Home > Uncategorized > The productivity of bullshit jobs

The productivity of bullshit jobs

from Blair Fix

I recently read David Graeber’s book Bullshit Jobs: A Theory. If you’re not familiar, David Graeber is the anthropologist who wrote Debt: The First 5000 Years, a seminal book on the history of money and credit.

In Bullshit Jobs, Graeber takes aim at pointless work. Graeber describes a bullshit job as:

a form of paid employment that is so completely pointless, unnecessary, or pernicious that even the employee cannot justify its existence even though, as part of the conditions of employment, the employee feels obliged to pretend that this is not the case.

Bullshit Jobs is based largely around testimonials from people who feel that they have bullshit jobs. The testimonials are often hilarious and sometimes touching. I recommend reading the book for the testimonials alone. Graeber’s theory is icing on the cake.

One of the things that amused me in the book was the testimonial from Warren, a substitute teacher:

Warren: I work as a substitute teacher in a public school district in Connecticut. My job just involves taking attendance and making sure the students stay on task with whatever individual work they have. Teachers rarely if ever actually leave instructions for teaching. I don’t mind the job, however, since it allows me lots of free time for reading and studying Chinese, and I occasionally have interesting conversations with students. Perhaps my job could be eliminated in some way, but for now I’m quite happy.

This amused me because I currently work as a substitute teacher in a public school district in Toronto. Yes, I’m a PhD graduate who earns a living substitute teaching. Like Warren, I enjoy the job for the free time it affords. I have lots of time to do research (and write this blog).

For his part, Graeber isn’t sure that substitute teaching is a bullshit job (by his definition). If it is, it’s one of the best ones:

It’s not entirely clear this [substitute teaching] is even a bullshit job; as public education is currently organized, someone does have to look after the children in a given class period if a teacher calls in sick. The bullshit element seems to lie in pretending that instructors such as Warren are there to teach, when everyone knows they’re not: presumably this is so the students will be more likely to respect their authority when they tell them to stop running around and do their assignments. The fact that the role isn’t entirely useless must help somewhat. Crucially, too, it is unsupervised, nonmonoto­nous, involves social interaction, and allows Warren to spend a lot of time doing whatever he likes. Finally, it’s clearly not something he envisions doing for the rest of his life. This is about as good as a bullshit job is likely to get.

Warren and Graeber both hit the nail on the head. Substitute teaching is a low-demand job, but it’s probably necessary. This post, however, isn’t about substitute teaching. Instead, Graeber’s book got me thinking about economic theory, and about how economists measure productivity.

How economists measure productivity

Economists’ main theory for explaining individual income is called human capital theory. According to this theory, human capital makes you more productive. This productivity then makes you earn more income.

The problem (which I’ve written about here and here) is that economists don’t have a way of measuring productivity that is independent of income. What they do instead is resort to circular logic. They define productivity in terms of income.

So when you read about labor productivity in the national accounts, this actually has nothing to do with the output of workers. It has to do with their income. Productivity is measured in terms of value added, which is effectively a form of income.

Let’s use the example of education to illustrate how economists’ thinking leads to absurd conclusions. In public education, wages and salaries account for the vast majority of value added. So the value added of public education (and hence, teachers’ ‘productivity’) is a function of teachers’ pay. So poorly-paid teachers appear (to economists) to be less productive than well-paid teachers.

This conclusion is absurd because teacher pay is largely a function of the strength of unions. In the US, public school teachers are poorly paid largely because their unions are weak. But in Canada, public school teachers are well paid, largely because their unions are militant. The consequence is that US teachers add less value than Canadian teachers. So the national accounts would treat US teachers as less productive than Canadian teachers.

If this sounds like nonsense to you, it’s because it is. It’s based entirely on circular logic. Productivity is supposed to explain income. But then economists use income to measure productivity.

In reality, I think income has little to do with productivity, and little to do with the properties of individuals. Instead, income is about social position. Income depends on what others think you do, not what you actually do.

I’ll use my own experience to illustrate. For the past 9 years, I’ve worked as a researcher. As such, my primary ‘output’ (if you want to call it that) has been scientific knowledge. If you looked at my day-to-day activities they’d be remarkably constant. I sat at a computer and wrote papers.

So my scientific activities (and I’d guess my scientific output, however defined) have been more-or-less constant over 9 years. In contrast, my income has fluctuated dramatically. This is because I’ve had many different jobs that financed my research. I’ve been a teaching assistant. I’ve been a Canada Graduate Scholar. I’ve been a substitute teacher. I’ve even collected unemployment insurance.

As neoclassical economists define it, my ‘productivity’ has varied immensely as my income has varied. But this is just wrong. Underneath my changing job titles, my actual activities have changed little. Through it all, I’ve sat at my computer and pumped out research.

The social element of income

Reading Bullshit Jobs reinforced in my mind that we should think of income as a social outcome. When it comes to income, it often doesn’t matter what we actually do. Instead, what matters is what other people think we do.

This is where human capital theory gets it wrong. It attaches income to the properties of individuals. In reality, income has mostly to do with your position in a social network.

When I think about my work experience in social terms, it makes perfect sense. My outward job title (my network position) has changed repeatedly over the years. With this change in position, my income has changed. But my job title is just what other people perceive that I do. They have no idea that through every job, I’ve sat at my computer and written papers. And these papers are what I consider to be my true ‘output’.

When you don’t get paid for what you do

To have an ‘output’ in the national accounts, you have to get paid. As feminist economists point out, this accounting neglects the unpaid work that’s historically been done by women.

Reading Graeber’s Bullshit Jobs made me realize another way that the national accounts do injustice to human work. Many people do bullshit jobs so that they have time to pursue creative activities. These people (including me) regard the non-paid aspect of the activity to be their ‘true’ output. But this unpaid activity gets no respect in the minds of economists. As far as the national accounts are concerned, it might as well not exist.

  1. Helge Nome
    January 7, 2020 at 9:54 pm

    Hi Blair, I don’t have a problem with substitute teachers: Somebody has to keep an eye on the kids when the regular teacher is absent.

    However, we do have a BIG problem when a substitute teacher is given the task of babysitting a nation : (

  2. Econoclast
    January 7, 2020 at 10:26 pm

    Thanks for this good post.

    About 15 years ago I wrote an essay on work that included this: “I cannot imagine living a life where my work consists of doing something I don’t think has value; working for a boss and institution I do not support; doing the same thing day after day, week after week, year after year; getting exploited in the process and failing to garner a living wage; and slowly killing myself in car traffic to get there. I feel sad for people who are forced to live that way, as well as those who choose such life because they feel they have no choice.”

    I find the concept of “human capital” offensive, possibly because one of its most prominent promoters, Chicago market fundamentalist Gary Becker also advocated that you could put a price on such as love. The human capital concept seems to have a relationship with another concept, “representative agent”. All such things tending to dehumanize.

    • Helge Nome
      January 7, 2020 at 11:45 pm

      Concepts like “human capital” are the products of minds suffering from tunnel vision.

      • Econoclast
        January 7, 2020 at 11:56 pm

        True dat.

  3. January 7, 2020 at 11:46 pm

    the theory exists – that if you do what most needs to be done, there will be no salary-like support for it, because if there was funding to support it, someone else would already be paid to do it.

  4. Steven MCGIFFEN
    January 8, 2020 at 2:00 pm

    I live in a village in central France. Now and then we are invited to pend a day clearing the river of invasive plant and so on. Unpaid of course. It’s hard to imagine more useful work, and I’d wager that most of the people who show up are working for wages at jobs which may be useless, of at least not comparable in usefulness. The great god ‘market’ strikes once more.

  5. ghholtham
    January 8, 2020 at 5:32 pm

    The problem of measuring productivity is worse when output is not marketed. A car assembly plant sells cars. They have no problem in measuring how many cars are produced per man hour and they know what the cars sell for. Similarly national accounts takes the value of the output and divides it by the person hours to get a productivity measure. The value of the cars is set unambiguously in the market. But in education the output may be worth more than cars but it isn’t sold. if you can’t put a price on output, measuring productivity becomes circular as stated. This problem affects everyone working in the provision of public services which are not sold.
    Of course you can raise questions about whether market prices truly reflect real value in some sense. But national accountants are not philosophers; they are measuring economic activity as best they can. Diogenes would say much economic activity is a waste and we’d be better off cleaning rivers. But that’s not the department of national accountants who measure the prices/values society puts on output, misguided or otherwise.
    Even so, there is no question that economic structures are at least as important as individual characteristics in determining incomes. So “human capital” is seriously defective or partial as an explanation of anything. The idea is seriously inadequate but not entirely vacuous as demonstrated by the fact that incomes are correlated with educational level. It’s hard to be a brain surgeon without training and it’s hard to be heart-throb film star without being good -looking. Both get paid more than janitors.

  6. January 9, 2020 at 10:20 am

    I’m not an economist, but isn’t productivity roughly measured by output over input? Otherwise how could we argue that productivity has raised much more than wages in the last 40 years?

  7. ghholtham
    January 9, 2020 at 3:34 pm

    enzorossi, yes that is how productivity is measured and it works well for 20 per cent of the economy and sort-of works for another 40 per cent of the economy. it doesn’t work well for the remaining 40 per cent where output is not marketed so there is no measure of what its value is. Then output is measured by the cost of inputs, which rules out any independent measure of productivity.

  8. Ken Zimmerman
    January 10, 2020 at 3:33 pm

    It’s my view the most “interesting” conclusion of Graeber’s book is this, “…bullshit jobs carry with them a moral imperative: ‘If you’re not busy all the time doing something, anything—doesn’t really matter what it is—you’re a bad person. But the flipside of that logic seems to be: if you actually like doing X activity, if it is valuable, meaningful, and carries intrinsic rewards for you, it is wrong for you to expect to be paid (well) for it; you should give it freely, even (especially) if by doing so you are allowing others to profit. In other words, we’ll make a living from you doing what you love (for free), but we’ll keep you in check by making sure you have to make a living doing what you hate.’ So, of course Graeber should not be paid for writing this, nor I for reading and sharing it. If, as Baudelaire tells us, “the greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist,” then the greatest trick ever pulled by the monarchs, oligarchs, feudal lords, corporations, etc. than began shaping human cultures and societies about 6000 years ago was convincing the slaves, workers, laborers, etc. they had no choice but to accept their dominion over them. That dominion has waxed and waned over those years. Today, it’s time to end it forever.

    • Econoclast
      January 10, 2020 at 6:37 pm

      In our culture one of the most difficult experiences is simply being. We seem always to need to be doing something, striving to accomplish. In some it seems a desperate obsession. Often I feel I am in the midst of a swarm of worker bees, bustling through some production process, eager to get it done by the end of the day, their “relaxation” period.

      Doing is taking command of a process and working that process to completion. There is no command in being. Doing involves some degree of management and management involves some form of manipulation. Being involves neither. Striving for accomplishment can involve high anxiety. Being involves no neurotic anxiety, although it might involve the natural feeling of fear.

  9. January 15, 2020 at 5:14 am

    Being a substitute teacher is far from a bullshit job. As others have noted, someone has to watch the kids. You can’t just leave them alone in a room without adult supervision. Sick teachers need time off to recover, but unless we restructure and spend a lot more on our school systems, substitute teachers are not going to be able to do as much teaching as teachers who know the class and the curriculum. Taking care of children is much less of a bullshit job than running a hedge fund or analyzing corporate mergers and buy outs. Our society can do just fine without the latter, but someone really does have to watch the kids.

    I think part of the problem is that taking care of children, especially younger children, is usually considered women’s work. Women tend to get stuck with the boring and poorly paid but 100% essential jobs like caring for children or the ill. Even Neanderthals took care of their children and the ill. Aside from a handful of surrogate mothers, carrying a child to term is unpaid labor, but a society doesn’t have much of a future if no one is willing to do it.

    Maybe we need a hedonic adjustment to account for the higher productivity of modern children as opposed to children a hundred years ago. They can use keyboards and drive cars. Similarly, we could adjust child bearing productivity based on the lower infant mortality rate, likely higher educational level, higher lifetime productivity and longer life span of the children produced. Yes, and someone has to watch the kids, even if it gives economists divide by zero errors.

    I’m willing to accept that being a substitute teacher is a job with a lot of flexibility. It’s not the same as an ongoing teaching job. Still, it isn’t bullshit.

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