#89: "Essential" Work, Crumbling Beliefs, UBI, Bullshit Jobs, Buybacks
😎 Reflections on life, work & what matters
Greetings from Las Palmas
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I was out last week with some complications with some dental work, but am doing better this week. Thank god for dentists AND supermarket workers, and farmers, and healthcare workers and all the other essential workers. It’s beautiful how our attention has shifted to those truly keeping the trains running on time. Let’s never forget how special these people are.
This week’s newsletter is a bit long. I’m trying to make sense of a few ideas that I’ve been tracking for a few years. Would love to hear thoughts…
#1 Shifting Perspectives 🌇
Within a few hours on Tuesday, three things came across my Twitter feed:
Jack Dorsey dedicates 23% of his wealth to donated almost $1 billion of his wealth to help immediately towards Covid but more permanently for UBI and supporting other measures like women’s health
Gig workers won a major decision earning some of the privileges of full-time workers and can file for unemployment
BMS offers to cover patients medications without insurance for free
All of these things quickly disappeared into the non-stop stream of pandemic news, political outrage (to those that thought we might get a reprieve, it appears not 😢), and all sorts of updates from across the world but I think they are a sign of a shift.
Space For Gifts 🎁
The crazy thing about all of these things is that they are what many free-market libertarian types claim would happen if we could cut back on government programs. If things were bad enough and government programs didn’t exist, companies, non-profits and individuals would fill the void and act more generously. Though that never happened during the frothy 12’-20’ period, it does appear that the latent capacity for generosity was there.
Part of my own personal journey over the past couple of years has been to orient more towards being helpful without expectation than building a business and “crushing it.” Push this too far and people start to tell you that you’re a sucker. Get whats yours. However, for me, I’ve start to realize that the real risk of ruin is not running out of money, but running out of people who will take you in.
In crisis mode, many people are seeing the same thing. No longer hiding behind the outdated work belief of seeing one’s lack of resources as a moral judgement on that person’s character and work ethic, people are proactively offering what they can to those in need.
As our transaction economy is literally on hold, gift economies are springing up. Payment doesn’t make sense when everyone is dealing with the same challenge. Instead we try to allocate things to those in need. This is a normal state of affairs for families and close friends, but the circle is being expanded to acquaintances and strangers.
Anyone who is a member of a local community facebook group right now sees this. I did a quick scan of the group for the small town where I grew up and within five minutes found offers to do shopping, donate masks and donate money to people in the community.
This was all possible for the past decade, but only now do we have urgency and a reason to behave in new ways.
In a crisis a giver is never seen as a sucker. Kudos to all the people giving what they can and helping where they are able.
“Essential Workers” 💗
Our attention has also been amplified towards workers that were previously ignored. The cashier at the supermarket, the teacher at the school, the nurse, the health aid, or even the local friend making masks for everyone.
We now know how “essential” these people are in every sense of the word.
My sister works in a job which I’ve always admired and I though was much more useful to the world than any of the consulting work I did in my previous companies despite the market valuing us very differently. She happened to get confirmation after recovering that she had covid-19 because they were were looking for recovered mental health workers to serve as crisis counselors for patients and families over the coming months. She and many people like her chose a profession which forces you to take absurd amounts of money for grad school and certifications and then rewards you with people saying crazy things to you “like you should have gone to business school if you wanted to make more money.”
Let’s never forget the workers that really hold things together for us.
Our current economy is not as efficient as the true believers of shareholder value might think. I’ve made the argument that we are really in a “prestige economy” and resources shift to places which receive our attention and admiration.
I think we are in a massive re-shuffling of the jobs that have prestige. Money is always going to steal our attention and shift some prestige to those making high salaries. However, there is no way we continue to look at gig workers, uber drivers, supermarket workers and healthcare workers the same coming out of this crisis.
✍ In a weird place
I had three or four people mention to me this week “this must be good for what you’ve been writing about for so long, right?”
I don’t know how to react to this, but when I think about what I’ve been writing about, it boils down to a few themes:
We delude ourselves that we are workers, when in fact we are all just humans
The myths of work are not aligned with the current reality of work
Our imagination for what’s possible is incredibly limited
Many people have a latent capacity to help, teach or create that they ignore
It seems that this crisis has temporarily loosened the grip of work and our stories on people and has given many permission to act in new ways.
I’m not sure what comes next but I hope people start to see some of the possibilities beyond what we might lose.
#2 Universal Basic Income - The Psychological Barriers are Disappearing 👀
As almost 20 million people in the US have become unemployed in the last three weeks, the US is rapidly transforming its economy and social services to adapt to this new reality.
As a country based on a “employment-at-will” labor economy, the system is not set up for such a massive spike in unemployed workers. Even at the height of the 2008 crisis, the highest weekly unemployment claims filed in a week was 667,000 in March of 2009.
Here’s how the last three weeks compare:
In response to this the US government and others around the world have unleashed unprecedented fiscal and monetary measures, including direct cash payments.
In Spain, the economic minister is taking steps to push for a permanent basic income:
"We're going to do it as soon as possible," she said. "So it can be useful, not just for this extraordinary situation, and that it remains forever."
Many economies around the world are hacked together in a piecemeal way hiding the fact that there just are not that many good full-time jobs for everyone. In the US this is even more fragile as we are one of the few countries that ties healthcare access to employment. In the US, less than 40% of adults have full-time jobs, with the rest on disability, welfare, in school, in part-time work or increasingly, retired.
I think we will see UBI or some version of it (such as “universal basic services”, catastrophe insurance, etc..) become a central idea that will slowly replace welfare programs over the next five years. Some countries will implement this during the pandemic and keep it, others will engage in the idea after.
The reason for this shift is not because it makes technical or financial sense (as many UBI proponents have argued), but that our beliefs about work and wealth will likely shift. Last year I wrote about three “sacred” beliefs holding back experiments with a basic income:
Work is virtuous (or in the modern sense, employment)
Leisure is passive
One’s value can be determined by their earnings
As I wrote about above, #1 and #3 have shown to be rather flimsy in the wake of a global pandemic and many are finding a lot of time to contemplate the deeper meaning of their life without the constraints of a commute and office hours.
Still, UBI is not going to happen without a deeper exploration of what it might offer to people. I stumbled across this short video on UBI from Jordan Hall this week which is probably one of the best videos and arguments I’ve seen for implementing a UBI.
He starts out:
There’s a frame of thinking about UBI as welfare that is wrong”
Instead he argues that giving everyone cash increased the “signal” in the global labor economy, meaning we can get better information about what things really cost and the true cost of services and labor.
He makes the argument that a janitor cleaning toilets at an investment bank doesn’t really have a way of negotiating salary unless they are able to walk away and not take a job. With a basic income, they can say “eff you” to the bank and decide to stay at home with their kids, meaning the salary of a toilet cleaner gets driven up.
At that new salary level, we get a better sense of some of the built in costs. This might motivate innovators to invent self-cleaning toilets, instead of relying on low-wage labor. Similarly, we may find that Uber is not so cheap when we give their drivers the option to not be gig workers.
Do check out the video, its only 12 minutes. I find the argument quite compelling, especially from a free-market perspective.
#3 Bullshit Jobs Revisited
I revisited the mini book club discussion and accompanying discussion I ran on David Graeber’s book Bullshit Jobs in 2018 after someone posted it on Twitter. It was a bit shocking to see so many of the things Graeber mentions be so central in our current moment
In it, there are a number of ideas that Graeber touches on that are more salient than ever.
Idea #1: “Shit Jobs” (now “Essential”)
"Shit jobs tend to be blue collar and pay by the hour, whereas bullshit jobs tend to be white collar and salaried. Those who work shit jobs tend to be the object of indignities; they not only work hard but also are held in low esteem for that very reason. But at least they know they’re doing something useful. Those who work bullshit jobs are often surrounded by honor and prestige; they are respected as professionals, well paid, and treated as high achievers—as the sort of people who can be justly proud of what they do. Yet secretly they are aware that they have achieved nothing…”
Exception: Doctor not a “shit job”
Graeber notes that this status quo continues because people argue that if people were paid well, it might attract people that only want to do it for the money:
It’s commonplace to hear that grade school or middle school teachers shouldn’t be paid well, or certainly not as well as lawyers or executives, because one wouldn’t want people motivated primarily by greed to be teaching children. The argument would make a certain amount of sense if it were applied consistently—but it never is. (I have yet to hear anyone make the same argument about doctors.)
I would not be surprised to see more exceptions emerge as more attention gets paid to the importance of many of these “essential” jobs.
For one thing, I expect more Doctors to be heads of hospitals instead of business majors.
Idea #2: Half the jobs in our economy could be eliminated?
If 37 percent to 40 percent of jobs are completely pointless, and at least 50 percent of the work done in nonpointless office jobs is equally pointless, we can probably conclude that at least half of all work being done in our society could be eliminated without making any real difference at all.”
It’s a scary thought that we could abandon a high number of jobs, but this is the current experiment we find ourselves in. In many countries, the governments have shut down employment except those deemed essential.
Many people, especially those working from home, are finding they don’t work all that much and are likely plagued with thoughts about if there job is safe. This combined with the increased call for things like UBI will be something to watch..
Idea #3: Universal Basic Income
Even a modest Basic Income program could become a stepping-stone toward the most profound transformation of all: to unlatch work from livelihood entirely
Graeber doesn’t recommend any policy solutions strongly, but thinks UBI was one of few solutions that decreases beuracracy and might allocate labor better than the current system
The first objection typically raised when someone suggests guaranteeing everyone a livelihood regardless of work is that if you do so, people simply won’t work. This is just obviously false and at this point I think we can dismiss it out of hand. The second, more serious objection is that most will work, but many will choose work that’s of interest only to themselves. The streets would fill up with bad poets, annoying street mimes, and promoters of crank scientific theories, and nothing would get done. What the phenomenon of bullshit jobs really brings home is the foolishness of such assumptions. No doubt a certain proportion of the population of a free society would spend their lives on projects most others would consider to be silly or pointless; but it’s hard to imagine how it would go much over 10 or 20 percent. But already right now, 37 to 40 percent of workers in rich countries already feel their jobs are pointless. Roughly half the economy consists of, or exists in support of, bullshit. And it’s not even particularly interesting bullshit! If we let everyone decide for themselves how they were best fit to benefit humanity, with no restrictions at all, how could they possibly end up with a distribution of labor more inefficient than the one we already have?
#4 Attention leaders, wake the f*ck up
I wrote this essay which is a bit more provocative than my typical writing:
Right now, every company finds itself in a crisis. From the supermarkets who are realizing they are the most essential business in their community to the office that has completed a 100% shift to remote work in less than 24 hours.
This short essay is a letter to the leaders of the companies in that second category who’s work is already digital, but the operations and day-to-day reality of the company are still rooted in an office-based existence.
It’s time to wake the f*ck up.
#5 Buyback Blowback
From a report from the Roosevelt Institute
With the money spent on buybacks, Lowe’s, CVS, and Home Depot could have given each of their workers raises of at least $18,000 a year. Home Depot spent $21.8 billion on buybacks during this period, representing 93 percent of its profits. If the company redirected what it spends on buybacks to workers, the company could have paid its employees on average an additional $18,172 per year. CVS also spent a large share of its profits on buybacks, spending $13.8 billion—more than 80 percent of its profits—which could have been redirected to provide each employee an $18,705 raise.
There has been a lot of anger and resentment towards billion dollar corporations that used billions to buy stock of their own company in the past few years and then are asking for billions in handouts from the government.
The buyback issue is much more complex than the media makes it out to be, but the core issue that buybacks seem to be a symbol of is the fact that enormous wealth is being creating by large organizations, but only flowing to a few lucky managers and citizens of those respective companies and countries.
Matt Taibbi wrote one of the most thorough anti-buyback essays I’ve seen that’s worth reading that covers the 1982 rule change that resulted in trillions of dollars being spent on this procedure in the last ten ears. Having covered the 2008 crisis so closely, his writing on this issue will be worth paying attention to:
Corporate officers treat their own companies like mob-owned restaurants or strip mines, to be systematically pillaged for value using buybacks as the main extraction tool. During this period corporations laid off masses of workers they could afford to keep, begged for bailouts and federal subsidies they didn’t need, and issued mountains of unnecessary debt, essentially to pay for accelerated shareholder distributions.
All this was done in service of a lunatic religion of “maximizing shareholder value.” “MSV” by now has been proven a moronic canard – even onetime shareholder icon Jack Welch said ten years ago it was “the dumbest idea in the world” – and it’s had the result of promoting a generation of corporate leaders who are skilled at firing people, hustling public subsidies, and borrowing money to fund stock awards for themselves, but apparently know jack about anything else.
For a more sober take, you can read this yale law review article as well.
#6 Reads 📚
Zach Stein, A War Broke Out In Heaven
This crisis can be characterised in many ways, but it cannot be stressed strongly enough that we are in an abrupt educational crisis of a particular kind.
In a matter of weeks, we have become overwhelmed by realities we don’t understand and tasks we don’t know how to do. A great many people will need to quickly transform their capacities, mindsets, and identities if the outcome of current events is to be liveable. Here I will offer only a few words in this direction, focusing mainly on the question of how being a person becomes more complex when the world changes abruptly.
Charles Eisenstein, The Coronation
What can guide us, as individuals and as a society, as we walk the garden of forking paths? At each junction, we can be aware of what we follow: fear or love, self-preservation or generosity. Shall we live in fear and build a society based on it? Shall we live to preserve our separate selves? Shall we use the crisis as a weapon against our political enemies? These are not all-or-nothing questions, all fear or all love. It is that a next step into love lies before us. It feels daring, but not reckless. It treasures life, while accepting death. And it trusts that with each step, the next will become visible.
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