Bullshit Jobs and the Calculation Problem

This is not a review of Bullshit Jobs. My verdict on the book is simple: it is good, and you should read it. You should, actually, probably read it before you read this. I’ll be re-explaining some of the concepts in it, but I will not cover them in the same depth as the book itself. Further, I will be —to some extent— offering explanations that run counter to Graeber’s. Instead of a review, this is an explanation of some of its concepts from the economic angle.

Graeber starts out with a definition:

Bullshit jobs are jobs that are primarily or entirely made up of tasks that the person doing that job considers to be pointless, unnecessary, or even pernicious. Jobs that, were they to disappear, would make no difference whatsoever. Above all, these are jobs that the holders themselves feel should not exist.

Graeber provides an anthropological explanation of why bullshit jobs exist, in the form of what he has termed ‘managerial feudalism’. I remain ambivalent on whether or not I think that managerial feudalism really exists in all of the ways that Graeber describes it, and I will be ignoring it as an explanation in this article, in favor of explanations that are more individuated and differentiated, smaller in scale and scope, and focus on economic ways of seeing rather than anthropological ways of seeing.

As I have said, while he provides a single overarching explanation, I aim to provide many small ones. To the extent that my many small explanations do point to a single large one, it is towards the calculation problem. I would not say that all bullshit jobs are explained by the calculation problem — merely that many of the explanations for many of the world’s bullshit jobs are unsurprising if one is already aware of the calculation problem. But, then, the calculation problem is so intrinsic to any real understanding of capitalism or socialism that saying that the calculation problem explains something is almost meaningless.

The core of his data lies within his taxonomy of bullshit jobs, based on all of the testimony that he has collected. In his taxonomy, there are five kinds of bullshit jobs. These are: “flunkies, goons, duct tapers, box tickers, and taskmasters.”

He explains: “Flunky jobs are those that exist only or primarily to make someone else look or feel important.”

Goons are “people whose jobs have an aggressive element, but, crucially, who exist only because other people employ them.”

Duct tapers “are employees whose jobs exist only because of a glitch or fault in the organization; who are there to solve a problem that ought not to exist.”

Box tickers are “employees who exist only or primarily to allow an organization to be able to claim it is doing something that, in fact, it is not doing.”

Taskmasters are a bit different: “Taskmasters fall into two subcategories. Type 1 contains those whose role consists entirely of assigning work to others… Type 2 taskmasters may also have real duties in addition to their role as taskmaster, but if all or most of what they do is create bullshit tasks for others, then their own jobs can be classified as bullshit too.”

Flunkies are the most interesting category because flunkies are evidence of how terrible of an idea it is to have decisionmakers in a company with minimal incentive to make the company do well. Graeber thinks that flunkies exist because those who hire them (middle- and upper-management) enjoy having them around. While I don’t think we should discount this as an explanation, it is only a partial one. In Graeber’s own words: “Flunky jobs are those that exist only or primarily to make someone else look or feel important.” Graeber, in his book, mostly focuses on the “feel” part, rather than the “look” part. Looking important is an asset within the structure of a large corporation, or at least might be. This is especially true at the levels of middle-management; put another way, it is especially true if one is in a position of simultaneously having an overlord and being an overlord, and helps if your overlord has more than a handful of other comparable underlings.  

If you are one of these middle-managers, then having a bunch of underlings means that you can send out dishonest signals that you must be important and powerful, and can manage to also send out dishonest signals that you must be doing many important things and so should be paid more — because you’re obviously very skilled, and might leave for a better offer. These signals work both horizontally and vertically. That is to say: a large staff commands respect amongst one’s peers and can manage to signal to one’s superior’s that one is of value to the company. Because neither your superior nor your peers are able to subject your domain to frequent checks to see what it is that all your underlings are actually doing, they must make use of approximate signifiers such as ‘number of underlings’.

Because your peers and superior would possibly suffer backlash if they called you out and were wrong, they have an incentive to not do so. Because your superior would look bad if it was revealed that you got away with wasting company money to send dishonest signals, they have a disincentive to uncover your waste. Because your peers would be stepping on their superior’s toes, and uncovering your bad behavior might raise the general suspicion of their boss, they have some disincentive to uncover your bad behavior — though, it should be noted, they could potentially take some of the resources freed up by your fall from grace. Your underlings, of course, have a strong disincentive to uncover your waste — while one or two of them might have some potential to get promoted to replace you if things go so far as to result in your firing, there is a strong risk that they or their friends/allies might be fired in the correction of your behavior. The result is that no one has much incentive to actually stop you from having as many flunkies as you can get the corporate budget to say that you should have.

This leads into the key thing about flunkies, the thing that really makes the entire subject a window into the deeper dynamics of capitalism: that their boss isn’t paying their wages. The company is. But the boss gets the benefit.

As Kevin Carson said in his Economic Calculation in the Corporate Commonwealth:

This calculation argument can be applied not only to a state-planned economy, but also to the internal planning of the large corporation… The large corporation necessarily distributes the knowledge relevant to informed entrepreneurial decisions among many departments and sub-departments until the cost of aggregating that knowledge outweighs the benefits of doing so… In treating the internal policies of the capitalist corporation as inherently profit-driven, Mises simultaneously treated the entrepreneur as an indivisible actor whose will and perception permeate the entire organization… The question, though, is whether those making investment decisions—whether senior management allocating capital among divisions of a corporation or outside finance capitalists—even possess the information needed to assess the internal workings of firms and make appropriate decisions… Whether an apparent profit is sustainable… is often a judgment best made by those directly involved in production… One big problem with Mises’s model… is this: it is often the irrational constraints imposed from above that result in red ink at lower levels. But those at the top of the hierarchy refuse to acknowledge the double bind they put their subordinates in. ‘Plausible deniability,’ the downward flow of responsibility and upward flow of credit, and the practice of shooting the messenger for bad news, are what lubricate the wheels of any large organization.

In a way, Graeber’s empirical findings about flunkies echo Carson’s theoretical musings about the calculation problem in corporations, though it took eleven years for this empirical answer to come to the fore. There is more going on here than a simple and complete empirical confirmation of theoretical predictions, though. It is also the case that Carson’s writings suggest that Graeber’s findings are only one manifestation of a more general issue: the calculation problem within large corporations. Indeed, we should expect that the general inefficiencies of a hierarchical mode of production (such as, but not limited to, the capitalism we all know and hate) should have many symptoms beyond that of the flunkie.

Another such symptom (though, it should be emphatically noted, only another of many) is the existence of the taskmaster. This is most obvious when examining Graeber’s “Type 2 taskmasters” who “may also have real duties in addition to their role as taskmaster, but… all or most of what they do is create bullshit tasks for others,” as, really, this is just the other side of the coin of which the flunkie is the other face. There is no bullshit underling without a superior handing out bullshit work. In fact, it almost seems excessive to say that the flunkie and the taskmaster-2 are two different jobs — if you wanted to be charitable to capitalism, you could undercount the bullshit by saying that this is a single bullshit job being done by two people. The taskmaster-2 exists through exploiting the information and incentive problems of large organizations:

Where things really get interesting is when we examine the type 1 taskmasters. Type 1 contains those whose role consists entirely of assigning work to others. This job can be considered bullshit if the taskmaster herself believes that there is no need for her intervention, and that if she were not there, underlings would be perfectly capable of carrying on by themselves.

There is one obvious utility to the taskmaster-1s, though it would not usually be apparent to the taskmaster-1, their underlings, or the company’s customers — indeed, only to the taskmaster-1’s superior. This is the ability to assist in and recommend firings. Though the workers are surely competent to run things by themselves, it would be very hard to tell which ones could or should be fired (or, perhaps, reassigned) without someone on the ground to monitor the workers. In the event of lay-offs or ‘misbehavior’ resulting in mass firings on the part of the taskmaster-1s underlings, those who exploit the labor of a department of workers would lack crucial everyday information about who actually does what — and, thus, would have to choose between firing the entire department and hiring a new one, or not firing the department at all. Both are costly choices for the company. Further, in the event of simple, everyday activities, the superiors of the department would really have very little idea of what goes on in the office — especially in the case of workers that are highly knowledgeable, and whose work is highly abstract and mysterious to the MBA’s who run the company. In light of this, the taskmaster-1 reveals itself to not be a leader of anyone. The taskmaster-1 is a spy, operating to send information on what would naturally be a worker’s co-op back to those who supposedly maintain control over the means of production used by the department’s workers. However, since it is not particularly normal for lay-offs or firings to happen, the taskmaster-1 can comfortably delude themselves into thinking that they do not collect a regular paycheck to betray people they spend 40 hours around every week. And certainly, the taskmaster-1 provides no real value to society or to themselves. They’re a snitch and would have no place in a free society. In a free society, after all, the workers would be the owners of the company — one way or another.

Duct tapers are similar to taskmasters, in this respect at least: both exist because firms are not generally worker cooperatives. Though, it should be noted, while taskmaster-1s exist to impede the formation of a shadow-cooperative within an ostensibly autocratic firm, duct tapers exist because —at least somewhat— autocratic firms do not value workers the way that cooperatives do. To put this another way, your boss will never care about you as much as you do. Though, there is a caveat: duct tapers (unlike taskmasters and flunkies, though —as we shall see— like box tickers and goons) would still exist within socialism. There would be fewer of them, certainly. But they’d still exist. This is because, to some extent, duct tapers really do provide useful work to their company. It just feels like it’s useless because it very much appears that there are better ways to do the job of a duct taper. Graeber notes that: “Duct tapers are employees whose jobs exist only because of a glitch or fault in the organization; who are there to solve a problem that ought not to exist.” I hold that there are really two sorts of duct tapers, and I’ll call these type 1s and type 2s.

Type 1s are those employees whose job it is to clean up after the messes caused by superiors. This feels like bullshit when the superior is uncaring about their mess — when the mess doesn’t have to exist. The most likely cases of this to be reported are those wherein the superior themselves is useless. However, Graeber himself makes no note of this distinction. Graeber’s point is that “…cleaning up after someone who makes a completely gratuitous and unnecessary mess is always irritating. Having a full-time occupation cleaning up after such a person…“ is a bullshit job. However, regardless of whether or not the duct taper appreciates it, some people’s labor is very valuable and some people’s labor simply… isn’t. Doctors are more in demand than janitors, after all. And, sometimes, this difference is so large that it really does make sense to have the doctor be as messy as is convenient for them, and then have the janitor go around after them. If the doctor’s time is a hundred times more expensive than the janitor’s, it would be criminally inefficient to have the doctor waste time to save the janitor some bother. However, somewhat tellingingly, Graeber doesn’t provide examples like this. Both examples of type 1 duct tapers that Graeber mentions are of type 1 duct tapers assigned to cover up that someone is completely unable to do their job. The bullshit resides with the superior in these cases, never with the supposed type 1 duct taper. The type 1 duct-tapers in these examples do indeed have bullshit jobs, but they are merely what Graeber refers to elsewhere as “second-order bullshit” — non-bullshit jobs that are completely in the service of bullshit ones. Remember, Graeber’s definition is that: “duct tapers are employees whose jobs exist only because of a glitch or fault in the organization; who are there to solve a problem that ought not to exist.” Of course, these problems that “ought not to exist” are created externally from the person whose job it is to solve them. The bullshit of his example duct taper-1s is not intrinsic — there is, after all, nothing wrong with substituting inputs of cheap labor for inputs of expensive labor.

Type 2s are those duct tapers who job it is to do something that could be automated away, easily. Things like: “My day consisted of photocopying veterans’ health records for seven and a half hours a day… Workers were told time and again that it was too costly to buy the machines for digitizing.” Or: “if a homeowner, upon discovering a leak in the roof, decided it was too much bother to hire a roofer to re-shingle it, and instead stuck a bucket underneath and hired someone whose full-time job was to periodically dump the water.” The awkward thing about these examples is that factor substitution and time-preferences exist and explain some of these behaviors as being perfectly rational.

Factor substitution is when you substitute one factor of production (for this explanation, we’ll pretend that the two factors of production are merely capital and labor. For those only familiar with the Marxian usage of that word, when I write ‘capital’ you should read ‘means of production’, not ‘money’) for the other, in order to maintain the same level of production. Time-preference is the name for the fact that a dollar today is worth more to you than a dollar tomorrow. Because of this, it is possible to construct a geometric series to compare the value of making a big one-time payment and a series of small payments forever.

Combining the two means that you quite easily see how it really, actually, makes more sense to pay someone (especially someone doing labor that is not especially expensive) to do a job that you theoretically could instead spend a lot on a relatively expensive machine to do instead. A lot of instances of type 2 duct taping really are the most efficient thing that an organization could be doing to accomplish a task, especially if you’re willing to extend the concept of capital to the organizational structure itself. It might, after all, be more expensive to fix the problems within the organization than to pay someone to run around and put out fires. This is not true of all instances where duct tapers are employed, but it is true of many.

Some type 2 duct tapers really are examples of organizational inefficiency. This inefficiency does not come from anything intrinsic to factor substitution, but from who gets to make the choice about when to substitute and how, and under what incentive structure and set of rules that person operates. Organizations, after all, do not exist in any real sense. They are social constructs. It’s people, actual real people acting under messy and weird constraints, that make decisions. They might have been provided with an inefficiently small budget, one insufficient to purchase the more efficient, more expensive, capital. They might have to operate under rules about large expenditures that do not govern hiring. They might be forced to take on a certain number of employees. Anything is possible. And further, there’s no particular reason to be certain that they (or their superiors, or anyone else) have any incentive to try to maximize the firm’s (or the CEO’s) utility, rather than maximize their own — which might be at odds with the firm’s, after all. They might keep on the duct taper-2 as (effectively) a flunkie (to make themselves seem more important, and thus gain advantage within the firm’s internal politics), or they might merely not wish to make the duct taper suffer by firing them — and, after all, it is not as though the boss is responsible for paying the duct taper.

Box-tickers are a little similar to duct-tapers, in that they’re really about substituting one thing for another: though, in this case, box-tickers are about substituting appearances for results, rather than labor for capital. I’m also going to break them down into two subtypes. Both types are about creating appearances rather than results, but type 1s are about creating the appearance of doing something for customers or the public, while type 2s are about creating the appearance of following government regulations. Either way, they’re still “employees who exist only or primarily to allow an organization to be able to claim it is doing something that, in fact, it is not doing.” The simple truth here is that it’s sometimes cheaper to act like you’re doing something than to actually do that thing and that sometimes you really can get away with it. To anti-statists, the existence of type 2s might seem like a great indictment of the state — ‘look! It’s not even being effective with our stolen tax dollars!’, they’ll say. But, while it is an indictment (and a cause for hope — what can we get away with, then?) it isn’t a great one. After all, a number of these type 2s would just be enforced by public reputation if they weren’t being enforced by the state. However, it should be noted, public opinion can be deceived as well — or else type 2s wouldn’t exist, either. Still, though: in the absence of the state protecting the owning classes, these firms could be directly punished for their bad behavior. Perhaps institutions could be developed to better track these companies, and see if they really are doing what they say that they’re doing.

It should be noted that Graeber is, in some ways, more confident that this is a problem of the political economy of hierarchy than I am! He notes that this is at least partially about satisfying the bureaucratic whims of large organizations: “Of course, on some level, all bureaucracies work on this principle: once you introduce formal measures of success, “reality”—for the organization—becomes that which exists on paper, and the human reality that lies behind it is a secondary consideration at best.” This is partially a manifestation of the need for executives to convince other executives that they are important:

Note here the importance of the physical attractiveness of the report. This is a theme that comes up frequently in testimonies about box-ticking operations and even more so in the corporate sector than in government. If the ongoing importance of a manager is measured by how many people he has working under him, the immediate material manifestation of that manager’s power and prestige is the visual quality of his presentations and reports. The meetings in which such emblems are displayed might be considered the high rituals of the corporate world.

And, partially, he blames this on the egos of executives:

Many large corporations, for instance, maintain their own in-house magazines or even television channels, the ostensible purpose of which is to keep employees up to date on interesting news and developments, but which, in fact, exist for almost no reason other than to allow executives to experience that warm and pleasant feeling that comes when you see a favorable story about you in the media, or to know what it’s like to be interviewed by people who look and act exactly like reporters but never ask questions you wouldn’t want them to ask. Such venues tend to reward their writers, producers, and technicians very handsomely, often at two or three times the market rate. But I’ve never talked to anyone who does such work full-time who doesn’t say the job is bullshit.

This last one is certainly interesting, in that it shows executives and other members of upper management diverting organizational funds to satisfy their own elaborate desires, in yet another example of how the informational and structural problems of autocratic firms (as opposed to worker co-ops) lead to a misalignment of incentives. After all, so much the better for them if these executives can consume on the company dime. Still, though, this focus on image and appearance feels deeper — if I was more knowledgeable about Situationist theory, I could probably work that in here, even. But the simple truth is that I’m somewhat uncertain about these explanations. I suspect that a certain amount of box-ticking would be extraordinarily difficult to eliminate. I can even imagine a worker cooperative hiring someone to convince the wider community that they were doing something that they were not actually doing. It certainly seems as though there could be benefits to doing so. And, to the communist peanut gallery, I should note that there is no reason to believe that organizations in a non-monetary society are a) good at doing many, many, many other things and b) would be any less likely to attempt to deceive the wider community for social and political benefit.  

All this brings us to the fifth and final category of bullshit job: the goon. Goons are “people whose jobs have an aggressive element, but, crucially, who exist only because other people employ them.” He goes on to say “The most obvious example of this are national armed forces. Countries need armies only because other countries have armies. If no one had an army, armies would not be needed,” which is something of an odd point. If no one had force of arms to bring to bear against anyone else, the first group of people who could break that balance-of-(non)power would be kings, at least temporarily — up until everyone else started to get guns, too. Which, as a prelude, illustrates the problem with the idea that goons are unnecessary — while it might be dissatisfying to be one, and it might be possible to imagine a fantastical world without them, such a world couldn’t really (fully) exist.

And, of course, soldiering is not a bullshit job, though it may contain bullshit tasks — after all, soldiers generally don’t say that they feel that their jobs shouldn’t exist. Quite famously, they speak of intense feelings of duty and purpose. As opposed as I am to statist militaries, I don’t think that I could call them bullshit by Graeber’s definitions.

In any case, he continues:

[T]he same can be said of most lobbyists, PR specialists, telemarketers, and corporate lawyers. Also, like literal goons, they have a largely negative impact on society. I think almost anyone would concur that, were all telemarketers to disappear, the world would be a better place. But I think most would also agree that if all corporate lawyers, bank lobbyists, or marketing gurus were to similarly vanish in a puff of smoke, the world would be at least a little bit more bearable.

This sort-of points towards a separation of the category into two, largely unrelated, types. Type 1s are your lawyers and lobbyists. Type 2s are your PR specialists and telemarketers. Type 1s function to attempt to make the state do things — they’re the real-world proxies for the corporate militaries of science-fiction. Eliminating the state would eliminate these jobs. Type 2s are about trying to trick people into buying things that they don’t actually want. One could argue that they’re a result of there being organizations large enough to afford to hire them — or that they’re a result of people being poor from not owning the means of production, and so needing to be convinced to go the extra mile to make unnecessarily inconvenient sacrifices. One could also argue that they’re a result of people not being allowed to go to these places of business and begin smashing things till the people involved agree to stop. I happen to believe that it’s something of all three.

Before I give my concluding remarks, there’s one final thing that I need to say: it’s not actually notable that —as Graeber makes much of— jobs where you help people, or otherwise do something satisfying, are paid poorly. Graeber acts as though it’s a vast political conspiracy, but it’s really… not. Wages are defined by supply and demand. The more satisfying a job is, the more people will want to do it. The more people that want to do a job, the higher the supply will be. The higher the supply, the lower the wage. This doesn’t require that you believe in anything more complicated than supply and demand.

If you don’t understand economic ways of seeing, you will be likely to believe that much more of society is intentional than it really is. And, it doesn’t help that much more of society really is intentional than mainstream sources would have you believe. When you become a leftist, you begin to realize that there really are these vast ‘conspiracies’, hidden in plain sight. It’s easy, from there, to start thinking that things are conspiracies when they really aren’t — that there are grand explanations for everything to be traced out, that every piece of evidence about the inefficiencies of capitalism is covered up by a long and storied trail of historical developments.

Anthropology is prone to seeing big, society-level explanations for things. I’m not knocking anthropology as a science by saying this — many things really do have big, society-level explanations. Some subfields of economics also focus on the big picture — not all, though. Market-based ways of seeing focus on interactions between individuals. They focus on all the particular reasons why two (or more) individuals might enter into an exchange. Obviously, of course, many such exchanges under statism have an element of structural violence to them.

However, this structural violence is not inherent in the very concept of exchange. In fact, structural violence tends to hide itself as features of exchange — leading people to think that the existence of rents and the presence of exchange imply one another. Focusing on individual interactions, rather than a super zoomed-out way of seeing, lets one see the structural violence much more clearly — including the ways that it is resisted and taken advantage of.

The market perspective is uniquely useful in that it gives the effects of individual incentive structures and desires their due. There may be overarching reasons that bullshit jobs exist, but there are also many particular and individual reasons. Ignoring those gives us an incomplete view of what’s going on here, and the extent to which these problems can be solved under capitalism might continue after capitalism, or may not entirely be problems at all.

Anarchy and Democracy
Fighting Fascism
Markets Not Capitalism
The Anatomy of Escape
Organization Theory