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Review: Bullshit Jobs by David Graeber

Earlier this year I made a few fundamental changes to my lifestyle, which, among others, freed up significant chunks of time. This made it possible for me to read a lot more books, but the more books I read, the more I think that I am frequently only wasting my time with them. A case in point is David Graeber’s recent book Bullshit Jobs, which is a book-length treatment of a point he clumsily made a few years ago in an essay with the title, “The Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs.” Graeber is an anthropologist at the London School of Economics, which goes to show that even at the most elite universities, a bullshit subject remains a bullshit subject, but that is a topic for another article. The topic of this one is Graeber’s book, which is, to spoil the surprise, shockingly bad.

Graeber is an anthropologist. Anthropology is the study of mankind. In Canada, it is probably the study of “peoplekind”. The facet of mankind “Bullshit Jobs” focuses on is the working world in industrialized societies. The Graeber’s rather daring hypothesis of is that most jobs are bullshit jobs. A bullshit job is a job that, if it were eliminated, would make no discernible difference in the world. Even the employee holding such a bullshit job is unable to justify its existence. So far, so good. While “Bullshit Jobs” only exists to support Graeber’s thesis, it does a poor job at it as it is little more than dressed up Cultural Marxist ideology, operating with an aggregation of anecdotes that the author himself only poorly understands. It would be more precise to state that his ideological blinders keep him from understanding that his position is not tenable. Yes, I am giving him the benefit of the doubt by not making the claim that he deliberately deceives his audience.

If you are a Marxist, the world is really simple to understand, it turns out. Here is one of Graeber’s statements that are supposed to express his bewilderment at the existence of bullshit jobs:

According to economic theory, at least, the last thing a profit-seeking firm is going to do is shell out money to workers they don’t really need to employ. Still, somehow, it happens.

This is the central tenet of his book, so let’s attack it right on. There are countless examples where companies are forced to employ useless people. One of the more prominent examples are diversity hires in technology companies. In case you want to compete for lucrative government contracts, you better have plenty of women and minorities on your payroll because otherwise your proposal will get binned right away. Thus, hiring unqualified people is a cost of doing business. If there is a gender quota, or a quota for brown people to meet, then you better meet it, or you’ll face dire consequences. Yet, once those people are on board, you may want to limit the damage they can do. Thus, you put low-performing employees you cannot fire into low-impact teams in order to contain the damage they can cause. This happens not just on the level of the rank and file. In one of my earliest jobs, I did not have one manager but two. The US corporation that owns that company was pushing hard for gender quotas, and to make that work, my team had not one but two female managers. They had so many days of absence that one woman in that role just did not work out. That job could as well have been done by one man, however. In fact, it used to be done by one man.

Furthermore, bureaucratic organizations sometimes load up on employees just because they can. Large tech companies hire as many people that meet the bar for hiring as they can get their hands on, maybe just so that their competitor cannot hire them. At least that was what a Software Engineer assumed who quit his job at Facebook. In his words, they were horribly overstaffed. That’s all just hearsay, but it makes a lot more sense that Graeber’s triumphant Marxist posturing. Because there is not enough work to go around in such situations, you end up with employees who have very little do to.

There is also the issue that sometimes bureaucratic processes lead to excess fat. For instance, it managers may get punished for not spending their budget. If you don’t use up your budget, it may just get cut for the next quarter or year, depending on your horizon. Thus, if there is money to hire a certain number of people, they will get hired because the money has to be spent. This is shockingly common. There is some justification for this, however, because business is, in contrast to communists convictions that five-year plans as sensible, hard to plan for. Thus, companies ramp up hiring when they expect big projects in the future. If this does not work out, employees end up twiddling their thumbs. Yet, it is economically often better to have an underutilized workforce than to not have enough employees. If this strikes you as absurd, then consider how much a company can bill for the time of a consultant, and how much the consultant gets paid. Even if said consultant spends two weeks a month shitposting on the Internet on the company’s dime — this is called “being on the bench” in consultant-ese — because there are no assignments, he still makes the company more money than it costs to employ him.

Graeber is not so much concerned with inefficiencies in bureaucratic organizations, though. Instead, he meanders, trying to develop an all-encompassing theory of bullshit jobs. To do so, he makes use of numbers, too, which betrays that he is a social scientist, seeing how ineptly he interprets the data he is working with:

[T]he amount of time American office workers say they devoted to their actual duties declined from 46 percent in 2015 to 39 percent in 2016, owing to a proportionate rise in time dealing with emails (up from 12 percent to 16 percent), “wasteful” meetings (8 percent to 10 percent), and administrative tasks (9 percent to 11 percent). Figures that dramatic must be partly the result of random statistical noise—after all, if such trends really continued, in less than a decade, no US office worker would be doing any real work at all.

There is no “random statistical noise”. Instead, we have two data points. The question is if the increase is statistically significant or not. This requires statistical tools so basic that they are covered in Statistics 101, but probably not if you study Anthropology. Furthermore, in any quantitative field you would get laughed out of the room if you wanted to speak of a “trend” if you only had two data points. Yet, if you are an anthropologist, such incompetency seemingly does not keep you from becoming a professor at the London School of Economics.

The quotation above also shows a fatal flaw in Graeber’s reasoning. There is a big difference between the real work you do and work you need to perform in order to do your real job. Yet, if you did not do the latter, you could not do the former. For instance, “dealing with emails” is not some nonsense activity. Instead, it could be directly related to the core of your job. Let us say you have been working on a white paper and you send it to a few colleagues, inviting feedback. Processing the resulting emails may take you a few days. Yet, if you did not do that, your real duties may suffer and as a consequence, for instance, the company could not use your white paper for promotion as effectively as it otherwise could.

There could be some value in Graeber’s thesis. It is not unappealing to the unwashed masses, as the reception of his initial essay has shown. Yet, I wish he would have kept ideology out of his book. Had he done that, he would have ended up with a book that would probably only about 1/3 as long as the one he wrote. I am quite sick of reading about a “patriarchy” that keeps women in their place, considering that the Western world has been bending over backwards to accommodate women. We are paying an enormous price for that, for instance when female doctors drop out of the workforce or work only part-time. The waste of taxpayer’s money on “women’s liberation” must be staggering. However, in Graeber’s world, women are still oppressed. On a related note, Graeber also writes that the “real work” tends to be done by female underlings, while their male bosses are all incompetents. I wonder what this guy is smoking. The following quote is so ludicrious it made me laught out loud:

It’s far more likely that the (female) administrative assistant for a (male) vice dean or “Strategic Network Manager” is the only person doing any real work in that office, and that it’s her boss who might as well be lounging around in his office playing World of Warcraft, or very possibly, actually is.

David Graeber, have you ever worked in a real office, as opposed to your academic alternate reality? That statement is so bizarre it has to be called delusional.

Here is another example that shows how sloppy typical social scientists reason:

The result was to reveal that men are far more likely to feel that their jobs are pointless (42 percent) than women do (32 percent). Again, it seems reasonable to assume that they are right.

Graeber believes that this shows that women do the “real” work in the organizations, while the men slack off. I find it much more plausible that women find meaning in tasks guys would find meaningless. Furthermore, women may dramatically overestimate the importance of their work. This is a particular problem for diversity hires who are essentially quarantined from the organization and who have no idea how productive other members of the organization are.

Graeber does not just poorly when handling numbers. He also gets plenty of facts wrong. Here is a particularly amusing one, when discussing an anecdote about the German military:

The German military has been accused of many things over the years, but inefficiency was rarely one of them.

This is written in the context of describing supposed private sector largesse which, which Graeber does not realize, is due to boneheaded government regulations. Yet, it is right on the page. He writes it down, yet he cannot draw the conclusion that the waste he mocks is officially mandated. In his example, the private contractors only follows rules. It’s not their job to question them. Instead, it’s the government’s job to come up with sensible regulations. I do not know how Graeber informs himself. It cannot be any German newspaper, because the incompetence and wastefulness in the German military has been a running gag for decades. The German army is largely unfit for battle. Their tanks don’t move, their aircraft are grounded, their subways are docked. The more scandalous revelations include that due to a lack of ammunition, recruits had to verbalize the firing of guns in battle exercises instead of actually firing them. The German Army also has been having a hard time recruiting male soldiers because preferential treatment of women has grown to such an extent that the troops have become demoralized.

A distinctive feature of lefties is that they have a very simplistic understanding of the complexities of the world. Look at this:

It’s not entirely clear how humanity would suffer were all private equity CEOs, lobbyists, PR researchers, actuaries, telemarketers, bailiffs, or legal consultants to similarly vanish.

How does this joker think companies like Google or Amazon got off the ground? They got venture capital. Private equity helps out with that. He should also look into the financials of his employer, which has one of the largest endowments among UK universities. Afterward, he should think about the effect of lobbyists and PR researchers in that outcome. Monetarily-driven higher-education is the result of lobbying. That the LSE can charge ludicrously high tuition fees is also the result of their own PR efforts, promoting The School abroad. In fact, professions he mocks are responsible for the LSE being able to pay Graeber. It’s as simple as figuring out that research quality plus effective advertisting leads to incoming students who pay hefty tuition fees, which are, in turn, used to pay the LSE faculty. Again, it’s right on the page, but Graeber doesn’t see it. It is incredible.

Let’s talk about his absurd statement some more, before concluding this review: Actuaries are highly useful because unlike in the ideal lefty society, people do not all live the exact same number of years. Also, if you think bailiffs are useless, you must be bonkers. In UK English, a “bailiff” is someone who carries out court orders. If you think such people are superfluous, you need to pull your head out of your ass. Lefties think that the police is responsible for violence. As it seems, Graeber reasons among similar lines.

If you think I am too hard on David Graeber, I have to disappoint you. I am far too lenient on this little commie who, in his infinite smugness, broadly denounces whole categories of people:

So far, we have established three broad categories of jobs: useful jobs (which may or may not be shit jobs), bullshit jobs, and a small but ugly penumbra of jobs such as gangsters, slumlords, top corporate lawyers, or hedge fund CEOs, made up of people who are basically just selfish bastards and don’t really pretend to be anything else.

What a twat.

As a final remark, let me point out that I wish the publisher had made a better effort proof-reading this book. Here is an example: “Given the choice between less hours and more toys and pleasures, we’ve collectively chosen the latter.” This made me cringe, because instead of “less”, “fewer” should be used. But, hey, in Leftie-LaLa-Land grammar is an oppressive tool of the patriarchy, right?

Bullshit Jobs is a tedious read. If you are fond of critical reasoning or have a modicum of numeracy, you will find it very difficult to make it through that book. The same is true if you have real-world work experience. Heck, if a virgin wrote about sex, it could not be any worse. On the other hand, if you want to know what masquerades as “science” in the social sciences, this book is as good (or bad) as any other in those disciplines.


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