It is the early morning of February 2, 1968. A thick mist hangs over the 7,000 garbage men assembled in New York’s City Hall Park. The mood is mutinous. When union leader John DeLury stands atop a truck to announce that Mayor John Lindsay refuses to make any more concessions, the crowd’s rage reaches boiling point. It’s not long before the first rotten egg flies through the air.
DeLury realizes that the time for compromise has passed. It’s time to do the one thing that waste collectors are legally barred from doing, simply because their job is too important. It’s time to go on strike.
The next day, no waste is collected anywhere in the Big Apple. Virtually every garbage man stays home. “We never had prestige, but it never bothered me before,” one of them tells a local newspaper. “But now it does. People treat us like dirt.”
When the mayor tours the city two days later, waste has piled high. 10,000 tonnes are heaved onto the curbs and sidewalks everyday. Foul smells blow through the streets and an army of rats advances into even the fanciest neighbourhoods. In just a few days, one of the most powerful cities in the world has turned into a slum. For the first time since 1931, when a polio epidemic raged through the metropolis, the government declares New York to be in an official state of emergency.
Yet the mayor remains intransigent. He is supported by the local press, who describe the strikers as selfish and greedy. Only after a week does the realization kick in: the garbage men are going to win. “New York is helpless before them,” the editors of The New York Times lament. “This greatest of cities must surrender or see itself sink in filth.” On the ninth day, with 100,000 tonnes of waste piled on the city’s streets, the garbage men get their way.
“The moral of the story,” Time Magazine writes afterwards, “is that it pays to strike.”
Getting rich without contributing
Or, well, it pays for some people to strike.
Imagine that tomorrow, all of Amsterdam’s 290 public relations professionals went on strike. Or that every accountant in the city’s business district decides to stay home. It seems unlikely that Mayor Van der Laan would announce a state of emergency. You might even wonder whether such a strike would inflict any damage at all. Maybe that’s why we never read about strikes among, say, social media consultants, telemarketers or high-frequency traders.
Things are different for waste collectors. No matter how you look at it, their jobs are indispensable. And the unpleasant truth is that more and more people toil away at work that is, in all likelihood, highly dispensable. If those people were to stop working, the world would be neither poorer nor uglier. Think of the clever stock traders who get rich betting with other people’s pension funds. Or of the canny lawyer filing endless lawsuits that will be fought by other lawyers. Or think of the brilliant ad writer who comes up with the slogan of the year, bankrupting the competition.
None of these people create wealth; at best, they move it around.
There is, of course, no absolute separation between creating and moving wealth. Many jobs involve both. The financial sector can certainly contribute to our collective wealth and help other sectors to function more efficiently. But in their current, bloated incarnation, the primary activity of banks is to shuffle wealth around, and often just to destroy it. The explosive growth of banking has not made the pie bigger; it has only served to gobble up an ever increasing share.
Or take the legal profession: of course a well-functioning constitutional state is crucial to a country’s welfare. But the Netherlands now has five times as many lawyers per capita as Japan. Does our legal state function five times as well? Is our country five times as safe? Of course not. Some of our country’s lawyers do nothing more than buy up patents and sit on them, waiting to sue any genuinely productive citizen unfortunate enough to accidentally infringe on their “intellectual property.”
Strangest of all is that the jobs that center on moving wealth rather than creating it often pay the highest salaries. It is a fascinating paradox: how can it be that the people who do the most valuable, indispensable labor – the teachers, the police officers, the nurses, and so on – earn so little, while those in superfluous or even destructive professions get rich?
When the right to leisure was hereditary
Maybe history can help us make sense of this conundrum.
A few centuries ago, almost everyone worked in agriculture. The productive work of the masses enabled a small upper class to enjoy unproductive hobbies like holding feasts and waging wars. The nobles were proud of their status: by the grace of God, they had inherited the right to live off of other people’s earnings. Work? Work was for the paupers.
Back then, a farmers’ strike would have obviously brought the whole nation to a standstill. But if you look at the graphs, tables, and statistics for today’s economy, you might be tempted to say that everything has changed. As a portion of the economy, agriculture seems marginal. The Dutch financial sector is four times as large as the agricultural sector.
But think for a moment: would a farmers’ strike do less damage than a bankers’ strike? (No, on the contrary.) Has agriculture not become more productive in recent years? (Very much so.) Then shouldn’t those farmers be earning more than ever? (Alas, that is not the case.)
A market economy doesn’t necessarily reward productivity: the greater the supply of an item, the lower its price. Farmers know this better than anyone. The food supply has exploded over the past few decades. In 2010, Dutch cows produced twice as much milk as they did in 1960. Over the same interval, the productivity of wheat doubled and that of tomatoes tripled. As the agricultural industry grew in efficiency, it diminished in wealth. The food we eat has become dirt cheap.
This is the essence of economic progress. As our farms and factories became more productive, they represented an increasingly smaller share of the economy. With fewer people needed to tend to our crops and man our assembly lines, more of the population was freed up to explore other career paths. To find work in the new economy of consultants, chefs, accountants, programmers, doctors, and lawyers, we needed ever greater levels of education. And this has brought immense prosperity.
But ironically enough, it also meant that more and more people could earn money without contributing to the collective welfare. Call it the paradox of progress: as we grow richer and smarter, so does the risk of becoming superfluous.
When the bankers went on strike
“THE BANKS ARE CLOSING”
This headline ran on the front page of the Irish Independent of May 4, 1970. Long and intense negotiations between labor and management had yielded no results. The bank employees claimed their salaries did not keep up with inflation. Their bosses wouldn’t pay up. A strike was organized.
In a single day, the strike cut off access to a whopping 85 percent of the country’s money supply. Assuming that the strike would continue for awhile, Irish companies began hoarding money. After two weeks, the Irish Times wrote that half of the country’s 7,000 bankers had already bolted to London to try to find other work.
In the meantime, experts feared that Ireland’s economy would disintegrate. The money supply would run out, after which trade would stagnate and unemployment would explode. “Imagine all the veins in your body suddenly shrinking and collapsing,” one economist writes, looking back on the Irish banking crisis, “and then you’ll begin to understand how economists look at bank closures.” As spring turned to summer, the country braced itself.
But then something strange happened.
Or, more accurately, not much happened at all. In July, the Times (UK) wrote that the “figures and trends which are available indicate that the dispute has not had an adverse effect on the economy so far.” A few months later, the Central Bank of Ireland drew up its final balance. “The Irish economy continued to function for a reasonably long period of time with its main clearing banks closed for business,” the report said. In fact, the economy continued to grow.
Then we’ll just do it ourselves
The Irish bank strike went on for six months – twenty times as long as the New York sanitation strike. But while the mayor across the ocean was forced to declare an official state of emergency after six days, Ireland was still humming along after six months without bankers. “The main reason I cannot recollect much about the bank strike,” an Irish journalist recently wrote, “is that it did not have a very large impact on daily life.”
How could a country function so well without access to its money supply?
Actually, it’s pretty simple: the Irish created their own money. After the banks closed, they kept writing cheques to each other. The only difference was that the cheques could no longer be cashed at the bank. The bank’s role was assumed by that other trader in liquid assets: the Irish pub. After all, those who frequent the same local pub three times a week know who can be trusted, and no one knows a community like its bartender. “It appears that the managers of these retail outlets had a high degree of information about their customers,” economist Antoin Murphy writes. “One does not after all serve drink to someone for years without discovering something of his liquid resources.”
In a very short time, a radically decentralised money system arose with the nation’s 11,000 pubs as its main nodes and human trust as its primary lubricant. By the time the banks reopened in November, the Irish had effectively printed a total of five billion pounds of their own money. Some cheques were issued by companies, others were written on the backs of cigar boxes, and some were even scrawled on toilet paper. According to historians, Irish social cohesion enabled the country to function without the help of banks.
Did everything work perfectly?
No, of course not. Some people took advantage of the situation, like the man who bought a racehorse with money he didn’t have only to pay off his debt with the horse’s winnings. (To be fair to this con artist, though, banks are themselves notorious for gambling with other people’s money.) Furthermore, it wasn’t as easy for Irish companies to attract foreign funds for large investments. Indeed, the fact that the Irish immediately started acting as bankers proves that they couldn’t do without a financial sector.
But what they could do without was all the accoutrements that tend to surround banking: the high-risk speculation, the shiny skyscrapers, and the bloated bonuses paid with taxpayer money. “Maybe, just maybe,” writer Umair Haque wonders, “banks need people a lot more than people need banks.”
Taxes are not just levied by the government
The contrast to that other strike, two years earlier and five thousand kilometres away, could hardly be greater. Where New Yorkers looked on in frustration as their city was transformed into a rubbish heap, the Irish took matters into their own hands. Where New York sat perched on the brink of disaster after just six days, Ireland was still flourishing six months later.
For clarity’s sake: it’s not easy to make big money without creating anything of value. It requires talent, ambition, and intelligence. The banking world is chock-full of clever people. “The genius of the great speculative investors is to see what others do not, or to see it earlier,” economist Roger Bootle writes. “This is a skill. But so is the ability to stand on tip toe, balancing on one leg, while holding a pot of Earl Gray tea above your head, and pouring the contents into a cup on the ground, without spillage.”
In other words, the fact that something is difficult does not necessarily mean it is valuable.
In recent decades, banks and hedge funds have devised all manner of complex financial instruments that serve to destroy wealth rather than create it. In so doing, these instruments essentially levy a tax on the rest of the population. The money for all those tailored suits, opulent vacation villas, and enormous yachts has to come from somewhere, and if bankers are not creating the value to support those luxuries themselves, then that money ultimately has to come from others. That is to say, the redistribution of wealth is not the sole purview of the government. The financial sector practices it too, redistributing the wealth of everyone into its own coffers – but without a democratic mandate.
What it comes down to is this: the fact that wealth is concentrated in one place does not necessarily mean it is created there. This is as true for the CEO of the ING Group as it was for the Count of Holland in centuries past. The only difference is that the modern banker actually believes he is the true creator of wealth. The Count, who proudly prospered from the toils of the serfs who tilled his land, was not hampered by this illusion.
And to think that the course of history could have gone so differently.
Nearly a century ago, economist John Maynard Keynes famously predicted that we would work fifteen-hour weeks by the year 2030. He predicted that our wealth and prosperity would increase dramatically and that we would convert much of that wealth into leisure. Keynes was certainly not the only one to believe that it was just a matter of time before we solved the “economic problem.” Well into the 1970s, economists and sociologists forecasted that “the End of Work” was near.
Reality, as we all know, hasn’t panned out that way. Wealth and prosperity increased as predicted, certainly, but we have not seen a corresponding increase in free time. If anything, we’re working more and harder today than in generations past. Many people explain these circumstances by assuming we use money we don’t have to buy stuff we don’t need to impress people we don’t like. In other words: we sacrificed our free time on the altar of consumerism.
But there’s something wrong with this explanation. Most people don’t spend their workdays producing custom iPhone cases, exotic shampoos enhanced by botanical extracts, or the ingredients for Mocha Cookie Crumble Frappuccinos. The labor that sustains the West’s addiction to consumption is provided largely by robots and sweatshop workers in Bangladesh. If our busy work weeks aren’t spent building toys for ourselves, what are they spent on?
The American anthropologist David Graeber thinks something very different has happened. A year ago, he wrote a fascinating essay that attributes our continued busyness not to the things that we buy, but to the work that we do. The essay’s title: “ON THE PHENOMENON OF BULLSHIT JOBS.”
Countless people, Graeber writes, spend their entire working life performing tasks that they secretly believe to be pointless. Think of telemarketers, human resource managers, social media strategists, public relations advisors, and many administrative employees at hospitals, universities, and government ministries. “Bullshit jobs,” Graeber calls them. Crucially, the people who hold these jobs themselves believe their work to be meaningless.
Could it be coincidence that the rise in bullshit jobs happened alongside massive growth in higher education and the emergence of the knowledge economy? As I mentioned earlier, it’s really hard to earn money without demonstrating some kind of skill. You have to at least master the art of sounding useful, perhaps by gaining fluency in the language of meaningless buzzwords. (How about strategic review committees discussing multi-sector issues to contribute to disruptive co-creation in the network society?)
In a world which is becoming richer and richer – where cows produce more milk and robots make more things – there is more room for friends, family, health, education, culture, sports, and all the other things that make life worth living. But there is also more room for bullshit. And as long as each and every one of us, across the political spectrum, continues to conflate busyness with usefulness (even as the actual productive work is increasingly automated and outsourced), the number of meaningless jobs will continue to swell.
Of course, not all jobs in the service sector are meaningless. Far from it. Lots of people who work in healthcare, education, firefighting, and law enforcement go home everyday with the well-earned feeling that their labor has made the world a little bit better. “It’s as if,” Graeber writes, “they’re being told, ‘… [Y]ou get to have real jobs! And on top of that you have the nerve to also expect middle-class pensions and health care?’”
It doesn’t have to be this way
The most unsettling thought may well be that all of this is happening within a capitalist system, a system traditionally justified by its supposed talent at fulfilling human desires.
Yet as politicians loudly proclaim the importance of shrinking the government and growing the private sector, the number of bullshit jobs just keeps increasing. Thus, governments continue to make major cuts in the funding for important, meaningful jobs in healthcare, education, and infrastructure while at the same time investing billions in the bullshit unemployment industry of ineffective job application training courses, inspiration days, and seminars on elevator pitches.
The market has no automatic bias towards usefulness, quality, or innovation. All it is interested in is making a profit. Sometimes this results in a great contribution to society – and sometimes it doesn’t. From telemarketing to tax consulting, it can be very rational to create one bullshit job after another. A business can get very rich without contributing a single thing.
Inequality rubs salt into the wounds. As more wealth and prosperity is concentrated at the top, the demand for corporate lawyers, lobbyists, and high-frequency traders grows. “Demand” is never an immutable force of nature; it is the product of a power play. It is determined by the laws and institutions of a polity – and above all by the people who have access to that polity’s power and money.
Perhaps that’s why innovation in the past thirty years – an era of growing inequality – has been rather disappointing. “We wanted flying cars, instead we got 140 characters,” sighs Peter Thiel, Silicon Valley’s resident intellectual. After World War II, we were treated to fantastic improvements like the washing machine, refrigerator, and birth control pill; in recent years, the only fundamental change in our lives has been the internet. It has become more and more profitable not to innovate at all.
Imagine how much progress we’ve missed out on because thousands of geniuses wasted their time developing incredibly complex financial products that ultimately cause damage for the vast majority of us, or spent their intellect slightly tweaking an already-existing medicine in order to score their company a new patent and a new marketing opportunity. “The best minds of my generation are thinking about how to make people click ads,” a math genius at Facebook recently lamented.
Imagine all that talent had not been used to shift wealth toward the already wealthy, but to create it for all of us. Maybe we would already have had jetpacks, underwater cities, or the cure for cancer. Who can tell?
At any rate: it doesn’t have to be this way. We can restructure our economy, our taxes, and our educational system so that innovation and creativity are more financially rewarding than devising bullshit jobs for bullshit industries. “We do not have to wait patiently for slow cultural change,” economist William Baumol wrote twenty years ago. We do not have to wait until we have as many lawyers per person as Japan, until gambling with other people’s money is no longer profitable, until garbage men and nurses earn a decent wage, and until our mathematical geniuses dream of building a colony on Mars instead of setting up their own hedge fund.
We can take a step towards another world – and we can start today. Because in the end, it isn’t the market but society that determines the value of things. If we want to get even richer this century – wealthy in innovation, in leisure, in culture, in a life well lived – then we would do well to say goodbye to the dogma that all work is worth our while. Let’s also bid farewell to the fable that earning money is the same as deserving it. If we make it that far, we might find ourselves in a world where garbage men earn more than bankers.