Saturday, June 30, 2018

Bullshit Jobs: A Review of the Book by David Graeber

          I read a blurb about David Graeber’s Bullshit Jobs in the magazine In These Times. I read the book review sections in the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times, but so far I’ve not seen this book reviewed in either. Both are missing a good read.

          In the mid-1970s I had a job that required very little effort. The office was known to the outside world as a very busy one with a massive backlog. Every once in a while we’d be required to work overtime. In truth, there was no backlog. And when we had to work overtime it was not unusual to see anything but work being done. I remember once one of my coworkers gave another a haircut. Another guy sold insurance on “company time,” and no one cared. I once wondered if I could get a week’s worth of work done in a day. I could--with time left over. I’ve often wondered why I ever left such a cushy job.

          Dr. Graeber is an American anthropologist who teaches at the London School of Economics. This book grew out of a 2013 essay which went viral. Hundreds if not thousands of people wrote to tell about their bullshit jobs. As a result of his subsequent research, Graeber estimates that 40% of all jobs are bullshit jobs. If you think about it, his estimate may be conservative. How many jobs actually contribute to society? And Graeber points out the irony that how much jobs contribute to society is inversely proportional to the pay those who do those jobs receive. For example, teachers are paid far less than anyone in the finance industry. And yet we need teachers while the finance industry very nearly wrecked the world economy in 2008. Same with nurses, garbage collectors, bus drivers, and so on.
          He points out that when layoffs take place, it’s usually the hands-on people who are let go while administrative staff is added. And when it comes to education, well, Graeber is in that field and has seen the proliferation of many layers of administration, which brings with it additional reporting requirements to justify its existence.

          Graeber describes situations where people in bullshit jobs “share the wealth,” so to speak. In one case, government employees (in England) sent letters to pensioners that contained intentional errors designed to allow the pensioners to be billed for late payments. In another case, a French firm was hired by the British government to knock as many people as possible off disability rolls which resulted in more than two thousand people dying shortly after being found “fit to work.” In other cases forms for assistance are so purposefully confusing that 20% of the people who qualify for assistance simply give up. So we can see bullshit jobs are not necessarily harmless. In fact, one reason the U.S. does not yet have single-payer health insurance is Barack Obama did not favor it because even though we’d save money on insurance and paperwork, “[t]hat represents one million, two million, three million jobs [filled by] people who are working at Blue Cross Blue Shield or Kaiser or other places.”

          So we have our current health care system because we want the insurance industry to be a modern-day equivalent of the WPA.
          Graeber points out that John Maynard Keynes once predicted that by the end of the twentieth century, we’d have a fifteen-hour work week. Graeber says that’s actually possible if we eliminate the bullshit.

          As I was reading this book, I kept thinking this is an argument for a universal basic income, and, as it turns out, that is where the book goes. A universal basic income would replace several types of existing assistance programs, which would eliminate even more bullshit jobs taxpayers are currently paying for.
I wouldn’t expect to see it anytime soon, but if, indeed, a fifteen-hour work week is possible, we could have a lot fewer people on the roads during rush hour, which would lead to cleaner air, less use of oil, and probably a population with far less stress
          As I was finishing this review I saw on what passes for TV news these days that our president was in Wisconsin celebrating the groundbreaking of a Foxconn plant that will supposedly bring 13,000 jobs to Wisconsin, which is subsidizing the project to the tune of $4 billion, which means each job will cost the state more than $307,000. In his book, Raising the Floor, Andy Stern proposed a universal basic income of $12,000 a year. The subsidies for these 13,000 Foxconn jobs alone (many of which will be bullshit jobs) would be enough to pay $12,000 a year to 13,000 people for more than 25 years.

          Those who say we can’t afford a universal basic income seem to be quite willing to overlook how much it is costing taxpayers to “create” jobs.

© 2018 Larry Roth

Monday, June 4, 2018

Gore Vidal's "United States: Essays 1952-1992:" Still Relevant After All these Years

          I picked up a copy of Gore Vidal’s 1,271-page tome, United States: Essays 1952-1992, for a dollar at a recent estate sale. I figured I might find a few interesting essays, and I did.
          First, let’s note that this August is the fiftieth anniversary of the famous (or infamous) debates between Vidal (1925-2012) and William F. Buckley, Jr. (1925-2008) which culminated with Vidal calling Buckley a “crypto Nazi” and Buckley calling Vidal a queer and threatening to punch Vidal in his “Goddamned face.” And both of these men were World War II veterans. Ah, the joys of live broadcasting. By the way, this exchange is available on YouTube.
          I will have to confess here that I am a fan of both of these gentlemen. They were both highly intelligent and articulate, a combination not often seen these days, especially on television.
          I’ve read several of Vidal’s books including his historical series including Washington, D.C., Burr, 1876, Lincoln, Empire, Hollywood, and The Golden Age. I’ve often thought these books should be used to teach high schoolers history. True, there’s sex, but wouldn’t that appeal to teens more than the dry politically whitewashed pablum served in textbooks these days?
          What surprised me about this book is how relevant many of Vidal’s essays still are. For example, in a review of John Dos Passos’ 1961 book Mid-Century, Vidal says, of Dos Passos’ criticism of the youth, the labor movement, James Dean, and in general the civilization of the times as mistaking “the decline of his own flesh and talent for the world’s decline.” (Dos Passos would have been 65 at the time.) This brought to mind the books I recently discussed by Rod Dreher and Patrick J. Deneen, both of whom are in the “civilization today is going to hell in a handbasket” frame of mind.
          In a 1985 essay about Tennessee Williams, which morphs into a discussion of homosexuality, Vidal says, “In order for a ruling class to rule, there must be arbitrary prohibitions. Of all prohibitions, sexual taboo is the most useful because sex involves everyone. To be able to lock someone up or deprive him of employment because of his sex life is a very great power indeed… .” Indeed! And as we saw in Mr. Dreher’s book, in his world homosexuals can only get into heaven if they have no sex life.
          In a review of Robert A. Caro’s 1974 book, The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York, Vidal says, “The United States has always been a corrupt society. Periodically, ‘good’ citizens are presented to the public as non-politicians. Briefly things appear to be clean. But of course bribes are still given; taken. Nothing ever changes nor is there ever going to be any change until we summon up the courage to ask ourselves a simple if potentially dangerous question: Is the man who gives a bribe as guilty as the man who takes a bribe?” I guess we can ponder that one as we watch the latest corrupt limited vote on the rigged streetcar extension unfold.
          In a 1963 essay on Edmund Wilson (1895-1972), who discovered he was a tax dodger, Vidal says, “In public services we lag behind all the industrialized nations of the West, preferring that the public money go not to the people but to big business. The result is a unique society in which we have free enterprise for the poor and socialism for the rich. This dazzling inequity is reflected in our tax system where the man on salary pays more tax than the man who lives on dividends, who in turn pays more tax than the wheeler-dealer who makes a capital gains deal.” Warren Buffet has said the same thing for years, and this could have been written about who got financial assistance from the government in the recent crash (banks, not homeowners) as well as who benefitted most from the tax cut enacted last year.

          After finishing this book I felt so much better. It occurred to me we’ve been through the same old shit before. Many times. Between 1952 and 1992 we had the McCarthy era, Watergate, Iran-Contra, St. Ronald, the election of Slick Willy, and a whole host of characters and crises that threatened the Republic. And we’ve survived.

We can do it again.

© 2018 Larry Roth