Dear Leftists, Please Get Your Facts Right



Yesterday, Salon ran an article with as many as three titles.

“Help Us Thomas Piketty: The 1%’s Sick and Twisted New Scheme” [??]

“The Revolt of the Caring Class” [Okay…]

“David Graeber: ‘Spotlight on the Financial Sector Did Make Apparent Just How Bizarrely Skewed Our Economy Is in Terms of Who Gets Rewarded'” [??]

Like, I hesitate linking to it for fear that the title will change again. (Okay, link here)

Anyway, it’s really just an interview of David Graeber by Thomas Frank. I’ve enjoyed Frank’s recent Sunday contributions to Salon, even when the titles are poorly rewritten to click-bait readers into thinking it’s about Piketty when neither his name nor his work (thankfully) ever appears in the article.

As you can imagine, Frank’s questions focus on Graeber’s August 2013 article on “bullshit jobs,” which mainstream economists criticized because it rejected marginal utility theory—and frankly I think they’re mostly right. Just because some jobs don’t seem “useful” doesn’t mean that “useful” jobs that pay McWages should be high-paying. Likewise, although Graeber’s examples of people who wrote to him about their pointless jobs were entertaining, it’s not a scientifically valid survey. Maybe some people work for incompetent, if generous, managers.

At one point, Frank asks and Graeber answers:

Today productivity continues to increase, but Americans work more hours per week than they used to, not fewer. Also, more than workers in other countries. Correct?

The U.S., even under the New Deal, was always a lot stingier than most wealthy countries when it comes to time off: whether it’s maternity or paternity leave, or vacations and the like. But since the ‘70s, things have definitely been getting worse.

Uh huh. Like David Leonhardt last week, it appears Frank and Graeber need to learn how to use FRED. If they did, they’d know that average hours worked per week in the United States has declined over the decades.

As always, there might be compositional problems with this average: Maybe workers in some industries are now tasting the lash while others aren’t, but if that’s true it’s up to the Franks and Graebers of the world to research those facts. Instead, we keep hearing that employers are cutting workers’ hours so that they don’t have to buy them health care or other benefits.

And if you think people are piecing together multiple part-time jobs to get by, that’s true but no less common than in the mid 1990s.

In general though, I think the proportion of multiple job holders is shifting toward multiple part-timers rather than one full-time plus one part-time, or variable-hour jobs. Still, it’s lower in general and probably overwhelmingly due to cyclical reasons rather than structural ones like bullshit jobbery. Perhaps poorer households work more hours than wealthier ones, but I’d have to see evidence of that.

The interview continues:

Do economists have an explanation for this combination of greater productivity with increased work hours? What is it and what do you think of it?

Curiously, economists don’t tend to find much interest in such questions—really fundamental things about values, for instance, or broader political or social questions about what people’s lives are actually like. They rarely have much to say about them if left to their own devices. It’s only when some non-economist begins proposing social or political explanations for the rise of apparently meaningless administrative and managerial positions, that they jump in and say “No, no, we could have explained that perfectly well in economic terms,” and make something up.

Funny, BLS economist Shawn Sprague found so much interest in such questions that he published an article on May 29th titled, “What Can Labor Productivity Tell Us About the U.S. Economy?” The answer is, quite surprisingly, that even though Lesser Depression-era American workers manned the lines for as many hours as they did in 1998, they produced 42 percent more stuff.

You can ask why these productivity gains aren’t benefitting workers, which economists have been blathering about since the robots-are-taking-our-jobs fear began bubbling over a few years ago. You can also ask why some workers are paid beyond the value of what they produce, i.e. they receive rents. And as always, you can criticize how output is calculated before dividing it by workers or worker hours. You cannot, however, say that economists don’t ask these questions, even though Graeber does.


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