Universal Basic Bullshit Jobs

A bullshit job is one that is useless, that the worker knows is useless, and that, if eliminated, would leave society none the worse. I wasn’t a huge fan of David Graeber’s Debt, but just had to pick up Bullshit Jobs because it’s always refreshing to read an author writing from firsthand experience.

Despite massive increases in productivity and overseas manufacturing, we’re all working just as much as we were a century ago. Some attribute this to the rise of the service sector – waiters, hairdressers, Uber drivers and such – but service staffs have stayed fairly constant as a proportion of the workforce. What we really have is a proliferation of information workers: admins, accountants, flak catchers, and paper pushers. These are bullshit jobs.

Graeber proposes that we do away with bullshit and give these otherwise-useless humans a universal basic income. Set them free to write poetry, start a band, or patronize cafes in a sort of uroboric form of economic stimulus.

Ugh. If you give the commoners a basic income, they’re going to ask for free health care. If you give them free health care, then they’ll want free education, free housing, more income, better health care, higher education, and so on. It’s like giving a mouse a cookie.

In doing away with bullshit jobs, Graeber misses the most important part of mass employment: Nobody wants an idle populace. At best they’ll scurry underfoot; more likely they’ll attempt to assemble and overthrow the ruling class. You can’t provide free bread unless you have free circuses to keep them occupied!

Give the Mouse a Job

That’s why Democratic candidates are running on a platform featuring a universal job guarantee!

I support a job guarantee for the same reason I support compulsory K-12 education and our prison system. Like, I wouldn’t want my own family members to partake in these facilities, but I recognize that there is some portion of the population that can’t be trusted to roam the streets. Just look at what David Graeber did when he had some free time in 2011! He took up vagrancy in Zuccotti Park and became a public nuisance.

Now, we can’t imprison everybody that society deems useless (although lord knows we try), but we can do the next best thing: Give ‘em all a job!

But what kind of jobs? Agricultural jobs, like the poorhouses of yore? Public works projects, like those administered by the WPA? As the employer of last resort, the federal jobs program will invariably end up loaded with subprime workers. You know, the kind that might otherwise be shooting up or urinating on the sidewalk, and that probably shouldn’t be trusted with critical infrastructure or anything with moving parts. To minimize societal harm, the guaranteed jobs will need to be bullshit.

We can’t call it that, of course. No one wants a low-wage makework job, especially if means-tested benefits are still on the table. Workers need Dignity and Purpose to help them swallow their bullshit wages. For inspiration we turn to academia, which is where most of these dumbass ideas originate.

Consider David Graeber. As a tenured professor of anthropology at the London School of Economics, he holds a much-coveted guaranteed job. But not only is his field of study complete bullshit, the entire industry is bullshit as well!

Academia is a magical place where bright young narcissists forgo 6-8 years of present income in order to forgo a lifetime of future income. More importantly, they voluntarily incarcerate themselves in ivory towers to avoid inflicting harm on the real world.

With some ivied walls and clever marketing, any shit-wage makework can gain the illusion of influence. Arcane job titles, for instance, are a great way to impart a heightened sense of status. Associate Professor. Chancellor. Postdoctoral Scholar. Emeritus Fellow. What do these words even mean. I don’t know, but they have a lot of syllables so they must be important. An adjunct professor has the same approximate salary and job function as a substitute grade school teacher, but only the former would be invited to a gourmet sandwich shop with ingredients like soppressata, capicollo, and a striata baguette.

Government-guaranteed jobs are totally doable; just dump them all in the hallowed halls of higher education. Taxpayers currently subsidize both public and private institutions, so the cash spigots are already pointed in the right direction. WOW, all of a sudden universal free public college doesn’t seem so out of reach either! Damn. Sometimes I feel like central planning would be awesome, if only I were the one in charge of planning.

The New Roving Bandits

I can’t help but admire the way Amazon has Seattle firmly by the balls. Back in May, the City Council unanimously approved a per-employee tax on large employers to help fund affordable housing and homeless shelters. After Amazon halted construction on its new 17-story tower and threatened to take its jobs elsewhere, council members folded like a cheap tent encampment and repealed the tax. Ain’t nobody gonna tell Amazon what to do.

Wait… It’s supposed to be the government that bullies local businesses, not the other way around! As stationary bandits, they extort tax dollars from subjects under threat of violence. As greedy, profit-maximizing bandits, they maintain a monopoly on theft and keep other bandits at bay. As clever, forward-thinking bandits, they provide public goods and law and order to encourage future taxable income.

Agricultural societies benefit from the protection of a stationary bandit. Industrial economies do too. We tend not to find capital-intensive operations in undeveloped slums – with no one to monopolize theft, roving bandits compete to loot and plunder. Such is anarchy.

But stationary bandits require stationary subjects. If an aircraft manufacturer takes issue with local tax rates, it can’t just pack up and move its facilities to Mexico. I mean, it can, and many US companies did, but the capital outlay limits the credibility of the threat. An information-based company like Amazon, on the other hand, can drop a lease and move to Bangalore before the next City Council meeting.

The switching costs are lower.

Information technologists are no longer subjects to be governed, but customers in voluntary exchange. And a dissatisfied customer will happily take their business elsewhere. As we speak, there are twenty major cities bending over with bids to host Amazon’s next HQ. Chicago even offered to let Amazon keep $1.32 billion of the income taxes paid by its workers each year. The mayor might as well step down and install Amazon as the new autocrat.


So here we are in the utopia described in The Sovereign Individual, where jurisdictions compete to provide protection to paying customers. I daresay it sort of sucks.

(If we were having this conversation on Twitter, here is where people would chime in and blame capitalism.)

The best way to deter bandits is to make the target look as unrewarding as possible. When the Roman emperor Julian embarked on a campaign against the Sassanid Empire, the Persians burned their crops, chased the livestock away, and deserted the villages. The citizens would rather live in a wasteland than submit to Roman rule. With nothing to conquer and no provisions to steal, the Romans had no choice but to retreat.

As the coastal cities turn themselves into third world slums, I wonder if that’s been the plan all along. Seattle, San Francisco, Los Angeles, NYC — they may be shitholes, but at least they’re our shitholes.

Overcoming Inertia

I unexpectedly found myself without internet for a week, and the thought of getting reacquainted with the world was so daunting that I put it off for two weeks more. Inertia is a bitch. Bear with me as I liveblog items that Twitter tells me I missed.

In no particular order:

New York’s elite public high schools will stop using test scores as the sole admission criterion. Instead, they’ll take an even assortment of top students from every middle school in the city. Asian-American parents see this move as anti-Asian, because it undermines their efforts to raise children who excel at test taking.

(East) Asians have been allocating social rank via standardized tests for over 1500 years. Test prep is, like, part of our culture. And while I didn’t grow up in New York or attend an elite high school, I did spend my formative summers forcibly parked in front of SAT, PSAT, and AP prep books. Standardized tests were the bane of my childhood existence. I should have been taking unpaid internships, or raising goats for 4H, or playing lacrosse, or whatever it is white people do to develop positive personality traits. Won’t somebody please think of the children??

Also, Harvard is being sued for discriminating against Asian Americans. Look, the only way to achieve diversity is to apply different criteria to different applicants. If we really want the racial composition of our elite universities to match that of the rest of the country, let’s abolish the college admissions process altogether and have Harvard admit students based on a lottery. I went to this school, and readily admit that I only got in thanks to 17 years of tiger mothering. I now have a deep-seated fear that my future offspring won’t get into Harvard and will thus bring great shame to my dynasty. I need a way to blame the luck of the draw rather than lax parenting.

Elizabeth Holmes might go to jail. John Carreyrou calls her a sociopath, but that’s such a lazy slight. If a person goes through life being told that she’s a world-changing visionary and the next Steve Jobs, eventually she will believe that she’s a world-changing visionary and the next Steve Jobs. After a decade of being placed on a pedestal, of course she now feels like a martyr. See Also: millennials.

Amazon gets ripped a new one for poor working conditions at its Echo Factory. I’m reminded of my favorite Jeff Bezos quote: Your margin is my opportunity. Are you still offering your employees health insurance? Catered meals? Paid time-off for sick leave? Workers’ comp? Hahaha sucka! Your employees’ comfort is my opportunity!

Also, Seattle repeals a tax hike that was supposed to fund homeless services after opposition from Amazon. Well, yeah. Your civic responsibility is my opportunity. If you’re not exploiting your workers and pillaging your hometown, you’re leaving the door wide open for a competitor to undercut you.

We now return to our regularly scheduled programming.

Human Husbandry

Domesticated chickens that escape to the wild rarely survive more than a generation. After thousands of years, hens have all but lost the instinct to hatch their eggs.

See, broodiness is an undesirable trait on egg farms. Battery hens average six eggs a week, and the last thing Foster Farms needs is a bird that takes time off to set on eggs. Breeders select for the absence of broody behavior, and propagate chickens with the least desire to reproduce.

Over the course of civilization, humans have undergone a similar self-domestication process. Rather than promote traits that lead to reproductive success, we propagate traits best suited for the current social environment. As with livestock, the most attractive traits are those that maximize productivity.

Domestication is a rather unnatural form of selection. As a population’s per-capita GDP increases, average fertility decreases. This phenomenon has been termed the demographic-economic paradox, but it’s really not paradoxical at all. Raising children carries a huge opportunity cost – remove this cost and the population has way more productive capacity. It’s no coincidence that San Francisco, home of the most advanced civilization in the world, also has the lowest share of children out of any major city in the country.

Just as a broody hen negatively impacts a farmer’s productivity, a gravid human poses a significant inconvenience to her employer. That’s why companies like Google, Facebook, and Apple pay for female employees to extract and freeze their eggs. It’s great to see tech companies empowering women the same way that factory farms empower their battery hens!

BUT! While farmers can breed chicken offspring in artificial incubators, it’s trickier for a human population to regenerate without assistance from our keepers. Most tech companies allow dogs at work — Google even provides on-site doggie caretakers! – they could go a long way towards securing the next generation of workers by simply expanding their dog runs to accommodate children. In Silicon Valley, it’s easy to hire illegal immigrants undocumented citizens to caretake kids on the cheap. Just ask Arianna Huffington and Meg Whitman!

We can outsource the burden of raising one’s spawn, but we’re still faced with the problem of making them*. This is where technology gets really exciting: Artificial wombs have successfully brought a baby lamb to term; eventually, these Biobags will be available to humans as well. Just like chickens, people will be able to procreate without ever interacting with their offspring.

Human progress revolves around specialization and the division of labor. We don’t raise our own livestock or butcher our own meat; it’s absolutely preposterous that we still bear and raise our own young. Come to Silicon Valley, where you, too, can live in a battery cage while surrounded by free food! Isn’t civilization great?

* Marc Andreessen and his wife hired a surrogate to carry their biological child. While not scalable, it’s always heartwarming to see billionaires take time out of their busy lives to reproduce like the rest of us mere mortals. Even if it does involve some outsourcing.

A Side Effect of the Cryptocurrency Ad Ban

This site gets hacked. A lot. Don’t worry, it’s not the kind of hack where your browser is hijacked to mine Monero or spread malware. It’s more innocuous; the kind of hack where someone sneaks into the content database and fills it with spam links.

I run a weekly script to clean out spam, but if you catch a post at an inopportune time, you might find an unsubtle plug for some sketchy third-party site. For example, this post recently contained a link to prescription-free anabolic steroids. That wasn’t me, I swear.

The link injections typically occur in batches, and feature some assortment of penis pills, porn sites, and other internet dreck. The bane of my web existence. I’m pretty sure I know how they’re getting in; the part I can’t figure out is why.

WHY are sketchy internet services hiring spammers to inject links into my low-rent web blog? How much visibility do they expect to get? Did Noonan Brown personal injury attorney really think that this would be a good way to reach new clients?

Over the weekend, I was scrubbing a recent batch of site spam when I noticed, in between the loan sharks and debt-forgiveness services, recurring links to Abra.com.

Wait a minute — I used to work at Abra! Abra is a good company run by good people, certainly not ones who would engage the services of sketchy link spammers. And really, if Abra wanted a shameless plug on my website, I’d give it to them for free.

So I messaged a former coworker to find out what was up. They had been exploring new advertisers, he said. Now that Google and Facebook have instated a blanket ban on crypto ads, Bitcoin businesses are left with limited options to reach their customers.

For those banned from ad networks, search engine optimization is perhaps the last bastion of low-cost digital promotion. Even if you can’t pay Google to display your ads, you can still push your way to the top of search results through SEO.

And while Google’s search rank algorithm is an industry secret, it is based in part on the number of websites that link back to your page – also known as backlinks. Google was originally called Backrub because its search results were ranked according to backlinks.

The original Google

Backlinks are commonly accrued by getting news, blog, and social media mentions, but that can be a lot of work. Fortunately, there are handy backlink services for hire — These are the guys who crawl through forums and comment sections and leave link droppings all over the place. Some will pay bloggers for mentions, others will inject their way in. In any case, backlink outreach is a huge industry.

An example of successful link injection.

I was happy to see Google and Facebook ban crypto ads; there was some really vile stuff going on over there. But censorship doesn’t differentiate between fraud and not-fraud; everyone’s treated like a criminal just the same. And banning something doesn’t ever make it disappear; it just pushes the activity into scuzzier corners of the internet.

We can’t expect the ad networks to exert editorial oversight, because that would ruin their massively scalable business model. So we’re left with this suboptimal state of affairs where upstanding companies are forced act like spammers, and it’s that much harder for people to discern scams from legitimate services.

Google banned crypto ads, but is still okay with backlink ads.