Unemployment and the bullshit work-ethic

By Gavin R Putland

Some else wants to do your job. So why does it matter if you do it?

In a logical world, if you don’t do your day job, your idleness imposes a loss on the rest of us. In the real world – where the official involuntary unemployment rate is rarely less than 5 percent, and where the real rate is more like twice the official rate, with a similar number involuntarily underemployed – if you don’t do your day job, you create a much-needed vacancy for someone else.

In a logical world, you do your job in order to be a maker and not a taker. In the real world, where there are five or more jobseekers for every available job, you can’t be a maker without being the taker of someone else’s opportunity.

In a logical world, you do your job in order to get it done. In the real world, you do your job in order to stop someone else from getting the pay cheque.

In a logical world, you do your job in order to be a lifter and not a leaner. In the real world, you can’t be a lifter without forcing someone else to be a leaner – as if it were somehow more virtuous to make someone else do your leaning for you, and to blame him or her for doing it, rather than do it yourself.

In a logical world, jobseekers offer to get more work done. In the real world, jobseekers try to take work from you and your kids, keeping downward pressure on your pay and your kids’ pay. And the more brutally politicians make those jobseekers try harder to take your job and your kids’ jobs, putting more downward pressure on your pay and your kids’ pay, the more likely you are to vote for them!

In a logical world, you submit to the obligation to work because you are not more important than other people. In the real world, in order to justify your submission, you must believe that you are more important- to the extent that you should get one of the limited number of opportunities while other people miss out.

In a logical world, your work ethic is an expression of your humility and your sense of duty. In the real world, what passes for your work ethic is an expression of your vanity and your sense of entitlement.

In a logical world, what you do for a living is a major determinant of your legacy. In the real world, what you do for a living will probably get done whether you do it or not, in which case your legacy is determined by what you do in your unpaid time, and what you do for a living is relevant only in so far as it effects your supply of “spare” time and money with which to do something that won’t otherwise get done.

In a logical world, the market value of your work is an important measure of your legacy. In the real world, your legacy probably consists in what the market values at nought, and in what the current political correctness regards as a shirking of responsibilities.


I write precisely four years after David Graeber went viral with his article “On the Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs”. He complained:

Huge swathes of people… spend their entire working lives performing tasks they secretly believe do not really need to be performed. The moral and spiritual damage that comes from this situation is profound.

But I tell you that not merely “huge swathes” of workers, but nearly all workers, do not merely “secretly believe”, but know with certainty – and are forcibly reminded every day – that if they don’t do their jobs, someone else will be grateful for the opportunity; that whether their work needs to be done or not, getting it done does not depend on them; that even if their jobs are not disposable, they themselves still are; that even if the work itself is not bullshit, the official reason for doing it still is. What shall we say of the “moral and spiritual damage” that comes from that?

Employers seem to think they benefit from this arrangement. They even make it worse by inflating the qualifications and minimizing the remuneration of advertised jobs, so as to pretend that the shortage of jobs is the opposite: a “skills shortage“, providing an excuse to bring in more jobseekers from overseas. It does not seem to occur to employers that:

  • An undersupply of workers is equivalent to an oversupply of customers;
  • If workers are scarce, employers will seldom be sued for discrimination, because the whole concept of discrimination in employment is based on the assumption that employers get to choose between competing job applicants, not the other way around;
  • If workers are scarce, employers will seldom be sued for unjust dismissal, because the whole concept of unjust dismissal is based on the assumption that jobs are scarce;
  • If workers are scarce, employers can advertise a real job without being swamped by more applications than they have time to assess; and
  • High unemployment squeezes profits and increases business failures as workers try to escape job insecurity by starting their own businesses in competition with established employers. Such is their optimism that the failure rate of new businesses is always higher than the unemployment rate. Thus the overwhelming majority of workers who start their own businesses do not add to the supply of opportunities, but merely graduate from one system of enforced failure to another.

Let us, therefore, consider how we might create the “logical” arrangement, in which jobs are oversupplied and doing them actually makes a difference.

A nation cannot tax itself to full employment if the taxes fall on private production. But there are two other things that a nation can tax: first, the causes of unemployment; and second, the benefits of government action.

Concerning the first: If there is to be full employment, the employers must be able to pay for business accommodation, and the workers must be able to pay for housing within commuting distance of the premises (plus the cost of commuting) on wages that the employers can pay (together with the cost of business premises). Therefore, anything that raises the cost of accommodation reduces employment. As vacant lots and unoccupied buildings raise the cost of accommodation by artificially reducing supply, they should be subject to a punitive tax.

The higher the vacancy tax, the lower the rents that owners will accept in order to keep their land occupied and avoid the tax. If the tax is apportioned to the land value, it forces land into use in the most usable (most valuable) locations; land that cannot be used – e.g. because it is in green belts – either is exempt, or has no economic value and therefore pays no tax. A vacancy tax is designed to be avoided rather than paid. But it raises revenue indirectly because “avoidance” initiates economic activity that expands the bases of other taxes: broader bases allow lower rates, so that the rest of us get a tax cut.

Concerning the second: If you tax something that private entities do, you get less of it. If you tax something that nature does, you get neither more nor less of it, because nature does not respond to such incentives. But if you tax something that the taxing government does, you get more of it, because the government wants the revenue. One job-creating activity that governments can do is to build infrastructure, of which the benefits (net of user charges) are shown as uplifts in land values in the serviced locations. So, if the government gets a share of such uplifts, it has an incentive to build more infrastructure – and only of the sort that actually delivers the benefits! Such infrastructure generates employment not only during the construction phase, but also in the long term – by permanently reducing transaction costs, including the costs of commuting (see above).

Taxes on private production should, therefore, be replaced, as far as possible, by a tax on uplifts in land value – e.g. a “capital-gains” tax on property. The affected property owners, far from being victims of this reform, would be the biggest beneficiaries, because they would get more “capital gains” due to more infrastructure projects, and would not pay the tax unless they actually got a gain.

Among the taxes to be abolished, the first to go should be other property taxes that discourage construction or fail to capture uplifts in land values; these include conveyancing stamp duty, and local rates on “capital-improved value” or its annualized equivalent. That is yet another benefit to property owners. Next to go – if we want full employment – should be taxes that cause the cost of hiring a worker to exceed the worker’s take-home pay; that category includes payroll tax, anything else that resembles a payroll tax (including Australia’s superannuation guarantee), and income tax on wages – especially entry-level wages, for which the damage to employment is greatest.

Besides, what sort of work ethic imposes a higher rate of tax on the wages of labour than on the unearned benefits of land speculation?

If there is a new tax on uplifts in land values, infrastructure is funded by the increase in the base of that tax due to the infrastructure itself; the existing base is available to replace the revenue from other, abolished taxes. The expansion of the base is a growth dividend – an example of tax reform not only dividing the cake differently, but also making a bigger cake.


Notwithstanding the proliferation of labour-saving technology, we all have unsatisfied wants that can only be satisfied by work. The work isn’t done, not because it isn’t needed, but because the cost of getting it done is artificially inflated by taxes on labour and by speculative waste of land on which the labourers must live and work.

Wherever we go, we see a need for new or improved infrastructure which can only be provided by work, and which would lower the cost of other work. The infrastructure isn’t built, not because the cost exceeds the benefit, but because the existing tax system is no good at recycling the benefit in order to cover the cost.

The solution is to stop taxing labour, start punishing speculative waste of land, and get serious about taxing unearned uplifts in land values. Only then will workers cease to be disposable. Only then will the work ethic cease to be bullshit.

(Against the odds, the author has occasionally had jobs that wouldn’t have got done if he hadn’t done them. Between appointments, he writes stuff that wouldn’t get written if he didn’t write it.)


    • The Traveling Wilbur

      Irony. If you’ld let someone else write that they’d probably not have let that happen. But then again, given they wouldn’t have put much effort in to the post they’d probably have stuffed something up else.

  1. Of course it would be better to have 1 patent office for AUS+NZ+SG+HK. It would cut the cost of innovation. But it would also reduce the number of patent office jobs.

    But will the fake left wing give out a $20k/year cheque to each person who used to work in the patent office?

    • The patent office (IP Australia) is now staffed mostly by 457 visa applicants from India. They are cheaper, smarter and work harder than the locals. After 4 years they move on.

      • I imagine as experienced patent clerks they earn in the top 1% in their home country compared to around the median here, especially considering the qualifications required, and can therefore enjoy a much better lifestyle at home then here.

  2. Mohammad has good sensible copy on inequality (youth hit) in the macro economic context today at Project Syndicate. https://www.project-syndicate.org/commentary/lost-lessons-of-the-financial-crisis-by-mohamed-a–el-erian-2017-08 He can’t have any kids or he would have mentioned that part time work means Indian and South African wage levels but ten time the house cost here V there. Means our politicians be stupid or be vicious monsters to their own kids (behind their greed).

  3. What ridiculous drivel.
    For a small country like Australia there is absolutely no limit to the opportunities this world has to offer, and by extension absolutely no limit to the number of jobs (meaningful jobs) that Australians could be doing.
    Is curing Cancer a BS job? what about developing quantum computers (BS or not?)
    How about writing a great novel, will an Australian be the next Tolsty or Shakespeare?
    Why not specialize in Movie production, will an Australian company make the successor to Game of Thrones, if not then why not?
    Real Opportunities, worthwhile opportunities as far as the eye can see and you have the audacity to suggest that our preoccupation with BS jobs is anything but economic BS of the highest order.
    If Australians ever find the path back to creating real enduring value from their labour than it’s also likely that this enterprise will be properly valued by the market and iby extension the economy. The creation of real enduring value through applied/focused human capital is what’s key to relieving the asset inflation we’ve all come to hate.
    Real ventures with solid cash flow are today’s real savings and tomorrows real assets….everything else is fake (or BS in keeping with the topic)

    • And who’s going to pay for the resources needed to do those things? Those things can make money after they are created\invented but how do you get to that point?

      • I kind of believe that nobody ever plans anything all that you need do is to create the structure where these ventures will be unbelievably profitable then sit back and watch as sell interested parties create the unimaginable.
        Imagine that 10% of our defense budget ( or better still 10% of our housing dollars) flowed into any of the aforementioned ventures. These days Global markets are for the most part free Australians are only excluded from participating by their own incompetence and their own selfishness coupled with absolute stupidity masquerading as informed / fair tax policy and supported by the importation of the worlds excess capital Change these things and see the wonders unfold as this nations learns how to survive. It wont be something that’s complete in just a decade but with one decade on the right path attitudes will change and hopefully Australians will be learn what it’s like to succeed and learn to love success.

      • “And who’s going to pay for the resources needed to do those things?”

        Also, who’s going to buy these goods and services when Western households realise they better repay some of their obscene debt? We’ve brought forward alot of consumption post GFC to stave off a global depression.

      • I think you missed the point I was was trying to make. The people with access to capital have no interest in doing any of those things and would rather pump up asset prices instead and the people who might be interested in doing any of those things cannot do any of those things because they have no access to capital.

      • I think it is you who is missing the point that any government can easily change what people to do through the way that incentives function. Adjusting the tax system such as substantially increasing capital gains tax makes it more appealing to earn money through useful work rather than simply rely on making money from capital gains. Wealth taxes accompanied with R&D credits would also be useful tools to help transition the currently imbalanced Aussie incentive system.

      • @RobW
        nobody ever brings forward any consumption, that’s all silly thinking. Truth is debt is a meaningless number until the person loaning the money wants it back. Even at that point it’s questionable if debt has any real meaning, what are their options if you simply say NO…F-off I’m not paying it back (think Germany 1920’s WW1 war reparations was one of the triggers for the raise of Nationalism in Germany)
        Take Japan they’re at silly levels of government debt but it’s all in effect Japanese people owing other Japanese people money, in the end it’s a zero sum game.
        Take China with it’s 2000 through 2010 debt recycling to the US, they couldn’t easily stop this even if they wanted to nor could they ever repatriate the US investments without killing Chinese industry through exchange rate appreciation. Both parties were locked into a dance that delivered capital to the US and Jobs to China…each party got what they needed until the system changed with the GFC.

      • @ fisho

        “Truth is debt is a meaningless number until the person loaning the money wants it back.”

        Uh-huh, tell that to my mate, and god knows how many other Australians drowning in debt, that are struggling to pay their bills and face losing their home if they lose their job or the cash rate increases..

    • I admire your optimism but I believe that you are missing the author’s greater point. It is that there is, for most, a need to receive enough to subsist before pursuing those things that you talk about. By having such high costs of living and such great competition for jobs most are just chasing the dollar in a dog-eat-dog world. He’s suggesting that by modifying the underlying economic system more will have the opportunity to devote themselves to the “…job that wouldn’t get done if you didn’t do it”.

  4. Loved it Gavin.

    My advice to kids weighing life’s options will henceforth be, “find a job that wouldn’t get done if you didn’t do it”.

  5. Good article. I might need to read it a again, it’s sort of complex in that it goes against the current rhetoric. But taxing unearned income and land taxes would be a good start in Australia. I find myself sometimes earning enough money for the year and taking a few months out to do things that I can’t get around to when I am in a zone of BS works. I am pretty sure most of what I do could easily by done in half the time but then I would be expected to forgo half my income too.

  6. My job could be BS but my boss mostly ignores me so I can get on with useful stuff. Bosses and their KPIs are the leading cause of BS in this country. Suggest re-educating them in the countryside, a bit of fresh air and hard work would do them good. Send the University parasites too, they invented the KPIs and are masters of BS, some of them have the gall to call their BS BS.

      • Dammit, they stole my ideas. I’d better go to University so my brain works more better and I can get one of them good jobs with proper KPIs and all.

    • KPIs are for managers and management that need the ‘dummies guide to what my job is’. If the managers were more closely aligned with their teams and business objectives they would be able to see what is obvious. Collecting some data isn’t all bad, but what happens is that all the pretty graphs and simplifications leads to management-by-graph. So if there is any errors or oversights in the collection/design of the KPIs they aren’t immediately obvious.

      The worst are managers who look at stuff like utilisation levels. A “good manager” in the modern sense is one who tries to get maximum return by ensuring all their staff are quite busy. Not all jobs are about production though. Some are about continuity. If your continuity staff are kept at 98% utilisation, then pro-active (preventative maintenance) work will be a lower priority, and failures will take longer to resolve. It hurts team cohesion too because inevitably somebody figures out that hitting all the low hanging fruit makes them look super productive, while the ones doing the more complex work look slow and underperforming.

      How many times have people called a company for help, only to be met by a 1 hour long queue with a message like “We’re currently experiencing higher than normal call volumes..” except you know for a fact that its ALWAYS ‘higher than normal’. KPIs sit at the heart of this evil. The person taking your call is incentivised to get you off the phone as quickly as possible.

  7. The thinking in this article seems very confused to me.

    Firstly, the quote saying there’s huge numbers of people doing jobs they believe don’t need to be done. I don’t have that view. My job and all the jobs of the people I have seen so far today are necessary and need to be done.

    Secondly, if the unemployment rate was 5% then logically 5% of the workforce could have the view that their job may be replaceable, but 95% of the workforce should feel secure.

    • There is a huge amount of paper shuffling out there. I don’t know if I would call it ‘useless’ though. You can run for a while on poor record keeping, but if you want to be resistant to shocks, people churn, PR issues etc then you need that governance.

      There is also a tonne of make-work. This often occurs where an employee is needed for something important, but the important thing is a rare event. The employer is then in a position of trying to find the employee something to do (to justify their cost). To use an example, lets say you’re a bank, and every minute your IT systems are down is potentially millions of lost income. You *could* rely on external contractors for ad hoc work, but that means delays, overheads (contractor’s businesses may come and go, so you’ll need people to keep engaging with or ensuring the contractor is up to standard etc) and you’re over a barrel for costs when the shit has hit the fan.

      You *could* (and many many do) rely on external big name businesses who specialise in the issue. They will make sure they have enough staff and that they staff are trained, vetted etc. You keep the business on the books with some kind of support contract, and they respond as needed. The issue here is that in the event of an incident that affects multiple clients of that business (such as the malware attack in the Uk recently), you may find yourself competing for support resources. e.g. you’re a small bank trying to get your support out of a company that is also contracted to CBA. Good luck, back of the queue you go!

      So the final option is to maintain an internal team. Costs more than going with an external company, but the staff are completely under your control and will prioritise your business. Big events will be rare though. So what do you do with these staff? If you over-utilise them they will be slower to respond to incidents and potentially unprepared (e.g. if you make them do a tonne of overtime for something petty, they may be too exhausted to respond at 3am to something seriously).

      I know for a fact that some managers encourage personal growth in those teams and use them lightly. I also know of managers who will run those teams into the ground making them do such tedious and mundane work just so that they dont look idle. Employees on six figures being used to do stuff like clean kitchens that are already clean. I kid you not. Works in the military because they can’t jump ship. Anyway, when you are cleaning an already clean kitchen, you do indeed feel like you’re being paid big bucks to do stuff that nobody would miss if you werent there.

      • Ok, I won’t dispute that there are cases where workers feel their job is unnecessary, but that’s going to be more the exception than the rule. In the example you cite, the employer has set an unrealistic job description when hiring so prospective candidates likely did not get the full picture of what they where getting into. So that’s mainly a hiring issue.

        To me what matters is having one of our essential living cost components artificially jacked up through the roof so ALL workers aren’t more free to switch to a more fulfilling job because they’ve bought a house that’s four + times more expensive than it needs to be.

      • I read something once which made the argument that mobile workforces are productive workforces. Settlings into an area has negative economic impacts over long term because the workforce can’t move to where the jobs are (due to mortgages etc).

        This was quite some time ago. I wonder if the author has ever investigated the impacts of young Aussies now not being able to settle down on account of they arent bloody millionaires.

  8. Author has some interesting points, but societies are more than their economies. Taxing capital gain on a property because of new infrastructure means that over time people will face higher and higher costs for their shelter just because the area around them is being filled in with infrastructure. Those individuals are unlikely to have benefited from the infrastructure (aside from an asset they’ve not liquidated yet appreciating value) so any land tax that works like the above would be one I don’t support. You shouldn’t have to move houses just because someone built a train station nearby that you don’t need.

    • “You shouldn’t have to move houses just because someone built a train station nearby that you don’t need.” Well, that’s what routinely happens to renters, and I submit that the only remedy is to make market rents less onerous in general. Hence the interest in vacancy taxes. OTOH, if renters do benefit from the train station, the higher rent is offset by higher capacity to pay.

      The point about “capital-gains” tax, as distinct from land tax, is that the former can’t force you to move, because it isn’t payable until you sell up. As we Georgists point out ad nauseam, you can also build safeguards into a land tax so that it doesn’t force people to move; but with a capital-gains tax, the issue doesn’t arise.

      More generally, I’m surprised that some readers seem to think that I’m complaining about bullshit jobs. That was Graeber’s complaint. My complaint is broader: whether your job is bullshit or not, it’s usually the case that someone else will do it if you don’t. That would be less often the case under conditions of genuine full employment. [Edited.]