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Book review

Bullshit about jobs

July 31, 2018

The current trend for fashionable post- and anti-work thinking has been given a boost by David Graeber’s book Bullshit Jobs, recently featured in an RSA event and accompanying video. Graeber’s critique of the modern world of work has been understandably popular and gained widespread media coverage. Stemming from a provocative piece in Strike magazine five years ago, the concept has spawned not just the book, but spin-off articles about the ‘bullshitization of academic life’, alongside similar efforts from others.

The bullshit job thesis (BJT) rests on two main claims. First that workers actually do hate their jobs or at least find no meaning or pleasure in them. The only reason we do such jobs are coercive effects of necessity and the work ethic. Secondly, as many as half of all jobs are ‘pointless’, have no social value and could be abolished without personal, professional or societal cost. The only reason they exist is for show, indicating that the boss has status or that time is being filled. The two claims are joined together by the view that, these ‘forms of employment are seen as utterly pointless by those who perform them’.

You’d have to be excessively hard hearted not to get some gratification from the BJT. Nobody likes managerialist jargon and telemarketers – as one of us should know, having worked the phones for four years in a past life. Plus, it’s not difficult to find humorous examples of people doing wasteful or daft tasks at work. But the two central claims of the BJT are an evidence-free zone. This is not the image promoted by Graeber and his fellow travellers. Much rests on an endlessly re-cycled 2015 YouGov poll, also reported by universal basic income enthusiast and author of Utopia for Realists Rutger Bregman, which showed that 37% of British workers think that their job doesn’t need to exist.  The thing is, they didn’t say that at all. 37% said that their job didn’t ‘make a meaningful contribution to the world’. Well, that’s hardly surprising as that loaded question sets a very high bar. What is more surprising is that 50% said their jobs did make a meaningful contribution! The same poll found 63% found their job very or fairly ‘personally fulfilling’, while 33% did not. This non-bullshit outcome is entirely consistent with other evidence of high levels of work attachment. For example, the widely used longitudinal sampling of the Workplace Employment Relations Survey shows that, job satisfaction increased between 2004-2011 and that 72% were satisfied or very satisfied with ‘the work itself’, while 74% had a ‘sense of achievement’.

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Book review

Book Review: How China Escaped the Poverty Trap by Yuen Yuen Ang

March 24, 2018

The macro-story on China is well-known, but always bears repetition. Emerging from the carnage of the Mao era, China in 1980 had a GDP of $193 per capita, lower than Bangladesh, Chad or Malawi. It’s now the world’s second largest economy, with a 30-fold increase in GDP per capita, based on a textbook-defying combination of one-party Communist state and capitalism – in the words of one tongue-in-cheek official, ‘no capitalist state can match our devotion to the capitalist sector.’

Success on this scale inevitably finds many intellectual forebears claiming parenthood  – China is variously portrayed as a victory for a strong state; free markets; experimentation; and for central planning. How China Escaped the Poverty Trap blows the conventional explanations away, drilling down into what actually happened and reconstructing the history of different cities and provinces through years of diligent research.

This book is a triumph, opening a window onto the political economy of China’s astonishing rise that takes as its starting point systems and complexity. Its lessons apply far beyond China’s borders. The author, Yuen Yuen Ang, starts with a classic developmental chicken and egg problem – which comes first, good institutions or economic prosperity? Different camps within academia and the aid business urge developing countries either to ‘first, get the institutions right’ or ‘first, get growth going’, and then the rest will follow.

Using China as an elephant-sized case study, Ang takes a systems sledgehammer to this kind of linear thinking and argues that development is a ‘coevolutionary process’. Institutions and markets interact with and change each other in context-specific ways that alter over time. The institutions that help to achieve take-off are not the same as the ones that preserve and consolidate markets later on.

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