Monday, January 20, 2014

More on the Post-Work World

One final note - in the articles it talks about the "hollowing out" phenomenon and how we are separating into "lovely and lousy" jobs. But what's also happening is a disappearance of the middle within job categories themselves! This makes total sense - because there are far more graduates than are needed in various occupations (law, business management, architecture, journalism, graphic design, etc.), and because workers are now competing against workers all over the world (engineering, computer science, accountants), the oversupply of labor drives the wages down. Automation doesn't eliminate these jobs, it reduces the required need for them, without shrinking the available pool of people who want or need to get into them. At the same time, a tiny slice of owner/managers take advantage of elite insider connections, and due to this oversupply of cheap labor are able to get richer than ever before:
We've all gotten used to talking about the problems with law schools and the thousands of underemployed, debt-addled JDs that they graduate. But perhaps it's time to start taking a similarly critical look at business programs. As the Wall Street Journal illustrates in a piece today, it looks like the U.S. now has a glut of MBAs.

The problem, it seems, is the proliferation of B-grade B-schools. Universities are now conferring 74 percent more business degrees than they did in the 2000-2001 school year. Much of that torrid growth has been driven by part-time and executive MBA programs at less-than-prestigious institutions looking to cash in. And while the supply of business grads has continued to grow, the WSJ finds that pay for young MBAs has dipped 4.6% since the recession, reflecting both the slow job market, and the fact that the degree seems to have lost some of its cache.

Meanwhile, the cost of tuition has risen 24 percent in the last three years.

As the WSJ illustrates in the graphs below, MBA programs aren't alone in their troubles. Schools are handing out more advanced degrees than ever, and pay for grad-school alums has stagnated in turn. Part of this boils down to common sense: mediocre students who graduate from mediocre graduate programs aren't going to suddenly find themselves working at Goldman Sachs or a tony law firm. They're going to land the jobs they're qualified for and drag down average pay for everyone, even if Wharton MBAs or Harvard JDs keep raking in huge paychecks.
The Are Officially Too Many MBAs (The Atlantic)
The figures are grim, and the human cost is real. Ninety-two percent of 2007 law school graduates found jobs after graduation, with 77 percent employed in a position requiring them to pass the bar. For the class of 2011 (the latest class for which there are data), the employment figure is 86 percent—with only 65 percent employed in a position that required bar passage. Preliminary employment figures for the class of 2012 are even worse. The median starting salary has declined from $72,000 in 2009 to $60,000 in 2012. A while back, the Bureau of Labor Statistics estimated that 218,800 new legal jobs would be created between 2010 and 2020. As law professor Paul Campos points out, because law schools graduate more than 40,000 students per year, those jobs should be snapped up by 2015—leaving only normal attrition and retirement spots left for the classes of 2016 to 2020. Meanwhile, tuition has increased dramatically over the last several decades. Students who graduate from law school today with $100,000 or more in debt will default on their loans if they cannot get high-paying work in the law.
The Real Problem With Law Schools: too Many Lawyers (Slate)

Too Many Students, Too Few Jobs (Daily Beast)

And math/science majors aren't for everybody:
Studies have found that roughly 40 percent of students planning engineering and science majors end up switching to other subjects or failing to get any degree. That increases to as much as 60 percent when pre-medical students, who typically have the strongest SAT scores and high school science preparation, are included, according to new data from the University of California at Los Angeles. That is twice the combined attrition rate of all other majors.
Why Science Majors Change Their Minds (It’s Just So Darn Hard) (New York Times)

At the same time, elites are able to trade in on connections that are simply unavailable to most of us:
The Obama administration, like previous administrations, allows rich parents in effect to buy résumé-enhancing jobs in the public sector for their upper-class offspring. The sale of public offices to rich families was one of the abuses of the Ancien Régime that helped to inspire the French Revolution. Like that corrupt premodern practice, unpaid internships are an inherently aristocratic institution. If you are in your late teens or early twenties, and you don’t have a personal trust fund or rich parents who can fund your living expenses as an unpaid intern in Washington, D.C., New York or San Francisco, then you are out of luck.

When I say rich kids, I mean really rich kids. We’re talking One Percenters. Even many upper-middle-class parents with professional jobs might not be able to subsidize children with unpaid internships at the White House, Washington think tanks or New York publications and media enterprises.
How the young elite rise in Washington, D.C. (Salon) The same thing is going on in every profession - these jobs are only available to the children of the wealthy. This is why social mobility has plummeted, especially in the United States.

Peter Turchin has documented this. Here is the income distribution for lawyers from 1991 and in 2010:
Bimodal Lawyers: How Extreme Competition Breeds Extreme Inequality (Social Evolution Forum)

Naked Capitalism also discussed the issue. You can take a look at the comments. Here are some of what I thought were the best:
 One can get support for *anything* – as long as it happens to “the others” – most people are pretty much OK with that, because “those people” being different and all “deserved it”. By the time it happens to “us” or people we know and care about, the Gestapo is already fully provisioned to handle any scale of emergency or dissent and we are fucked!


Yes, we need to stop getting lost in debates about “jobs,” which are a social creation, and start talking about resource use and the production and distribution of goods, i.e. the real, physical aspects of the economy. “Everyone” needs a job because we’ve set things up so that most people are confronted with the specter of poverty if they do not attain one (and as often as not, even if they do). But there need be no connection between having a job and having access to adequate supplies of life’s necessaries, that’s just a result of our social organization.

As long as our focus remains on creating jobs, we’ll be blind to the realities of life. Pollution, disease and warfare can all be beneficial for the unemployment rate, but that doesn’t mean creating more of them is beneficial. We can justify just about anything on the basis of job-creation, even if it is bat-sh*t insane from an ecological or social perspective.


We are approaching the age long resisted by the corporate oligarchs that people many decades ago envisioned for the future. Our technological capacity is beyond stunning yet our lives still consist of nose-to-the-grindstone attitudes and ways of life. Our current political-economy exists with its stresses and fears to make sure that a class of elites continue to lord it over the riff-raff just because the f!ckers enjoy playing dominant/submission games where they are the tops and call the shots.

Even at this point, we could collectively engineer a paradise on earth using the economies of scale by, for example, replacing carbon-based energy with a combination of renewable resources which economists claim is not possible because 95% of economists live in a world of fantasy that resembles academic theologians of the Middle Ages counting angels on the head of a pin.

We forget, unless we lived through it, that many smart people in the 1950s believed we would be rapidly rolling back working hours through automation and all the glories of systems analysis and cybernetics (now used as instruments of oppression and not so much for conviviality). People were calling for “leisure studies” to deal with the urgent problem of what human beings would do with their off-the-clock lives. What happened? Why do so few people note that there was a major change in emphasis and power in the sixties that changed this trajectory?

All the glories of technology since the 60′s have really offered only marginal improvements in our lives considering the dramatic nature of these changes. Why and how did we create such a stressful society? Why do we think this is the best we can do?

If, indeed, the revolution in robotics can no longer be held back then this will, I hope, provide us with a new focus that we can build a new world very different from the dour one sustained by the propaganda organs and their corporate masters.
It's true, we're living in times that would beggar the imagination of most science-fiction writers from just a generation ago. We can swipe a card at the store to pay for food with virtual credits from our bank account, and create unlimited virtual money with keystrokes. We can have goods from even the most distant parts of the world shipped right to our front door with the click of a button. We have massive warehouses overflowing with more stuff than we can possibly buy, from televisions to cat food, with a barcode and SKU on every one and massive databases that can keep track of literally billions of goods around the world, down to the smallest candy bar. We are able to tell how many blenders are on the shelf of the main street store in Bloomington, Indiana at any point in time, and can tell how many we're going to need next week or next month thanks to "just in time" delivery and Big Data. We can see inside the body with MRIs, install pacemakers and artificial organs, and treat major diseases with a pill. We can produce electricity from wind and sunlight, print out 3D objects in a printer, and reasonably predict the weather. We have high-speed Maglev trains that can travel over 200 miles per hour, supersonic jets, and self-driving cars and trucks. We can produce diesel fuel from leftover kitchen grease and have hydrogen cars whose only exhaust product is potable water. We can store 10,000 songs on a device the size of a deck of cards and hundreds of books on a portable tablet. We can access all the world's libraries from the convenience of our homes, attend Harvard classes in our bathrobes, and stream a virtually unlimited amount of movies and television shows right into our bedrooms. We can have a conversation instantaneously with someone on the top of a mountain, or the bottom of the ocean, or on the other side of the planet. We can engineer DNA, send probes to other worlds, peer inside the atom, and see out to the farthest reaches of the universe all the way back to the Big Bang.

Yet instead of a paradise, everywhere we look we see hopelessness, violence and despair. Boarded-up foreclosures stripped of copper wire dot the nation. Bridges are falling down and concrete spalls off the overpasses. Cities have become heavily policed, crime-ridden ghettos overflowing with gang violence, drugs and prostitution. Security guards are everywhere, and cameras are on every streetcorner. Schools have become holding pens for future prisoners. One in four American children live in poverty, and formerly middle-class people are living in their cars. College students enter the job market as virtual indentured servants, with tens of thousands of dollars in student loans, and still can't find a job. Wages are in a global race to the bottom. Most of the jobs created in the country pay minimum wage, which is less in real terms than it was a quarter of a century ago. Kids pop pills to stay awake studying, while others take drugs to compete in athletics or starve themselves to look like images in the media. Massive portions of the government budget go to pay for interest on the national debt and a ravenous military-industrial complex which wages wars of aggression all over the world. The NSA listens to every phone call, reads every tweet and post, and stores every email. Small businesses are run out of town by corporate behemoths. Billionaires pay a lower percentage of taxes than do janitors. Elections are a joke, democracy is a sham, and politicians are nothing but high-class whores. Governments are being bankrupted thanks to "austerity" as entire nations are torn apart and reduced to poverty to pay back a rapacious banking cartel. Crowded third world megalopolises are riddled with sprawling slums, shantytowns and favelas, and 2.5 billion people people lack access to adequate sanitation. Protests and civil wars are occurring all around the world as we speak. Just four-hundred people have as much wealth as half the people of the United States. The richest eight-five people in the world have as much wealth as half of the entire human race!

What the hell is going on? Why does it have to be this way? Even a cynic like me has to wonder, can't we do better than this???

Finally, given the lack of jobs that we've discussed, I thought this was ironic: The Cult of Overwork (The New Yorker)


  1. No, we can't do better, if you mean the USA. Americans are so brainwashed, numbed by the complexity of modern life, and stupid that there will be no change in the USA, only further degradation into neo-feudalism (a subject you have explored so well, and misery). Which is why I'm getting out.

    1. I think of getting out too. So much of America is toxic. But on a good day... I can still feel around me some of that energy and spunk of Ben Franklin and the Revolutionaries... that energy is out there, and rather armed. Hm... What would happen if they teamed up with the energy of abandoning the Church of Shopping? I hear there are parts of the country where this is already happening. May it grow.

    2. A lot of them didn’t leave the church of shopping so much as they were excommunicated. In my case, I decided that the religion wasn’t for me and walked away. A lot of people who remained in the cult didn’t fare so well (debt, foreclosures, work/consume treadmill etc.)

    3. Sadly, the decay isn't just confined to the United States - it's global. Look at the unemployment in Southern Europe. Or what's going on in the Ukraine and Thailand. Or across the Middle East.

      Now some places are doing better than others. And I think the United States is going to be one of the worst, for the cultural reasons you described above. But this ceaseless decay is a worldwide phenomenon, because we're all under the thumb of global neoliberal capitalism , and no one has yet figured out, or gained enough power to break that stranglehold.

  2. On the subject of "The Cult of Overwork," Paul Krugman wrote an entry the same day you wrote this one about it. He called it, Three-Piece Suits, Breakfast Meetings, and Overwork that references the same article and connects it to his experience. He concludes that it's a type of signaling of commitment by the less competent. The more competent people didn't do that. Also, they seemed aware of what overwork does to productivity, which is drive it down. When I read that, I thought of what you had to say about the matter. Looks like you got the answer before Krugman.

    1. I saw that! And he’s exactly right. What I noticed is that working brutal hours is pretty much the only metric for promotion these days- rather than the quality of the work. As I always say, if you can’t get your work done in 40 hours – which is a lot of time! – you’re really just overloaded or, more likely, very inefficient. I also point out that there are diminishing returns – the work you do after an 8-hour day takes twice as long as at the beginning of the day, is sloppier, more prone to errors, and of a lower quality (and mistakes end up costing a lot later on) – yet the client is actually paying more for it! How is that in their interest? Yet because overwork is the metric for promotion, people engage in signaling in order to be the one promoted or not laid off. But because of the above dynamics, their work is often of poorer quality. We should instead be promoting people who go home one time – because they’re more efficient!


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