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Old 19th May 2020, 04:30 AM   #1
HansMustermann
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David Graeber on BS jobs

(NB, if you want to look for the books or lectures, he does spell BS out in full, but I'm not gonna try my luck with annoying the mods.)

As a quick introduction, David Graeber is a professor of anthropology, so he proceeds to do what anthropology does: try to figure out how a culture works. In his case, western culture, rather than going and annoying some tribe somewhere.

In his case, this started with an article about how some jobs are just useless time-filling pretending to work, and it snowballed until polling companies started doing anonymous polls. Where about 40% of the respondents conceded that either their job contributes nothing to society, or even in some cases that society as a whole would actually be better off if the job were to disappear entirely. That doesn't include those who were unsure if their job actually contributes anything, which were a significant chunk too. Less than half actually gave a definite yes to the question of whether their job contributes anything.

Graeber then proceeds to classify these jobs, based on people's testimonies, into 5 categories:

1. Flunkies: These are people who are there just to make someone else feel good about themselves. Like, say, a secretary who only gets a phone call a day. This can however include any other employees that are there just to inflate the number of people that someone manages, since in most corporations your status and salary as a manager are directly determined by that.

2. Goons: These are the people you only need because the opponents have some of their own. Similar in concept to armies: if nobody had one, you wouldn't need one. In the corporate world that can include stuff like telemarketers.

3. Duct-tapers: People who are there to apply some fix or cover-up to a problem which shouldn't have existed in the first place. His standard example is that when his university needed a carpenter to fix something, for weeks they got to talk on the phone to someone whose job was to apologize that the carpenter can't come today. So, Graeber asks himself, wouldn't have been easier to hire a second carpenter instead of that guy?

4. Box-tickers: People who are there just so it appears that the organization does something that it doesn't actually do.

5. Taskmasters: extra layers of management that aren't actually needed, so in the best case they don't actually do anything, and in the worst case they actually make up BS for other people to do, so they can feel like they did something. E.g., administrators who are supposed to free your time of admin tasks so you can concentrate on the more useful stuff, but in practice make you fill extra forms and attend extra meetings and otherwise actually make you LESS productive.

The last one ties into what he calls the BS-ization of jobs which aren't BS per se. But you get to devote less time on doing the job itself, and more and more on pointless meetings and forms. These are not included in those 40% btw, so this is an additional waste of society's resources on top of that.

Graeber also notes that these have been the jobs that have actually proliferated in the last century straight. The supposed service economy didn't actually create more service jobs that actually do anything for anyone. Those have apparently remained flat at around 20%. They can serve more people nowadays, but that's basically it. Instead what has exploded is the domain of what he calls BS jobs.

One of his example comes from his domain, namely the academia, where apparently teaching jobs have increased by about 40%, but administrative ones have increased by 240%. In case anyone wondered why universities cost more these days.

He also notes that these people don't seem particularly happy about their job. At least theoretically they are getting a good wage for minimal effort, so return on investment, so to speak, is sky high. They should be happy, right? Turns out that most people aren't actually happy about being useless, or worse yet, making up BS work to slow others down too.

Graeber's main solution seems to be the universal basic income. Among other things on the basis that, sure, its opponents say that then people wouldn't go to work if they have some assured income, but then if 40% already contribute nothing or even a negative amount, how much worse can it be?

I'll leave my impressions for another message, since this is already a wall of text.
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Old 19th May 2020, 04:38 AM   #2
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Right. Before I get to my own impressions, here are some common criticisms I've heard, and my answers to them:

1. Maybe some people just feel useless because they hate their job.

Well, that's not what was asked of them. A garbage collector may feel unhappy about being in that job, but wouldn't say that society would be better off if nobody collected the garbage. Within about a week the cities would become uninhabitable if that job disappeared.

2. Maybe some people don't understand some of the new specialized jobs, like just in time logistics planning and whatnot, and just think they're useless.

Coming from a corporate background, that is the polar opposite of my impression. The logistics people I've talked to were more of the impression that they're the alpha and omega (and half the letters in between, in some cases) and the whole company would verily collapse without them. Which, really, it probably would.

3. Maybe it's just over-reported. Like people just say to pollsters that their job is useless.

Actually one thing that anthropology has proven is that there is one factor that pollsters can't really compensate for: people give answers about themselves that make them sound like more socially acceptable people. Whole rural communities will answer that they help each other on the fields, and build barns together, and whatnot, even when the last time that happened was 60 years ago. Whole tribes will declare themselves to be warriors and hunters, just because their culture values that, even when the vast majority don't even have a weapon any more and haven't actually hunted in their whole life. Etc.

So basically, since being a time-waster is not the more socially acceptable thing in our culture, I'd say it's likely to be vastly UNDER-reported.
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Old 19th May 2020, 04:50 AM   #3
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Now for my own impression, and since I'm not an anthropologist or a professor, please take it with a huge grain of salt.

Basically where I find fault with his logic is where he blames it on the culture of needing jobs, and needing to create jobs, etc. Well, he's the expert on culture, I'm not, but coming from a corporate background my impression is that that's not what's happening. NOBODY starts a corporation just to create a bunch of BS jobs. (Unless we're talking about Japan between the Meiji Restoration and WW2, in which case that's literally what they did.) Their goals will be more like "make more money than Bill Gates" or "have the most luxurious mansion", but it won't be "I must hire a hundred thousand people."

My impression is that basically it's a breakdown in our ability to organize corporations as big as some have got. In the early industrial revolution you'd make a factory and have maybe 100 workers (or less), and you could know and see what everyone is doing. It's below the Dunbar number for humans, so you could even know every one of them by name, and exactly what they were doing. You didn't need half a dozen layers of middle management to keep that organized. Nowdays nobody knows what happens two levels below or above them in a huge corporation, nor even what happens to departments sideways from theirs. That introduces a lot of inefficiency, and a lot more admin jobs just to try to control it at all.

One comparison Graeber himself does is to the USSR, mainly in that it also created jobs for the sake of having everyone employed. Except, as Graeber points out, they created blue collar BS jobs, while the west creates white collar BS jobs.

Well, I think that comparison would tell him the real answer.

The ultimate inefficiency of the Soviet economy, as any economist will tell you, lay in its central planning. Lenin thought that it would be easy to just allocate how many jobs of each type you need, and decide exactly how many rubles should one ton of coal cost. It turned out to not be anywhere near that easy. In fact, it proved horribly inefficient to have a central committee plan, organize, and control everything in an economy the size of the USSR economy.

Well, nowadays in the west we have corporations whose "economy" is even bigger than the USSR economy ever was. In some cases several times over.

And I think that what we're seeing is basically the same kind of inefficiency.
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Old 19th May 2020, 05:47 AM   #4
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Originally Posted by HansMustermann View Post
He also notes that these people don't seem particularly happy about their job. At least theoretically they are getting a good wage for minimal effort, so return on investment, so to speak, is sky high. They should be happy, right? Turns out that most people aren't actually happy about being useless, or worse yet, making up BS work to slow others down too.
I don't feel particularly happy about my current job, but not because it's 'useless'. Maybe it is, maybe not (only the scientists running the trial will be able to tell us that). What I do know is that it's extremely boring, not minimal effort, and every second I wish I was somewhere else. I can think of many ways my job could be done faster and more efficiently. But that is not my job, and neither would I want it. Because I have to earn money to pay the bills. The virus destroyed my other job, and I am not going to destroy this one - despite the boredom.

A job isn't BS if it pays enough money to live on. Some jobs are pretty much only that, but so what? That's the way our economy works, and most people wouldn't have it any other way. Then consider all the jobs that you might think are BS, but are actually quite valuable. How do we know they are valuable? Simple. According to economic theory, a product or service always sells for exactly how much it is 'worth' at the time. So if a manager is being paid lots of money to fill in forms then the job must be worth it, even if you think it's BS.

Quote:
One of his example comes from his domain, namely the academia, where apparently teaching jobs have increased by about 40%, but administrative ones have increased by 240%. In case anyone wondered why universities cost more these days.
Teachers are overrated. A lot of people are just now discovering this - due to Covid-19. A university could teach more people online with less teachers and more 'administrative' staff - and more effectively too. But learning is not the only reason for going to university. The students get valuable social interaction for networking and culture etc., which requires a large amount of administration. Those admin jobs aren't BS, they are essential.
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Old 19th May 2020, 05:57 AM   #5
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Originally Posted by HansMustermann View Post
The ultimate inefficiency of the Soviet economy, as any economist will tell you, lay in its central planning.
But was it? Or was the real problem the lack of proper planning?

Quote:
Lenin thought that it would be easy to just allocate how many jobs of each type you need, and decide exactly how many rubles should one ton of coal cost. It turned out to not be anywhere near that easy. In fact, it proved horribly inefficient to have a central committee plan, organize, and control everything in an economy the size of the USSR economy.
Surely it wasn't easy, but it wasn't central planning itself that was the problem - only the inept way that they implemented it.

Quote:
Well, nowadays in the west we have corporations whose "economy" is even bigger than the USSR economy ever was. In some cases several times over.

And I think that what we're seeing is basically the same kind of inefficiency.
But large corporations aren't inefficient. We know this because they consistently produce better products cheaper than smaller operations.
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Old 19th May 2020, 06:14 AM   #6
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Originally Posted by Roger Ramjets View Post
But was it? Or was the real problem the lack of proper planning?

Surely it wasn't easy, but it wasn't central planning itself that was the problem - only the inept way that they implemented it.

But large corporations aren't inefficient. We know this because they consistently produce better products cheaper than smaller operations.
yeah, but if you price-in economies of scale (which you could achieve in other ways), big corporations are significantly less efficient than smaller companies: the necessary administrative efforts go exponential with the number of employees.
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Old 19th May 2020, 06:33 AM   #7
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Originally Posted by Roger Ramjets View Post
But was it? Or was the real problem the lack of proper planning?

Surely it wasn't easy, but it wasn't central planning itself that was the problem - only the inept way that they implemented it.

But large corporations aren't inefficient. We know this because they consistently produce better products cheaper than smaller operations.
I work in a large corporation.

To the above I would tell you that correlation doesn't equal causation.
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Old 19th May 2020, 07:13 AM   #8
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Well, the fact that so many election campaigns claim that they will "bring back jobs" makes you think. What does that even mean?
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Old 19th May 2020, 07:33 AM   #9
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Originally Posted by Roger Ramjets View Post
I don't feel particularly happy about my current job, but not because it's 'useless'. Maybe it is, maybe not (only the scientists running the trial will be able to tell us that). What I do know is that it's extremely boring, not minimal effort, and every second I wish I was somewhere else. I can think of many ways my job could be done faster and more efficiently. But that is not my job, and neither would I want it. Because I have to earn money to pay the bills. The virus destroyed my other job, and I am not going to destroy this one - despite the boredom.
None of that has anything to do with what he was talking about. If your job isn't in the category he's talking about, then whatever other problems you may have with it are fully irrelevant.

Originally Posted by Roger Ramjets View Post
A job isn't BS if it pays enough money to live on. Some jobs are pretty much only that, but so what? That's the way our economy works, and most people wouldn't have it any other way. Then consider all the jobs that you might think are BS, but are actually quite valuable. How do we know they are valuable? Simple. According to economic theory, a product or service always sells for exactly how much it is 'worth' at the time. So if a manager is being paid lots of money to fill in forms then the job must be worth it, even if you think it's BS.
So again, you don't even seem to understand what it's about. But let's dissect it anyway.

1. That argument is false quite trivially on the general case, because by that kind of logic, what you get out of a pyramid scheme or buying Enron shares is exactly worth every cent you paid. Other than apologists nobody would actually say that was the case.

And I'm not using that as a random example. What makes that argument unsound in both cases is the assumption that the buyers are perfectly informed. Both about EXACTLY what they're getting, and the competing choices, and so on. Yeah, that's a premise in that perfect market theory, and a trivially false one. The whole point of why some people can be paid to work 2 hours a week and read cat memes for the other 38, is that whoever is paying their salary doesn't actually know that. Applying a market theory that assumes perfectly informed buyers to a case where the whole POINT is that they're not is... cute, to say the least.

2. Even being worth it to someone doesn't mean it's worth to society as a whole. E.g., I'm sure the cops that were on Al Capone's payroll were worth every cent he paid in bribes, but that doesn't mean it's creating any value for anyone else. In fact the result was detrimental to society, even if he personally got a benefit out of it.

3. The whole economic argument is subverted when you're not paying for it out of your own money. E.g., a gold plated condom would be worth it for me, if YOU're paying for it. And essentially that's what a lot of managers in corporations do. They're using someone else's money to hire more flunkies for themselves.

The cost to the guy doing it is either (A) zero, because he's not the one paying for it, or (B) a negative, since he might actually get paid more himself because he has more employees under him, which moves him to the next level of manager.

And it's not even a theoretical. The whole point of why corporations hire controllers is because they know that their employees are more generous with the company's money than with their own.
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Old 19th May 2020, 07:37 AM   #10
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Originally Posted by The Great Zaganza View Post
yeah, but if you price-in economies of scale (which you could achieve in other ways), big corporations are significantly less efficient than smaller companies: the necessary administrative efforts go exponential with the number of employees.
That is pretty much Graeber's point too, even if not in those exact words. Between automation and economies of scale, yes, productivity has gone up a lot, but so has the number of (what he calls) BS jobs.

The difference is that he blames some kind of cultural need to create jobs -- which I suppose is understandable since he's studying culture -- while I would blame it on the inefficiency that comes with managing such a large organization.
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Old 19th May 2020, 07:49 AM   #11
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A lot of people gain amusement from the notion that there are a ton of useless jobs--vice president in charge of sitting by the door, as a New Yorker cartoon once put it. And there are no doubt inefficiencies in the system that create some such jobs.

Bu the central feature of capitalism is that it is absolutely ruthless about cutting costs, and one very easy way to cut costs is to eliminate useless jobs. Let's remember, only a year or two everybody thought McDonald's was going to eliminate all cashiers with payment kiosks (and they still may)? Those are clearly not useless jobs and yet they were and are at risk of elimination.
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Old 19th May 2020, 07:55 AM   #12
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You actually illustrate one of Graeber's points, even if it's not one I wrote here about. An argument he makes is that although the rhetoric is about keeping it lean, cutting costs, laying off people, etc, and indeed CEOs are rewarded for laying off people by the thousands... almost invariably the ones downsized are the ones actually doing something useful. The actual BS jobs are the least affected, or in some cases increase.

So, yeah, that they'd eliminate a non-BS job like cashier, is actually consistent with Graeber's theory.
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Old 19th May 2020, 07:58 AM   #13
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jobs with little productivity are a result of lack of market pressure.

Big Companies are automatically under less pressure than smaller once, simply because they have to just defend their market share, take it from a competitor.

And, of course, politicians prefer dealing with a few big companies (/donors) than tens or hundreds of smaller ones - simply because it's quicker.
As a result, big companies have an undeserved market advantage, which in turn gives them the excess wealth that allows them to support BS jobs without suffering failure.
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Old 20th May 2020, 02:12 AM   #14
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Originally Posted by HansMustermann View Post
That is pretty much Graeber's point too, even if not in those exact words. Between automation and economies of scale, yes, productivity has gone up a lot, but so has the number of (what he calls) BS jobs.
That's the notion I am challenging. As Brainster pointed out, no system is more ruthless about cutting costs than Capitalism, and we also know that no other system is more efficient. Graeber is saying he can somehow tell which jobs are 'BS' and which ones are essential, and he suggests that a large proportion are 'BS'. I say he's wrong, because if that were true the Invisible Hand would have eliminated most of them already - and those few that remain are not a significant problem.

Quote:
The difference is that he blames some kind of cultural need to create jobs
First it's more an economic than cultural need, but secondly why is it to 'blame'? Whatever the need, it's by definition not BS.

Quote:
I would blame it on the inefficiency that comes with managing such a large organization.
The 'inefficiency' of running a large business is nothing compared to a mass of small independent businesses. Just imagine how much eg. a new motor vehicle or a big screen TV would cost if it had to be manufactured by the local shop (if they could even do it at all).

But let's imagine Graeber could wave a magic wand and eliminate all those jobs he thinks are 'BS'. First result would be massive unemployment, second large businesses going under because they can't operate effectively, third global economic collapse, and finally anarchy - which is Graeber's real goal.

Then again, perhaps it wouldn't happen. Graeber is an anthropologist - a BS job if ever there was one. He should eliminate his own job first, then leave the rest to people who are better qualified.
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Old 20th May 2020, 03:40 AM   #15
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Originally Posted by Roger Ramjets View Post
That's the notion I am challenging. As Brainster pointed out, no system is more ruthless about cutting costs than Capitalism, and we also know that no other system is more efficient. Graeber is saying he can somehow tell which jobs are 'BS' and which ones are essential, and he suggests that a large proportion are 'BS'. I say he's wrong, because if that were true the Invisible Hand would have eliminated most of them already - and those few that remain are not a significant problem.
Far from me to stop you from challenging anything, but once again, it would help if you actually understood what you're answering to. Because it shows that you missed even what I wrote in the first couple of paragraphs of the OP.

The point of those polls was that about 40% SELF-REPORT their job to be a useless time-wasting exercise. That's how polls work.

Additionally, when offering testimonials, a whole lot produce the same story of literally just doing maybe 1 or 2 hours of useful work a week and spending the rest on the internet. Again SELF-REPORTED. There is nobody telling them that their job is BS. They're saying so THEMSELVES.

So going on about how does someone else decide that someone else's job is BS, is ultimately just a case of you challenging your own strawman.

Originally Posted by Roger Ramjets View Post
First it's more an economic than cultural need,
Graeber thinks it's cultural. Well, probably unsurprising since that is what anthropology looks for. Now _I_ would agree with you that it's just economics in action, but he thinks it's a cultural phenomenon. But I'm gonna get into why he seems to think it's cultural in a moment.

Originally Posted by Roger Ramjets View Post
but secondly why is it to 'blame'? Whatever the need, it's by definition not BS.
I'd say it takes some saint level of faith in anything, to proclaim that a job where someone watches cat memes all week long is NEEDED

Or one of his examples (again, SELF-REPORTED) was a guard whose job was to guard an empty room. WHO needs that job?

Which brings me back to: you still don't address my previous point: needed BY WHOM? If some manager hires 20 flunkies, just so he can get promoted because he now has enough subordinates for that -- and yes, I have actually seen that happen once -- sure, HE needed that. The company doesn't, and society sure as hell doesn't.

Originally Posted by Roger Ramjets View Post
The 'inefficiency' of running a large business is nothing compared to a mass of small independent businesses. Just imagine how much eg. a new motor vehicle or a big screen TV would cost if it had to be manufactured by the local shop (if they could even do it at all).
I think two different people in this thread alone mentioned economies of scale already.

But in any case, I never said it's a competition there. Sure, something may be less inefficient than the alternatives, but still have its own inefficiencies. E.g., a modern bus diesel engine is 45% efficient, which is a lot better than the 20-something percent of several decades ago, but still wastes over half the energy in the fuel.

Originally Posted by Roger Ramjets View Post
But let's imagine Graeber could wave a magic wand and eliminate all those jobs he thinks are 'BS'. First result would be massive unemployment,
And now its time to return to why he thinks it's cultural, because you actually make his point here. THAT is exactly one of his points for why he thinks it's cultural: whenever almost anything is being discussed that would eliminate some inefficiency, THE standard protest is "BUT IT WILL CREATE UNEMPLOYMENT!" As you dutifully do here.

In fact, pretty much his standard example is about when single-payer healthcare was being discussed in the USA. The biggest objection was that yeah, but it would put tens of thousands of people out of work. I.e., those objecting were acknowledging that the existing system is less efficient -- which it IS, if it needs more people to do the same job -- but they'd rather keep it anyway, just because it keeps people employed.

So his thesis -- which, again, I personally disagree with, but just so we're understanding what he actually says -- is that basically this aversion to unemployment is why we as a society are more than happy to create more and more BS jobs, or tolerate inefficient bureaucracies that keep people employed.

Now personally I can see that pressure on politicians, but as I was saying, I don't think anyone started a company just for the sake of employing people. I think their goals will be more like "make a ton of money." Employing someone is the means not the end.

But then I'm not a professor of anthropology, so what do I know?
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Old 20th May 2020, 04:43 AM   #16
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These people are nightmares in organizations with hierarchical structures. Because people who sort of know on some level they don't really need to be there are never satisified. Our hypothetical secretary who only takes one call a day would hurt nobody but the business's bottom line if she just sat there playing Bejeweled on her phone all day in between her one call, but that's very rarely how it works.

People don't like feeling useless so they start to look for things to do. The problem is in most business environments by their very nature it is almost impossible to make work for yourself without making work for other people.

So the secretary.... starts submitting her timesheet to Carol in Finance for review before she submits it to Steve in Payroll for final approval or something like that. It usually starts off unofficial, just something for our secretary to do, but it's only a few short jumps from that to "New Rule, now everybody has to have their timesheets reviewed by Carol before they submit them to Steve."

In the military we knew this as the "Why are we mustering at 0430 for a 0600 formation?" thing.

The Captain wants the crew formed up on fantail for an announcement at 0600. So the Department Head says "I want everyone at 0545 so we can make sure everyone is there before the CO is there." Then the Division Officer makes it 530 so he can make sure everyone is there before the Department Head gets there, and then Chief tells the LPO and the LPO tells the Work Center Supp and boom you've got a ship full of sailors standing in the dark and cold for hours to hear a 15 minute speech from the CO because multiple layers of a hierarchy want make sure something is ready for the next level of the hierarchy.

In any organization the average number of people between you and the person actually making the decision is almost a perfect indicator of how much your job sucks.

Good rule of thumb in life. If you're a "worker" never let more than 1, 2 at an absolute max, Managers get put between you and the Leader. 90% of the grief in your professional life is going to come from people who's job it is to implement other people's ideas.

There's also the good old rule of thumb in "The more words it takes you to describe your job, the less it actually matters."
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Old 20th May 2020, 06:32 AM   #17
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That is pretty much the point Graeber's making with that "BS-ization of other jobs", although if that secretary has the power to make up BS work for other people, that would move her from flunkie to taskmaster in his classification. But yes, there are people who end up officially or unofficially helping pass the time by making up BS for other people to do.
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Old 20th May 2020, 06:55 AM   #18
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Originally Posted by HansMustermann View Post
The point of those polls was that about 40% SELF-REPORT their job to be a useless time-wasting exercise. That's how polls work.
Let's not rule out the fact that an organization can get so large that an individual cog in the machinery might not know how they fit into the larger picture.

I've been struggling with this for a while in my current position. Does my work have any value? Maybe. To whom? No idea. I know the project to which I'm assigned has value, but my role in it? Can't tell you. And I've asked a few times without a satisfactory answer.

So they may be right in how they feel about their job but totally wrong in the role they play. Maybe it's more a failure of communication than anything else.
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Old 20th May 2020, 07:09 AM   #19
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Without getting too far into the weeds being in a job that exists only to make another job more efficient or being in a job that is necessary but in which you are close to or literally just a generic body filling a role that could be done by any functioning adult so there's no sense of personal pride or accomplish might invoke the same mental responses as being "unnecessary."

So somebody might have to sit here on the assembly line and press the big red button every time the machine goes ping or chew the CEO's food for him so he doesn't waste mental energy that could be used making billion dollar deals so it's not technically "unnecessary" but it's equally unrewarding.
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Old 20th May 2020, 09:19 AM   #20
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That is a possibility, but you'd think that at least most of the people who aren't sure would pick the "not sure" option on a poll. Well, in an ideal world, anyway. As I was saying, there's the skewing effect that people tend to pick the more socially acceptable solution more often than not, so probably more would pick "I'm useful" in a poll if they're not sure.

@JoeMorgue
That said, your examples IMHO have a decent claim to being BS jobs anyway. If literally someone's job is only to press a button when a light goes on, no thinking involved, that could be just as easily automatized instead. And if someone's work for the CEO only involves half an hour a day at lunch time, it's pretty much the best example of a BS job. I don't think you need to understand the business processes too deeply to realize that one could be replaced by a relay, and the other by a blender.
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Old 20th May 2020, 10:36 AM   #21
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Originally Posted by HansMustermann View Post
(NB, if you want to look for the books or lectures, he does spell BS out in full, but I'm not gonna try my luck with annoying the mods.)

As a quick introduction, David Graeber is a professor of anthropology, so he proceeds to do what anthropology does: try to figure out how a culture works. In his case, western culture, rather than going and annoying some tribe somewhere.

In his case, this started with an article about how some jobs are just useless time-filling pretending to work, and it snowballed until polling companies started doing anonymous polls. Where about 40% of the respondents conceded that either their job contributes nothing to society, or even in some cases that society as a whole would actually be better off if the job were to disappear entirely. That doesn't include those who were unsure if their job actually contributes anything, which were a significant chunk too. Less than half actually gave a definite yes to the question of whether their job contributes anything.

Graeber then proceeds to classify these jobs, based on people's testimonies, into 5 categories:

1. Flunkies: These are people who are there just to make someone else feel good about themselves. Like, say, a secretary who only gets a phone call a day. This can however include any other employees that are there just to inflate the number of people that someone manages, since in most corporations your status and salary as a manager are directly determined by that.

2. Goons: These are the people you only need because the opponents have some of their own. Similar in concept to armies: if nobody had one, you wouldn't need one. In the corporate world that can include stuff like telemarketers.

3. Duct-tapers: People who are there to apply some fix or cover-up to a problem which shouldn't have existed in the first place. His standard example is that when his university needed a carpenter to fix something, for weeks they got to talk on the phone to someone whose job was to apologize that the carpenter can't come today. So, Graeber asks himself, wouldn't have been easier to hire a second carpenter instead of that guy?

4. Box-tickers: People who are there just so it appears that the organization does something that it doesn't actually do.

5. Taskmasters: extra layers of management that aren't actually needed, so in the best case they don't actually do anything, and in the worst case they actually make up BS for other people to do, so they can feel like they did something. E.g., administrators who are supposed to free your time of admin tasks so you can concentrate on the more useful stuff, but in practice make you fill extra forms and attend extra meetings and otherwise actually make you LESS productive.

The last one ties into what he calls the BS-ization of jobs which aren't BS per se. But you get to devote less time on doing the job itself, and more and more on pointless meetings and forms. These are not included in those 40% btw, so this is an additional waste of society's resources on top of that.

Graeber also notes that these have been the jobs that have actually proliferated in the last century straight. The supposed service economy didn't actually create more service jobs that actually do anything for anyone. Those have apparently remained flat at around 20%. They can serve more people nowadays, but that's basically it. Instead what has exploded is the domain of what he calls BS jobs.

One of his example comes from his domain, namely the academia, where apparently teaching jobs have increased by about 40%, but administrative ones have increased by 240%. In case anyone wondered why universities cost more these days.

He also notes that these people don't seem particularly happy about their job. At least theoretically they are getting a good wage for minimal effort, so return on investment, so to speak, is sky high. They should be happy, right? Turns out that most people aren't actually happy about being useless, or worse yet, making up BS work to slow others down too.

Graeber's main solution seems to be the universal basic income. Among other things on the basis that, sure, its opponents say that then people wouldn't go to work if they have some assured income, but then if 40% already contribute nothing or even a negative amount, how much worse can it be?

I'll leave my impressions for another message, since this is already a wall of text.
Sounds more like Graeber's main wish is for universal basic income, so he's trying to find ways to justify it.
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Old 20th May 2020, 10:39 AM   #22
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That is also a strong possibility. But having a motive doesn't really mean he's either wrong or right.

Mind you, personally I do think he's wrong about what is the root phenomenon, and thus about the solution. But not because of what his motive might be. (Again with the caveat that I'm not a professor of anthropology, so nobody has to care about who I think is wrong and in what way.)
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Old 20th May 2020, 11:33 AM   #23
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Originally Posted by Brainster View Post
A lot of people gain amusement from the notion that there are a ton of useless jobs--vice president in charge of sitting by the door, as a New Yorker cartoon once put it. And there are no doubt inefficiencies in the system that create some such jobs.

Bu the central feature of capitalism is that it is absolutely ruthless about cutting costs, and one very easy way to cut costs is to eliminate useless jobs. Let's remember, only a year or two everybody thought McDonald's was going to eliminate all cashiers with payment kiosks (and they still may)? Those are clearly not useless jobs and yet they were and are at risk of elimination.
This isnít as straightforward as you imagine. The problem is how to identity which jobs are not truly required. What tends to happen is that the deadweight jobs are usually positions justified on the basis of ďincreased efficiencyĒ. In any large organization there is no greater waste of money than the measures taken to prevent wasting money.

When companied do scale back their work force, who gets let go is essentially random. Nearly irreplaceable people doing critical things will get let go, people who perform jobs that are not really required stick around. For the decision maker cutting the right people is hard, and all they really need to do is create the appearance of making cuts. (remember employees work in their own best interest, not the companies best interest)
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Old 20th May 2020, 11:45 AM   #24
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Old 20th May 2020, 12:23 PM   #25
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A friend of mine works and a senior engineer for a company that makes commercial aircraft that just went though it’s second round of cuts in the last 12 months. The real core of their business demands that they have people who understand not just how to design a plain that can actually fly safely but also fully understands the aircraft they are working with. (there is a similar requirement on the production side)


How many engineers are there out there who really understand what it takes to get a commercial jet aircraft designed, built and flight certified? For that matter how many are there that even understand the one of the major systems involved in getting/keeping an aircraft in the air? In terms of people who’ve actually accomplished it we are probably talking about fewer people than there are playing football in the NFL.


Furthermore, even if there are equally qualified people out there working for other companies it could take years for them to be fully up to speed on anew aircraft design project. For a company like this there will be a core group of several hundred engineers who are essentially irreplaceable. Nonetheless, because the cuts were given in the form of quotas 1/3 of them have been let go over the last year.


When I asked this friend about how they would be able to cope with this loss of experience and first hand knowledge, his comment was that they can’t. He also added that some of the people let go were so critical to getting new aircraft in the air that you couldn’t find a better way to sabotage a project then to let them go.


This isn’t a small company and 50 senior engineers would make up a negligible savings but because the loss of knowledge and experience is going to hamper them for another decade. The reason decisions like this get made is because senior management isn’t really concerned with the long term interest of this or other company, their interest is how their own performance is evaluated in the short term and meeting cost cutting quotas is a big part of that and making the right cuts for the long term means almost nothing.
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Old 20th May 2020, 12:28 PM   #26
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Originally Posted by lomiller View Post
remember employees work in their own best interest, not the companies best interest
Yes, which is how it should be. Why should employees work for the best interests of the company if it doesn't align with their own?

If someone is demoralized by being in a 'BS' job then they know what to do - either make the job less BS, find a way to buck up their moral, or get out. My own way of coping is to set personal goals and concentrate on doing a good job of what I am tasked to do, whether I think it is 'BS' or not. And how am I to know?

A job that seems like BS to me might have a good reason to exist, and one that seems vitally important might turn out to be useless. Company directors and management determine what jobs need to be done, and it's not my place to question their judgement. If the company is run badly then it fails. This is not a bad thing, it is the essence of a Capitalist economy. Take away the right for businesses to operate however they want and you interfere with the market, which we all know leads to lower efficiency.

Some jobs are 'BS', but the gatekeepers of which ones to keep or kill should be the businesses that created them. Only they know why they created these jobs, and they should have the right to keep them if they want.

Originally Posted by Lplus
Sounds more like Graeber's main wish is for universal basic income, so he's trying to find ways to justify it.
If so then he is going about it the wrong way, because even the most 'BS' job is more productive than being paid to do literally nothing. There has to be another reason to justify it, one that doesn't appeal to the Capitalist desire for greater efficiency.
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Old 20th May 2020, 12:38 PM   #27
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Originally Posted by lomiller View Post
The reason decisions like this get made is because senior management isnít really concerned with the long term interest of this or other company, their interest is how their own performance is evaluated in the short term and meeting cost cutting quotas is a big part of that and making the right cuts for the long term means almost nothing.
IOW, their only interest is in maximizing their own return. And why not? If the owners of the business let them do that then they only have themselves to blame if the company fails. But perhaps they have a good reason for allowing it. Hell, maybe they ordered it! They may be old and only need short-term profits to maximize their return for retirement.

This is how Capitalism works, each player acting in their own best interest with no thought for the system or society. Anyone who doesn't like that should advocate for a different system - which will of course be less efficient.
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Old 20th May 2020, 01:10 PM   #28
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Originally Posted by Roger Ramjets View Post
Yes, which is how it should be. Why should employees work for the best interests of the company if it doesn't align with their own?
They are making corporate decisions. The idealized free market model presumes all such decisions are made with the intended to benefit the corporations, but in practice many decisions corporations make are not made for that reason. “The market will force corporations to keep it’s workforce efficient” isn’t something you can count on because many decision are not made with the corporation or it’s position in the marketplace or it’s shareholders in mind.


I’m suggesting there is an easy way to fix the problem, I’m just reminding people that “the free market will automatically optimise this” isn’t true. The fact is that both government and large corporations are pretty bad at making this type of decision.
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Old 20th May 2020, 01:17 PM   #29
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Originally Posted by Lplus View Post
Sounds more like Graeber's main wish is for universal basic income, so he's trying to find ways to justify it.
That's how it works, isn't it???
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Old 20th May 2020, 01:18 PM   #30
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Originally Posted by Roger Ramjets View Post
IOW, their only interest is in maximizing their own return. And why not? If the owners of the business let them do that then they only have themselves to blame if the company fails. But perhaps they have a good reason for allowing it. Hell, maybe they ordered it! They may be old and only need short-term profits to maximize their return for retirement.

This is how Capitalism works, each player acting in their own best interest with no thought for the system or society. Anyone who doesn't like that should advocate for a different system - which will of course be less efficient.
Adam Smith argued against the corporate structures of his day for exactly this reason. Economists today widely acknowledge principle-agent issues are a source of market inefficacy. In many cases economies of scale may outweigh the problem but its far from guaranteed.
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Old 20th May 2020, 01:20 PM   #31
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Originally Posted by HansMustermann View Post
Far from me to stop you from challenging anything, but once again, it would help if you actually understood what you're answering to. Because it shows that you missed even what I wrote in the first couple of paragraphs of the OP.

The point of those polls was that about 40% SELF-REPORT their job to be a useless time-wasting exercise. That's how polls work.

Additionally, when offering testimonials, a whole lot produce the same story of literally just doing maybe 1 or 2 hours of useful work a week and spending the rest on the internet. Again SELF-REPORTED. There is nobody telling them that their job is BS. They're saying so THEMSELVES.
I mean, seriously, what is the occupation that these people have that they are never busy? This doesn't sound like the real world, it sounds like Dilbert's world. I worked for years in corporate America and while there were times when I could loaf there were also many times that I had to be at 100% for weeks at a time.
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Old 20th May 2020, 01:22 PM   #32
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Originally Posted by lomiller View Post
The reason decisions like this get made is because senior management isnít really concerned with the long term interest of this or other company, their interest is how their own performance is evaluated in the short term and meeting cost cutting quotas is a big part of that and making the right cuts for the long term means almost nothing.
I don't know that that's entirely true.

I think a lot of the time reporting lines are incapable of actually containing the information relevant to performance. Everything has to have a number, even things that can't actually in any way be quantified get a number.

The net result is that people at the top of reporting chains that are full of data that doesn't accurately reflect what's going on make poor decisions based on that poor data. Add in that those that, in the modern world, it's not the job you do that matters, it's the PR you do on the job you do and you have a recipe for extremely poor decision making
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Old 20th May 2020, 01:27 PM   #33
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Originally Posted by Roger Ramjets View Post
There has to be another reason to justify it, one that doesn't appeal to the Capitalist desire for greater efficiency.
The Capitalist doesn't have a desire for greater efficiency but a desire for more, well, capital.

The capitalist will always choose more money over greater efficiency. Capitalism has nothing to do with efficiency.

It would be efficient to make lightbulbs that last forever. That didn't happen.

It would be inefficient to have manufacturing 3000 miles from the consumer base, cut that's what happens, because it makes more money.

Did you mean cost efficiency?
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Old 20th May 2020, 04:34 PM   #34
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Originally Posted by Brainster View Post
I mean, seriously, what is the occupation that these people have that they are never busy? This doesn't sound like the real world, it sounds like Dilbert's world. I worked for years in corporate America and while there were times when I could loaf there were also many times that I had to be at 100% for weeks at a time.
Well, I guess then you're one of the guys who actually does something useful, then. Graeber doesn't say that all jobs of certain kind or at a certain employer or such are BS. Obviously even the companies who hire time-wasters also have to have someone who does the actual work. E.g., he complains about extra administrators and such in academia, but obviously they also have to have some guys who do the actual teaching.

That the guys actually doing something useful wouldn't also sit around doing nothing all day is part of the theory, really. In fact, the time-wasters of the "taskmaster" kind often create extra work for them to do.

That said, it can also be that you've worked for a more sane employer. Not all are created equal. Me, I've seen enough time-wasters for a lifetime myself, so I have no problem believing that more exist in other companies too
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Old 21st May 2020, 05:44 AM   #35
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Originally Posted by 3point14 View Post
The Capitalist doesn't have a desire for greater efficiency but a desire for more, well, capital.
Ideally efficiency means higher profit margins which in turn means more money for the owners of the business, and more/better products for the consumer. In practice, itís often easier for business to protect their profit margins other ways because problems like the one in the OP are hard to solve.
Originally Posted by 3point14 View Post
It would be inefficient to have manufacturing 3000 miles from the consumer base, cut that's what happens, because it makes more money.
This depends on how expensive it is to transport things. Ideally you want to make the most valuable things you can locally, and if this means you have no one left to produce less valuable things and need to import them it isnít necessarily bad as long as the real cost of transport gets built into the price.

Originally Posted by 3point14 View Post
Did you mean cost efficiency?
Economic efficiency may be a better description. The ability to add as much value as possible either by producing the same value of goods/services with fewer imports or by producing more valuable goods/services with the same inputs.

The guy referenced in the OP isnít wrong in suggesting that if we eliminate inputs like staff that are not really required we could produce a lot more goods and services and everyone would be better off. Thatís easier said than done, however.
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Old 21st May 2020, 12:15 PM   #36
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Originally Posted by 3point14 View Post
The Capitalist doesn't have a desire for greater efficiency but a desire for more, well, capital.
While true, that is not relevant. The engine in your car only has a desire to consume fuel, but when coupled to the wheels it drives the vehicle. An electric motor does the same with electrical energy, but does it much more efficiently.

In the same way, capitalism has proved to be more efficient at driving an economy than any other system. Like a car it needs someone at the wheel to guide it, but the individual components of the vehicle don't have to consider efficiency, they just have to do what they 'desire'.

Quote:
The capitalist will always choose more money over greater efficiency. Capitalism has nothing to do with efficiency.
You clearly don't understand Capitalism. Efficiency is all about getting the most out of the least, by which we mean the most wealth. Efficiency of individual processes within it don't matter, only the results.

Quote:
It would be efficient to make lightbulbs that last forever. That didn't happen.
No, it wouldn't. A light bulb that lasted forever would be extremely expensive to manufacture, and nobody would want it.

But LED bulbs last practically forever compared to incandescent bulbs, so now that the cost has fallen to an acceptable amount they are taking over the market. I switched to LEDs 10 years ago because I was sick of replacing bulbs, and since then only one bulb has failed (which I repaired and still use).

OTOH, I have a bunch of old PCs that still work perfectly but are practically useless because they won't run the latest software. Those machines were obviously overbuilt to last longer than they needed to, and consumers paid more for them than they could have.

Quote:
It would be inefficient to have manufacturing 3000 miles from the consumer base, cut that's what happens, because it makes more money.
You are wrong. If it wasn't more efficient (ie. cheaper) to have the factory 3000 miles away then a local factory would have won the price war. There may be cases where that is true, and then you find local manufacturing abounds. This is the 'magic' of capitalism - no need for central planning or laws prohibiting long distance deliveries, the Invisible Hand of the market sorts it out!

Quote:
Did you mean cost efficiency?
Cost efficiency is relevant to business, economics and finance, which is what we are discussing. What kind of 'efficiency' are you talking about?
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Old 21st May 2020, 12:34 PM   #37
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Originally Posted by lomiller View Post
The guy referenced in the OP isnít wrong in suggesting that if we eliminate inputs like staff that are not really required we could produce a lot more goods and services and everyone would be better off. Thatís easier said than done, however.
Exactly. It's all very well for him to suggest that eliminating 'BS' jobs would improve the economy, but since Capitalism is the most efficient system how does he propose to do it? Any meddling is more likely to reduce efficiency than increase it.

Furthermore, Graeber estimates that 40% of jobs are 'BS'. I call BS on this figure. I bet that a large proportion of those 'BS' jobs are actually doing something useful - perhaps not individually, but in the overall functioning of businesses and the economy. Graeber apparently thinks we could eliminate 'BS' jobs and use the efficiency gained to fund a basic income. I don't believe it. 100% efficiency is impossible, and if his 40% is 'optimistic'...
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Old 21st May 2020, 01:22 PM   #38
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Originally Posted by Roger Ramjets View Post
Exactly. It's all very well for him to suggest that eliminating 'BS' jobs would improve the economy, but since Capitalism is the most efficient system how does he propose to do it? Any meddling is more likely to reduce efficiency than increase it.
Not for everything. You wouldnít get much of a highway system if the government just stood back and said ďCapitalism will provide a highways system for usĒ. Closer to the OP in the US, administration costs for the healthcare system in the US have been reported as being upwards of $2500 per person vs ~$500 for the government run single payer system in Canada.

There isnít a single ďbestĒ answer, depending on the specific good/service in question the most efficient answer could be any of the following.
Just have the government provide it directly
Have the marketplace provide it, under tight government regulation
Have the marketplace provide it, but government establishes the ground rules and oversees it for competitiveness.
Marketplace provides it with minimal intervention.



Originally Posted by Roger Ramjets View Post

Furthermore, Graeber estimates that 40% of jobs are 'BS'. I call BS on this figure. I bet that a large proportion of those 'BS' jobs are actually doing something useful - perhaps not individually, but in the overall functioning of businesses and the economy. Graeber apparently thinks we could eliminate 'BS' jobs and use the efficiency gained to fund a basic income. I don't believe it. 100% efficiency is impossible, and if his 40% is 'optimistic'...
Maybe not every company, but itís not at all uncommon for the real work to be performed by a relatively small number of people. In some cases, these are among the worst treated and poorly paid people in the company. Eg we outsource our server support to IBM. They have ~3 system administrators who do everything, and they are all on term contracts. There are more account managers, project managers, compliance managers, change management managers, sales reps, etc than I can count. Most of these people do work directly for IBM and make more money than the sysadmins who actually do all the work.
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Old 21st May 2020, 01:35 PM   #39
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Originally Posted by Roger Ramjets View Post
more efficient (ie. cheaper) ...

You clearly don't understand Capitalism. Efficiency is all about getting the most out of the least, by which we mean the most wealth. Efficiency of individual processes within it don't matter, only the results.
This is the issue. You mean economically efficient. I don't think economic efficiency and simple efficiency are the same thing.

I have a good enough understanding of capitalism. Getting the most out of the least does not produce the most wealth. Getting the most money does.

Below is an example. It simply isn't efficient to keep making light bulbs, but it makes more profit. As I say, you and I don't mean the same thing by 'efficient'.



"The cartel lowered operational costs and worked to standardize the life expectancy of light bulbs at 1,000 hours[6] (down from 2,500 hours),[6] and raised prices without fear of competition. The cartel tested their bulbs and fined manufacturers for bulbs that lasted more than 1,000 hours. A 1929 table listed the amount of Swiss francs paid that depended on the exceeding hours of lifetime.[8] "


https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Phoebus_cartel


Quote:
What kind of 'efficiency' are you talking about?
Take your pick:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Efficiency
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Last edited by 3point14; 21st May 2020 at 01:44 PM.
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Old 21st May 2020, 05:14 PM   #40
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Originally Posted by 3point14 View Post
This is the issue. You mean economically efficient. I don't think economic efficiency and simple efficiency are the same thing.

I have a good enough understanding of capitalism. Getting the most out of the least does not produce the most wealth. Getting the most money does.

Below is an example. It simply isn't efficient to keep making light bulbs, but it makes more profit. As I say, you and I don't mean the same thing by 'efficient'.



"The cartel lowered operational costs and worked to standardize the life expectancy of light bulbs at 1,000 hours[6] (down from 2,500 hours),[6] and raised prices without fear of competition. The cartel tested their bulbs and fined manufacturers for bulbs that lasted more than 1,000 hours. A 1929 table listed the amount of Swiss francs paid that depended on the exceeding hours of lifetime.[8] "


https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Phoebus_cartel




Take your pick:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Efficiency
That is not the kind of cost we are talking about. The capitalist's goal is not to reduce costs for everybody else, but for himself. And the reason is quite simple: he who has the lowest costs wins. Andrew Carnegie figured that out and became possibly the wealthiest man who ever lived. He was a fanatic about cutting costs, while his steel-making competitors were solely interested in how much profit they were making. But they found out the problem when Carnegie cut prices to a level where he could still make a profit but they were losing money. They had to sell out to him.
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