Home Economics With David Graeber's Obituary Published We Can Be Less Jolly Good Fellow

With David Graeber’s Obituary Published We Can Be Less Jolly Good Fellow

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The nil nisi stuff refers, of course, to the recently departed. Once a modicum of polite time has passed they’re open, again, to critique. Which brings us to David Graeber. His thing about bullshit jobs was, well bullshit. Because he misunderstood the Keynes essay that was his starting point.

In The Times:

He argued that the working population should have more free time, pointing out that as far back as 1930 the economist John Maynard Keynes had said that by 2000 most people would be working a 15-hour week because of technological advances. What went wrong? “Technological unemployment, as he called it, did happen,” explained Graeber. “People have been talking about the rise of the robots, saying it’s nonsense — people have been saying that for years. But actually it did happen; it’s just that we made up jobs for people to seem to be working.”

Well, no. And as it happens I have, Blue Peter style, one I made earlier pointing out why:

I have to admit to being rather amused by David Graeber. He’s an anthropologist who teaches at my own Alma Mater, the London School of Economics. For all I know he may be a very good anthropologist. It’s not a subject I know much about so it would be difficult for me to judge. However, Graeber does so want to tell us all about economic matters, and there I can judge at least some of this claims. And if we’re honest about it usually he would have been better off if he’d wandered down the corridor to the economics department and asked for a little guidance before constructing his theories.

This latest idea of his appears to be that Keynes said we’d all be working 15 hours a week by now. We’re not and therefore it must be The Man keeping us down for fear that we’ll revolt against the system if we had enough free time. Well, interesting, provocative even, but neither anthropology nor economics are in fact a performance art. They’re supposed to be sciences even if social ones, and thus to have a modicum of an evidence base behind them, which, sadly enough, this theory doesn’t.

Here he is making his case:

In the year 1930, John Maynard Keynes predicted that technology would have advanced sufficiently by century’s end, that countries like Great Britain or the United States would achieve a 15-hour work week. There’s every reason to believe he was right. In technological terms, we are quite capable of this. And yet it didn’t happen. Instead, technology has been marshaled, if anything, to figure out ways to make us all work more. In order to achieve this, jobs have had to be created that are, effectively, pointless. Huge swathes of people, in Europe and North America in particular, spend their entire working lives performing tasks they secretly believe do not really need to be performed. The moral and spiritual damage that comes from this situation is profound. It is a scar across our collective soul. Yet virtually no one talks about it.

That’s pretty much the theory except for the speculations about why we’re all so oppressed by The Man. The actual Keynes essay is here for those who have not read it before. It’s very good, so if you haven’t, enjoy.

And here’s the point that Keynes didn’t quite grasp about what the future would bring: that the decline in working hours would be largely in the unpaid labor of running a household. And that decline more than makes up for the slower decline in those market working hours, the ones done for pay, that the modern world seems to be missing from his prediction. For the UK, roughly, paid working hours went from 48 a week or so to 35 today. Unpaid household working hours went from 60 odd to perhaps 15. We actually have had the reduction that Keynes said we would and which Graeber is shouting has been stolen from us by, umm, well, The Grinch, maybe?

Just to back this up, something from the Boston Fed on recent declines in working hours:

In this paper, we use five decades of time‐use surveys to document trends in the allocation of time. We document that a dramatic increase in leisure time lies behind the relatively stable number of market hours worked (per working‐age adult) between 1965 and 2003. Specifically, we document that leisure for men increased by 6‒8 hours per week (driven by a decline in market work hours) and for women by 4‒8 hours per week (driven by a decline in home production work hours).

And then there’s this from the excellent Max Roser. Historical changes in market (i.e., paid) working hours:workinghours1

And then this which, in the second window, gives us declines in household working hours:

workinghours2

So, the theory doesn’t in fact hold water. Working hours have indeed declined just as Keynes said they would. It’s just that we preferred to take the automation, our increased wealth, in less scrubbing of the front doorstep and in more gossiping around the water cooler. And given that we do indeed get to make that choice ourselves, then who is to say that we’ve made the wrong one?

Thus the rest of his prescriptions are equally wrong. We do not need to upend the system, smash finance capital or any of the other teeming ideas being proffered.

As, actually, a wander down the corridor to the corridor of the economics department would have told him. We are, individually, the best judges of our own utility. And it’s long, long, been noted that we do in fact take some portion of our greater wealth as leisure.

We don’t in fact have a problem here, so nothing need be done.

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5 COMMENTS

  1. I once tried to chat with him about his “bullshit jobs” and he fell back on the old “look, just buy my book”.

    I try and avoid calling people ignorant fools, but he was. “Bullshit jobs” are rarely a thing, especially not in the private sector, because you make capitalists poorer if the job has no value.So it makes no sense. You should dig for why some weird and, on the surface, pointless jobs are there. He counted doormen and I’m wondering if he even spoke to one, or a building manager about why they exist? A 5th Avenue doorman is mostly about security. Anyone thinking of entering the building and doing a robbery will think twice. It’s why they’re all retired cops.

  2. “As, actually, a wander down the corridor to the corridor of the economics department would have told him. ”

    Are you sure about that? At the LSE? D’ya’wanna buy a bridge I just happen to have a title deed for in my pocket?

  3. There are some great predictions in that Keynes essay.
    Such as “In quite a few years-in our own lifetimes I
    mean-we may be able to perform all the operations of agriculture, mining, and
    manufacture with a quarter of the human effort to which we have been
    accustomed. ”
    and
    “I would predict that the
    standard of life in progressive countries one hundred years hence will be
    between four and eight times as high as it is to-day.”
    There’s a bit of the ‘no true Scotsman’ in that use of the word progressive, but sound predictions. Life expectancy was around 60 when the essay was written – if Keynes wants to knock off what we contribute during our working years to having some enjoyable work-free pension years at the end (quite a lot for some such as unfunded career public sector), I think that his prediction is safely home in the clubhouse.

  4. The correct rebuttal is simply that if we wanted to live to 1930s standards, we would only have to work 15 hours a week. Most of us want more than that. Instead of a day trip to Brighton we want Beni, Phuket or the Golden Gate. Instead of winding up the old Victrola we want iTunes and Spotify. Instead of pegging laundry on the washline in the vain hope that it will dry, we hump it from the washing machine into the tumble dryer. Et cetera.

    • True, with the minor quibble that the Victrola was an expensive item that only the middle classes could afford, whereas Spotify and iTunes are cheap as chips (even free with a little advertising). Which makes your argument even stronger.

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