When it Comes to Job Numbers, “Don’t Believe the Hype!”

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I remember getting into Public Enemy when I was in high school. That’s because of the wonderful band Rage Against The Machine, who themselves were inspired by Public Enemy. So the transition from one band to another makes a ton of sense for my teenage self.

Anyways, that’s the reference.

And here’s the article that I’ll be talking about today. It’s a bit out of date, it’s from 2018, but hey, things aren’t any better right now! So let’s just pretend we’re living in a good(?) year!

In a healthy economy in which one job can provide for a family and meet basic living expenses, a 3.7 percent unemployment rate would certainly be fantastic economic news. As ABC News reported, the unemployment rate hasn’t been this low in 49 years. September’s unemployment rate is just two-tenths of a point higher than the 3.5 percent unemployment rate recorded in 1969, when the American auto industry was at its peak.

But of course the kicker is: These unemployment rates don’t care how people are employed, just that they are employed. It’s a value that these kinds of studies (and the media itself) don’t account for because it doesn’t really matter to the GDP how you’re producing value. As long as you are producing it, that’s the important thing! Working a shitty job you hate just so you can make the rent? Well, feel grateful you have a job, come on! What about all those other homeless people?

This toxic mentality makes it hard for folks to feel like they’ve deserved much of anything in their life or that they shouldn’t be getting more jobs/work. What about monetizing your passions and making that your part-time job? Not to mention doing that in addition to the full-time job you should so clearly feel thankful for. How many people don’t have full-time jobs? Come on!

Again, this is a terrible framing and it makes it so much easier for people who are in fact hard working to feel lazy or crummy about their lives and efforts. When unemployment statistics ignore these cultural norms that have been built up over centuries, they end up being more than useless, they end up being actively harmful. It lures people into a false sense of security about the economy, when the reality is that there are so many problems here:

For example, while the federal minimum wage remains a paltry $7.25/hour, the minimum wage would actually be $16/hour today had it risen at the same rate as the cost of living from 1968 to 2018, according to Andrew Pacitti, an assistant professor of economics at Siena College.

In late May, the United Way’s ALICE Project (Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed) project found that approximately 43 percent of the U.S. population — or 51 million American households — are unable to afford basic necessities like housing, food, healthcare, transportation, communications, and child care with their current monthly income. And last year, 44 percent of Americans say they would be unable to cover an unexpected $400 expense — say, an emergency room visit or a broken alternator — without having to borrow from someone or sell their possessions.

These are just two major issues to think about when consulting these kinds of “positive” reports. What about those who are employed with toxic bosses? Those who are employed in jobs they actively hate or make them feel bad? Jobs folks don’t feel passionate about or wish they could quit but they can’t afford to? What if some people have one okay job and two other jobs they absolutely hate? All of these situations and more are possible in such a blind report.

I’m in a fortunate situation where I’m able to get by on a part-time job because I live with three other people. But this really shouldn’t be a “fortunate” position because I only do that by minimizing expenses and going to food banks as much as possible before COVID happened. I am only able to sustain this lifestyle because, frankly, I’m a cheapskate and I don’t like buying a lot of things unless I really need it or it’s a video game I really want (or book). Other than that I usually (hypothetically) ask friends and family members to help me with streaming services or find My Own Way of getting media that I can’t find on Youtube.

I’m doing pretty well but my situation isn’t really that great at the same time.

Sure, I don’t need multiple jobs but that’s only because I live with 3 other people in the same apartment. It can get crowded, smelly and unpleasant when you’ve got 4 people in one place in the Summer! Not only that but it’s tough to have your own sense of space when you’re living with roommates. Which is a necessity in today’s economy given the statistics cited above. But not everyone wants roommates and that means they have to find more jobs or strike a deal with a landlord, find somewhere super cheap, one really good and stable job, etc.

In other words, the economy tells us we must go to huge lengths just to find some sense of stability and independence from others. Not that living with others can’t be great! My roommates (including my partner) are generally pretty great folks. But I’d be lying if I didn’t say that I’d like to live with a couple less people at this point and am ready to explore other living situations. But that’s just not a realistic option under today’s economy. But hey, who cares right?

People have jobs!

Hooray!

Question Mark?

Economists have, in the recent past, cast doubt on glowing jobs numbers given the harsh reality millions of struggling Americans face when attempting to reconcile stangant wages with rising costs of living. In August of 2017, macroeconomic consultant Komal Sri-Kumar penned an op-ed for Business Insider cautioning Americans to withhold their optimism about a July 2017 jobs report that showed the unemployment rate had hit a 16-year low.

Sri-Kumar argued that even though the economy had technically recovered, the “recovery” applied almost exclusively to investors, rather than typical wage earners.

And this is the other big caveat to studies like this. Although it’s true that employment has gone down, who does this benefit exactly? It benefits those at top to the detriment of those at the bottom, no surprise there! So not only is this study harmful because it glorifies toxic cultural norms surrounding work but it also glorifies sacrificing our well-being for those at the top.

But hey, at least we’re all employed, right?


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May the Caring Classes Revolt: A Brief Look at Value and Pay Under Capitalism

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I’ve had a lot of surprises in my life, some weren’t welcomed and others were. Perhaps this most recent surprise was a mix of both? David Graeber has an account on Linked In and has written on the site as well! I couldn’t imagine anything more immediately ironic and funny. I could care less about “hypocrisy” charges, that’s the not the point. It’s just the last place I’d expect to see Graeber’s name and let alone see him in a writing capacity.

Now, be honest with me, did you even know you could publish articles on Linked In before I mentioned it? I sure as heck didn’t! Granted, Graeber has, to the best of my knowledge, only written one article (back in 2018) and it’s the one we’ll be looking over today.

The article in question explores the correlation between how valuable your job is and how much you get paid can be disproportionate or even directly inverse to how you’d think they’d be. For example, there’s the long-standing complaint about how much teachers make (I’d love to make around 58K a year, but also I’m poor) or how much nurses make despite the amount of social value they provide for society. They’re literally instilling people’s lives with lessons on one hand and the other profession is working to save lives and yet they are paid less than doctors.

That’s the common perception anyways, but the basic fact though is that we think less of the people who pick our garbage every day less than celebrities even though:

As Rutger Bergman likes to point out, in 1970 there was a six-month bank strike in Ireland; rather than the economy grinding to a halt as the organizers had anticipated, most people simply continued to write checks, which began to circulate as a form of currency, but otherwise carried on much as they had before. Two years before, when garbage collectors had gone on strike for a mere ten days in New York, the city caved in to their demands because it had become uninhabitable.

Imagine a group of retail workers getting their demands met in 10 days. I can’t think back to a time where I heard about a workers strike getting their demands in such a small window. It’s probably out there (and if you know, feel free to comment!) but it’s sure not talked about.

What’s also interesting for my own personal experience is that even though I’m much more directly caring for people than I was before (I take care of pets) I’m making the same amount of money that I made at my last retail job. Even though my job is inarguably better for society, I mean, I sold cigarettes and alcohol as well as who knows how much sugar and unhealthy food to customers on a daily basis for a period of over two years. I’ve added more direct benefits to society in one day than I did on average in my 10 years of retail.

By the way, that’s not a dig on retail workers at all! I was one for around 10 years of my life and I know it’s not their fault that retail is such a largely useless profession. You spend most of your time organizing things other people made messes of, getting yelling at/lectured by your bosses and harassed by customers (especially if you’re a woman!). It’s just not a good industry and I’m not blaming the workers for that, maybe if they had control of the means of production I would.

But that’s a long way away.

If we all woke up one morning and discovered that not only nurses, garbage collectors, and mechanics, but for that matter, bus drivers, grocery store workers, firefighters, or short-order chefs had been whisked away into another dimension, the results would be equally catastrophic.

If elementary school teachers were to vanish, most schoolchildren would likely celebrate for a day or two, but the long-term effects would be if anything even more devastating.

I largely agree with this, if we didn’t have nurses so many lives would be lost because doctors would be overrun. If we lost the garbage collectors then, well, see above. And firefighters actually respond to credible threats instead of hosing anyone in sight. There’s also a great need for bus drivers due to how expensive a car is and how much easier it makes navigating a city.

I could keep going, but the main thing I don’t like (or puzzles me) is that Graeber is an anarchist and still thinks that elementary school teachers are a largely good thing for society. I’m surprised at this! What about the pledge of allegiance? What about the warped sense of history that comes from gross displays and lessons of patriotism and nationalism? What about those teachers who help bullies bully by saying “boys will be boys” or the teachers who reinforce the naturally authoritarian ways in which the schooling system works?

I’m not saying there’s no good teachers (#notallteachers?), I had a few myself throughout high school and middle school for example. But the government schools are such a cesspool of learning at this point that I think kids would be better without it. Homeschooling and unschooling are great alternatives and it could also open the door for education cooperatives. But these things can also be used by abusive parents, religious parents who can’t keep their beliefs balanced to respect others and overly controlling parents. I’m not saying it’d be a slam dunk for society, but damn, I’d be mostly happy for kids, not worrying about the state-run school system.

It’ll just get bailed out later anyways.

The same cannot be said of hedge fund managers, political consultants, marketing gurus, lobbyists, corporate lawyers, or people whose job it is to apologize for the fact that the carpenter didn’t come.

In fact I’ve talked about this before (finally, I can link a previous work on this version of the site!) about the people who keep these noxious industries around far past when they should be. Despite how overpaid and undeserved other communities and jobs are, these industries get to make it by quite well on their paychecks. And even if you ignore studies that Graeber cites in his article because this stuff is hard to measure (as he admits) most of us feel, heck many of them feel or even know they aren’t contributing a lot to society. Graeber has talked about this as well.

I have very little experience in these professions (and hope to never gain it either!) so I can’t personally comment on how much people think their jobs suck. But then again, it’s a pretty well-known fact within our society that work generally sucks and we’re all either grossly underpaid or grossly overpaid. Think about all of the complaints regarding the Kardashians and how folks feel about them, unfortunately not extending nearly enough of the same criticism towards Bezos.

Though, to be fair, it’s getting better on that front.

In any case, you can read this great article by Graeber if you’re interested in the studies. I’d never heard of them before and they seem interesting. I’m sure there are some methodological issues because the topic of pay and value is a rather taboo one in our culture. But that just shows that more research needs to be done and better methods discovered. There’s a reason the rich don’t want us talking about paychecks, especially if you’re among, as Graeber says, “the caring class”.

May we all revolt and show them just how much we care.


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Graeber on the “Gigantic Embarrassment” of Work (RSA Replay)

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Lost to the archives are my previous discussions of Graeber or mentions of him at any rate. I don’t recall how many times I’ve talked about Graeber’s infamous article concerning bullshit jobs, but I know I never did any review of the article. But hey, this covers that!

Back in 2018 (approximately a million years ago), Graeber gave an interesting talk based on his then recent book with the RSA (which apparently stands for the Royal Society of Arts?) that I’ve had on my Youtube for a long time now. I’ve decided to get around to taking a look at it, now that I don’t have school and my part-time job is easier than ever thanks(?) to COVID-19.

For starters, it’s a decent lecture though it doesn’t tell anti-work advocates anything they don’t already know. It’s definitely more of a 101 lecture than something anti-capitalist anarchists (like myself or Graeber) would go out of their way to see. But then, that’s the point. It’s a very 101 talk because his audience is a crowd that conceivably flinches at “anarchist” and thinks terrorist.

The talk is split into three sections: A brief lecture section (20 minutes or so), a briefer dialogue section with the host (15 minutes) and the longest section, a Q&A fills out the rest. I took notes on all three of these sections and here’s a list of things that stood out to me:

  1. Graeber looks really haggard, I don’t mean this as an insult; I hope he was getting rest!
  2. Graeber talks a bit too much about how successful he is (especially with Debt)
  3. He loves to envision capitalists with “minions” like a Saturday morning cartoon show
  4. His solutions (UBI) are unpersuasive or vague and his methodology is suspect
  5. He’s certain no one believes in the myths of capitalism, despite them still being parroted
  6. His idea of “everything meaningful as an extension of care-ethic” is an interesting theory
  7. Sadly doesn’t address his own professions BS quality despite doing so in the essay
  8. Not a lot of discussion concerning automation (“robots have already taken our jobs!”)
  9. Has good anti-authoritarian instincts when it comes to the 4-day workweek
  10. Almost no discussion about gender roles in BS jobs, only when a question is asked.

I know a lot of that seems negative, but this is overall a good talk. It’s just unfortunate that Graeber’s biggest issue here is that his methods of talking about the phenomenon of BS jobs is either his Twitter page, an email group or a drunken rant he had done at parties for 10 years. I’m not saying anecdotal evidence is meaningless or that survey can’t be helpful, nor am I suggesting that he is wrong about the existence of BS jobs, just that I wish his methods had more rigor.

Graeber’s an intelligent anthropologist and I’ve read him on anarchism several times to usually pleasing results, but he only seemed to be at his best when he talked less about the symptoms (BS jobs) then the central issue (state-capitalism). Or when he was asked about the 4-Day weekend and noted that surveilling people’s activities would be incredibly costly, difficult and may not even work for his own profession. He’s paid monthly to work “all the time” as he says.

So Graeber admits he’s “suspicious” of calls for the 4-Day workweek, even though he thinks it would help. This is, roughly, where I stand as well and it was such a relief to finally hear and see someone else talk about it. Although, inconsistently and disappointingly he held no such worries for the Universal Basic Income (UBI) even though I’d think they’d equally apply?

I suspect that is because he spoke to a great cultural change (paraphrasing) that we’d need to go under in order for such a policy to happen in the first place. My question is that if we’ve already caused such a cultural shift that UBI becomes palatable then why shouldn’t we aim higher? There’s also another excellent question raised by the host: What about short-term strategies?

UBI may be a decent strategy for the long-term but as Graeber points out it is currently undesirable by politicians despite it gaining more steam in the past 5 years. We’ve seen that especially with US presidential candidates such as Andrew Yang and Bernie Sanders. Social democratic ideologies have, in general, become more popular which has lead to the rise of the DSA (Democratic Socialists of America) gaining momentum. As well, we have publications like Jacobin that have also been steadily increasing in viewership over the years.

Nevertheless anarchism should never be a slightly radicalized social democratic stance. This was (and is) the problem with anarchists like Noam Chomsky, Howard Zinn, Colin Ward and others like them. They think of anarchism as a process for improving the state not as abolishing it and replacing its institutions and services with community-based ones.

Now, I understand I’m painting in broad strokes here and I certainly respect the thinkers I’ve just mentioned (Ward’s Anarchism: A Very Short Introduction and Chomsky’s definition of anarchism are both influential) but I think this strain of anarchism doesn’t get enough criticism.

I’m not saying we don’t focus on the short-term benefits such as UBI, 4-Day Workweek, $15 minimum wage, etc. But what I am saying is we need to look carefully at these policy proposals that depend on the ruling class suddenly turning around after hundreds of years (and much more) of oppressing others and suddenly treating us kindly. Yes, there have been some wins such as the unionist victories in the 1930s in the US but those were notoriously reformist and ended up weakening the unionist movement in the US in the long-haul. Even the IWW isn’t near where it used to be and neither are most other unions that fought for worker’s rights back then.

As the title suggest, one of the best parts of this talk is at the beginning when Graeber mentions that work is a kind of “embarrassment”. Everyone implicitly recognizes what they’re doing is BS but no one has a solution. Or if they do, it’s often discounted as “communism” or as Graeber said “it’s us or North Korea!” Any solution to our current problems would only make it worse, so why bother? Or it’s just an excuse for bad and lazy (let’s be honest: it’s the same in capitalism) people to get out of their debts, which, of course, Graeber wrote a whole book on and has responses to.

As for BS Jobs themselves, I have an interesting mix because I take care of living beings (dogs) but 90% of the time I’m doing nothing these days. And even before COVID, I still had hours and hours where I was on my phone or playing video games or doing something else. These days it’s just hilarious how much of my job is just sitting around and looking at screens. The pretense is someone needs to be there in case the place burned down (why would it?) and more crucially because the dogs need their bowls refilled and to be taken out once in a while (more sensible).

But in essence, most of my job feels like BS. Like, it’s amazing to me I get paid to just sit and read , play video games, watch wrestling videos on Youtube or whatever I want, really. That’s not how it’s supposed to be. I technically have a list of responsibility but due to COVID no one cares and even before that, so few people want to do overnight shifts that they often can’t make mountains out of molehills when much of the cleaning asked for is minor. The major cleaning to the facility happens throughout the day so even when we were busier there were periods of hours where, as an evening worker or an overnight one, I had hours where I did nothing or even napped.

Another interesting aspect of this lecture/dialogue is that Graeber briefly mentions how we sacrificed our leisure time for our commodity time. Instead of having more time with our friends or families we are spending more time with our smartphones. It’s worth asking: Can we have both? Is it possible to have a life full of commodity-based pleasures and enjoy bountiful time with our loved ones? Graeber doesn’t provide any answers to this question (nor does he even ask it) but I think if we abolished state-capitalism we could certainly get much closer.

Maybe Graeber believes that as well, I don’t know for sure. In any case, the benefits of technology can be dispersed and widespread instead of concentrated into the hands of the rich and powerful.

So, why do BS jobs exist?

Graeber has some answers:

  1. Making up jobs to suit those in power
  2. To keep people off the street (despite abandoned homes)
  3. The poor must pay their debts and the rich must provide them those opportunities
  4. If you don’t want to work you’re a bad person!
  5. Much easier to believe you think you’re doing something and aren’t.
  6. If you’re a manager you need 5-6 flunkies/minions or you’re not important
  7. Duck tapers: People who apologize for the lack of solutions
  8. Box Tickets: Efficiency designers who aren’t listened to
  9. Goons: PR, Marketing, Telemarketer(!)
  10. Taskmasters: Supervising people who don’t need it (Middle-Managers)

In addition, many of these industries (as Graeber points out) feed off themselves and the people Graeber heard from admitted this to him. From corporate lawyers, people within the financial industry Graeber concludes in this discussion that even if half of the current jobs were eliminated it likely would not impact anything materially.

Perhaps we are seeing this currently with the COVID-19 Pandemic, most of the job currently are “essential” ones that are (at least in my profession) an extension of the care-ethic, as Graeber puts it. Providing dogs care as well as other essential services like getting food to people reliably, nurses and hospitals are all extensions of the care-ethic, as Graeber would say.

On the other hand, society has never seemed so chaotic and disorganized. There’s a discomfort in the air wherever I go. I either have this gnawing feeling that there are too few people outside or making noise (e.g. a ghost town) or way too many and this isn’t safe and oh Glob I should really be home and not Here. I fluctuate between these two gnawing feelings but then, to his credit, Graeber didn’t have a pandemic in mind when he wanted corporate lawyers gone.

But what is the opposite of corporate lawyers? For Graeber it seems to be nurses, teachers (which he himself is one), tube workers (more on that in a second) and people whose jobs bear some actual value for the society around them. But what does that value look like and how is it best harnessed within a given society? Graeber doesn’t give us much besides the care-ethic I’ve now mentioned a few times, which I think is interesting but may not be enough on its own.

The discussion about tube workers was interesting. For those non-UK natives/folks unaware of the UK term the “tube” means subways tunnels for us Americans. Why would these folks be so tied to the care-ethic if the trains can mostly run themselves at this point and most folks know where they are going? Well, some people don’t for starters (hi, it’s me!), plus sometimes women are harassed by drunk men, sometimes people lose their laptops or even their children. So yeah, you could definitely argue (as some tube workers did on Twitter) that they’re very much essential.

BS jobs plague our lives, Graeber is no doubt right about that, but his evidence for that needs a bit more rigor for someone who says he’s more of an anthropologist than an anarchist on his Twitter bio. There’s also the curious incidents of people loving their job they know is a lie. Graeber reasons this could be because they’re just glad to be away from home (bad home life/hate their families) and within Graeber’s survey it was a measly 6% at any rate.

But for most of us, we’re all too aware of the bullshit we’ve got to endure within our jobs. The anti-work movement is forever benefited from Graeber’s insightful essay. Maybe we should let more academics publish their drunken rants from parties they’ve been crafting for 10 years?

The world might be a better place for it.


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Into the Agora: Life Beyond Work

Hey y’all, it’s been a weird past few months, to say the least. I’m still having online classes, working part-time and constantly worrying about my health and those close to me. In the meantime, here’s a podcast that I did a month or so ago and I hope you’ll enjoy it!