Book Review: Bullshit Jobs by David Graeber

Bullshit Jobs: A Theory by David Graeber is an academic investigation based on Graeber's viral newspaper article about why people do jobs they think are "bullshit." This book would be a great gift for a business student or anyone who is unhappy but isn't quite sure why. However, Bullshit Job should be given with care as it's the corporate brother to Untamed, which has inspired divorces upon the readers' realizations that their husbands are the root of their unhappiness. Sometimes in life, you are not the problem. It's your job (or husband).


Even though it's only around 350 pages, I found Bullshit Jobs very wordy. I disagreed with a lot of the assertions, but it's very thought provoking and would be perfect for a book club.

3 out of 5 stars.


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BULLSHIT JOBS IN THE LAW


Normally I save my book reviews for GoodReads, but Graeber specifically says the job of an entertainment attorney is bullshit. No, it's not. Any capitalist whose had their book published without their permission would understand the value of copyright lawyers and court system. Graeber isn't alive today, if he was, I might advocate for pirating his book in response to his claims so he appreciates at least one copyright attorney.


I do think some transactional attorneys have meaningless jobs. In both the private and public sector, there are attorneys that are employed to check a box or assign work simply because of their title and not for their skills. I once worked a compliance position that a robot could do, only the business was unwilling to pay for a robot to do that work. It made me deeply unhappy and unmotivated to complete work that required no creative thinking skills.


BULLSHIT JOBS AT THE USPTO


Bullshit Jobs begins with a section on how privatization and contract work in the German military made their IT systems inefficient. This really struck a chord with me, as I worked at a state agency where privatization of IT was a massive problem.


At the state agency I worked at, the IT systems were not built in-house and there was no in-house team to handle all of the IT. The IT systems were a patchwork of different contractors, many of whom had since gone out of business or moved on. The legacy systems were managed by a wide variety of groups, all propping up a bad system, with middle managers to "duct-tape" it all together. The attorneys knew of this issue, but there was no movement to change this inefficiency because politically elected leadership was uninterested in further funding for the state agency.


I believe the inefficiency of patchwork IT spawned by private contracts currently plagues the US Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO). If the USPTO had a complete in-house IT team and all the current systems were built in-house, we wouldn't see as many problems. Users face crashes and slow loading time. If this was fixed, Examining Attorneys could complete their work more efficiently and the process would be easier for Applicants.


Gerber describes that it is frustrating and demoralizing to be one of these middle managers trying to patchwork IT systems created by private contractors who have now disappeared into the ether, with no further accountability by the governmental agency. Getting up to complete an 8-to-5 job where the system is never improved but simply maintained to the point it doesn't explode sounds like something from a dystopian novel. A middle-manager with an IT or law degree (sometimes both at the USPTO) trying to patchwork legacy systems together reminds me of Kurt Vonnegut's dystopia in Piano Player.


Graeber's book includes research and interviews from government employees from all level and countries. This IT-related inefficiency must be occurring at the USPTO, as it's occurring elsewhere.

TOO LONG DIDN'T READ


Graeber states it's not a logical conclusion of Keynesian or Classical economics to have paid employment that is so pointless or unnecessary that even the employee cannot justify its existence, instead it's political machnications that gave us this result.


I wholeheartedly agree the root of bullshit government jobs is poor political philosophy masquerading as good economics. I'd like to highlight President George Bush's Executive Order 12803 that forced the privatization of government agency work. That Executive Order is likely the main reason many agencies are still working on legacy IT systems built by contractors who have long disappeared. If government agencies never used contractors to build their IT systems based on 1990s political philosophy, maybe our patchwork IT systems wouldn't be a mess. To get out of this, we need to leave the sunk-cost fallacy and embrace funding better, non-legacy IT systems.


Graeber talks a long time about morality and "leftist values" which is why I only gave this book 3 stars. I've worked a "bullshit job" and I quit for a better one because I had that opportunity. Instead of spending so much time on liberal anthropology, I wish the author had spent more time on how we can make sure a free market stays open to everyone and people don't get trapped in "bullshit jobs."

 

If you have any other book recommendations or longform articles related to employment economics, please let me know!