its unbending rules) we will wonder if there is a God and how could he allow such a terrible thing to happen, and so much suffering and grief…

So all in all pretty grim prospects, uh? When I first read Toynbee’s A Study of History I wholeheartedly agreed with him that our particular civilization (western Greek-Judeo-Christian, or whatever you want to call it) was the first one to have escaped from the iron law of rise, consolidation and decay that had affected every other major human culture until now, and that with the scientific method and the knowledge we had gained about how nature (including ourselves) really work (as opposed to convenient rationalizations of whatever false superstition happens to be widely believed by the mass of the people) we had for the first time in history the opportunity to learn and adjust our mores to the circumstances we found ourselves in. Probably the same that Egyptian noblemen thought 2,000 years BC.

That I read short after Spengler’s The Decline of the West (an abridged edition, I’m toying with the idea of going for the full thing, may be in the original language… we’ll see), and it was a good antidote. But now the thesis of the German seems like more and more plausible, and the one of the British less and less so, its optimism more and more unfounded.

Again, to deduce from the fact that a good deal of the workers in most advanced societies are not really doing much that our whole (apparently robust and solid) culture is about to collapse may seem a bit unwarranted. I’ll develop in a subsequent post why I think we have reached “peak civilization”, and the true explanation of why we can not achieve the kind of feats (technological, ideological, religious, demographic) that may get us some reprieve from such collapse. 

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