Essential Work and B.S. Jobs

The lockdown we are currently experiencing has been instructive in many ways, but none so much as in how it has drawn a clear distinction between…

submitted by Bryce McBride (of Pembroke Observer) via LinkedIn

The lockdown we are currently experiencing has been instructive in many ways, but none so much as in how it has drawn a clear distinction between essential and non-essential work. We should learn from this and restructure our post-coronavirus economy to reflect this understanding. Politicians facing popular pressure to make things return to “normal” in the wake of the crisis need to be made aware that there are alternatives to going back to the way things were before. With courage, we can create an economy that supports productive and useful work while eliminating jobs that are wasteful and even harmful.

As we have learned these past few weeks, people working directly with food, fuel and energy, medical, elder and child care, transportation, cleaning and waste management are essential. However, as the anthropologist David Graeber (who a few years ago popularized the notion of ‘bullshit jobs’, defined 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”) tweeted recently: 

“We’re starting to recognize that the more directly your work benefits others, the less you’re paid and the worse you’re treated. With the pandemic, some of these ‘essential’ or ‘front-line’ workers are also expected to be willing to risk their lives for the sake of others. What is less often remarked upon is how much this is the case even in ordinary circumstances. Not only is work which most benefits others less well-paid, it’s almost always more dangerous.”

He goes on to say “If jobs which benefit others are the least well-paid and typically offer the least on-the-job respect (i.e. force workers to wear uniforms), the best-paid and most respected workers are not those who risk their own lives, but rather those who have the most capacity to damage others. Basically, the income ladder is based on power, and power is meaningless unless you can destroy or demean other people.”

And what is the source of this power? Access to endless amounts of free money. Almost all B.S. jobs at the top of the income ladder are in government and the corporate bureaucracies which dominate banking, insurance and other similarly concentrated industries. Not coincidentally, those in charge of these organizations have ready access to the lifeblood of our modern economy, the fiat money created from nothing by the banking system and passed along to governments and favoured corporations in ever-greater amounts at near-zero rates of interest with zero expectation of repayment.

Flush with such money, they can afford to both pay themselves well and hire all the (in Graeber’s classification system) “flunkies, goons, duct-tapers, box-tickers and taskmasters” they need to squeeze and exploit the workers who actually perform the organization’s essential work. We see this all the time – in any round of cutbacks to, say, the healthcare system, it is always nurses who get the sack or reduced hours even as the number of people working in administration grows.

Ever since money lost its connection to tangible value (represented by gold and silver) starting in the mid-1960s, the economy has gotten steadily worse at its core function of allocating scarce resources to best satisfy human needs and wants. Instead, with endless currency available to insiders, ever-more resources (including, but not limited to, labour) have been devoted to serving those closest to the fiat money spigot. Basically, the growth of bullshit money (fiat currency) has directly led to the growth of both crony capitalism and the bullshit jobs such capitalism seems uniquely good at generating. 

The Coronavirus-caused economic shutdown should wake us up to this reality and cause us to demand change. While recessions are no one’s idea of a good time, they are nonetheless necessary. Just as a tree needs regular pruning to keep its energy directed towards healthy growth, so too does an economy require regular recessions to eliminate waste and redirect resources towards the production of necessary and desirable goods and services. We should resist the temptation to bail out indebted corporations (and, in time, governments) and instead let them go bankrupt. The productive resources (such as labour hours) they have been squandering for decades can and should be directed towards better ends. The period of adjustment will be wrenching for those currently working in bullshit jobs, but afterwards we will all be much better off.

However, this adjustment can only take place if we simultaneously reform our monetary system and remove the ability of the banks to create money out of thin air for the benefit of their cronies in government and big business. Only a commitment to hard money and fiscal discipline (a.k.a. “no bailouts”) can ensure that the price signals generated by markets direct businesses and workers to produce the goods and services people need and want. Only a commitment to hard money and fiscal discipline can ensure that essential work gets done and B.S. jobs get gone.

Sources (both authored by David Graeber):  (his original rant on the subject of bullshit jobs) (his recent Twitter comments that I quoted in the article)


Bryce McBride is a writer, editor, publisher and educator, particularly in the field of economics.