Is a non-BS economy even possible?

What would the U.S. unemployment rate be if all useless or harmful jobs were eliminated?

It would probably be equivalent to the Great Depression of the 1930s.

Barack Obama, in an interview in 2006, stated the problem:

“I don’t think in ideological terms. I never have. … Everybody who supports single-payer healthcare says, ‘Look at all this money we would be saving from insurance and paperwork.’  That represents 1 million, 2 million, 3 million jobs of people who are working at Blue Cross Blue Shield or Kaiser or other places.  What are we doing with them?  Where are we employing them?”

Source: The Nation

David Graeber, in his new book, Bullshit Jobs: a Theory, quoted public opinion polls that found 37 percent of UK employees and 40 percent in the Netherlands thought their jobs made no meaningful contribution to the world.

Now maybe that is exaggerated.  Maybe some of them think they make a contribution, but that it’s not “meaningful.”

Offsetting this, the inherent bias of people is to think we are accomplishing more than other people think we do or the objective facts indicate.

For example, public relations, advertising, lobbying, consulting and even speculation on financial and commodities markets have their uses.  It is just that they play more of a role in the economy than they should.

I myself think the U.S. military and intelligence services are much greater than necessary to protect the homeland from attack.  Of course, if the mission is to make the United States the world’s only superpower, no number could be great enough.

The question is: What would happen if all these people were thrown on the job market, all at once?

It would be a catastrophe, unless there were some sort of basic income guarantee (which Graeber advocates) or basic job guarantee.

In the absence of income or job guarantees, or maybe even with them, useless and BS workers will be a powerful force in support of the status quo.

Employees who do necessary work have power.  When nurses or teachers go on strike, there is an impact.

Employees who do unnecessary or marginally necessary work have no power.  Nobody would notice if motivational speakers or diversity trainers went on strike.   The public would rejoice if telemarketers went on strike.

But unlike the unemployed, they do have something to lose.  The existence of their jobs depends on the good will of the wealthy and corporate job creators.


In principle, it is possible for the United States to have a full-employment economy without make-work jobs.

Assume for the sake of argument that most manufacturing jobs are going to be eliminated by labor-saving machinery or by imports from foreign sweatshops.  It’s possible for the United States to have stronger manufacturing industries than we do, but it wouldn’t necessarily mean a lot more factory jobs.

There will be a great need for the caring occupations—people to look after children, the sick, the handicapped and the infirm elderly.  I read somewhere that Japanese companies are making robot companions for lonely elderly people.  Who on earth would prefer a robot companion to a human companion?

There will be a great need for the maintenance workers—janitors, cleaners, electric and telephone linemen, auto mechanics, carpenters, plumbers and the like, and also construction workers to repair and maintain our crumbling roads, bridges, electric power grids, water and sewerage systems, airports and seaports.

There will be a need for workers in health care, education and food service.  We might consider more subsidies for filmmakers, musicians and other artists and entertainers.

Looking at all these occupations, I notice that many (not all) are jobs historically held by women.  Many (not all) are jobs that don’t require increased consumption of fossil fuels.  None of them are jobs that can be transferred to foreign countries.  There may be an upper limit, or point of diminishing returns, for such work, but we are far from it.  So there are many good reasons for more caring and maintenance jobs.

So in principle there is an answer to Barack Obama’s question.  There is a better way to run an economy than the way we are doing.  But how do we get from our present economic and political system to the better way?


Punching the Clock by David Graeber for Harper’s Magazine.

‘I had to guard an empty room’: the rise of the pointless job by David Graeber for The Guardian.

The Rise of Bullshit Jobs, an interview with David Graeber for Jacobin [Added 7/1/2018]


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6 Responses to “Is a non-BS economy even possible?”

  1. williambearcat Says:

    In 1945-6 we faced 4 million men and women coming home in addition to the cancellation of the making of planes. Jeeps etc. with their jobs. My dad a factory worker of war products moved his family to a farm I think because he and so many others thought the Depression would return. The G I bill did wonders that still resonates thru the economy. You are right if we have the will to do so.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Alex Page Says:

    I don’t know what an answer would be, but I do feel a bit suspicious when a bad system is defended by the jobs it provides. It’s like being held hostage by the status quo: because it gives jobs now, we have to put up with it. For how long?

    Taking that Obama quote:

    “I don’t think in ideological terms. I never have. … Everybody who supports single-payer healthcare says, ‘Look at all this money we would be saving from insurance and paperwork.’ That represents 1 million, 2 million, 3 million jobs of people who are working at Blue Cross Blue Shield or Kaiser or other places.”

    Well, that is ideological, isn’t it? It takes a particular ideological scope to decide what trade-offs are worth or not worth making.

    I don’t think those private insurance jobs are worth enough to justify people having to die because they’re poor, ration medicine to save money, choose between health and debt, and so on. Maybe I’m biased as a Brit with the NHS, but Obama sounds very ideologically driven indeed to me there, and I don’t like the ideology.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Ataraxik Says:

    Your blog is great man. You make some good points here. It’s slightly off-topic, but in the movie American Gangster, with Denzel Washington, the main detective asks why drug dealers are never off the streets.

    The detective says, “If we honestly got rid of the drug market in the United States, 800,000 people would be out of a job.”

    Liked by 1 person

  4. peteybee Says:

    That Barack Obama quote – if you replaced “insurance industry” with “technology”, it would essentially be the luddite argument, wouldn’t it? There is a point to that reasoning, that you have to take care of the people thrown out of a job by “progress and efficiency”. But if anything, our society is willing to eliminate whole classes of jobs in the name of progress and efficiency. Many BS jobs could easily fall into this category.

    I wonder if there’s a natural law where the larger and more dysfunctional bureaucracy or organization is better able to hold on to whatever advantaged position it’s been able to get itself into.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. It’s All Ideology – Bookish Leftish Gibberish Says:

    […] few weeks ago Phil Ebersole’s post Is a non-BS economy even possible? discussed the possibility of solving the problem of BS jobs raised by David […]


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