The Secret Joys of Bureaucracy

bureaucracy 2

“So we have inspectors of inspectors and people
making instruments for inspectors to inspect inspectors.”

Buckminster Fuller

We met anthropologist David Graeber last time. His book The Utopia of Rules: On Technology, Stupidity and the Secret Joys of Bureaucracy takes on a universally-acknowledged kind of modern workplace drudgery:  the mind-numbing bureaucracies built around filling in forms. This is from an interview in The Guardian:

“A few years ago David Graeber’s mother had a series of strokes. Social workers advised him that, in order to pay for the home care she needed, he should apply for Medicaid, the US government health insurance programme for people on low incomes. So he did, only to be sucked into a vortex of form filling and humiliation familiar to anyone who’s ever been embroiled in bureaucratic procedures.

“At one point, the application was held up because someone at the Department of Motor Vehicles had put down his given name as “Daid”; at another, because someone at Verizon had spelled his surname “Grueber”. Graeber made matters worse by printing his name on the line clearly marked “signature” on one of the forms. Steeped in Kafka, Catch-22 and David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King, Graeber was alive to all the hellish ironies of the situation but that didn’t make it any easier to bear. ‘We spend so much of our time filling in forms,’ he says. ‘The average American waits six months of her life waiting for the lights to change. If so, how many years of our life do we spend doing paperwork?’

“The matter became academic, because Graeber’s mother died before she got Medicaid. But the form-filling ordeal stayed with him. ‘Having spent much of my life leading a fairly bohemian existence, comparatively insulated from this sort of thing, I found myself asking: is this what ordinary life, for most people, is really like? Running around feeling like an idiot all day?’”

In other words, it’s almost 2018 — with all our smart technology, you’d think we could do better — for the people on both sides of the bureaucratic desk. The interview continues:

“[Graeber] quotes with approval the anarchist collective Crimethinc:

“Putting yourself in new situations constantly is the only way to ensure that you make your decisions unencumbered  by the nature of habit, law, custom or prejudice – and it’s up to you to create the situations.”

That’s good paradigm-shifting advice. We could follow it all the way to eliminating “the Secret Joys of Bureaucracy.” As you would expect, a whole bunch of enterprising software developers are already on it — here’s a software list. In fact, if it’s a dull, repetitive job, we probably already have technology that can do it better than humans can.

But that would eliminate all those mind-numbing bureaucratic jobs. Then what? Then it’s time for the second half of the Buckminster Fuller quote above:

The true business of people should be to go back to school
and think about whatever it was they were thinking about
before somebody came along and told  them they had to earn a living.

A friend of mine was a chimney sweep. He’d be up on the roof, shaking down soot with his long-handled brushes, and downstairs his helpers would screen off the fireplace and capture the soot with a high-powered vacuum before it ruined the homeowner’s den. “Don’t wallow in it,” he’d tell them.

That’s also good paradigm-shifting advice. Trouble is, our brain wiring loves to wallow in the old ways of doing things — including filling in forms — at least until, as the saying goes, the pain of status quo becomes greater than the pain of change.

We’ll be looking more at workplace paradigm shifts in the coming weeks. But first, next time we’ll let a poet help us wallow a bit more in workplace drudgery.

 

Bullshit Jobs

 “Work is the refuge of people who have nothing better to do.”

Oscar Wilde

Radio journalist Studs Terkel interviewed hundreds of people for his 1974 book Working. Here are a couple quotes from it:

“Work is about a search for daily meaning as well as daily bread, for recognition as well as cash, for astonishment rather than torpor; in short, for a sort of life rather than a Monday through Friday sort of dying.”

“Most of us have jobs that are too small for our spirit. Jobs are not big enough for people.”

Apparently not much has changed in the 43 years since Working came out. Consider this from The Power of Meaning, by Emily Esfahani Smith (2017):

“Today, about 70 percent of all employees either are ‘not engaged’ in their work–that is, they feel uninvolved, uncommitted, and unenthusiastic about it–or are ‘actively disengaged’ from it, and less than half of all workers feel satisfied with their jobs.”

Or consider anthropologist David Graeber’s widely circulated 2013 article On the Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs:  A Work Rant:

“In the year 1930, John Maynard Keynes predicted that, by century’s end, technology would have advanced sufficiently that countries like Great Britain or the United States would have achieved 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 marshalled, 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.”

“Virtually no one talks about it.” Why not? The Financial Times ran an article a couple months ago called Britain’s Joyless Jobs Market Can Be Bad For Your Health. (It’s here, but you’ll have to subscribe to read it.) It makes the same point as the following quote from the article published by the Lawyers Assistance Program of British Columbia which we looked at a few weeks ago:

“[I]t is unhealthy to do meaningless, unchallenging, uncreative work, especially for those that are intelligent and well trained.”

Seems like a pretty uncontroversial thing to say, but you can’t tell from the nastiness in the comments that follow the article — one more sad case of polarized opinions talking past each other and the loss of meaningful discourse. Not only can’t we talk about economics, but apparently we also can’t talk about how crummy jobs ruin our health.

Why has it become so inflammatory to suggest that boring, meaningless work might not be a good thing? Because of the widespread “truths” about work that have become culturally sacred. To many — maybe most — people, work represents a moral good, no matter how boring, trite, thoughtless, and demeaning.

no more workOne person who isn’t afraid to talk about it is Rutgers history professor James Livingston. He says the following in his book No More Work:  Why full employment is a bad idea (2016):

“Work means everything to us. For centuries–since, say, 1650[1]–we’ve believed that it builds character (punctuality, initiative, honesty, self-discipline, and so forth). We’ve also believed that the market in labor, where we go to find work, has been relatively efficient in allocating opportunities and incomes. And we’ve also believed that even if it sucks, the job gives meaning, purpose, and structure to our everyday lives–at any rate we’re pretty sure that it gets us out of bed, pays the bills, makes us feel responsible, and keeps us away from daytime TV.”

“Those beliefs are no longer plausible. In fact, they’ve become ridiculous, because there’s not enough work to go around, and what there is of it won’t pay the bills–unless, of course, you’ve landed a job as a drug dealer or a Wall Street banker, becoming a gangster either way.”

“[Work] no longer functions as either a moral calendar or an economic calculator. You will learn nothing about character by going to work at the minimum wage because the gangsters or the morons at corporate headquarters control your opportunities; you will learn nothing about the rationality of the market because the same people determine your income.”

More next time.

[1] 1650 is the year René Descartes died.

The Tide May Be Rising, But Some Boats Are Sinking

line in the sand

Last week I quoted from Ryan Avent’s book The Wealth of Humans:  Work, Power, and Status in the Twenty-First Century (2016), which makes the following points:

  • The rising tide of neoliberal economic policy did in fact lift all boats from the post-WWII years through its heyday in the 70’s and 80’s.
  • In particular, it benefited the wealth and income of individual wage-earners — most dramatically in countries where government-centric models such as social democracy and communism had previously been in charge.
  • But since then, continued allegiance to neoliberal policy has had the reverse effect, resulting in rapidly growing economic inequality which is leaving wage-earners behind.
  • The problem seems to be that, since the 80’s, the “lifts all boats” paradigm has not kept pace with the altered economic dynamics brought on by globalization and the technological revolution. The result has been a shift in wealth creation and sustainable income away from the wage-earners neoliberalism once benefited.
  • Continued allegiance to the neoliberalism is undermining the traditional concept of working for a living.

This week, we’ll finish with Arent’s analysis, again quoting from his book:

  • As a result of the above, the continuing viability of neoliberal economic policy is being questioned.

“Around the world, dissatisfaction with the fruits of economic integration fuels inward-looking political movements:  protectionist in some places, separatist in others. Some politicians find themselves able to gain traction by playing identity politics or by criticizing institutions of liberal democracy. Many succeed through withering critiques of the elites who minded the tiller over the last few decades. Faith in markets and their ability to generate broad-based growth has been shaken.”

  • Questioning neoliberalism also challenges its support base of cultural, societal, and national institutions.

“In a way, it would be much easier if the robots were simply taking all the jobs. Solutions might not be any more straightforward to come by, but the sight of millions of robot dog-walkers and sanitation workers strutting through crowds of unemployed humans would at least be clarifying.

“Instead, the remarkable technological progress of the digital age is refracted through industrial institutions in ways that obscure what is causing what. New technologies do contain the potential to revolutionize society and the economy. New firms are appearing which promise to move society along this revolutionary path. And collateral damage, in the form of collapsing firms and sacked workers, is accumulating.

“But the institutions we have available, and which have served us well these last two centuries, are working to take the capital and labour that has been made redundant and reuse it elsewhere. Workers, needing money to live, seek work, and accept pay cuts when they absolutely must. Lower wages make it attractive for firms to use workers at less productive tasks… [and reduce] the incentive to invest in labour-saving technology.”

  • A new economic paradigm seems to be indicated, but its coming won’t be easy.

“This political era [the post-war surge of neoliberalism] is at an end.

“[I]ncomes must rise. Not just the incomes of China’s middle class and the rich world’s 1 per cent. But achieving higher incomes is a fraught business, both economically and politically.

“This process will not end without a dramatic and unexpected shift in the nature of technology, or in the nature of economic institutions.”

Neoliberalism’s apparent faltering threatens many economic ideas that have come to be held sacred, such as the notion of working for a living, which we saw a few posts back is revered as a moral virtue by Communists and Christians alike. These kinds of notions are deeply rooted in the minds –literally, in the neurological wiring — of the human beings who have inherited them and the values they stand for. As such, they are much more than economic ideas, they are the personal and cultural narratives that define our identities and guide our choices, both individually and collectively.

These kinds of entrenched cultural ideals will not go quietly into the night. Instead they will retrench and aggressively pushback against an interloper. Next time, we’ll look at one of those reactionary responses:  the advent of “bullshit jobs,” which contribute much to current workplace dissatisfaction.

And just for fun, here’s the “not go quietly into the night” speech from Independence Day, and here’s Dylan Thomas’s “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night.”

Does A Rising Tide Still Float All Boats?

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The world’s post-WWII economic surge was founded on the idea that macroeconomic advances benefit everyone equally — i.e., that “a rising tide lifts all boats” (a phrase widely attributed to JFK, which his speechwriter apparently borrowed from a local New England chamber of commerce). This idea is a hallmark of the neoliberal economic model.

Whether the aphorism still holds today is predictably a subject of highly polarized economic debate — see e.g. this June 9, 2014 LA Times article. My own research leads me to conclude that the idea worked powerfully for decades, began to break down in the 70’s and 80’s (as we’ve seen in prior posts in this series), and since then has begun to fail as remarkably as it once succeeded.

This week and next, I’m going to quote extensively from The Wealth of Humans:  Work, Power, and Status in the Twenty-First Century (2016), by Ryan Avent, a senior editor and economic columnist for The Economist, whose analysis runs like this:

  • Neoliberal economic policy did in fact lift all boats from the early post-war years through its heyday in the 70’s and 80’s.

“The last generation, during which the digital revolution’s first powerful effects made themselves felt, was an era of remarkable political moderation and consensus. The period began, in the 1970s and 1980s, with a liberalizing impulse across a broad range of countries… As global markets integrated, politics in most rich democracies coalesced around support for market-oriented economies, global openness and progressive social goals. It was a pleasant sort of era for the cosmopolitan, technocratic elite:  the believers in the notion that the market, lightly tended, offered the best route to global prosperity and peace.”

  • It especially raised national economies and benefited the wealth and income of individual wage-earners — especially in countries where government-centric models such as social democracy and communism had previously been in charge.

“[T]he nature of economic growth shapes political priorities… Political momentum for economic liberalization in the 1970s and 1980s emerged as typical voters lost confidence in the ability of the more statist economic policies to raise long-term living standards.

“The outcome of that liberalization differed substantially across countries. In China and India, liberalization delivered on its promise. In China, especially, a generation of rapid growth succeeded in elevating a large middle class out of poverty. China’s economic pie grew massively.”

  • But in the past few decades, continued allegiance to neoliberal policy has had the reverse effect, resulting in disproportionate benefits and rapidly growing economic inequality — especially in the USA and other nations where it was most entrenched.

“In the rich world, things worked differently. In 2014, the inflation-adjusted income of the typical American household was just 7 per cent higher than it was in 1979. By contrast, the income of a household in the 95th percentile of the income distribution grew 45 per cent over that period.”

  • Since the 80’s, the “lifts all boats” paradigm has not kept pace with the altered economic dynamics brought on the technological revolution, resulting in a shift in wealth creation and sustainable income away from wage-earners.

“[T]he world economy operates on a framework very much rooted in an industrial, scarcity-bound world. The interaction of that world with the technological advances of the digital era have landed labour in a trap. The digital revolution generates fantastic labour abundance; that abundance contributes directly to downward pressure on the wages of the typical worker. It also reduces the bargaining power of labour relative to other, scarcer factors, allowing those factors to capture outsize share of the gains from growth.”

  • Continued allegiance to the paradigm is currently undermining the concept of working for a living.

“We now have new economic challenges, and the former labor/wage model is no longer producing equitable results. Job-based economic security and prosperity is being left behind.

“Low pay for the great mass of workers is distributionally unfair. It undermines support for the market-based economic system that enables sustained economic growth.

“We might not care so much about these inequities if the digital revolution were reducing the costs of all the many things the typical household wants to buy, from steak dinners to adequate housing to a top-flight university education. But cost reductions have so far been highly uneven:  massive for some things, such as digital entertainment, completely absent for others, such as homes in nice neighborhoods.”

This analysis essentially restates that of economist Guy Standing, which we looked at over the past two weeks.

Arent concludes by saying, “This process will not end without a dramatic and unexpected shift in the nature of technology, or in the nature of economic institutions.” Change on that level means shifting long-standing, deeply entrenched societal paradigms. More on that next time.

Whatever Happened to Working For a Living? (Cont’d.)

“Politically, every transformation has begun
with a repudiation of the certainties of the previous age.”

– Economist Guy Standing

Last time, I quoted at length from economist Guy Standing’s analysis of how the notion of working for a living has historically fared under the social democracy and neoliberalism economic models. Prof. Standing believes that, as a result of the developments chronicled there, a new class system now dominates the working world. Again, I’ll quote from his book The Corruption of Capitalism (2016):

“Globalization, neo-liberal policies, institutional changes and the technological revolution have combined to generate a new global class structure superimposed on preceding class structures. This consists of a tiny plutocracy (perhaps 0.001 per cent) atop a bigger elite, a ‘salariat’ (in relatively secure salaried jobs, ‘proficians’ (freelance professionals), a core working class, a precariat and a ‘lumpen precariat’ at the bottom. The plutocracy, elite, salariat, and proficians enjoy not just higher incomes but gain most (or an increasing part) of their income from capital and rental income.

“The three classes below them gain nothing in rent. Indeed, increasingly they pay rent in some form to the classes above them. First, there is the shrinking proletariat, relying mainly on labour in stable, mostly full-time jobs, with schooling that matches the skills their jobs require. The precariat, which ranks below the proletariat in income, consists of millions of people obliged to accept a life of unstable labour and living, without an occupational identity or corporate narrative to give to their lives. Their employers come and go, or are expected to do so.

“Many in the precariat are over-qualified for the jobs they must accept; they also have a high ratio of unpaid ‘work’ in labour — looking and applying for jobs, training and retraining, queuing and form-filling, networking or just waiting around. They also rely mainly on money wages, which are often inadequate, volatile, and unpredictable. They lack access to rights-based state benefits and are losing civil, cultural, social, economic and political rights, making them supplicants if they need help to survive.

“This precariat is all over the world… For instance, more Americans today see themselves as in the lower classes. In 2000, according to Gallup polls, 63 percent saw themselves as middle-class and 33 percent as lower-class. In 2015, 51 percent saw themselves as middle-class and 48 percent as lower-class. Similar trends have been reported elsewhere.

“Below the precariat in the social spectrum is what might be called a ‘lumpen-precariat,’ an underclass of social victims relying on charity, often homeless and destitute, suffering from social illnesses including drug addiction and depression. … Their numbers are rising remorselessly; they are a badge of shame on society.”

Prof. Standing’s unique contribution to the conversation about work, happiness, and meaning is his identification of the new social strata. The balance of his analysis is not unique — as he says above, it has been reported “all over the world.” In the coming weeks, we’ll look at various implications of these findings:

  • The old job market’s last stand — “bullshit jobs”;
  • Whether the middle class is truly vanishing;
  • Whether a rising tide truly does float all boats;
  • Why this might be a good time for a new vision of utopia; and
  • Why law firms might want to make their next associate hire a robot.

And much more. Stay tuned.

Whatever Happened to Working For a Living?

“Politically, every transformation has begun
with a repudiation of the certainties of the previous age.”

– Economist Guy Standing

Guy Standing is a research professor at the University of London and a prolific author and world-traveling speaker. In his book, The Corruption of Capitalism (2016), he analyzes how the concept of working for a living has fared under the two economic models we looked at last time (the Fabian Society’s social democratic model and the Mt. Pelerin Society’s free market). I can add little to his analysis by rephrasing it, therefore I’ll quote excerpts at length in this post and the next.

“The period from the nineteenth century to the 1970’s saw what Karl Polanyi, in his famous 1944 book, dubbed “The Great Transformation” — the construction of national market economies.

“[T]he model that underpinned the Great Transformation made “labour,” not all forms of work. Socialists, communists and social democrats all subscribed to ‘labourism.’ Those in full-time jobs obtained rising real wages, a growing array of ‘contributory’ non-wage benefits, and  entitlements to social security for themselves and their family. Those who did not fit this model were left behind.

“The essence of labourism was that labour rights — more correctly , entitlements — should be provided to those (mostly men) who performed labour and to their spouses and children. As workers previously had little security, this was a progressive step.

“Labourism promoted the view that the more labour people did, the more privileged they should be, and the less they did the less privileged they should be. The ultimate fetishism was Lenin’s dictate, enshrined in the Soviet constitution, that anybody who did not labour should not eat.

“The labourist model frayed in the 1980’s, as labour markets became more flexible and increasing numbers of people moved from job to job and in and out of employment.

“Labour and social democratic parties everywhere became ‘reactionary’ — reacting to events rather than forging the future — and regressive, allowing or even fostering inequality.

“Around 1980 saw the beginnings of a Global Transformation — the construction of a global market system. As with the Great Transformation, the initial phase may be called ‘dis-embedded’ because the emerging economic system rendered old forms of regulation, social protection and redistribution obsolete or ineffectual.

“Politically, every transformation has begun with a repudiation of the certainties of the previous age. This time the attack was on labour-based security, previously the objective of governments  or both left and right. Now it was seen as an impediment to growth. Once again, policy changes were dominated by financial capital. Intellectual justification came from the so-called ‘Chicago school’ of law and economics at the University of Chicago, whose leading lights went on to receive Nobel Prizes. Their agenda, honed in the Mont Pelerin Society set up by Friedrich Hayek and thirty-eight like-minded intellectuals in 1947, evolved into what is now called neo-liberalism.

“This meant the liberalization of markets, the commodification and privatization of everything that could be commodified and privatized and the systematic dismantling of all institutions of social solidarity that protected people from ‘market forces.’ Regulations were justifiable only if they promised economic growth; if not, they had to go.

“As a consequence of these developments, ‘in-work poverty’ has rocketed. In some OECD[i] countries, including Britain, the USA, Spain and Poland, a majority of those in poverty live in households where at least one person has a job. The mantra that ‘work is the best route out of poverty’ is simply false.”

I.e., according to Prof Standing, historical and contemporary adherence to the Fabian and Mt. Pelerin ideals has skewed and will continue to skew the notion of working for a living in ways that are unsustainable in current economic reality.

Ironically, Lenin’s dictum  that “If any man does not work, neither let him eat” was first articulated two thousand years ago by none other than St. Paul. 2 Thessalonians 3:10. Thus the idea of “working for a living” has long persisted as a cornerstone belief in communist, socialist, and capitalist economic theory, giving it nearly universal sacred status. To question this ideal is truly to trample on hallowed ground.

More next time.

[i] The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development has 34 mainly industrialized countries as members.

Ideas and Economics

quote-ideas-are-more-powerful-than-guns-we-would-not-let-our-enemies-have-guns-why-should-we-let-them-joseph-stalin-268865

Yes, ideas matter. In economics, they matter a lot.

Three key economics ideas have shaped academic debates and national policies about economics for the past 240 years. Communism was the latecomer:  Karl Marx wrote The Communist Manifesto in 1848 and Das Kapital in 1867, and his ideas took their place in the triumvirate in the 20th Century. Meanwhile, Scotsman Adam Smith articulated capitalistic economics in The Wealth of Nations (1776), which subsequently split into two key versions.

The first was championed by the Fabian Society, formed in London in 1884 in part as a counter to the growing interest in Marxism. The Fabians’ ranks included H. G. Wells and  George Bernard Shaw, and their agenda was democratic socialism, which became Europe’s dominant model. The Fabians advocated nationalized industry, centralized banking, and social welfare through “state-protected trade unionism and other state interventions such as social security and unemployment insurance. And [they] did so by claiming that capitalism worsens inequality and exploitation, that it is rife with robber barons and virtueless inheritors.” A History of the Mont Pelerin Society (1996), The Foundation for Economic Education.[1]

The second major version of capitalism got its most significant boost in 1947 when Austrian-British economist and philosopher F. A. Hayek invited a group of intellectuals to meet in Mont Pèlerin, Switzerland to chart the Western world’s recovery from WWII, and specifically to counter Marxism  and Keynesian economics. The group became known as the Mount Pelerin Society. Its original gathering included luminaries such as Hayek, Karl Popper, and Lionel Robbins of the London School of Economics, and Milton Friedman and George Stigler of the University of Chicago. The MPS agenda came to be known as neoliberalism, and advocated private enterprise and limits on government regulation of the kind that — despite the word “liberalism” in its label — have become associated with conservative politics.

in_this_corner_blue_red

Thus the lines between economic ideas were drawn, and debates among them persist to this day. Of the three, Communism’s Soviet version tanked in the late 80’s. but persists in China, albeit in vastly altered form. Meanwhile allegiances to the competing schools of capitalism are today more polarized than ever.

But do any of these models support current realities? A whole new generation of economists don’t think so, and believe it’s time policy-makers heeded some advice articulated by John Maynard Keynes:

johnmaynardkeynes1

Harvard Law professor Lawrence Lessig wrote this in The Future of Ideas:  The Fate of the Commons in a Connected World (2001):

“A time is marked not so much by ideas argued about as by ideas that are taken for granted. The character of an era hangs upon what needs no defense. Power runs with ideas that only the crazy would draw into doubt. The “taken for granted” is the test of sanity, “what everyone knows” is the line between us and them.

“This means that sometimes a society gets stuck. Sometimes these unquestioned ideas interfere, as the cost of questioning becomes too great. In these times, the hardest task for social or political activists is to find a way to get people to wonder again about what we all believe is true. The challenge is to sow doubt.”

Psychologist Scott Barry Kaufman and journalist Carolyn Gregoire expressed a similar sentiment in Wired To Create (2015):

“While experience is an important aspect of excellence in any creative discipline, one risk of being a seasoned pro is that we become so entrenched in our own point of view that we have trouble seeing other solutions. Experts may have trouble being flexible and adapting to change because they are so highly accustomed to seeing things in a particular way. For this reason, the newcomers to a field are sometimes the ones who come up with the ideas that truly innovate and shift paradigms.”

In the coming posts, we’ll examine some of today’s paradigm-shifting economic ideas and their impact on the contemporary working world.

[1] For another excellent review of this history lesson, see The Mont Pèlerin Society: The ultimate neoliberal Trojan horse (2012), The Daily Knell.