The Bright Side of Unemployment

Fifth in an ongoing series about the deeper reasons behind the difficulty of finding work

Don’t jump off any tall buildings yet.  Despite the abundant Direness, things are less bleak than they appear.  The problem may present as though we’ve run out of a scarce resource –namely jobs, particularly meaningful ones –but viewed from the proper perspective, it becomes clear that we are in fact suffering from an overabundance of a different resource –namely human labor.  And an overabundance is a better kind of problem to deal with than scarcity.

It may seem hard to believe that this could be a problem at all.  After all, the imagination is staggered by the sheer volume of worthy projects in need of more workers.  Desert reclamation, space travel, teaching in the inner city, bridge building, planting trees, the list goes on and on.  Yet the things that need done rarely seem to get matched up with the people who need things to do.

You can’t just throw the people and the projects into a jar and shake it up to see what settles out.  You need a system –a system with the following characteristics:

  1. It creates jobs:  Your Employment-Creation System (ECS) must have a deep (ideally endless) supply of projects that need to be completed.
  2. It distributes jobs: Your system needs a way to match people with projects.
  3. It makes jobs meaningful:  Most importantly, your system must provide a unified larger context for its workers that motivates them to complete their assigned tasks.

For those readers with an economics background, it may seem like there are some important things missing from this list:  Supply and demand, channels of distribution,  methods of production, and so forth and so on.  But what I’m describing here is not a economic system, but rather an Employment-Creation System.  For example, here in the United States, our economic system is Capitalism, but our employment-creation system is Consumerism.  Capitalism provides the overall system, but Consumerism generates the majority of the jobs.

NEXT WEEK:  A closer look at Consumerism.

Dire Trend #3: Busywork?

Fourth in an ongoing series about the deeper reasons behind the difficulty of finding work

(Adapted from an essay originally presented on 4/4/05)

Most Americans are familiar with the phenomena of “busywork” –time-consuming tasks of dubious meaning and value, which much be completed according to precise but arbitrary parameters. Such tasks –generally consisting of pieces of paperwork to be laboriously filled out –compose a large portion of many people’s jobs (as trenchantly chronicled in the movie “Office Space” in which the main character’s entire career hinges around the use of one form versus another).

Few people realize, however, the extent to which busywork has come to dominate the American workplace, or have questioned the sinister implications of such a seemingly innocuous phenomenon.

The reason for the existence of busywork is as follows: In a money-based economy, wealth is relative. My spending power increases when the spending power of those around me decreases. However, there are some absolutes, and one of the most foundational absolutes is human labor. In order for anything to actually be produced, there must be human labor involved, and the value of human labor is physically bounded by the amount of productive work a person can do in a day.

What this means is that, in order for a people to become wealthier than the limits of their own labor, they need to me able to control, directly or indirectly, the labor of a large number of people. Direct control of other people’s labor, as in slavery, is ultimately inefficient, because one person can only exploit the labor of a limited number of people before facing the inevitability of a revolt. However, indirect control of labor solves this problem through the magic of hierarchy. If I control a small number of people –ten, for example –it takes relatively little force and coercion, particularly if I share the benefits of their labor with them.

A part interest in the labor of ten people is not enough to create immense wealth. If each of those ten people controls ten other people, however, and those people control ten other people, then I quickly reach a situation where I have a part interest in the labor of a thousand people (or, to extend it another level, ten-thousand). Now my wealth is greater than those of my laborers by several orders of magnitude.

One of the problems with this setup is that the vast majority of the actual productive labor that keeps the company running takes place at or near the bottom. There are other functions that take place higher up the hierarchy –skilled labor and technical work such as engineering and design for example –but the need for such labor is generally not extensive enough to fill the vast pyramids that compose mega-corporations.

This is where busywork enters the picture. The filling out of forms, shuffling of paper, and completion of meaningless tasks keeps people in the middle of the corporation busy, and thus prevents them from causing trouble. The busywork also structures the organization and keeps it from collapsing, by limiting opportunities for advancement and by placing barriers to productivity.

This last point demands some explanation. Why is productivity in the middle a bad thing? The answer is that the function of middle management is to maintain the organization and to keep the hierarchy from collapsing. Productivity is not the chief function of the middle. If people in the middle are too productive, it calls into question the need for the vast numbers of people in the middle. If I, as a mid-level employee complete tasks too efficiently and effectively, then why does the company need all the other workers at my level of the structure? It is only a useful fiction that my employment is maintained primarily for my productivity. Rather it is maintained for my utility as a channel through which wealth can flow upwards.

Thus, success in middle management is largely dependent on the ability to keep people busy, but not productive. In other words, the function of middle management is to create busywork. The more busywork that is available, the more the company can expand, and the larger the structure will be, thus creating a greater concentration of wealth at the top.

This explains a phenomena noticeable in many offices. One or two people may be the ones doing all of the actual productive work in the office, but they are surrounded by a vast number of other employees who are essentially supernumerary and parasitic. The employee who does the actual work, however, is less likely to be promoted or recognized than a co-worker who continually creates meaningless projects, and thus increases the workload on those around them.

Why is the hardworking employee disdained and the parasitic employee celebrated? The former endangers the employment of those around him or her by demonstrating their uselessness, but the latter ensures the continued employment of his or her coworkers by disguising their needlessness .

Unfortunately, this phenomena creates employment at the price of the death of creativity and human potential.  To restate the problem, our society is unable to generate a quantity of meaningful jobs sufficient for the working population, and so, in order to avoid mass unemployment, it must create jobs whose only real justification is their own existence.

NEXT WEEK:  The Bright Side of Unemployment

Dire Trend #2: The Global Pyramid Scheme

Third in an ongoing series about the deeper reasons behind the difficulty of finding work

Dire Trend #2 – The Global Pyramid Scheme: This second trend is a little easier to miss than the first one.  Did you ever get a letter –or an email –promising you $625 in the mail? All you had to do was send five dollars to each of the four people’s names above you on a list, add your name to the bottom of the list, and send the letter on to five (soon to be former) friends. This is what is known as a pyramid scheme, and it sounds like a great deal. Basically, the people at the beginning of the scheme, the top of the pyramid, get paid by an ever increasing pool of people at the bottom of the pyramid. It really does work as advertised, at first, but the same law of mathematics that promises exponentially huge payouts dooms the scheme to an unhappy ending. After only a short amount of time, you run out of people to recruit at the bottom of the pyramid. The very large group of people who come in at the end of the pyramid scheme pay money that goes to the people above them on the pyramid, but they never get any payment back because there aren’t enough suckers left to recruit under them.

Pyramid schemes never completely die off because they seem so promising. Most people learn pretty quickly to avoid the most obvious chain-letter type schemes, but millions of dollars are routinely lost in more upscale Ponzi-type pyramids, such as the one run by the crooked financier Bernie Madoff.

As many shock waves as were set off by the collapse of Madoff’s pyramid, however, it was small potatoes compared to the biggest pyramid scheme of all –the one played by nations. It works like this: In order to become wealthy, a nation industrializes, which means it opens up factories and begins mass producing consumer goods. In order for this to work, however, a nation needs a constant supply of low-priced raw materials, and a market full of consumers ready to buy the finished products.

When what are now the “First World” countries industrialized, one of the ways in which we accomplished that task was by entering into an exploitative relationship with less fortunate countries around the world.  In that relationship we obtained raw materials from them at artificially low costs, and sold back finished products to them at inflated prices. This relationship still continues, but there is now also a second tier of industrialized countries –places like China and India –that are still subsidizing the luxurious First World lifestyle, but that are also entering into their own exploitative relationships with countries further behind on the pathway to industrialization.

Like the Madoff investment group, the payoffs are great for the top of the pyramid –so far–, but a collapse is inevitable. The number of people in the world is large but finite, and the resources of the Earth are vast but exhaustable. Now that countries as large as China and India have entered the game, the chances of there being enough new recruits further down the pyramid to keep the system running are becoming smaller and smaller.

NEXT WEEK: Dire Trend #3

Dire Trend #1: Debt

Second in an ongoing series about the deeper reasons behind the difficulty of finding work

Dire Trend #1 – Runaway Debt: I think everyone has pretty much noticed this one, and if not, it’s because we’re collectively putting our fingers in our ears and shouting “Na na na na!” at the top of our lungs. In a nutshell, our government has run out of money, and is paying for everything on borrowed funds –as have other governments all around the world. It’s the same as when you or I put the rent on a credit card to make up for having no money in the bank. That means more money is going out than is coming in, it leads to exorbitant interest fees that make it ever harder to catch up, and sooner or later you reach your credit limit and get cut off. If that happens to you or me, we declare bankruptcy and lose our homes. If it happens to a Third World country, you end up with riots and the rise of warlords. I don’t think anyone knows what happens if it happens to the world’s premier superpower, but it seems unlikely to be good.

NEXT WEEK: Dire Trend #2