Furthest Right

Economic karma

Very few people want to look the truth of jobs in the face: because we’re working around a lowest common denominator, most jobs are fluff, although those who get results outside of the job limits will succeed.

Economics like all sciences is a study of how the world works. We observe, we formulate theories, we test them and in the end, we come up with an algorithm, formula or procedural description to reproduce those results.

Like other sciences, economics is part art and part what we consider science. The parts we understand are replicatable; the parts we don’t become like an art, where the best of us can use their aesthetic faculties to hazard an intelligent guess.

But for questions short of the larger theories, economics helps us predict how market forces will respond to events. Even more, it reminds us that market forces are merely the result of what people are willing to trade time, money and labor for.

In other words, economics reflects the underlying math of existence much as physics, statistics, mathematics, biology and chemistry do. These disciplines aren’t separate by nature; they’re all ways we understand our world.

With that in mind, I think we should look at internet provacateur Matt Taibbi’s comments on working in modern America:

There is, of course, a huge difference between working 80 hours a week in a profession that you love and which promises you vast financial rewards, and working 80 hours a week digging ditches for a septic-tank company, or listening to impatient assholes scream at you at some airport ticket counter all day long, or even teaching disinterested, uncontrollable kids in some crappy school district with metal detectors on every door.

Most of the work in this world completely sucks balls and the only reward most people get for their work is just barely enough money to survive, if that. The 95% of people out there who spend all day long shoveling the dogshit of life for subsistence wages are basically keeping things running just well enough so that David Brooks, me and the rest of that lucky 5% of mostly college-educated yuppies can live embarrassingly rewarding and interesting lives in which society throws gobs of money at us for pushing ideas around on paper (frequently, not even good ideas) and taking mutual-admiration-society business lunches in London and Paris and Las Vegas with our overpaid peers.

Brooks is right that most of the people in that 5% bracket log heavy hours, but where he’s wrong is in failing to recognize that most of us have enough shame to know that what we do for a living isn’t really working. I pull absolutely insane hours in my current profession, to the point of having almost no social life at all, but I know better than to call what I do for a living work. I was on a demolition crew when I was much younger, the kind of job where you have to wear a dust mask all day long, carry buckets full of concrete, and then spend all night picking fiberglass shards out of your forearms from ripping insulation out of the wall. – Trueslant

What he points out is a simple truth of post-WWII America: we have created a proliferation of make-work activities among our jobs, so that we work longer and more obsessively, but our “work” is less effective and more boring.

Let’s look at the three major categories of jobs, using Plato’s guide as a template:

  • Drones: are told what to do. Unskilled manual labor, janitorial work, food service, check-out personnel. Most live in cities.
  • Artisans and the lower middle class: artisans are college-educated, but not as smart as they think, these work in media, as administrative assistants and other glorified clerk jobs. They all live in cities. Lower middle class have customer-oriented jobs that are defined by the transaction and don’t require too much directional change: Plumber, builder, store manager, bureaucrat and others fit in here. They live in suburbs or small cities near big ones.
  • Upper half of Middle class: these own businesses, have professional (doctor, lawyer) jobs, are high-level public servants, are educated and often have more of an in-depth view of things through “private education” or pursuing information on their own. These live in suburbs and rural areas.

Thanks to the reduction in jobs that require physical work, and the devaluation of college degrees, we now have more deskbound work than ever before — and with the internet taking over most research and communications functions, even more are coming.

In many ways, this is a result of our wealth as a civilization. We encouraged the spreading of this wealth, through education and opportunity for country folk to get city jobs, and the result is twofold: we work more glorified clerk positions, and while we get paid more, the value of our currency has declined in terms of real purchasing power.

The result is a proliferation of these glorified clerking positions, however, and that means that most of us will experience them as entry-level labor. And what’s wrong with that? Well, they’re soul crushers:

I worked hard at MIT. I routinely took seven to ten classes per semester and filled whatever hours were left in the day with part-time jobs and tutoring…

It took roughly three months before BCG disproved my “burn-out proof” theory. Putting together PowerPoint slides was easy, the hours were lenient, and the fifth day of every week usually consisting of a leisurely day away from the client site. By all accounts, I should have been coasting through my tasks.

What I learned is that burning out isn’t just about work load, it’s about work load being greater than the motivation to do work. It was relatively easy to drag myself to classes when I thought I was working for my own betterment. It was hard to sit at a laptop and crank out slides when all I seemed to be accomplishing was the transfer of wealth from my client to my company. – The Tech

Most of our “work” is filing paper, calling meetings, selling things to people over phones, and writing reports. It’s easy work and it reflects an over-valued economy.

If you’ve seen Office Space, you can relate to how mind-numbing the average office is. You have some work to do, and a whole lot of appearance to keep up. Meetings, paperwork, collaboration and presentations. Make-work outnumbers real world 20 to 1, at least.

Even our hard/underpaid jobs, thanks to unions and government bureaucracy, have become easy. I guess the first time I saw how much downtime fast food workers actually get, and how much of each janitor’s day is between tasks, my sympathy went out the window. Even construction and septic ditch digging seem to involve a fair amount of hanging around.

In contrast, the real jobs that occupy the higher economic echelon require a lot more paying attention all day long. You can’t be a doctor and zone out much during the day, at least if you want to be successful. Similarly, lawyers who screw off and don’t pay attention don’t get far. Ditto small business owners.

On the other hand, artisan and drone jobs are easy: people constantly tell you what to do, there are frequent breaks, and often the “hard work” part is much overstated. But we all like to claim we’re working hard, usually as a defense against budget-cutters or middle managers with an eye for relocating personnel to projects already budgeted.

The problem is that the more “spread out” our wealth becomes, the more we’re unable to accumulate real wealth and so coerced into shaping our lives around our jobs — this is from a short story about the coercive side of capitalism, written by a libertarian named Marshall Brain:

There came a point where tens of millions of humans did nothing at work unless told to do so by a Manna system.

You can imagine what would happen. Manna fires you because you don’t show up for work a couple times. Now you try to go get a job somewhere else. No other Manna system is going to hire you. There had always been an implicit threat in the American economy — “if you do not have a job, you cannot make any money and you will therefore become homeless.” Manna simply took that threat and turned the screws. If you did not do what Manna told you to, it would fire you. Then you would not be able to get a job anywhere else. It gave Manna huge leverage.

For example, Manna could call in reinforcements as it needed them. You would get a call from Manna and it would say, “Your Burger-G restaurant is experiencing unexpected customer volume. Can you help?” The word “help” meant, “Can you be here in less than 10 minutes?” You could say yes or no. The problem was that if you said “no” too many times, you got fired. And when you got fired, it meant you were blacklisted in the system.

Once you figured that out, you were pretty much forced to say “yes”. That meant that the printed schedules started to become pretty much irrelevant. Manna would call you when it wanted to call you. – Marshall Brain

What’s great about America is that no matter what your job category, if you apply yourself and are intelligent, you will rise. But very few do, especially at the lower levels. In fact, we seem to have a permanent underclass. How did this happen?

Those who rise are measured by a combination of factors. Where human logic works by breaking apart the many facets of an event in nature, and measuring each, nature seems to work by combining factors and selecting the best in each at the same time.

Natural selection, and by extension Social Darwinism, pick those who are smarter, more motivated and (probably) healthier and better-looking than the rest. This combination of effects produces a better animal, and it’s why we as humans are no longer chimps but about forty IQ points ahead. It’s probable that our other physical changes were side-effects of our change in intelligence; as our lifestyles changed with new realizations, our bodies followed.

When we look at the future of our society, we need to ask ourselves what we think our jobs should be like. My answer would be harder work for shorter periods of time, with as much of the dumb/boring work eliminated. Indeed, in another twenty years when we have robots with a verbal IQ of 90 and an ability to do any task with the precision of someone with an IQ of 130, much of the dumb and boring will simply vanish.

In the meantime, however, we have a nation of people in boring jobs, and in addition to that travesty, they must also face class warfare. Class warfare occurs when the people on the bottom start thinking they work really hard, get paid nothing, and these guys at the top aren’t actually doing any work — and that’s what the David Brooks column that Matt Taibbi mentions is talking about.

In a sense, our system in this country is a kind of economic karma cycle. You can move up by being competent; any kind of lesser competence will send you shooting back down. There’s no guarantee that you’ll always have wealth, or always be poor. But it only works if we don’t screw with it in the name of “fairness” that ends up being a jihad for the lowest common denominator (LCD). If we do that, we get stuck in the middle, and that middle is a boring glorified-clerk job.

We have two ways we can view class differences and economic inequality in this country:

  • The haves recognizing that they are more competent than the have-nots, and therefore ended up with wealth;
  • The have-nots, who are less competent, not recognizing that lesser competence and therefore blaming the haves for both their condition in life and that of the have-nots.

Right now, the USA is drifting toward option b, and it’s not doing us any good. Option b got us more boring jobs in the past, and ensured that instead of viewing incompetents as a problem, we coddled them and made laws to protect them, only in part because they’re perfect voters if you’re a manipulative politician.

A cutural shift away from option b would enable America to revive the power of natural selection and go onward, not into the past by dividing up what we’ve made instead of using it as seed corn toward the next generations.

Right now, we’re caught in the middle, which means that we can recognize some truths until they offend the sleeping masses, and then it’s apologize, apologize, apologize or they’ll pull out your eyes:

The letter, signed by Perry and his wife Karleena, was published on the St. Albert Gazette website Saturday. It discusses why the pair believes the controversial 58-unit affordable townhouse project proposed for the city’s Akinsdale neighbourhood is wrong for the city.

“We moved to St. Albert because we can afford it and we deserve it. This is a great city with great families. We feel comfortable joining in activities we would not have considered in Edmonton,” Perry writes.

“This development is a bad idea for St. Albert for both current residents and the people who will occupy the new development. Current residents will have to deal with the likeliness of children influenced by crime in our schools and adults in our community…

“This will start a landslide of things that will turn southeast St. Albert into a low-income area instead of middle class. Low-income families will have difficulty up-keeping the proposed development, and in turn it will bring down the value of the surrounding houses…

“This development will be hard for the families moving in. Being low income will make it difficult for children to be accepted in local schools. Like it or not, the children of St. Albert are high-standard children and have no place for low-income classmates.” – CBC

No culture or civilization can long last in this state of limbo. So next time you see a brain-dead job, reflect on how it’s part of economic karma: when we stop moving upward, we stagnate, and that’s where the make-work jobs and real boredom lies.

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