Bullshit Jobs: A Theory

Bullshit Jobs: A Theory (2018) by David Graeber is a really interesting book that looks at how people perceive their jobs as pointless and what Graeber thinks. Graeber describes himself as an an ‘anarchist and anthropologist’.

Graeber wrote an essay in 2013 ‘On the Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs’ which was very popular online. After the book was written he solicited and obtained many accounts of people who found their jobs to be a waste of time and how they dealt with them. This book is the result. Graeber combines these accounts with his theories of anarchism and how society and the economy works. The accounts are remarkable and often very amusing as well as genuinely interesting. Graebers theorizing as to what work is productive and how things should be organised is far less compelling.

It would be hard to find people who have either experienced or seen people working in jobs which were, essentially pointless but that were often quite well paid. Graeber suggests that people who work in communication, HR and corporate lawyers are anyone who works in finance as working in jobs that don’t need to be done and that they know do not need to be done.

Graeber takes issues with other people who have defined jobs that don’t need to be done to include telephone sanitizers and hairdressers, including Douglas Adams and thinks that instead many private sector and administrative jobs are the ones that truly don’t need to be done.

He certainly has a point. There are undoubtedly many people writing reports that are ignored and even most economists would agree that the finance sector has expanded beyond what is productive. Graeber classifies BS jobs as ‘Flunkies’, ‘Goons’, ‘Duct Tapers’, ‘Box Tickers’ and ‘Taskmasters’. When asked in an online UK YouGov poll 37% of respondents said that they were sure what they did made no meaningful contribution to the world. This is extrapolated by Graeber to suggest that at least a third of the workforce isn’t really doing anything useful and they know it.

Many of the accounts of people with BS jobs are fantastic. People given jobs on projects known to be pointless is a remarkable thing. That many firms and governments have done this is quite something. Graeber points out that many accounts of these things happening largely in the public sector are wrong. Although even he can’t help pointing out some incredible examples in the public sector where people even stop going to work and continue to get paid for years. He also does suggest, but downplays that people who have a BS job in many places can convert it to a useful job once they are inside an organisation.

Graeber goes on to provide his theory of how society and the economy should be organised and this is fairly weak. Instead of acknowledging that markets have provided unprecedented prosperity for many people he states that the whole system needs to be dismantled. The idea that markets have changed the world dramatically for the better but that they are still often terribly wasteful and that with some thought perhaps working hours might be substantially reduced is not even discussed and instead various classes in conflict are proposed. He goes on to suggest that a universal basic income UBI would stop people doing pointless work and make us all better off. Graeber blithely seems to think that the pointless jobs can be easily identified and that UBI would happily work.

Bullshit Jobs is a genuinely interesting book. Hopefully lots of people read it and think about the myriad of inefficiencies that it points out. However, the theories and answers offered by Graeber are far less strong.





Mining the Sky

Mining the Sky: Untold Riches from Asteroids, Comets and Planets (1996) by John S Lewis is an interesting but quite heavy going look at the resources available in the solar system that could be extraced. Lewis is Professor Emeritus at the University of Arizona’s Lunar and Planetary Laboratory.

The book systematically looks at the resources available in the moon, asteroids and on other planets and points out that the potential is staggering, enough minerals, metals and energy to provide all the resources for a much larger population of humans and for exploration of other solar systems.

The book isn’t an an easy read because it tends to barrage the reader with the details of the chemical composition of the planetary bodies but it is definitely a worthwhile read for anyone interested in how space exploration could be economically viable.

Triumph of the City

Triumph of the City : How our Greatest Invention Makes Us Richer, Smarter, Greener, Healthier and Happier (2011) by Edward Glaeser is a really good, though provoking book about cities and how they work. It’s also very readable.

Glaeser is a Harvard economics professor and a former New Yorker and his book is quite something. He looks at how cities have changed over the past 100 years, what they enable, how people are priced out of them today and what is makes a low C02 emitting city.

Glaeser did some fantastic work calculating the ‘zoning premium’ and includes it in the book. It shows how zoning has caused housing prices to be far higher than necessary by not allowing people to build up and out as they would if land use were not restricted.

The book also has some really interesting points about how cities have enabled people to be far more productive and are better in many ways for the environment than living in less technologically advanced ways that use more space.

Triumph of the City really is an excellent book that anyone interested in economics and cities and how it can all work.

Existentialism: A Very Short Introduction

Existentialism: A Very Short Introduction (2006) by Thomas R Flynn gives a short overview of existentialism and its place in the history of philosophy.

The book concentrates on Satre, who the author did his PhD on. It goes through various existentialist philosophers including Heidegger, Kierkegaard, de Beauvoir, Merleau-Pont, Camus and others.

The book jumps around a lot and a lot of the philosophers are presented in terms of their philosophical and other relations with Satre. The book covers well how existentialism led in part to post-modernism and structuralism.

It’s not a bad book but it jumps around and isn’t really satisfying either. Existentialism from Dostoevsky to Satre by Walter Kaufmann is a better introduction as it provides a better discussion of the topics that existentialists found important.

Money Changes Everything

Money Changes Everything: How Finance Made Civilization Possible (2016) by William N Goetzmann is a very impressive book that looks at how finance has evolved through history. The book does a great job in explaining how important financial developments have been for the development of the world.

The book is broken into sections that look at ancient Mesopotamian finance, ancient Greek finance, Roman finance, Chinese finance, the the changes to modern finance in Europe that helped Europe explore and dominate the world and how modern finance has become global.

Goetzmann is a professor of finance and management studies at Yale and is an expert on the history of finance.

The sections on the ancient world show how important the development of finance was to the development of math and how important it was for cities and empires to employ finance. It was startling to discover that 90% of the records recovered from some Mesopotamian cities were financial records.

The sections on Roman and Greek finance showed how large cities could use finance to get their food supplies and what sort of laws were required. The section on Chinese finance is also remarkable and shows how Chinese rulers used coins and then paper money.

The section on the development of European financial developments from the twelfth century onward is fantastic. Making the point that Hindu-Arabic numerals were popularised in the Liber Abaci is very much worthwhile. The trading of bills of exchange, then the creation of companies and stock market booms and bubble is very well explained.

The weakest part of the book is the modern section where oddly Marx and Ayn Rand’s contribution to finance is pondered. While Marx is certainly an important figure in history it’s odd to have in the book. The book also has quite a bit on Keynes. Keynes is more justified but still it’s somewhat odd.

Overall the book is fantastic though. It really makes the reader ponder just how much finance has helped to develop the world.

The Enlightenment : A Very Short Introduction

The Enlightenment : A Very Short Introduction (2015) by John Robertson is an introduction to various Enlightenment thinkers and the influence they have had and how their contribution has been seen since The Enlightenment.

Robertson is a professor of the history of Political Thought at Oxford so he’s well placed to write a book as ambitious as this that is so short. Kant, Hume, Smith, Rousseau and the other major enlightenment figures all have their impact and work described.

The book also discusses how The Enlightenment has been seen since by various philosophers and historians.

The book shows the diversity of thought of the major Enlightenment figures and inadvertently that Steven Pinker’s thesis that it is some central idea from the Enlightenment that has driven current prosperity is dubious. This is not to say modernity isn’t prosperous, just that Pinker’s description of The Enlightenment as being a secular, atheist movement toward reason is not something that many of the major Enlightenment figures would have agreed with.

The book made me want to read more of the works of major Enlightenment figures and get more of an understanding of them. It was worth reading for me to get some overview of what is meant when people talk about The Enlightenment.

Count Zero

Count Zero (1986) by William Gibson is the second book in Gibson’s sprawl trilogy. It’s not as good as Neuromancer but it does progress the world of Neuromancer in an engaging way.

The book sags in the middle but the end picks it all up and it ends in a reasonably satisfying way.

Count Zero isn’t great literature, but it is cool and fun and interesting. It’s something I’ve periodically been rereading for almost 30 years. Burning Chrome and Neuromancer are fantastic, Count Zero is the first cyberpunk book Gibson wrote that wasn’t great. It’s still quite good though.