Nightcap

  1. Rocky Mountain states continue to produce excellent governors Epstein & Stevens, New York Times
  2. Blood and soil in Narendra Modi’s India Dexter Filkins, New Yorker
  3. David Graeber against economics David Glasner, Uneasy Money
  4. Libertarians and pragmatists on democracy Zak Woodman, NOL

Nightcap

  1. David Graeber’s poor grasp of economics Scott Sumner, EconLog
  2. Is capitalism a threat to democracy? Caleb Crain, New Yorker
  3. When did we start talking about life from elsewhere? Caleb Scharf, Scientific American
  4. Russia or California? Conservatives in 2020 John Quiggin, Crooked Timber

Nightcap

  1. Against economics David Graeber, New York Review of Books
  2. On liberalism and democracy Alberto Mingardi, EconLog
  3. Strategy and the Free and Open Pacific Gregory Poling, War on the Rocks
  4. The NBA-China saga, continued Kevin Arnovitz, ESPN

Government isn’t the only problem

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.

Nightcap

  1. A defence of echo chambers Chris Dillow, Stumbling & Mumbling
  2. Try being a single woman in Nigeria Olutimehin Adegbeye, Africa is a Country
  3. A short history of silk and commerce Evelyn Welch, History Today
  4. Take these jobs and shove ’em Matt Mazewski, Commonweal

BC’s weekend reads

  1. Freedom of the Athenians (book review)
  2. The Myth of the Myth of Barter
  3. Trade Liberalization and Growth: New Evidence (pdf)
  4. From West Philly to Gulshan e Iqbal and Back
  5. Obama’s Witness for the Prosecution
  6. When Your Dream Lovers Die

Around the Web

  1. The changing face of Chinese advertisements
  2. Paul Krugman’s Philosophy of Economics, and What It Should Be
  3. Impertinent Obstructions, Human Folly, and the Power of the Market
  4. Anthropologist David Graeber’s Debt: The First 5000 Years is now available free online (pdf)

Around the Web

  1. Guidelines on writing a philosophy paper (or any kind of paper!)
  2. Sen, Nozick and “Breaking Bad”
  3. On David Graeber’s “bullshit jobs”
  4. Math in Economics: Useful and Over-used
  5. The Problem with Delhi’s Rich Kids
  6. Straussian civil wars: It’s East coast versus West

Around the Web

Gene Callahan breaks down social thought through the ages.

The auto industry’s success story since Obama’s union vote-buying bailout.

Debt: the first 500 pages. An economist from Australia reviews David Graeber.

Daniel Larison laments the terms of debate in regards to US foreign policy this election.

Around the Web: Consortium Edition

Co-editor Fred Foldvary points out that slavery is alive and well today.

Historian Michael Adamson compares the debacle in Iraq to South Vietnam rather than Germany or Japan.

Mark Brady gives us a well-written, brief biography of a little-known (and hence important) individual in the liberty movement.

Ninos Malek explains how property rights are the key to environmental conservation efforts.

Jeffrey Rogers Hummel takes on anthropologist David Graeber.