The Productivity of Bullshit Jobs
July 25, 2020
Originally published on Economics from the Top Down.
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.