[ExI] retrainability of plebeians

Emlyn emlynoregan at gmail.com
Tue Apr 28 05:53:00 UTC 2009

2009/4/28 Rafal Smigrodzki <rafal.smigrodzki at gmail.com>:
> On Tue, Apr 21, 2009 at 7:23 PM, Emlyn <emlynoregan at gmail.com> wrote:
>> This is econ 101, and I think the really depressing thing is that you
>> are right. In fact, I'm pretty sure that we passed the point long ago
>> where most employed workers were doing anything real with their lives.
>> I know that value is defined relatively in this context, so it is
>> invalid to say what is real and not real value, but surely there is
>> some difference between work which directly feeds another person, say,
>> and work which is on the face of it entirely superfluous (eg: many
>> faceless bureaucrat jobs in government and large industry)? Maybe
>> tentatively you could say any particular job has a "reality
>> coefficient", which is derived from how much impact would be felt by
>> that job no longer being performed? Fuzzy. Sorry, this is difficult.
>> I propose that pretty much all of the service industries are of this
>> nature; they are in fact make work, magically appearing out of the
>> ether based on a surfeit of labor that can do nothing else. I read
>> that the hospitality industry is expanding here at the moment due to
>> the availability of skilled workers coming out of the finance
>> industry, for instance. I actually think most of the "creative" and
>> professional jobs are also make work, but that's harder to argue.
>> So, what I'm saying is yes, you are right that jobs get created. On
>> the other hand, it is very difficult to argue that as a group, we'd be
>> worse off if many of those jobs went unfilled. I would also posit that
>> many people, given the choice between doing their jobs and not doing
>> them, would choose not to do them, all else being equal (eg: if they
>> were still able to live comparatively well).
>> Now if you concede that this is all true, then we have a picture of
>> many (most, I think) jobs really being about income redistribution.
>> You do need a mechanism to allocate resources, of course. But, is
>> making people perform what amounts to make-work really the best way to
>> do that?
> ### I do not believe that most currently existing jobs in the less
> un-free economies are "make-work".

I can't prove it, so go for it.

> Sure, we could live without dog
> groomers, phone ringtone composers and society bloggers but this
> doesn't make them meaningless.

Very true. Humans need to do things to be fulfilled, I agree 100% with this.

> Yes, there are life-and-death jobs,
> like police, farming or asteroid watching (crucial for survival on
> different time-scales) but there is more to a good life than simply
> staying alive,

And also this, all good.

> and being able to buy frivolities is a part of it.

And here we differ. You are justifying the assertion that these jobs
are not makework, by saying effectively that people get paid. Of
course they get paid, that would be the very definition of makework;
you get paid for doing something pointless. Alternatively, you could
pay them to do whatever they want to do, voluntary activity.

We need to judge makework on something else than payment, because
payment alone can't distinguish between makework, and work that is
actually worth doing (given that we are allowing that makework can

For the time-being, let's get away from the question of "is there
makework?" and "how much makework is there?" and just look at "Is
makework bad or good?". Actually, I might restate that as, "Is
makework better than the alternative?". I'll call the alternative
Voluntary Activity.

Let's be a little utilitarian and define makework as work which has a
negligible utility for the greater group, as opposed to "real" work
which has a non-negligible utility. I think we can say the total
utility of work is the utility to the group plus the utility to the
individual. I'm happy to ignore "real" work for now, and just talk
about makework, where the utility to the group is 0, so the total
utility is solely comprised of the utility to the individual *.

So what is the utility to the individual of makework?

Well, probably it's based on whether it makes the individual happy.
Seligman (authentichappiness.com) identifies three types of happiness;
the Pleasant Life, the Engaged Life and the Meaningful Life. Read more

It's hard to say much absolute here, but I think we can get some
insight by comparing make work to its opportunity cost, the voluntary
activity one would otherwise undertake.

The Pleasant Life: I think we can safely say that most of the time it
is unlikely that a person, when faced with paid labour vs voluntary
activity, can find something more pleasant to do than paid labour. I
will also assert that it would never be the case that voluntary
activity is less pleasurable than paid labour except by accident (we
don't know what we want) or because the happiness deficit is balanced
by some other form of happiness.

The Engaged Life: This ties in with the concept of flow. I'm agnostic
on Make Work vs Voluntary Activity here.

The Meaningful Life: Make Work scores zero here by definition, unless
the worker is fooled into thinking the work matters. Voluntary
Activity scores 0 or more.

So for individual utility we have:
Pleasant Life: Makework <= Voluntary Activity
Engaged Life: Makework == Voluntary Activity
Meaningful Life: 0 == Makework <= Voluntary Activtity

This says that, whatever the individual utility of Makework is, the
individual utility of the Voluntary Activity foregone is equal to it
or, very likely, greater.

So solely based on the individual utility component of the total
utility equation, my answer to "Is makework better than the
alternative?" is no. It is in fact worse.

* You can easily challenge the assertion that the utility of makework
== zero for the group. Some types of positive utility I can think of:

1 - People need money: Well, give them some. If you are in a position
to create Makework, then you are already giving away money. Just cut
out the bullshit obligations.

2 - Idle hands do the devil's work: You put people in Makework to keep
them busy. I can't support this; there are plenty of things people can
do without bullshit work. The kind of alienation/depression people
suffer in case of not having work is more to do with an unjustified
social assumption that useful people work in paid jobs. And,
repressing people so they wont cause mischief should be beneath us.

3 - The work ethic is valuable: This is probably important if the
unavailability of "real" work is temporary. If it's permanent though,
the work ethic is just leading us to a crazy place. I think it's

In summary, if we don't need a person to work in order to support
themselves, then we shouldn't make them. It leads to a worse outcome
personally, and the summation of those worse outcomes gives us a worse
overall outcome, ignoring the effects of happiness differences on
people around us, which would further accentuate the problem. Makework
is a bad way to allocate resources.

So, we still need to decide, are any or indeed most of us engaged in
makework, or not? I think so, Rafal thinks not, any others want to
chime in?


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