Working in a college, I’m at the front lines of a significant problem: wasteful bullshit jobs. In fact, I am writing this post to procrastinate editing a bureaucratic report (that nobody cares about) that has been slowly grinding the joy out of my life for the past several months. I have to write this report for the benefit of regulatory oversight which, ironically, is supposed to ensure that I use my privileged position for the benefit of society instead of wasting my efforts on pointless or destructive outlets.
In my case, this bullshit aspect of my job is a predictable outcome of working in a state sponsored bureaucracy. But the same disease afflicts private industry too.
If I’m the head of a Fortune 500 company, I have incentive to increase profitability of my company, but I have competing interests too. Most importantly I have to maintain my position of power within the company. Bruce Bueno de Mesquita and coauthors have laid out the logic of the situation in The Dictator’s Handbook, and The Logic of Political Survival–in a nutshell, I have to worry about competition for positions of power within any hierarchy. This requires engaging in cooperative rent-seeking to keep the right people happy. If I don’t, I risk losing my position to a sycophant who will.
We shouldn’t be surprised to see Niskanenian logic show up in these situations. Corporate flunkies are like a private army that can help me keep my position of power even if they don’t contribute to the profitability of the firm. Even if I want to maximize profits, if I have to worry about keeping my position, I have to engage in some of this costly, inefficient rent-seeking.
In other words, “firms maximize profit” is an approximation that brushes aside methodological individualism. Don’t get me wrong, there’s evolutionary pressure on firms that will push in that direction. But within a firm there’s evolutionary pressure preventing the firm from fully maximizing. (In other other words, if I survive this report I’ll have to start reading up on corporate governance.)
This logic is a natural source of bullshit jobs, even in a free market. Regulatory capture should make it worse, but we’ll never completely eliminate it.
On a more speculative note, I think we also have to worry about culture. For one, our current culture drives the demand for increased regulation. For another, we prize work for work’s sake to the point that most people would rather see someone fritter away their brief experience as a sentient being than see them fail to live up to social expectations. Such notions, I think, are behind the surprising lack of riots in the street you might expect in a world where most people know we face this problem of bullshit jobs. But I’ll leave any further speculation for the comments.
tl;dr: Our economy is beset with bullshit jobs that sap our creative capacity and crush our souls. And pretty much everyone knows it. Government is part of the problem, partly because regulation creates demand for paper-pushing, and partly because anti-competitive regulation converts lively, profit-seeking firms into private bureaucracies in their own right. But there are deeper problems: our willingness to abide, and the fundamental logic of hierarchical organizations.