David Graeber Thinks ‘Anybody Who Can Get a Law Degree Will Get a Job’

Anthropologist David Graeber is probably best known for writing the 2011 book Debt: The First 5,000 Years. Last summer he penned a thought-provoking (in a good way) article titled, “On the Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs,” which posited as a general rule that “the more obviously one’s work benefits other people, the less one is likely to be paid for it.” Jobs like nurses, cooks, and fight-clubbers-who-guard-you-while-you-sleep-so-do-not-fuck-with-us are good, bond traders, not so much. “Bullshit Jobs” was attacked by every neoclassically trained economist for rejecting marginal product theory, and rightly so. The problem isn’t marginal product theory but what John Bates Clark did to it: tear land out of the factor distribution because he was a shill for robber barons who hated Henry George and his land-taxing followers. The result is a tax system that rewards unproductive activities like land ownership while punishing work and investment.

Graeber sat for an interview with PBS and discussed why he favored giving everyone a basic income instead of government welfare benefits of various types, a proposal favored by a handful of conservatives, most notably Charles Murray. I’ll get to that proposal in a moment, but Graeber gave this fantastic line, which is worth a post:

In our society we have a very, very limited demand for brilliant poet-musicians, but we have an infinite demand for corporate lawyers; anybody who can get a law degree will get a job. Well, is that because most people think that corporate lawyers are better to have around than poet-musicians? No. Almost everybody, given the choice, would go for the poet-musicians, but people with lots of money like to have corporate lawyers, so that’s what the market actually ends up saying.

To his credit, Graeber recognizes that high-end lawyers’ incomes are often due to rich people’s and corporations’ willingness to pay them. Compare this with liberals who think the ABA creates an artificial shortage of lawyers.

However, in the real world, demand for corporate lawyers is finite and it is not true that “anybody who can get a law degree will get a job.” In fact, just two weeks ago, we learned that the unemployment rate for recent law school graduates was 11.2 percent, and only 55.3 percent were employed in full-time, long-term, bar-passage-required positions that weren’t funded by a law school. Another 15.6 percent were employed in the treacherous “business and industry” category.

And on and on. You get the idea.

My point is that like people who think the ABA engineers a lawyer shortage, Graeber is ignorant of the real crisis faced by law students and graduates. Instead, he thinks that there’s “infinite demand” for corporate lawyers when 5,229 law grads from last year beg to differ.

As for the actual topic of the interview, basic income instead of government services, there are a few problems. One, landowners will suck the benefits up, so without taxes on land rents, poverty won’t vanish. If all taxes come out of rent (ATCOR), then all subsidies flow to rent (ASFTR (wow, that doesn’t work at all)). Two, paying for a basic income out of the current tax system will distort incentives for higher-income taxpayers (to the extent their incomes aren’t rents). Three, government isn’t filled with bureaucrats who push paper. Okay those SEC guys who were watching porn all day not so much, but some people need more government services than the basic income check will provide. These are reasons to shift taxes off of labor and capital and onto land before implementing basic income schemes.

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4 Responses

  1. Land owners are not the only ones sucking out the benefits. The owners of the money supply do the same thing. The privately-owned money supply is pretty much the same thing as privately-owned land. It serves the same function for its owners. One is hidden. The other is obvious, and so attracts all the attention from critics. The privately-owned money supply yields the same benefits to its owners as land does at the expense of the real producers in the economy.

    And, it goes without saying that there won’t be enough jobs for law school graduates. Lawyers are after all wage earners and they must be reminded daily of their precarious positions through the specter of 1000s of people like them who cannot find work. The fear of god must be in them. This is how excess labor works at every level of the system. Lawyers are no exception. They have to be forced into doing what they do, just like everybody else. Most of them are m-i-s-e-r-a-b-l-e, which is why they can dish it out so easily on behalf of the donor/owners!!!

  2. The money people could not function if so much of the wealth was not sucked up in rent. They are an effect, not a cause. Deal with the cause and the moneylenders will be cut down to size.

  3. […] even a day after learning that David Graeber thinks there’s infinite demand for corporate lawyers, writer Matt Bruenig adds himself to the list of liberals who believe that lawyers are cheaters who […]

  4. As more people acknowledge the need for a basic income, hopefully they will consider the soundest way to fund an extra income for everyone. If they win legislation to recover all “rents”, and share that revenue among the citizenry, then the payment won’t be conventional welfare but will be a Citizen’s Dividend, a fair share of our common wealth. Presently society’s surplus goes to just a few on top but it belongs to all of us and should go to all of us. More at Progress.org.

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