"Bullshit jobs", racial depolarization, the YIMBY-union alliance, China's last boosters, Biden's foreign policy, low-carbon steel, and Javier Milei
Bullshit Jobs was bad to the point that I couldn't finish it. Most of the BS jobs he identified served clear purposes, he just wasn't intellectually curious enough to identify those purposes.
One that stood out was his complaining about the scheduling person for the university carpenter. Why couldn't they just hire a second carpenter instead so he could get his bookshelves fixed? Because a scheduling person is almost certainly cheaper than a carpenter, you need someone to schedule the carpenters time, and that person probably was doing a dozen other things in between phone calls.
I hate to speak ill of the dead, but the guy was an idiot.
On Biden and Afghanistan: sure, withdraw. But first, put some goddamn effort into resettling all those we promised to “free” if they worked with us. What an utter travesty.
As a successful serial startup founder/CEO less than 15% of the things I did on a daily basis for years was what I wanted to do, why I founded the companies.
85% of it was the things that allowed me to do the other 15%. Some of that 85% was odious.
I loved doing the 15%.
That is the nature of work.
We have lost our touch with the reality of how a career is developed. You start with hard, menial jobs and work you way up.
I worked as a concrete laborer, then a kid who put in the forms, then a concrete pusher, then a finisher, and then I got a chance to run the big machines. I went from making minimum wage to making 4X minimum wage as my skills increased.
I saw an engineer checking the forms and the concrete -- arrived in an air conditioned Suburban, wore khakis and a polo shirt. I wanted to become an engineer. I went to school and studied engineering.
I paid for my education by serving 5 years in the Army.
I did all that stuff for a decade and a half. That is how the American Dream is founded -- hard work.
When you start out, you do the things you really want to do on your own time. Then, if you are really, really, really lucky you get to do them for a living.
Teachers/parents fail kids by letting them think there is a shortcut to the American Dream. You have to work hard and remember nobody ever drowned in their own sweat.
"Progressives need to realize that racial demographics are not political destiny."
Progressives need to realize that racism (that is, favoring one race over another as a matter of official government policy) is bad, and is opposed by an overwhelming majority of the voting public.
Proof: in California in 2020, the very same electorate that voted for Biden 2-to-1 over Trump also voted AGAINST "affirmative action" (that is, racism) in state contracting and college admissions by a margin of 55% to 45%.
With racism (unironically though falsely called "anti-racism") now being crammed down our throats at work, with full-on totalitarianism as the openly declared endpoint (https://www.politico.com/interactives/2019/how-to-fix-politics-in-america/inequality/pass-an-anti-racist-constitutional-amendment/), some of us lifelong Democrat voters have finally had enough.
Unions: guess the patronage must flow or else we’ll choke the economy like the dockworkers. People tell me “unions good and you’d be a serf otherwise”; I say “fuck off, American unions bad, other countries do it better”.
Race: leftists will have to decide if they want to win elections or go back to their 80s losing configuration of blacks (who are slipping away) + neurotic woke whites (who aren’t close to a majority) or dial back on some of their pet victim protection excesses. Already Asians in NY are trending GOP because Dems clearly see us as being patronage fodder for blacks in education.
The Reddit anti work stuff is dumb and overwrought, but there is something to the idea.
I think it relates to Lean/TPS ideas of value-added and non-value added steps in a process. Many steps seem critically important, until you realize the entire process can be simplified 90 percent.
Work that mostly involves coordinating, scheduling, communicating to non-customers, expediting, managing queues, completing forms, meeting compliance - it’s all non-value added in the end.
Would your customer pay you just to have a meeting where you talk about filling their order, or do they just want their order filled?
I feel like “bullshit job” concept is fake but points to something real. The real issue might be that some people like a boss breathing down their neck when they work. The aggressive boss helps them stay on task, be their best self and feel purposeful. In other words, they find getting the work done more enjoyable and purposeful when someone is like “growl, i need this now or we’ll die.” It’s easier to find purpose when someone (an authority you accept and respect) is providing you with that purpose. Self-generated purpose, to some, feels fake or just meh.
But, like also, people can’t admit to themselves that they’re just not that self-motivated, not very agentic. After all, everyone is always talking about how great go-getters are with their self-motivation. You can’t roll up to an interview and be like, actually, I need a good smack every now and then to do my best work. So, if you can’t admit a lack of self-motivation, the next best thing is to say, my job sucks my soul out because it’s pointless, purposeless and “bullshit.”
People don’t like to talk about this, but there’s something exciting and fun and very much alive about a boss screaming in your face. Now, screamers are considered unprofessional, mean or whatever. And, on the other side of the screamer-phillic screamer-phobic spectrum, some people develop a nervous breakdown when screamed at.
Of course, employers understandably prefer people that they don’t have to yell at to get going, even setting aside legal or reputation risk If every employee needed at personal browbeaten, that would cost a lot.
Anyway, “bullshit jobs” is a zombie concept because it’s getting at a real issue. I think the issue is louder now because of increasingly feminized or walking-on-ice work norms, which flow from civil rights and employment mandates. Possibly, women managers are also on average less charismatic and have more trouble pulling off the socially/ psychologically authentic authoritarian yet charismatic boss. Maybe also men (and women) find themselves in lines of work that they are usually not suited to and would have been previously discouraged from, stuff like scheduling, liasing, coordinating. So instead of quitting, they try to make it work. And the poor person-job fit sucks.
I would add that some industries really do have bad institutional incentives, and some companies have a sclerotic corporate culture. And, when you’re in one of these situations, the sensation of purposelessness can be a lot for some people. But I don’t think these other issues are systemic.
I like your suggestion on Twitter that the US begin forming coalitions with other democracies from the second and third worlds - like India, Indonesia, Nigeria etc... as a counterpoint to useless groupings like BRICS.
I think we did youth a big disservice by not having them do truly bullshit jobs when young. Youth labor participation has fallen for decades and many youth now never work (especially the kinds of youth who cry because they have be an intern and work).
The best thing my parents ever did was make work doing manual labor in concrete foundations and my son has thanked me for making him work at McDonald’s and while in college. If you never had a real brutal soul crushing job while having to go to school I guess working on a laptop must seem awful. If you comparrison is hauling multiple 4x8 sheets of plywood up a terraced hill starting at 5 in the morning to avoid as much of the brutal heat as possible working in the laptop is much nicer.
That said, I’m in NY state right now and there are a bunch of refugees seeking asylum who would happily haul that plywood. Wish we could keep them and send the crybabies to Central America for a few years. When they comeback I bet those soul crushing jobs will look a lot better.
Great analysis on the BS jobs meme and China. On both topics, your information rings true.
I once very snakily,and perhaps rudely, suggested that you stick to economics and not venture into foreign policy. I apologize for any past snakiness/rudeness.
That said, I will disagree with you on Biden's FP. it's way too early to declare that our policies vis a vis either Russia or China are successful.
We have no exit plan for the war in Ukraine, and although the blame for the invasion lies 100% with Putin, we failed to try diplomacy to avoid the war. And hastened war with the ill-conceived Charter: Agreement dated 11/9/22, link below.
As for China, it remains to be seen whether our aggressive economic policies induce China to, for lack of a better phrase, "pull a Putin."
Finally, in terms of Afghanistan, i think it was an ill-conceived, poorly designed departure that set back America's reputation. To paraphrase a line from Macbeth: "Nothing in this war became us less like the leaving it."
" leftists, who once venerated work, pivoting their ideology to being against nearly all forms of it."
Perhaps ironically, the "bulshit jobs" thing is in large way a subproduct of the leftist veneration of work - if we follow the traditional neoclassical view of work (a thing with a negative utility that we do to receive in exchange things with positive utility), all jobs are supposed to be boring, and that is all.
It is when you adopt the point that work should be our realization as humans that, confronted with the reality that some jobs are boring, you will have the tentation of argue that those jobs are useless and only exist because an inefficient organization of society.
That Afghanistan take is right directionally and equal parts ignorant and morally abhorrent the more I think about. Of course, Asia is the priority and our focus needs to be there. Afghanistan was a humiliation because the US effectively surrendered the country back to the Taliban, abandoning any allies in the country to a grim fate, when it did not have to be that way. Worse, it is entirely Biden’s fault, trying to time the ending to September 11. This put pressure on an untested, unprepared government (another humiliation for as much as we spent in blood and treasure), when the Taliban never would have invaded if they had to campaign in the winter. If the purpose was solely to kill Al Qaeda, we could have achieved that with cruise missiles. The point was to prevent them from coming back, and that’s still TBD. AQ as a nation-state has lots of enemies, but AQ as a terrorist organization would likely still be useful to the same sponsors for the same reasons.
Afghanistan might have met the same fate regardless, but at least a few months of stability, with more time for allies to leave peacefully, would have been preferable to the swift, chaotic collapse. It will remain a huge stain on Biden’s reputation and character, though his administration’s savvy in Ukraine and Chinese containment dramatically outweighs it in impact.
Really enjoying the Econ 102 podcast. It’s a perfect companion to the substack.
> But Milei’s proposal is not a good one; a country needs a central bank, as a lender of last resort, to manage the money supply, and so on. It just needs a central bank that’s more responsible than Argentina’s. Argentina, perhaps more than any other country in the world, is a country with great potential that’s been held back by bad macroeconomic management, with hyperinflation and sovereign default making regular appearances. (This is probably why so many great macroeconomists come from Argentina — they want to help their country, but no one listens to them.)
What explains the success of Ecuador, Panama and El Salvador? I think I'd also like a full post on this (which sounds like it'll be a refutation of Cowen's Bloomberg article: https://www.bloomberg.com/opinion/articles/2023-08-18/argentina-s-future-is-promising-with-the-dollar).
Regarding polling showing shift in Black and Hispanic vote to GOP, I think your bigger point is a good one. Shift is at least on a small level likely real and it’s probably a good thing long term if the two parties are less racially polarized.
But I’d really caution against extrapolating 2024 outcomes from polls this far out. For one, you’ll notice that “undecided” is a significant portion of the respondents. You more than most people would know that direction of inflation and whether or not we continue to have a “soft landing” will go a long way in determining which direction these supposed “undecideds” go.*
But just looking at history, you’ll see how much polling and pundit analysis this far out is a bit of a mug’s game. To start with most relevant example; Reagan in 83 (relevant both due to similar age profile and similar worries about inflation). https://www.washingtonpost.com/archive/politics/1982/09/17/reagan-should-not-seek-second-term-majority-believes/4ccc2a56-1693-469d-af51-1368fd0fc649/
More recent examples regarding our last two Democratic presidents. For Clinton. https://www.nytimes.com/1994/11/21/us/political-memo-clinton-s-grip-on-96-ticket-isn-t-so-sure.html For Obama. https://news.gallup.com/poll/149114/obama-close-race-against-romney-perry-bachmann-paul.aspx (most relevant comparison here? See Obama’s approval rating in 2011).
Last note that’s not really something you touched on but worth highlighting especially my Clinton example; absolutely ignore pundits bigging up challenges to the incumbents and “News analysis” that consists of someone on background saying “ppl are expressing doubts incumbent should run again”. This is as much about the slow news season that’s the summer as anything and also why Mark Helprin was always the most useless pundit in America even before he was outed as being kind of garbage as a person (he was the king of this kind of useless insider stuff).
* strong suspicion that a decent amount of those undecideds are more “can’t we have someone who’s not a geriatric running” but will likely still vote Biden. The true mystery to me are what I suspect are GOP “never Trump” vote. If I’m not mistaken they were key to 2020 and 2022 and if I had to guess will be key in 2024.
Some people seen to have a very romanticised view of working in the arts - I'd love to be an author, but getting the ideas from my head to the page is actually really hard even when I'm doing it for fun. Trying to make a living through art (writing, performing) is famously difficult and stressful, just in a different way to an office job. Maybe that's just the need to appeal to the market under capitalism, although it's not like feudalism and communism didn't place their own constraints on artistic expression. Even in some imagined post-scarcity utopia, there's always going to be competition for attention - if I got paid to just do whatever I wanted, I'd definitely try writing but I'd stop caring if nobody was reading it.