When is Work Valuable?


Work really grinds my gears…

It gets tiring to always argue against people’s preconceptions or ideas about work. Lots of people in the world (not necessarily incorrectly) see work as “effort”. That makes sense given that this is how people often use it. But this is complicated by the fact that people also say things like, “I’m going to work” or work was a drag”, etc.

How can we make sense of these statements without saying that sometimes work doesn’t mean effort? We could of course extrapolate and replace “work” with “produce effort” or in the second example “producing”. But this would be clunky and when people are saying work in these contexts they usually mean jobs.

The reason I often use jobs and work interchangeably is partially because many other people do too. “Work” and “job” are (as I’ve documented time and time again) words that bleed into each other without much (if any) of an explanation by the author in question. But then sometimes people will also draw distinctions between jobs and work and say that work is a sort of meaningful labor while a job is something we’re doing for corporations.

At this point in the conversation, I tend to bow out. If that’s what people want to say, then that’s fine. I don’t see jobs only problematic insofar as they belong to bosses, corporations or governments, but those are definitely some of the biggest issues and I agree they should be addressed. To the extent then that these folks are opposing “jobs” they’re also opposing “work” in my book and we are likely on similar paths. In such cases it seems to be silly to argue over terms.

…Which isn’t to say I’ve never done it or will never do it.

But let’s start with a more basic question, what makes work real?

Some work is clearly “productive.”

If you plant things in a garden, you put in work, and you get out plants. If you cook a meal, your family gets fed. If you build a building where people want to live or work, they get shelter.

This is a writer named Sarah at their blog called Otium.

Personally, I would have titled this article How Much Work is Valuable, since that’s what I feel Sarah is after here.

But there I go again, mincing words.

So let’s get even deeper here: What does “productive” or “valuable” mean here?

Well, for Sarah it seems to mean that your inputs get easy to evaluate outputs. Your seeds go in and your water goes in and the sunshine helps and then you get some plants for your effort. When you make a meal you produce value because this is a need people inherently have. And often you’ll know this need was met by people’s reactions.

Sarah has a few other examples, but I think we get the idea. Value and productivity are, for Sarah at least, when work produces easily measured results and these results are often inherently valued for their own sake.

Examples include food, shelter and medicine and Sarah differentiates it from other types of value:

Productive work creates value, in the sense of “doingstuffness”, mana, usefulness-to-humans, etc. It’s not just effort expended, or an accounting formalism like dollars, it’s an increase in the “real wealth” of humanity.

Although Sarah admits that this isn’t a well-defined concept and I understand that just merely expending effort isn’t the same thing as value, I’m not so sure about “dollars”. Often having more dollars correlates to people feeling wealthier and I don’t just mean richer. Yesterday I went to see Wonder Woman and also got some good food for myself.

I probably spent around $30 yesterday which is way more than I spend on most days (unless it’s time to pay the rent of course) but I definitely felt like it was worth it. And I felt like it had really contributed to my mental health, my overall positive vibes about my life and so on. So I think there’s a bit more to dollars than Sarah is giving credit for.

But to discuss productivity, let’s talk about a few types of unproductive work:

Fraud or crime obviously are not productive. If you get money from people by tricking or terrifying them, you’re not getting it by providing them with value. You’re not a maker.

Enforced monopoly power is also not entirely productive. If people are required by law — on pain of punishment — to buy your product, then at least some of your revenue is driven by fear, not desire.

But one commentator throws caution to this distinction:

[W]hether your gains are ill-gotten isn’t necessarily tied to whether your work is productive.

A government-enforced monopoly can sometimes be reaping illegitimate profits, but this only works because people need the product. The harm is preventing others from doing the work – the work itself is good and diligently increasing the quantity or quality of a monopoly’s output can be good.

I’d also like to add that while fraud and crime do not provide the customer with ethical value, it’s still likely giving them some value. And, in any case, the value is generally aimed first and foremost at fulfilling the person committing the fraud, not the person their selling to. So by any standard it seems like the transaction fulfilled as much value as it needed to, at least for the person who committed the (presumably successful) fraud.

That said, while I appreciate this distinction from the commentator I do want to push back against the idea that government-enforced monopolies somehow couldn’t be reaping illegitimate profits. I think Sarah makes a great case why monopolies are not (at the very least) ethically sound ways of creating value.

But then, things get real interesting:

If there are bullshit jobs, as anthropologist David Graeber claims, then that’s a shame, from the perspective of human well-being. If we have enough real wealth, enough mana, to support even people who aren’t making mana, then why not just allow leisure, instead of forcing people to go through the motions of dull and unnecessary work?

This is largely the position of left-libertarians like the people at Center for a Stateless Society.

They make the empirical claim that most of the present economy in developed countries is coercive and unproductive, the result of crony capitalism and regulatory capture rather than honest, useful work. As such, a “freed market” without such corruption would actually be more egalitarian than our current economy.

Since government promotes monopoly, Big Business wouldn’t be sustainable without coercion. Since highly regulated and positional goods like housing and education are essentially mandatory for participating in much of modern life, if those mandates were abolished, socioeconomic inequality would drop.

Full disclosure: I used to work with C4SS, so my biases are definitely not being left at the door.

As someone who still considers himself to be a left-libertarian (of a sort) I think this is a pretty fair assessment of the C4SS or generally, the left-libertarian position. I mean, heck, the director of C4SS, William Gillis, shared this (that’s how I found this article) and while sharing doesn’t equate to approval, I don’t remember him saying anything negative either.

On the other hand, this empirical claim could be false. Nobody denies that some corruption exists, but it might be the exception rather than the rule.

I’m going to nitpick a little by saying that both liberals and conservatives tend to think we live (or have lived) in some sort of “free market’ and that this is either a bad or good (respectively) thing.

So, while maybe liberals don’t deny that corruption exists, they tend to underestimate the systemic nature of the corruption. They tend to think it’s just a matter of bad regulations or corporations run amok, etc. While conservatives tend (and obviously I’m operating within the spectrum of generalities here) to think we live in a free market that is mostly operating correctly. There’s some government interference that’s getting in the way and producing corruption, but removing that would fix things. But this, again, denies the systemic nature of the corruption, even if it acknowledges it.

We might not, in fact, be in post-scarcity conditions.

Is this the left-libertarian claim? I’m not so sure that anyone at C4SS or within the left-libertarian milieu believes we are currently in post-scarcity conditions. Perhaps that claim could be more correctly read as the idea that freed markets have the potential to be post-scarcity to some degree but currently do not? I don’t keep up with C4SS as closely as I used to  so it’s possible their claims have shifted, but as far as I know, it has not.

In any case, this could just be a reference to Graeber for all I know:

 So-called “bullshit” jobs may actually be valuable, just easy to dismiss by outsiders like Graeber.

Okay, so I don’t mean to break this down into sentences but…is Graeber really an outsider to bullshit jobs? For example, I don’t think Graeber would disagree if someone said anthropology is kind of a bullshit job within the context of academia.

In fact, he’s even talked about this before in his essay:

Now, I realise any such argument is going to run into immediate objections: “who are you to say what jobs are really ‘necessary’? What’s necessary anyway? You’re an anthropology professor, what’s the ‘need’ for that?” (And indeed a lot of tabloid readers would take the existence of my job as the very definition of wasteful social expenditure.)

And on one level, this is obviously true. There can be no objective measure of social value.

To be fair, Sarah is just giving the devil’s advocate position here, but I thought it’d be fun to engage anyways.

Sarah goes on for a bit about economic rents, economic “dark matter” and even patents (all of which are worth reading!), but let’s skip to the parts that are slightly more relevant to the title and this site:

And, of course, even such estimates don’t tell us what to do, because of path-dependency effects.

Even if we discovered with high confidence that an industry was mostly corrupt, that doesn’t guarantee that “anti-corruption” efforts will actually make it less so.  (Sometimes the increased administrative demands of making sure nobody gives bribes cost more than the bribes themselves did.)

But the question is relevant, to those of us who want to know “where can I find productive work?” and “how much misdirection is going on under the surface of today’s world?”

(link added by me, for added clarity)

For people like me, who think much of the economy is unethically valuable (at the very least) it’s very hard for me to work at a place that wouldn’t violate my own ethics on some level. The most ethical way I could live currently is likely to get all of my work paid on Patreon through donations. Currently I work in a retail chain that is an over-glorified convenience store  and it aligns with my ethics about as well as you might expect it to.

The writings I do on this site and elsewhere as well as the music I produce, the poetry I write and so on are all projects and activities that I take much more seriously and are more ethically sound to me. They’re not perfect by any means, because the unethical nature of capitalism and the state tend to pervade whatever they’re around, but it’s a lot better.

In the retail company I work at, I couldn’t even tell you what’s our goal besides selling stuff and making each other miserable while trying to do it. We produce some sort of value, but it’s complicated by the fact that it’s a corporation and receives subsidies from the government, that intellectual property exists, that people have to huddle in these centralized places to get their food instead of having a taco truck on every corner, etc.

Sarah talks about their struggles as well:

I work at a biotech company.

I made a special effort to find a job that was as honest as possible, while still being in my field. And I think we are honest here; the official purpose of the company (to find new promising drugs) is also the implicitly endorsed goal that people actually work towards. We’re a bunch of scientists, with scientific sensibilities.

But we’re still in an industry defined by grants, patents, regulations, and other monopolistic practices.

There are still, I think, pockets of inefficiency that result from being in that industry.

Bigger, older businesses often get flummoxed when their startup partners move too fast. And those of us who don’t work in the lab don’t really need to work 8 hours a day every day in order to meet our planned goals. My job isn’t bullshit, by any means, but I sometimes suspect that it isn’t maximally productive.

I wish I could say this about my job or heck, most of the jobs I’ve held. The companies I’ve worked for have often been torrential in their level of inefficiency. Sometimes to the point where it bleeds on to the store floor, the way the employees (and more often the bosses) act and the way the buildings themselves looked.

Sarah finishes with a great point:

I don’t believe in being so obsessed with personal purity that you never get anything done — that’s not useful and it’s not the point. It’s more about trying to figure out what kind of world you live in.

While it’s true I hate my job (seriously, fuck retail), I’m not going to let my own beliefs get in the way of me having the kind of life I want. So long as what I’m doing doesn’t directly harm other people or involve that, I can tend to look the other way on the sorts of jobs I’m doing.

Retail never hurt anyone anyways.

Well, besides the employees.

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