Review: Lost Worlds of South America

Review: Lost Worlds of South America

Lost Worlds of South America by Edwin Barnhart

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is the last installment (well, really, the first, but I did it backwards) in Barnhart’s lecture series on Pre-Columbian archaeology. They are all quite excellent and greatly enlightening. Throughout the series, I was constantly surprised—both at the material, and at my own ignorance of the material.

You see, I was raised in the United States, where some material on Pre-Columbian cultures was on the syllabus. Not only that, but I studied anthropology and archaeology in university. So I assumed that I would have at least a fair impression of what was going on in the Americas before Columbus.

But I had only the faintest notion. I did not know, for example, that some of the oldest stone structures on earth can be found in South America. Nor did I know that these ancient peoples also made the world’s oldest mummies. Now, mummies and stone huts may not seem very important to you, but their very early appearance underlies the surprisingly early presence of humans in the Americas. For a long time it was thought that humans crossed the Bering Strait after the end of the last ice age, around 11,000 years ago. Many recent findings have dramatically pushed back the date of these first humans, however; and most mysteriously, the oldest finds are in South America.

In high school I was taught about the Inca. But I did not realize that the Inca Empire occupied only a small part of this long history. Nor did I know anything at all about the other historical cultures that preceded the Inca—the Moche, the Chavín, or the Norte Chico, just to name a few. Of the Inca, I knew little more than that they were conquered by Pizarro and built Machu Picchu. That they built earth-quake resistant buildings, an enormous system of roads, and even (possibly) a writing system (quipu) in the form of knots—all this had either been either forgotten or never learned.

In short, I would encourage all Americans to get better acquainted with these ancient peoples. Most of us know, on some level, that the land had been occupied before Europeans arrived. But it is difficult to wrap your mind around the scale of what was lost. These lectures are an excellent place to start. By carefully examining the archaeological record, Barnhart brings this lost world—at least partially—back to life. And as he constantly reminds us, there is still much left to learn.



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Review: Debt

Review: Debt

Debt: The First 5,000 Years by David Graeber

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

For a very long time, the intellectual consensus has been that we can no longer ask Great Questions. Increasingly, it’s looking like we have no other choice.

Three years ago, I went on vacation in the north of Spain, to the city of A Coruña. There, perched on the jagged rocks below the Roman lighthouse, I read Oswald Spengler’s Decline of the West. The crashing sound of ocean waves just seemed an appropriate accompaniment to Spengler’s grandiose attempt to analyze all of human history.

At it happened, I ended up reading David Graeber’s Debt in the exact same circumstances. And perhaps this coincidence highlighted the odd similarities between Graeber’s book and Spengler’s. On the surface, the two men are quite radically opposed: Spengler is mystical, conservative, and mainly preoccupied with ‘high culture,’ while Graeber is conversational, leftist, and usually focused on more humdrum human affairs. But both The Decline of the West and Debt are sweeping scholarly exercises which attempt to completely alter our view of history. As a consequence, the books have similar merits—a large perspective, unusual connections, an original angle—while suffering from the same basic weakness: the attempt to strap history into a Procrustean bed.

But I am getting ahead of myself, as I should explain what this book is about. Graeber set out to write about debt, partly as a response to the 2008 financial crash, but also to respond to a certain moral confusion he noticed in the general culture. This is the notion that one always ought to ‘pay one’s debts.’ Most of us, I suspect, would agree that this is the right and proper thing to do. But there are many cases in which debt can be morally questionable. Consider a man who had an unexpected heart attack and was taken to a hospital out of his insurance network, or a young student who took out college loans but then had to drop out because her father had a heart attack, or a family who had agreed to a predatory mortgage for a house that the bank knew they could not afford, or a poor country forced to adopt austerity policies by the IMF in order to pay their debts richer countries—in any of these cases, is it moral to pay one’s debts?

As Graeber points out, standard economic theory does not hold that all debts must be repaid. Rather, both the lender and the debtor enter into an arrangement with a certain amount of risk. The loan is, in a sense, an investment like buying stock, and may or may not yield money according to the fortunes of the debtor. But this is not how we typically treat debt. Bolstered by our moral sense that debts should be paid, we accept a moral lopsidedness in the relationship, giving lenders quite extraordinary powers (garnishing wages, confiscating property) to extract money from debtors. Yet Graeber is not an economist, and does not want to restore a balance to the arrangement. Rather, he is disturbed by the very concept of debt. For what sets debt apart from an obligation is that it can be precisely quantified. This means debts require a system of money.

This leads Graeber to examine the origins of money, which for me was easily the strongest section of the book. Most economist textbooks explain money by pointing out that money solves the problem of a double coincidence of wants. That is, if I have some extra boots, and I would like to trade them for some beer, it is quite possible the brewer already has all the boots he needs. But if I can sell the boots for money, and the brewer accepts cash payments, then we are in business. The problem with this story is that there is no historical evidence that such a thing happened. Indeed, this hypothetical situation is rather bizarre—essentially taking a world very much like our own, and then removing the money.

Instead, it appears from the historical record that credit systems developed before actual money. These could be formal or quite informal. As an example of the latter, imagine you are living in a small village. One day, you see your neighbor wearing a nice pair of boots, and you ask if he has any extras. He does, and offers them to you as a gift. Next month, you make a big brew of beer and then give him a jug of it, offering it as a gift. The key is that, using such a credit system, you effectively get around the double coincidence of wants, since there is a very good chance that you will eventually have something your neighbor wants, and vice versa. This is just one informal example of how such a credit system could work with ‘virtual money.’ Graeber, being an anthropologist, is full of fun examples of exchange practices from around the world, all of which fly in the face of our idealized notions of purely economic transactions.

After quite effectively demolishing what Graeber calls the ‘myth of barter,’ he embarks on a grand tour of history. And here is where the book fell off the rails for me. Now, this is not to say I did not enjoy the ride: Graeber is an engaging writer and is full of fascinating factoids and radical notions. But I was constantly bugged by the sensation that either I was misunderstanding Graeber, or that he was not proving what he thought he was proving. To give you a smattering of Graeber’s points, he argues that the use of coinage influenced ancient Greek philosophers’ concepts of matter, that religions emphasizing selfless charity arose in reactions to markets emphasizing selfish acquisition, that our notions of property derive through Roman law from slavery, that money was actually introduced by kings who used it to debt-finance wars, and that the Spanish conquistadores were driven to commit such atrocities because they were in debt.

As you can see, that is an awful lot of material to cover; and this is just a sample. Each of these arguments is, in my opinion, quite interesting (if not always convincing). But, again, I was always unsure as to the larger point that Graeber was trying to make. On the one hand, Graeber seemed to be saying that money and debt are inextricably bound up in an ugly history of violence; but on the other, Graeber demonstrates that debt financing is a remarkably old and persistent practice, and is partly responsible for what we (pretentiously) call ‘civilization.’ At the end of the book, Graeber states that his purpose was to give his readers a wider taste of what is possible, so that we can reimagine our society. However, one of Graeber’s main insights is that history is cyclical: alternating from periods of hard money (like precious metals) and virtual money (like IOUs and fiat currency)—though both of these systems involve debt. If anything, then, this book left me with the impression that debt is an inescapable part of life.

Allow me, if you please, to mention one of my pet peeves here. Graeber is a big fan of etymologies. This book is peppered with words and their unexpected origins, which Graeber often uses as evidence in his arguments. In my opinion, this is a very lazy and unconvincing way of arguing. Do not misunderstand me: I like a good etymology as much as anyone. But the fact that a word once meant one thing and now means another does not, in my opinion, prove that these two concepts are somehow secretly connected. I would have much preferred more detailed examinations of historical evidence; but Graeber actually goes out of his way in the afterward to criticize historians for being overly empirical. This is not a message I can get behind.

But enough of that. I am sorry to be writing even a moderately critical review in the wake of Graeber’s tragic passing. For all of this book’s (perceived) faults, I am very glad to have read it. Like Spengler, Graeber had a mind full of fire, and was always letting off sparks in every direction. He was, in advertising parlance, an idea man; and this book is full of bold new ways of seeing our past and present. And even if Graeber’s grand theories about society and history do not, ultimately, pan out, one can say of Graeber what Walter Pater said of aesthetic theorists:

Many writers have been made by writers on art and poetry to define beauty in the abstract, and express it in the most general terms, to find a universal formula for it. The value of these attempts has most often been in the suggestive and penetrating things said by the way.

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Review: Good Economics for Hard Times

Review: Good Economics for Hard Times

Good Economics for Hard Times: Better Answers to Our Biggest Problems by Abhijit V. Banerjee

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Economics is too important to be left to economists.


After listening to a series of lectures on introductory economics, I was struck by the degree to which the basic logic of supply and demand was used to make sweeping pronouncements about human behavior and economic policy. The lecturer, starting from the premise that supply and demand is inexorable, would rule out certain policies as working against the market, while promoting those he considered ‘market-friendly.’ But rarely did he stop to actually examine a case study to see how these theories played out, leaving me with the impression of a wholly a priori logic.

The central thrust of this book is that a priori logic cannot be trusted. The economy is complex and unpredictable, so the best way to understand it is through historical case studies and randomized control trials. The authors find that, when we examine the economy in such a way, many of our intuitions about how the it works or will respond to certain policies are wrong. Indeed, though this could hardly be called a revolutionary book—its tone is engaging but mostly academic—the two authors, Banerjee and Duflo, reach quite heterodox conclusions.

One basic economic argument used against permissive immigration policies is that the increased supply of cheap labor will inevitably drive down wages, thus hurting native workers. The logic is simple but it does not hold up under the evidence. In case study after case study, immigration is shown to be either economically neutral or beneficial to native workers. Indeed, ironically—and contrary to what Trump and his ilk may say—low-skill immigrants are better for native workers than highly skilled ones, because they often take jobs that native workers do not want—jobs requiring little communication and much labor. Native workers may even benefit by being promoted to managerial roles. A multilingual immigrant doctor actually competes more directly with native workers than a monolingual immigrant fruit picker.

Perhaps you can see that the above supply and demand argument against immigration is simplistic, since immigrants, apart from increasing the labor supply, also increase demand for goods. Indeed, most professional economists are decidedly in favor of migration. Workers have much to gain from moving to where their skills will be most highly rewarded; and businesses would gain from having good workers. But here the economists’ logic is shown to have its own flaw. Real workers are actually quite averse to migration. Banerjee and Duflo show that, even when a better job may just require move from the country to the city, most will simply not go. There is a large amount of inertia built into real people’s lives—the pull of family, friends, and familiarity—which works against even obviously beneficial moves.

This is not the only way that the real economy is (in economic parlance) ‘sticky.’ Though economists imagine a world of workers ready to move and re-train, of companies willing to fire and hire, banks that drop bad investments and jump on promising new ones, firms willing to relocate to new countries with cheaper labor, new businesses popping up and inefficient ones disappearing—in a word, a dynamic world governed by shifting supply and demand—the real world is consistently stickier than this logic suggests. This seems particularly true in the developing world—the authors’ main area of study—where they found that efficient and inefficient businesses coexisted, where bad-selling product lines were retained, where banks merely rubber stamped loan applications from existing clients, and where people do not migrate for work, or even take the work that is available locally.

Inhabitants of planet earth will likely not be surprised by all this. But the upshot, the authors argue, is that free trade does not deliver all that it promises. Now, the logic of free trade is simple and compelling, grounded in the law of Comparative Advantage put forward by David Ricardo. Simply put, this law states that we all will benefit from trade, since we can all specialize in what we are comparatively better at doing.

But the logic has not exactly played out as hoped. Though touted as a way of propelling developing nations out of poverty, in practice free trade policies have a mixed record. The authors use the example of India, which transitioned from a highly-regulated economy with high tariffs to a free market with low tariffs in the 1990s. The result of this transition was hardly the economic wonder that some economists could have predicted. In many places, wages actually went down rather than up, and in subsequent years much of the economic growth has simply gone to the country’s rich. This is not to say that the results of economic liberalization were all bad, only that it was hardly the panacea that free-market advocates promised.

The consequences for rich nations, like the United States, have also been mixed. While most economic transitions involve winners and losers, the shock of free trade has benefited those who were already ‘winning,’ and hurt those who were already ‘losing.’ In other words, while the big cities full of college-educated workers have grown richer, the arrival of cheap goods—mostly from China—has ravaged many blue-collar communities.

Admittedly, the theory of Comparative Advantage does predict that free trade will temporarily hurt some workers who are forced to compete with cheaper goods from abroad. But the belief in economic adaptability (not to mention the political will to help assuage the problem) was overly optimistic.

Even when jobs disappear, workers do not move. Many simply go on disability and leave the workforce entirely. In short, workers are sticky. Not only that, but the United States has been very bad at redistributing the gains of free trade in the form of worker retraining and extended unemployment. No wonder that many in the country are skeptical of the benefits. However, the authors are careful to note that the solution to this problem is not to impose new tariffs on China. This will only create further economic harm in other sectors (like agriculture) without remedying the harm already done. What is needed, the authors argue, are generous government programs to either re-train displaced workers, or to subsidize industries that are being driven out of business.

This leads us to the longest and most theoretical chapter in this book, that on growth. The argument is fairly dry but the conclusion the authors reach is striking: we do not know what makes economies grow. The greatest years of economic growth were between the end of WWII and the 1970s. This was also a time dominated by Keynesian economics, which led many to give Keynes the credit for this economic miracle. But the magic wore off with the coming of stagflation, which the Keynesian seemed powerless to stave off. This crisis brought the managed economy into discredit, and ushered in the neoliberal revolution, where deregulation, lower taxation, and free trade were seen as the best tools to rejuvenate the economy. Unfortunately, that did not work, either, and growth has never picked up to pre 1970s levels.

Instead, what has grown since the neoliberal turn has been inequality. Rather than stimulate the economy into mad activity, these policies have merely directed what modest economic growth there has been to the much-maligned top 1%. And their political influence has grown right along with their fortunes, which only reinforces the government’s tendency to embrace these sorts of ‘business-friendly’ policies.

As usual, the economic logic used to argue in favor of these policies—that lower taxes on the rich will spur greater activity—is supported by a priori logic rather than actual evidence. But the evidence does not bear it out. People work just as hard whether they are being taxed at 30% or 70%, or not at all, as demonstrated by a series of tax holidays in Switzerland. The notion that high salaries reflect employee value (which supply and demand would predict) is also not supported, as demonstrated by the remarkably high wages paid to those who manage stock portfolios, which consistently underperform against index funds—meaning that the wages are essentially a rent for holding onto money. (And since the high salaries in finance influence salary negotiations in other industries, this increases salaries across the board.)

A strange picture emerges from all this, a picture of an economic policy—at least in the United States—that is entirely divorced from reality. We wring our hands about immigration at a time when immigration is not going up, and even though immigrants pose no credible economic or cultural threat. We argue about tariffs but not about how to actually help those hurt by free trade policies. We cut taxes and deregulate businesses in the name of growth that never appears. Meanwhile, automation is likely to make many of these problems that much worse, and we persist in putting off any action related to the looming climate crisis.

The current pandemic—and concomitant economic crisis—has only put this magical thinking into high relief. Perhaps the best thing to call it is free-market fundamentalism: the belief that the economy, acting on its own, will sort out all of our problems—from poverty to pandemic—without any government aid. Strangely, it is a faith held most ardently by those who see the least evidence for it: people who have been hit by the economic dislocation of free trade. Indeed, at just the time when inequality is rising, we have embraced a kind of social Darwinism that treats the economic pecking order as a perfect reflection of personal merit. This mentality, resting upon the assumption of an imagined economic mobility (which is even lower in the US than in the European Union), justifies both extreme poverty and extreme wealth, since both are ‘deserved.’ To the extent that anyone is held responsible for the situations, it is either outsiders like immigrants or minorities, or the government—not the wealthy.

As Manny has suggested, the situation is rather reminiscent of the USSR in its final years. In both cases we have an economic philosophy based on a priori logic rather than evidence, and believed on the same grounds. As this philosophy fails to deliver, the country’s elites still do not publicly renounce it, but instead only increase their displays of fervor. Rather, entirely irrelevant factors—immigrants, minorities, nefarious citizens—are used to explain the lack of prosperity. Meanwhile, the rich line their already deep pockets while spouting the old egalitarian slogans. The result is a society gripped by nihilism, wherein the old ideals become barely-disguised lies by corrupt and incompetent leaders, and anger and hopelessness descend upon a country that senses it is going in the wrong direction but does not understand why.

This may seem rather hyperbolic. But when you consider how bad things have gotten in the United States in the short time since the publication of this book, when it was already quite bad, then perhaps you can see the justification.

If our economic logic is often misguided, and our policies either useless or worse, what do the authors suggest? Here is where I thought that the book was mostly lacking. Banerjee and Duflo are extremely heterodox when criticizing conventional economics, but are not nearly so bold in proposing solutions. Their general point, however, is that we ought to shift our focus away from trying to grow the economy—since we do not know how to do that anyway—and towards most justly distributing the resources we have now. High tax rates on the rich will help curb inequality without reducing effective incentives. Coordinated efforts between countries can help to reduce tax dodging, and enforcing anti-trust legislation will help curb corporate power.

The authors have a fairly nuanced view of basic income. They think that basic income schemes work well in developing countries, where the poorest are mostly working a variety of temporary or seasonal jobs. But they do not think UBI would work in developed countries, because people have come to rely on jobs not only for income but for structure and even meaning in their lives. In studies, people who stop working do not tend to increase time socializing, or volunteering, or on hobbies; instead, most people end up just watching a lot of television—which does not increase happiness or well-being. This is why the authors prefer significantly stronger unemployment support—helping workers to retrain and relocate.

This seemed somewhat timid to me. But perhaps it is misguided to seek bold, sweeping solutions from authors who insist on hewing to trial, experiment, and evidence. Hard-headed economists, the authors do not promise miracles. Yet if you are looking for a probing and insightful look at many of our current economic woes—now only exacerbated by the coronavirus recession—then this book is quite an excellent place to start. The most pressing point is that our economical problems have political solutions. As usual, the only thing we need is the political will to start acting.



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Review: Evicted

Review: Evicted

Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City by Matthew Desmond

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Eviction is a cause, not just a condition, of poverty.

Yesterday, on July 24, the federal moratorium on evictions—protecting about 12 million renters—ended; and many state-level moratoriums will conclude soon as well. Enhanced unemployment benefits, which gave households an extra $600 per month, will terminate this month, too, meaning that families will lose income at just the moment they are vulnerable to eviction. Meanwhile, as the virus rages on, so does massive unemployment. It seems likely, then, that the United States is on the cusp of a huge wave of evictions. Under these circumstances, I thought it was a good time to read this book.

This is an urban ethnography written about the lives of the desperately poor as they struggle to find stable housing. Matthew Desmond lived for months in a trailer park and then in the inner city, following people around, taking notes and photographs, recording conversations, conducting interviews, and carrying out large surveys. In many ethnographies—especially since the postmodern turn—the author has striven to include herself in the narrative, emphasizing the subjectivity of the process. But Desmond has effaced himself from this book, and has instead written a kind of nonfiction novel of eight families undergoing eviction.

The first thing that strikes the reader is that Desmond is an excellent writer. The narration is gripping from the beginning—dramatic, vivid, and even occasionally poetic—meaning that my first reaction was emotional rather than intellectual. Wrenching pity for the people caught up in this cycle of poverty alternated, at times, with light disapproval at seemingly self-destructive behavior, which disappeared into outrage at the landlords profiting from this situation, and then incredulity that such things can be allowed to go on in a supposedly advanced nation. Often, I found it hard to take in, and had to put the book down to take a breath:

[Crystal] had been born prematurely on a spring day in 1990 shortly after her pregnant mother was stabbed eleven times in the back during a robbery—the attack had induced labor. Both mother and daughter survived. It was not the first time Crystal’s mother had been stabbed. For as far back as she could remember, Crystal’s father had beat her mother. He smoked crack and so did her mother and so did her mother’s mother.

But if this book were merely a collection of such stories, it would be little more than poverty voyeurism. This book has quite an important point to make, though, and that is how eviction is not only a consequence of poverty, but one of its major causes.

Any account of housing instability needs to begin with the fact that most people who qualify for housing aid to not get it—3 out of 4 receive no aide whatsoever. This leaves them at the mercy of the private housing market, which has seen steadily rising rents for years, at a time when wages are stagnant. Though it is normally recommended to pay no more than 30% of your wages in rent, the subjects of this book paid far, far more—in some cases, over 90%. This has serious consequences. Most obviously, if you are paying so much of your income in rent, it is impossible to save, and often even to pay basic expenses. What is more, this means that virtually any unforeseen expense—repairs, medical problems, or a funeral—can make a renter fall behind.

Once behind, it is extremely difficult for a renter to catch up. This effectively puts them at the mercy of the landlord. Even if the house is in disrepair and violates safety codes, missing rent means that the renter can be evicted on short notice. As Desmond describes, some landlords are willing to be lax—at least for a time—and cut deals with tenants. But for many who fall behind, the sheriff will soon be knocking on their door, along with a team of movers, giving the tenants a stark choice: to have their things left on the curb, or put into storage (where they need to pay extortionate fees in order to keep it from being trashed). Most evictees do not have housing lined up, and many end up in homeless shelters.

In a market where buyers are desperate and sellers are relatively scarce, there is little incentive for landlords to reduce prices, or even to make basic repairs of their properties. As Desmond explains, it is often more profitable for landlords to evict late-paying tenants and contract new ones than to make their properties livable. The tenants in these pages put up with rats, roaches, broken walls, smashed windows, clogged plumbing, sagging ceilings, to give just a short list. Desmond himself did not have hot water during his stay at the trailer park, despite paying rent on time, repeatedly asking the landlord, and even informing them that he was writing a book about life in a trailer park.

Eviction is not a rare occurrence—there are well over one million per year in the United States—and it is also not merely a private tragedy. Unsurprisingly, evictions concentrate in poor neighborhoods; and when residence in an area is unstable, it makes it an even less desirable place to life. As Jane Jacobs pointed out, neighborhoods are not primarily made safe by patrolling police, but by the constant presence of people on the street, people with a sense of ownership of the neighborhood. Ejecting residents obviously erodes this possibility—and not only in the area where people are evicted from, but also in the areas they unwillingly move to—which makes the city generally less safe.

Eviction is also not colorblind. Just as black men are disproportionately locked up, Desmond found that black women are disproportionately thrown out. And when you consider that having either a conviction or an eviction record can disqualify you from public housing, and can legally be used to screen potential renters by private landlords, you can see that this disadvantage is compounded. The white families in these pages certainly did not have an easy time finding and maintaining housing, but the black families were significantly worse off. Desmond followed one white couple who managed to find a place despite both of them having eviction and felony records, and one of them an outstanding warrant!

It is crucial to remember that housing instability is not merely the byproduct of individuals navigating private markets. The government is not only culpable for being a bystander to suffering citizens, but for propping up this very situation. Just as government force—in the guise of police officers and prisons—has been used to deal with the social fallout of disappearing jobs, so has government force—in the form of eviction courts, sheriffs, movers, public eviction records, and homelessness shelters—been used to deal with the disappearance of affordable housing. Without this government backing, the situation could not exist.

In many cases Desmond documented, government workers actually encouraged landlords to evict their tenants. Since many properties do not meet building codes, virtually any government attention—whether from the police, the fire department, an ambulance, or social services—can motivate a landlord to eject a tenant. What is more, if too many 911 calls come from an address, the property is labeled a ‘nuisance property,’ and landlords are forced by the police to ‘take action’—usually through an eviction. Even victims of domestic abuse are often evicted, one reason that many victims do not contact the police.

If we can agree that this situation is unconscionable, then of course we must do something to change it. But what? One solution is rent control: establish maximum prices that landlords can legally charge. This can have some quite negative unintended consequences, however. For one, if low-income housing ceases to be profitable, then there is no incentive to create more. This leads to shortage. But what about simply giving people more money, such as by raising the minimum wage or a basic income scheme? The problem with this strategy is that rising rents can easily offset income gains.

One fairly easy, short-term solution would be to provide defendants in civil courts with public defenders. Currently, in the United States, only defendants in criminal courts have such a right, though many other nations also provide legal counsel in civil cases. At the moment, most people do not even show up for their eviction hearings; the majority who show up do not have a lawyer, and most of them lose the case. Legal counsel can profoundly change the odds of evictees. And it is worth noting that, though hiring lawyers is expensive, cycling people through homelessness shelters is even more so—and this does not even take into account the other forms of economic disruption caused by eviction, such as job loss (quite common when people lose their home).

Another solution, popular in the past, has been to build public housing. This has several obvious problems, too. For one, as happened in NYC, vibrant and affordable neighborhoods were bulldozed to make way for enormous housing projects. What is more, the design of public housing projects was ill-conceived: enormous high-rises with parks in between. By isolating the poor into these buildings—with no shops or other services nearby, and few good communal spaces—the projects became dangerous and dysfunctional.

It is possible that smarter public housing could play an important role in the housing crisis. If apartments are scattered through the city, rather than concentrated, and integrated with shops, restaurants, and other businesses, then it is much less likely that they will become dangerous. An added benefit to cheap public housing is that they exert a downward pressure on the housing market, since private apartments must compete with them. However, the housing shortage is so acute that public housing alone is unlikely to be enough; it would require too much building.

This is why Matthew Desmond advocates housing vouchers. These vouchers basically pick up the tab for renters, covering anything above 30% of their income. However, there is an obvious problem with such a scheme: landlords are incentivized to overcharge for their properties, since the money is guaranteed. Indeed, according to Desmond, this often happens, which leads to a lot of wasted taxpayer money. Clearly, some mechanism is necessary to establish reasonable prices. But the voucher scheme does have the great advantage of scalability: they can be distributed quickly and widely.

Such a program would not be cheap. And in the United States, welfare programs tend to be politically divisive, since in our individualistic culture we prefer to hold the poor responsible for their own poverty. This mindset runs very deep. Desmond even records a preacher who, after giving a sermon about the importance of charity, refused to help a homeless woman so that she could learn her lesson. And certainly many of the people in this book did make bad, self-destructive choices. But as Desmond points out—and as psychological studies have shown—living in poverty actively erodes people’s ability to choose wisely and to think in the long term. Furthermore, many behaviors which seem irrational to middle-class onlookers are actually sensible adaptations to poverty.

The other important point to consider is that those of us lucky enough not to live in poverty are also benefiting from government policies. The federal government subsidizes mortgages—a policy that mainly benefits people with six-figure incomes. The capital gains exception means that homeowners who sell their house do not have to include much of that money in their income, and thus are not taxed. Indeed, the United States loses far more in tax revenue through these kinds of tax breaks than it spends in housing aid for the poor. This fits into a common pattern in American life: that those least in need of help are those most likely to receive it (and vice versa, of course).

As I hope you can see, this is a gripping and important book. The reader comes away with both an intellectual and a visceral understanding of housing insecurity. There are some things that I wish Desmond included—most notably, what economic trends drove this change—but, on balance, I do not think anyone could have written a better book on this topic. Now, as we face the prospect of mass evictions in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, perhaps we will summon the political will to do something about the problem.

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Review: When Work Disappears

Review: When Work Disappears

When Work Disappears: The World of the New Urban Poor by William Julius Wilson

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It is just as indefensible to treat inner-city residents as superheroes who are able to overcome racist oppression as it is to view them as helpless victims.

This book is remarkable to read now, as it documents a phenomenon that has only grown more widespread in the years since its publication. William Julius Wilson set his sights on understanding the causes and effects of urban poverty, particularly as it afflicted the black community.

The process Wilson identifies will be familiar to most Americans now: As factories close and industry decamps, well-paying jobs for people without college degrees dry up. The disappearance of decent work causes a kind of domino effect. Those who can move out, do so, leaving only the most disadvantaged to stay. Little by little, the community starts to crumble. Families fall apart as people—particularly fathers—are unable to support their children. Drug use and drug dealing become widespread in a community with few legitimate employment opportunities.

Meanwhile, the government provides little support for the people trapped in this situation. The chronically underfunded schools did not provide a ladder out of poverty. The lack of public transportation means that people who do not own cars have little opportunity to find work elsewhere. Mothers are forced to choose between staying on welfare, facing stigma and losing a sense of autonomy, or taking minimum-wage work and losing health insurance—for themselves and their children. Instead of providing drug counseling and addiction support, the primary response is to incarcerate drug offenders in large numbers, which only further debilitates the community and makes family life even more difficult.

By now, this basic process has played out in many parts of America. But before it affected rural whites, it hit urban African Americans. And here is where the country’s racial attitude became a major factor. For the public response to this suffering was not sympathetic; rather, people worried about “thugs” and “super predators,” making American streets unsafe—people so dangerous that they could not be helped, only locked away. The public pointed the finger at “welfare queens” and accused poor mothers of milking the system to live a life of ease. In other words, as is so often the case in the United States, we blamed the poor for living in poverty.

As Wilson, a distinguished sociologist, is at pains to show, the key factor in this process is the disappearance of jobs. When there is no opportunity to make a decent living, a community suffers. Nowadays such a thesis is hardly controversial. Indeed, we have seen it play out in many parts of the country. But at the time, it was a vital point to make, since the public discourse insistently framed the problem as a kind of moral failing on the part of the poor. Either that, or some sort of negative cultural attribute was blamed. And, of course, all of this was racially coded. But as more and more communities succumb to this process, the explanations relying on personal responsibility or cultural traits seems less and less plausible. This is a structural problem.

This is not to say that Wilson is against using culture as an explanation. To the contrary, in the first part of this book, where he relies on surveys and interviews performed by his team, he notes how living in such an environment can cause adaptations that are maladaptive elsewhere. This can become a self-reinforcing cycle, since negative stereotypes are sometimes borne out, and used to further stigmatize the community. One of the most fascinating sections are a series of interviews with employers in the area, many of whom give excuses and justifications for not wanting to hire black employees, particularly males. But even more striking is that most of Wilson’s respondents endorsed the basic American value system of individualism and personal responsibility. Those on welfare did not relish a life of ease, but longed for work that could support themselves and their children.

The second part of this book looks at larger trends and solutions. Wilson notes that the sort of urban poverty widespread in American cities is virtually nonexistent in Europe, and credits the strong safety net there. His own proposals for improving the lives of the urban poor are familiar by now—universal healthcare, improved infrastructure, more funding for education—but they do not seem much closer to reality now than in 1996, when this book was published. We can start moving in direction at any time. All that is lacking is the political will.



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Review: Priced Out

Review: Priced Out

Priced Out: The Economic and Ethical Costs of American Health Care by Uwe Reinhardt

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Mantras about the virtues of markets are no substitute for serious ethical convictions.

There are a great many things for Americans to feel embarrassed about. Depending on your politics, you may bemoan the rise of identity politics and the snowflake culture predominating on college campuses; or perhaps you rage against racist policing or our lax gun laws. But I think that, as Americans, we can all come together and feel a deep and lasting shame over our health care system—specifically, how we finance it. According to Reinhardt, our system is so bad that it is routinely invoked in international conferences as a kind of boogey man, an example of what to avoid. And after reading this book, it is easy to see why.

I did not suspect that our system was quite so bad until I left the country. But, in retrospect, the evidence was quite apparent. Virtually all of my friends have expressed anxiety about their health care at some point—high premiums, high deductibles, or simply no health insurance at all. I have seen family members spend weeks negotiating with insurance companies for payment of their medicines (and even after the insurance chips in, the cost is still breathtaking). Meanwhile, in my five years here, I have yet to hear a single Spaniard express anxiety over how they will pay for a medicine or a medical procedure. Here, as in most of Europe, this type of anxiety is quite uncommon.

The U.S. system fails on many different fronts. Most simply, there is coverage. Millions of Americans have no coverage, and millions more have inadequate coverage (such as many of my friends, whose deductibles are so high that they may as well not have insurance). Second is cost. Both medical procedures and medicines are significantly more expensive in the United States. For example, the drug Xarelto (for blood clots) costs $101 in Spain, $292 in the U.S. The average cost of an appendectomy is $2,003 in Spain, $15,930 in America. A third failure— closely related to cost—is waste. Our byzantine payment system requires doctors and hospitals to spend great amounts of time and money communicating with insurance companies, which of course costs money, which of course gets transferred to the consumer.

But most fundamental failure is a failure of ethics. Or perhaps it is better to say a lack of ethical vision. As Reinhardt explains, while much of the debate on health care in America concerns itself with technicalities—risk pools, risk exposure, whether premiums should be actuarially fair or community-rated, etc.—this debate conceals the fact that we have yet to come to a consensus on the moral foundations of health care. Most of the world’s developed nations have established their systems on the presumption that health care is a social good. In the United States, on the other hand, we are sort of muddled, at times treating health care as if it is a commodity, and yet unwilling to face up to the implications of that choice—such as letting poor people die without treatment.

Aside from the ethical issues involved, health care has many features that make it unlike a typical commodity, and thus poorly governed by supply-and-demand. If I want to buy a car, for example, typically I am not in a great rush to do so. I can shop around, test-drive cars, compare prices across companies and locations, and read reviews. I can even decide that I do not want to buy a car after all, and instead buy a train pass. All of this contributes to control the price of cars, and incentivizes car companies to give us the best value for our money.

None of this is the case in our health care system. The demand is non-negotiable and, very often, time-sensitive. Furthermore, most patients lack the knowledge needed to evaluate what procedures or tests are justified or not, so oftentimes we cannot even be fully aware of our own ‘demand.’ Besides that, we have no ability to compare prices or to compare treatment efficacy. And even if we are careful to go to a hospital in our insurance network, there may be doctors ‘out of network’ working there, leading to the ugly phenomenon of surprise medical bills.

Added together, it is as if the car salesman blindfolded me, put a gun to my head, told me I had to choose a car in five minutes, while he was the only source of information about what car I needed (and medical bills can be quite as expensive as cars!). This is the position of the American “consumer” of healthcare.

My own brief experience with emergency medical care highlights the situation. The only time that I have ever been taken to an emergency room, I was unconscious. I woke up after being transported by the ambulance. Luckily, I was quickly discharged, and I also had insurance. But even though my insurance covered the hospital bill, it did not cover the ambulance, which I had to pay out of pocket. Again, I was lucky, since I was able to afford it. Many cannot, however, and have the experience of waking up from an accident, an injury, or an operation in debt. How can you be an intelligent consumer when you are unconscious?

The helplessness of the consumer creates a perverse incentive in our system. There is little downward pressure on prices. Instead, what results is a kind of arms race between health care providers and insurers. Insurers are incentivized to put up as many barriers as possible to paying out, which requires doctors and hospitals to invest ever-more resources into their billing departments, which of course only increases the cost to the patient. In many hospitals, there are more billing clerks than hospital beds; and when you realize that these billing clerks have their own counterparts in the insurance companies, you can get some idea of the enormous bloat created by our financing system.

I think there is a particular irony to this situation, since our American insistence on market values has created a labyrinthine network of incomprehensible rules, endless paperwork, and legions of bureaucrats—the very thing that capitalist principles were supposed to eliminate. Indeed, ironies abound in our system. For example, we endlessly discuss the affordability of government programs, while the tax incentives for employment-based insurance (which costs the federal and state governments an annual $300 billion in foregone revenues) is never mentioned. What is more, while the insurance mandates of Obamacare were roundly criticized as forcing the healthy to subsidize the unhealthy, as Reinhardt points out, the exact same thing occurs in insurance-based healthcare. And as a final irony:

It is fair to ask why, if socialized medicine is so bad, Americans for almost a century now have preserved precisely that construct for their military Veterans, and, indeed, why the latter are so defensive and protective of that socialized medicine system.

After reading this review, you may be excused for thinking that this book is a fiery manifesto about the evils of the system. Far from it. Uwe Reinhardt was a prominent economist and much of this book consists of tables and graphs. The writing is, if anything, on the dry side, and the tone is one of intellectual criticism rather than passionate outrage. Yet, strangely, this is why I found the book so effective. It is one thing for an arm-swinging socialist to condemn the evils of the system, but quite another for a calm economist to go through the data, point by point, and explain how it all works and how it compares with other countries’ performance.

You may also be excused for thinking that, given all this, Reinhardt would be an advocate for a single-payer system in the United States. After all, he was one of the architects of Taiwan’s single-payer system, which costs about 6% of the country’s GDP. (For comparison, America’s system costs us 17% of GDP!) But Reinhardt thinks that such a system would not work on American soil. For one, the libertarian streak in our culture runs too deep for such a system to be broadly acceptable. More importantly, however, Reinhardt thinks that our campaign finance system is so corrupt that the health care lobby would be able to exert a heavy influence on the government, thus canceling the benefit.

He instead advocates for an ‘all-payer’ system. The idea is to consolidate the market power of consumers by having standard prices set either by the government, or by associations of care providers and insurers. This would, at the very least, avoid the wild price variability that can be found in even a single city in the United States. It also helps to bring costs down, as demonstrated in Maryland, which has had an all-payer system for quite a while. Japan’s system is also established on this principle, and spends far less money per capita on its health care system, despite having a significantly older population than the United States.

In normal times, I was not exactly optimistic about the prospect of reforming out broken health care system. But in the wake of this pandemic, it does seem as if major reforms might not only be possible, but inevitable. Employment-based insurance makes little sense if people lose their jobs during a major health crisis, as has already happened to many millions of Americans. And high unemployment may persist for some time. What is more, a major health crisis, resulting in many thousands of additional hospital stays, will put pressure on private insurance firms and lead to a significant rise in insurance premiums. Basically, higher-risk patients create higher cost, and a pandemic puts far more people into the high-risk category. The greater strain on an already teetering system may be the proverbial straw on the camel’s back. We shall see.

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Review: Economics (Great Courses)

Review: Economics (Great Courses)

Economics by Timothy Taylor

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Economics is one subject that causes me perpetual unease. Everybody cares about the economy, of course, and everybody argues about how it should be structured and managed. Imposing terminology is thrown around, graphs and statistics are wheeled out, and yet the situation always seems quite unclear to me. So I was pleased when Timothy Taylor framed his lectures, not as the gospel truth of economics, but as an introduction to the language of economics. Learning this language is essential if you would like to take part in this endless societal argument.

Considering the restraints of time and of format, I think that Taylor deserves praise for these lectures. In 18 hours, he manages to cover all of the major topics of micro- and macro-economics—supply and demand, price curves, government regulation, fiscal policy, etc.—in an accessible but not overly simplistic style. Further, Taylor is an engaging speaker whose enthusiasm for a potentially dreary subject helps to alleviate the dryness. Someone has got to get excited about interest rates, I suppose.

A major shortcoming of these lectures is that they were recorded in 2005, just before the enormous financial crash. Surely, a new edition is called for. Considering how much time has passed, however, I think that these lectures have held up remarkably well. For the most part, the major disagreements and issues in economics do not seem to have changed very much. Everything is here—healthcare costs, financial crashes, trade wars, deficits—which is probably not a reason to celebrate.

If Taylor can be criticized, I think it should be for inserting too many of his own views into these lectures. Some degree of editorializing is inevitable in any academic course, I think. But Taylor is quite an opinionated guide, and never hesitates to advocate for his pet policies. Admittedly this did make the lectures more interesting at times; but it also undermined Taylor’s insistence that economics is merely a way of thinking rather than a specific doctrine. To the contrary, these lectures contain very specific presumptions about and prescriptions for a successful society (hint: it is all about a free market).

Speaking more generally, it is frustrating for me the degree to which the social sciences inhabit parallel worlds. Not only do anthropology, psychology, and economics study different sorts of phenomena, but they make very different assumptions about human behavior—which often contradict one another. I was acutely aware of this while listening to these lectures, since I was concurrently reading psychologist Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow, which argues that the rational agent model of economic actors is fundamentally flawed. Meanwhile, my brother is reading anthropologist David Graebner’s book about the many different (non-capitalist) ways that economic activity has been carried out throughout time and across space.

Compared to psychology and anthropology, economics can seem worrisomely abstract to me—too content to rest its conclusions on untested assumptions and a priori principles. In these lectures, for example, I would have appreciated more case studies of historical examples in lieu of theoretical explanations. This would have illustrated the concepts’ usefulness far more effectively, I think.

But I am drifting off topic. As a painless introduction to economics, these lectures do an admirable job. It is a fascinating discipline with much to teach us. I am glad to have a break for now, though. A dismal science indeed.



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Review: Thinking, Fast and Slow

Review: Thinking, Fast and Slow

Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Nothing in life is as important as you think it is when you are thinking about it.

I think this book is mistitled. For years, I assumed that it was some kind of self-help book about when to trust your gut and when to trust your head, and thus I put off reading it. But Thinking, Fast and Slow is nothing of the sort. As I finally discovered when the book was gifted to me (the ecstatic blurbs in the front pages were the first clue), this book is the summary of Daniel Kahneman’s study of cognitive errors. The book should probably be called: Thinking, Just Not Very Well.

Granted, my initial impression had a grain of truth. Kahneman’s main focus is on what we sometimes call our gut. This is the “fast thinking” of the title, otherwise known as our intuition. Unlike many books on the market, which describe the wonders of human intuition and judgment, Kahneman’s primary focus was on how our intuition can systematically fail to draw correct conclusions. So you might say that this is a book about all of the reasons you should distrust your gut.

Every researcher of the mind seems to divide it up into different hypothetical entities. For Freud it was the conscious and unconscious, while for Kahneman there are simply System 1 and System 2. The former is responsible for fast thinking—intuition, gut feelings—and the second is responsible for slow thinking—deliberative thought, using your head. System 2, while admirably thorough and logical, is also effortful and sluggish. Trying any unfamiliar mental task (such as mental arithmetic) can convince you of this. Thus, we must rely on our fast-acting System 1 for most of any given day.

System 1 generates answers to questions without any experience of conscious deliberation. Most often these answers are reasonable, such as when answering the question “What you like a hamburger?” (Answer: yes). But, as Kahneman demonstrates, there are many situations in which the answer that springs suddenly to mind is demonstrably false. This would not be a problem if our conscious System 2 detected these falsehoods. Yet our default position is to simply go with our intuition unless we have a strong reason to believe our intuition is misleading. Unfortunately, the brain has no warning system to tell you that your gut feeling is apt to be unreliable. You can call these sorts of situations “cognitive illusions.”

A common theme in these cognitive illusions is a failure of our intuition to deal with statistical information. We are good at thinking in terms of causes and comparisons, but situations involving chance throw us off. As an example, imagine a man who is shy, quiet, and orderly. Is he more likely to be a librarian or a farmer? Now consider the answer that springs to mind (librarian, I assume): how was it generated? Your mind compared the description to the stereotype of a librarian, and made the judgment. But this judgment did not take into account the fact that there are many times more farmers than male librarians.

Another example of this failure of intuition is the mind’s tendency to generate causal stories to explain random statistical noise. A famous example of this is the “hot hand” in basketball: interpreting a streak of successful shots as due to the player being especially focused, rather than simply as a result a luck. (Although subsequent research has shown that there was something to the idea, after all. So maybe we should not lament too much about our intuitions!) Another well-known example is the tendency for traders to attribute their success or failure in the stock market to skill, while Kahneman demonstrated that the rankings of a group of traders from year to year had no correlation at all. The basic point is that we are generally hesitant to attribute something to chance, and instead invent causal stories that “explain” the variation.

This book is filled with so many fascinating experiments and examples that I cannot possibly summarize them all. Suffice to say that the results are convincing, not only because of the weight of evidence, but mainly because Kahneman is usually able to demonstrate the principle at work on the reader. Our intuitive reactions are remarkably similar, apparently, and I found that I normally reacted to his questions in the way that he predicted. If you are apt to believe that you are a rational person (as I am) it can be quite depressing.

After establishing the groundwork, Kahneman sets his sights on the neighboring discipline of economics. Conventional economic theory presupposes rational actors who are able to weigh risks and to act in accordance with their desires. But, as Kahneman found, this does hold with actual people. Not only do real humans act irrationally, but real humans deviate from the expected predictions of the rational agent model systematically. This means that we humans are (to borrow a phrase from another book in this vein) predictably irrational. Our folly is consistent.

One major finding is that people are loss-averse. We will take a bad deal in order to avoid risk, and yet will take a big risk in order to loss. This behavior seems to be motivated by an intense fear of regret, and it is the cause of a certain amount of conservatism, not only in economics, but in life. If an action turns out badly, we tend to regret it more of it was an exceptional rather than a routine act (picking up a hitchhiker rather than driving to work, for example), and so people shy away from abnormal options that carry uncertainty.

Yet, logically speaking, there is no reason to regret a special action more than a customary one, just as there is no reason to weigh losses so much more heavily than gains. Of course, there is good evolutionary logic for these tendencies. In a dangerous environment, losing a gamble could mean losing your life, so it is best to stay to the tried-and-true. But in an economic context, this strategy is not usually optimal.

The last section of the book was the most interesting of all, at least from a philosophical perspective. Kahneman investigates how our memories systematically misrepresent our experiences, which can cause a huge divergence between experienced happiness and remembered joy. Basically, when it comes to memory, intensity matters more than duration, and the peaks and ends of experiences matter more than their averages. The same applies with pain: We may remember one experience as less painful than another just because the pain was mild when it ended. And yet, in terms of measured pain per minute, the first experience may actually have included more experiential suffering.

As a result of this, our evaluations of life satisfaction can often have very little to do with our real, experiential well being. This presents us with something of a paradox, since we often do things, not for how much joy they will bring us in the moment, but for the nice memory they will create. Think about this: How much money would you spend on a vacation if you knew that every trace of the experience would be wiped out as soon as the vacation ended, including photos and even your memories? The answer for most people is not much, if anything at all. This is why so many people (myself included) frantically take photos on their vacations: the vacation is oriented toward a future remembering-self. But perhaps it is just as well that humans were made this way. If I made my decisions based on what was most pleasant to do in the moment, I doubt I would have made my way through Kant.

This is just a short summary of the book, which certainly does not do justice to the richness of Kahneman’s many insights, examples, and arguments. What can I possibly add? Well, I think I should begin with my few criticisms. Now, it is always possible to criticize the details of psychological experiments—they are artificial, they mainly use college students, etc. But considering the logistical restraints of doing research, I thought that Kahneman’s experiments were all quite expertly done, with the relevant variables controlled and additional work performed to check for competing explanations. So I cannot fault this.

What bothered me, rather, was that Kahneman was profuse in diagnosing cognitive errors, but somewhat reticent when it came to the practical ramifications of these conclusions, or to strategies to mitigate these errors. He does offer some consequences and suggestions, but these are few and far between. Of course, doing this is not his job, so perhaps it is unfair to expect anything of the kind from Kahneman. Still, if anyone is equipped to help us deal with our mental quagmires, he is the man.

This is a slight criticism. A more serious shortcoming was that his model of the mind fails to account for a ubiquitous experience: boredom. According to Kahneman’s rough sketch, System 1 is pleased by familiarity, and System 2 is only activated (begrudgingly, and without much relish) for unfamiliar challenges. Yet there are times when familiarity can be crushing and when novel challenges can be wonderfully refreshing. The situation must be more subtle: I would guess that we are most happy with moderately challenging tasks that take place against a familiar background. In any case, I think that Kahneman overstated our intellectual laziness.

Pop psychology—if this book can be put under that category—is a genre I dip into occasionally. Though there is a lot of divergence in emphasis and terminology, the consensus is arguably more striking. Most authors seem to agree that our conscious mind is rather impotent compared to all of the subconscious control exerted by our brains. Kahneman’s work in the realm of judgments closely parallels Johathan Haidt’s work in morals: that our conscious mind mostly just passively accepts verdicts handed up from our mental netherworld. Indeed, arguably this was Freud’s fundamental message, too. Yet it is so contrary to all of our conscious experiences (as, indeed, it must be) that it still manages to be slightly disturbing.

Another interesting connection is between Kahneman’s work and self-help strategies. It struck me that these cognitive errors are quite directly related to Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, which largely consists of getting patients to spot their own mental distortions (most of which are due to our mind’s weakness with statistics) and correct them. And Kahneman’s work on experiential and remembered well being has obvious relevance to the mindfulness movement—strategies for switching our attention from our remembering to our experiencing “self.” As you can see from these connections, Kahneman’s research is awfully rich.

Though perhaps not as amazing as the blurbs would have you believe, I cannot help but conclude that this is a thoroughly excellent book. Kahneman gathers many different strands of research together into a satisfying whole. Who would have thought that a book about all the ways that I am foolish would make me feel so wise?



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Review: Bullshit Jobs

Review: Bullshit Jobs

Bullshit Jobs: A Theory by David Graeber

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Economies around the world have, increasingly, become vast engines for producing nonsense.


Reading this was cathartic. Like so many people, I, too, have experienced the suffering that is a useless job—a job that not only lacks any real benefit to society, but which also does not even benefit the company. (Lucky for me, I am now a teacher, which, for all its unpleasant aspects, almost never feels useless.) Even though I got a lot of reading and writing done on the job, the feeling of total futility eventually drove me half-crazy. So it felt liberating to read an entire book about this phenomenon.

But let me take a step back and explain the book. In 2013 Graeber published an article in STRIKE! magazine (a fairly obscure publication) about bullshit jobs, and it immediately went viral. This book is basically an articulation, elaboration, and defense of the points in that short article. Graeber notes that Keynes predicted the rise of automation to cause a startling reduction in the work-week. Yet this has not occurred. Many economists explain this by pointing to the rise of the so-called “service” industry. But this would seem to imply that we have switched from factory-work to making lattes for one another, or giving each other massages. As Graeber shows, this is hardly the case: the number of people in such jobs has remained fairly constant. What has grown, rather, is a vast edifice of managerial and administrative work.

Anyone familiar with the academic world will instantly recognize this. Universities have come to be dominated by a top-heavy administrative structure, and faculty have been forced to spend ever-increasing amounts of time on bureaucratic nonsense. The same is true in the medical field, or so I hear. Really, the story is the same everywhere: an increasingly arcane hierarchy of administrators, leading to byzantine networks of paperwork—all of it ostensibly for improving quality, and yet manifestly distracting from the real work. This kind of ritualistic box-ticking is only one of the types of bullshit jobs that Graeber investigates. Also included are flunkies (subordinates whose only role is to make superiors feel important), goons (jobs which arise from a kind of arms race, such as marketing agents or corporate lawyers), and duct tapers (who are hired to patch over an easily-fixed problem).

Obviously, one could argue all day about the typology of useless jobs. One could also argue about which jobs, if any, are useless. It must be said that Graeber’s reliance on subjective experience of his informants does introduce a worrisome element of capricious judgment. Besides this, some might say that the free market can never give rise to useless jobs, since such things would be obviously detrimental to a company’s profits. But one need only read through the many testimonies collected by Graeber to be convinced that, yes, some jobs really ought not to exist. According to surveys, around 40% of workers report that they believe their own jobs to be useless—so useless that they could vanish tomorrow without anyone minding. To pick just one of Graeber’s examples: a man works for a subcontractor of a subcontractor of a contractor for the German military, whose job is to fill out the paperwork necessary to allow somebody to move their desk from one room to another room. I do not think this is necessary.

But this raises the obvious question: If so many jobs are really useless, why do they exist? One might understand this happening in the government, but this is precisely the sort of thing that the private sector should be immune from. Well, Graeber is an anthropologist, not an economist, and so his explanations are social and cultural. He cites several factors. There is a huge amount of political pressure, from the left and the right, to create more jobs. This is natural, since being out of work means being poor, or worse. More than that, we have culturally internalized the institution of “work” to the extent that our jobs are the primary source of meaning in many people’s lives, even if they ultimately are disagreeable. Indeed, Graeber believes it is just the unpleasantness of work that makes it a source of value in our culture, as it becomes a type of ennobling suffering.

Graeber also notes the usefulness of useless jobs to the upper classes. For one, they keep people endlessly busy; and, what is more, well-paying, white-collar jobs—even useless ones—make their holders identify with the interests of the upper class. The economy then becomes a kind of engine for distributing favors and resources down an elaborate chain of command. Graeber coins the term “managerial feudalism” for this arrangement: the return of the medieval obsession with ranks mirrored by the modern penchant for inflated job titles. Now, my brief summary does not do justice to Graeber’s writing. Nevertheless, it is here where one wishes most for an economist to contribute to the argument. For even if there are forces countervailing the pressures of profit, the economy is still running on manifestly capitalist lines. So how could a sort of inefficient feudalism exist in this context?

Another point that Graeber examines is the relative pay of people with useful and useless employment. The obvious trend is that jobs which have undeniable social value—like nurses and teachers—are paid less, while jobs that have questionable or even negative social value—such as “creative vice presidents” and corporate lobbyists—are richly rewarded. Now, I do not think you need to be an idealist to see this situation as undesirable. Graeber explains this tendency by analyzing the culture of work (specifically, that useful employment is supposed to be its own reward, while useless employment requires incentives), but again one craves an economic explanation. (This, by the way, is one of the frustrations of social science: that the different disciplines operate with incompatibly different premises and methodologies.)

For my part, my own experience, combined with the many testimonies and statistics in this book, is enough to convince me that some jobs are really bullshit—even from the limited standpoint of a company’s profit. And I think that Graeber may be correct in searching for a cultural and political, rather than a strictly “economic,” explanation. After all, we humans are not exactly renowned for our rational economies. But for my part, I think he may have underestimated the role that corporate mergers have played in vastly reducing competition—and, thus, the pressure to eliminate useless jobs.

While all of this deserves analysis and debate, I think that this book is valuable if only for raising serious questions about the institution of work itself. The more that I read about history, the more I have come to see our modern ritual of work as strange and aberrant. The idea that we would all go to work five days a week, eight hours a day, year after year—regardless of whether we are making cars or filling out forms, and regardless of how much work there is on any given day—would have struck people in nearly any other place and time as bizarre.

To me, it just seems backwards to use a cookie-cutter schedule for every task (from lawyer to salesman), and then expect every member of society to adopt this basic template or risk abject poverty. Considering that the economy requires a certainly level of employment to function, and that the current social safety net could not support a large number of unemployed people anyway, perhaps it should come as no surprise that we are plagued by dummy jobs. And if you think about it, it would be an amazing coincidence if the economy—through all the structural and technological changes of the previous century—always needed between 90 to 95 percent of the working population at any given time.

Graeber’s proposed solution to this problem is Universal Basic Income—providing every person with a regular paycheck, sufficient to cover the necessities of life. Personally I think that this is a wonderful idea, and one which could greatly alleviate many of our social ills. Unfortunately, in the United States, at least, UBI seems just as likely as paid maternity leave. But whatever the means, I think it is high time to change our attitude towards work. We spend enormous amounts of time doing things we do not want to do, and, what is worse, things which often do not need to be done. What fuels this is a kind of masochistic work ethic, defining our worth by our ability to do things that we do not want to do. This ethic has so pervaded our culture that, in America at least, we take it for granted that everything form health care to our self-respect should depend on our jobs.

One of Graeber’s most interesting points is that the phenomenon of useless jobs may reveal that we are using a flawed conception of human nature. One would think that being paid to do little or nothing would be the height of happiness. But most people in useless jobs report profound feelings of unease and distress. Again, my own experience testifies to this. Though I had little work, and was paid decently, I often found myself miserable, even beside myself with a strange mixture of boredom and anxiety. Graeber has a long section on this, but basically it comes down to the way that useless work undermines our sense of agency in the world. There is a reason the gods punished Sisyphus that way. As Dostoyevsky said, having humans perform an unpleasant, uninteresting, and totally worthless task might be the most profound form of torture. In my own case, it gave me a very unsettling feeling of dissociation, as if I really could not control my own actions.

So if we build our economy on the assumption that humans, left to themselves, will choose to get the maximum reward for the least benefit, we may be building on false premises. I think that Graeber is right, and that people generally prefer feeling like they are doing something useful. This is why I think we ought not to fear that Universal Basic Income, or a drastic reduction in working hours, would lead to a society of lazy idlers. In any case, people bored at home may do something more worthwhile than people bored at work, who mostly seem to go on social media. (Graeber notes that the rise in social media use coincides with the rise of useless employment. Certainly it was true in my case, that useless employment led naturally to spending huge amounts of time on Facebook.)

This summary does not do justice to the full contents of the book. Graeber is a sharp writer and an agile thinker. Not only is he the first to really hone in on this strange aspect of the modern world, but he does so within a wide perspective. To give just a few more examples, he connects the rise of bullshit jobs with the slowdown in scientific progress and the decline in quality of Hollywood movies. Perhaps Graeber’s political identity as an anarchist helps him to avoid the basic narratives of both the left and the right, and to develop strikingly original opinions about social problems. While I am not anarchist myself, I think the institution of work deserves far more questioning and criticism. We have accepted work as the bedrock of society and the foundations of our lives’ meanings, and yet most of us do not particularly like it. If I could wax utopian for a moment, I would imagine a movement devoted to the creation of a society of leisure. I would even work for it.



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Review: The Theory of the Leisure Class

Review: The Theory of the Leisure Class

The Theory of the Leisure Class by Thorstein Veblen

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

… it is only necessary that the scholar should be able to put in evidence some learning which is conventionally recognized as evidence of wasted time; and the classics lend themselves with great facility to this use.

This is a difficult book to evaluate, since Veblen simultaneously gets so much right and so much wrong.

Everyone is already familiar with the book’s central concept, conspicuous consumption: the spending of money on useless goods and services in order to enhance one’s social standing. Veblen gave this concept a name and perhaps its most classic exposition, yet the idea had already been around for a long time. We can see a perfect expression of this phenomenon, for example, in Moliere’s Le Bourgeois gentilhomme, which features a vulgar businessman attempting to attain the cultural trappings of the hereditary leisure class—dancing, fencing, music, philosophy—and failing, of course, since he had spent most of his life working.

Veblen was writing in the Gilded Age, the era of Vanderbilts and Morgans and Goulds, so he had plenty of examples of ostentatious display to choose from. The best parts of this book read as a straightforward satire on the degraded taste of the superrich. Veblen restricts himself to certain facets of the life of leisure, such as the pursuit of sport—hunting, horse-racing, football—noting that these expensive and time-consuming activities are often justified as instilling positive moral qualities, even though they arguably only promote craftiness and cruelty (two features Veblen finds characteristic of the leisure class).

Fashion gets an extended treatment, of course, being the most obvious example of conspicuous consumption: expensive and delicate clothes, of dubious aesthetic merit, designed to make any sort of labor manifestly impossible. Veblen also focuses on vicarious leisure: how wealth is displayed, not only by allowing the wealthy man to avoid work, but also to allow his wife and even his servants to be inactive (thus the elaborate, impractical costumes of the lackeys). Veblen extends his analysis to the church, seeing priests in their vestments as the liveried servants of God, who must remain conspicuously inactive in order to properly convey God’s magnificence.

Yet it does not require a first-rate mind in order to see examples of conspicuous consumption nearly everywhere. Grass lawns are popular precisely because they are expensive and difficult to maintain. High-class restaurants use exotic ingredients and rococo preparations; but does the food taste any better? Romantic love is communicated with costly jewelry, and the ritual of matrimony must likewise be robed in expense. The human body itself conforms to this tendency to display. Whereas in the past it was desirable to be plump, since this showed an ability to afford food, nowadays we like to be thin, since junk food is cheap and time to exercise is a luxury.
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Indeed, you might say that today conspicuous leisure has become conspicuous anti-leisure. Silicon Valley entrepreneurs pride themselves on working long hours, wearing minimalist clothes, and eating artificial super foods that provide nutrients without pleasure. Now that most of the things Veblen satirized are widely available the only option is to scorn them.

Anyone must admit that Veblen’s account does have a great deal of truth. At the same time, as a general theory of the economy and society, it is extremely limited. For one, the theory is not always borne out in practice. John D. Rockefeller, possibly the richest man in history, had a puritan disdain for fashion, art, and flashy mansions. More generally, Veblen’s account is laden with a moral evaluation which is difficult to accept. Though Veblen professes to be a neutral observer of economic life, it is clear that he finds the lifestyle of the upper classes to be frivolous and wasteful.

At first glance this may seem justifiable, until one realizes that Veblen considers virtually everything beyond industrial work to be wasteful. As the opening quote shows, Veblen even considers the reading of classics to be a mere trapping of the upper class—a flagrantly useless exercise—which is especially ironic, since Veblen’s own work is nowadays considered to be classic and is read for that reason. To my mind, virtually everything enjoyable in life, even Veblen’s work itself, falls within Veblen’s economic definition of “waste” and would thus classify as conspicuous consumption.

Considering this, the challenge would be to somehow separate “legitimate” taste from those degraded by the influence of conspicuous wealth. This is easy enough in extreme cases (such as the Vanderbilt family mansions or anything touched by Trump’s brand) but it becomes far trickier in others. To pick just one example, Shakespeare certainly considered financial gain as much as pure literary art when he composed his plays; and this may well have improved them.

Veblen’s hard line between the economically useful or wasteful is mirrored in his hard line between the industrious class and the pecuniary class. The former are the productive workers, the latter are the gaudy managers, businessmen, traders, and captains of industry who exploit these laborers to support a life of luxury. But this dichotomy is likewise difficult to justify. While a great deal of the “work” performed by this upper class can legitimately be called useless and exploitative, it seems difficult to accept that all management and financial activity is socially useless. Further, as often noted, Veblen’s analysis presupposes that there is a finite amount of resources to be divided. He does not take into account the growth of the economy (which is spurred by consumption, “wasteful” or not).

Putting all this aside, it must be said that many aspects of Veblen’s analysis have aged poorly. Veblen was concerned with making his analysis “scientific,” which for him meant using the evolutionary language of Darwin or Herbert Spencer. While his intellectual versatility is admirable, Veblen’s talk of “archaic” or “barbaric” traits or human “types” sounds both unconvincing and even alarming to modern ears.

I should also mention that I found the book to be surprisingly turgid. Though C. Wright Mills, in his excellent introduction, singles out Veblen’s prose for its quality, I generally found Veblen’s writing to be dense and unmusical. Here is a typical passage:

As between the various habits, or habitual modes and directions of expression, which go to make up an individual’s standard of living, there is an appreciable difference in point of persistence under counteracting circumstances and in point of the degree of imperativeness with which the discharge seeks a given direction.

In the last analysis, then, this book stands as the classic exposition of a useful concept. At the same time, the theory is overly simple, and ensconced in too many outdated ideas, to be fully accepted. Read this book if you find the leisure to do so.

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