Labor Day refection: On Bull$%%t jobs and the A$$hole economy

David Graeber’s book

It’s Labor Day, and America is facing a labor crisis that no one is talking about.  It’s simple:

  • There isn’t much labor to do;
  • Many of the jobs people do have are bullshit jobs;
  • Because of this, the most common way to get ahead in America right now is to be an asshole.

On a list of books I’ll probably never be allowed to write, the top of that list is, for me, The Asshole Economy.  (Sorry, mom, but this is so important there really aren’t other words for it).

Let me explain. First off, the term “bullshit jobs” (I’ll stop using it now) doesn’t belong to be. It belongs to Anthropologist David Graeber of the London School of Economics. This year published a book by the same name, after gaining widespread fame years ago penning an essay about this concept.  The idea is straightforward, but profound. Much of The West now employs entire office campuses full of people who spend most of their time noodling on Facebook and tapping out meaningless emails.  These people might be paid well or might be paid poorly, but no matter: they live lives of quiet desperation. They know that, deep down, their work is meaningless.  If they disappeared tomorrow, no one would notice.  More than one-third of people admit to this in surveys. Some additional percentage haven’t quite caught on yet. This is awful.

Obviously, people want to do meaningful work; they want to make a difference in the world.  We ram millions of kids through college every year and fill their heads with that lofty ideal. Soon after, they end up in a job with little or no connection to their field of study, churning out emails, tailor-made social media consumers.

Here’s a bit of what Graeber recently told The Economist about BS jobs:

“If my own research is anything to go by, BS jobs concentrate not so much in services as in clerical, administrative, managerial, and supervisory roles. A lot of workers in middle management, PR, human resources, a lot of brand managers, creative vice presidents, financial consultants, compliance workers, feel their jobs are pointless, but also a lot of people in fields like corporate law or telemarketing.”

Management is in on it too, he said.

“It’s not at all uncommon for the same executives who pride themselves on downsizing and speed-ups on the shop floor, or in delivery and so forth, to use the money saved at least in part to fill their offices with feudal retinues of basically useless flunkies. They have whole teams of people who are just there, for instance, to design the graphics for their reports, write accolades for in-house magazines no one reads, or in many cases, who aren’t really doing anything at all, just making cat memes all day or playing computer games.”

This is a very dismal view of the world.  If you buy what Graeber is selling, it should be obvious why rates of depression and alcohol abuse are so high. People are just desperate to escape the boredom.

But I think the picture is much darker that even Graeber paints. Because in a world of mostly BS jobs, there’s only one way to get ahead. Not by being creative, or talented, or bold, or even by being good.  You get ahead by being an asshole. That’s the asshole economy. It’s my new, broader term for Gotcha Capitalism.

Let me step back a bit.  Economic activity is about value creation. That’s what we humans have to give the world, when we’re doing it right.

You take raw materials and make them into something more valuable than their pieces used to be.  Then you are proud of what you did, and you’ve genuinely added value, for which you should be paid. So you cut down a tree,  you prepare some wood, you put it together and make a cabinet.  You feel satisfied, you’ve created something, and you make a legitimate living.

That’s the right way, anyway.  But most of our jobs no longer involve this kind of honest value creation. They are BS jobs.  You earn a salary, get some benefits, but you aren’t really sure why what you do makes actual value for your company, or a customer.

In that environment, who makes the most money? The person who is the best at BS, of course. The best cabinet maker doesn’t earn the most money. The sales person who convinces an elderly person to buy a cabinet they don’t really need earns more.  And who makes even more? The person who sells the furniture store short-term loans based on outstanding accounts receivable.  Where’s the real money?  The person who figures out how to bundle the store landlord’s mortgage into a security that’s traded.

You know who’s also killing it? The person who sells that security as part of an annuity to an elderly person who doesn’t need it.  Maybe the same person who bought the cabinet they didn’t need. At least the cabinet didn’t come with an up-front 4% fee.

You do remember, the cabinet-maker, right?  No? Our economy doesn’t either.

I’m picking on financialization here, in part because I enjoy the work of Rana Foroohar so much.  (She wrote an entire book about this called Makers and Takers that you should read).  This might better be termed a middle-man problem. So many people take a cut along the way that there’s barely anything left by the time the creator gets paid.  It’s a structural problem, and one not easily solved in our modern economy.

But the success of A-holes in a firm full of BS jobs should feel familiar to everyone, and it ranges far beyond financial products.  After all, at BS shops, what is there to compete on?  Brown-nosing.  Tribal affiliation (a.k.a. “good old boys networks). And of course, who cheats the most, and the best.

For many years, Wells Fargo rewarded employees — handsomely — who committed identity theft against their consumers.  This kind of cross-selling mania should have horrified us even more than it did; it didn’t because I think so many people reading about Wells Fargo just recognized it as a business model.   It’s easy to imagine what things were like inside that bank. Workers with some conscience fibbed a little, and made enough just to get by; workers with no conscience at all won all the sales contests, got all the free trips and bonuses, and got promoted.

Wells Fargo is a bit extreme, but we’ve all been on the other end of a transaction like this. You call to cancel an account, and somehow, magically, you are still billed a month later.  You buy a car and somehow, the dealer gets the math wrong when calculating the price.  You are talked into a new mobile phone plan or cable TV contract that is supposed to be cheaper, only to discover that it’s more expensive after hidden fees are added in.  You were lied to by an A-hole. Then, when you complain, you are told that you should have read the fine print. Gotcha!

That’s how the A-hole economy works. The best A-holes succeed.  They make the gotchas, and they have no qualms about imposing them.

It’s easy to blame individual people for making questions decisions on a daily basis, but a lot of structural problems are to blame. Think back to Wells Fargo. Employees who lived in cities like San Francisco or Seattle or New York didn’t have a choice. If they ever wanted to buy a house, they needed those sales bonuses.  Every day, we force workers to pick between their ethics and their families in this way.  That’s built into the A-hole economy. One might even wonder if it’s intentional.  Keeping wages low for a generation, stripping workers of bargaining power, goes a long way towards squelching any discussion of ethical problems.

Now, for my first point: There’s not enough work to do.

All this has occurred in part because the world simply doesn’t need as much labor as it used to.  During the mid-1800s, more than half or all Americans lived on and worked on farms.  Today, it’s less than 2 percent. Machines do all the rest. It’s nice to think (i.e., economists will tell you) the rest of the population is engaged in more productive and less-backbreaking work now.  They’re not. In truth, we don’t really need as much labor as we used to. So many people have BS jobs.  The successful ones thrive in the A-hole economy.

But not for long. I’ve been writing a lot about the coming social disaster that is the robot revolution.  (See my piece “A billion useless people.“)  People with BS jobs are in trouble. Anyone who has ever been bored at work should know that a robot is coming for their cubicle space.  This threat applies to a much wider set of workers than many people realize.  It’s not just fast-food cashiers. It’s lawyers. It’s programmers.  Graeber makes the point that many such workers have so far been spared because managers like having minions; he calls it managerial feudalism.  Some of their salaries are actually based on how many people they manage.  That’s true for now; obviously, not for long.

So on this Labor Day, I’d like for you to think about the work you do, and the future it might have. And I’d like for all of us to celebrate actual laborers — people who lay bricks, or pick up garbage by hand, or inspire stroke patients during rehab,  or cheer on kindergartners as they begin to sound out words, or who fix clogged toilets, or spill blood chasing after criminals, or mix cocktails while listening to our stories, or create music and art that moves us out of our own heads.  Let’s celebrate people who make things.  And let’s all think about what we might do to restructure the economy so makers are rewarded more than A-holes.

ORDER THE NEW EDITION OF GOTCHA CAPITALISM NOW! (Print edition also available)

About Bob Sullivan 1249 Articles
BOB SULLIVAN is a veteran journalist and the author of four books, including the 2008 New York Times Best-Seller, Gotcha Capitalism, and the 2010 New York Times Best Seller, Stop Getting Ripped Off! His latest, The Plateau Effect, was published in 2013, and as a paperback, called Getting Unstuck in 2014. He has won the Society of Professional Journalists prestigious Public Service award, a Peabody award, and The Consumer Federation of America Betty Furness award, and been given Consumer Action’s Consumer Excellence Award.

2 Comments

  1. Well written and absolutely correct! Reminds me of one of Kevin Phillip’s books discussing the financialization of the US economy and all the players who get their cut along the way!

  2. Excellent article.I noticed that many,if not most dentist and doctors have Asian surnames,at least here in California.Most all manual labor jobs are done by hispanics.That leaves management,sales and other meaningless jobs going to native Americans.Could it be that many spoiled Americans are too lazy or entitled to do manual labor or study for higher skilled jobs?

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