Money for Nothing: A Discussion on Meaningless Jobs

The Bad Job Paradox

Lately at work, I been experiencing an uncontrollable urge to laugh. Often this occurs at inappropriate times like during a discussion on interest expense variance for May 2001. It is not a subject of much humor and I don't want people to think I am nuts, so I must stifle the laughter by faking a yawn because they would not understand it. The thought going through my head when this happens is "I can't believe I am being paid nearly 1 cent a second1 for being here." All through my various jobs I have thought hard about what I do and have come to the conclusion that it adds very little, if anything, to society or the economy. And I wouldn't just consider myself to be in that position. By my rough estimate, at least 30% of the corporate work-force is absolutely useless. But this on its own is not enough to initiate the cynical laughter. It is the fact that myself and all the others in these non-value adding jobs make so much more than millions of people in the world who (1) add more to society through the usefulness of their employment and (2) have a much harder, stressful, or otherwise unpleasant occupation which should result in compensation above the non-value adding occupations. If you know me, you know that I am a staunch advocate of free market economics which includes labor pricing. So when I talk about this topic, it is not that I believe the free market to be faulty. Consider the diamond-water paradox, a classic economic example where water, which is needed or every human would die, costs next to nothing (assuming normal situations) while diamonds (jewelry quality) which are not needed can cost several thousand dollars. The reason is simple: supply and demand. Water is everywhere and there is more than enough to go around so therefore it is cheap. Diamonds are more rare and therefore the supply is lower and though the demand is also lower than that for water, the demand is still high enough as to make the price much higher than that of water. There is also some shady diamond cartel pricing techniques which inflates the price a bit, but even without it, the point is the same. My purpose with this example is to show the parallels to the labor force. A job cleaning bathrooms is not a very desirable occupation to most, but it is something that anybody has the ability to do. Doing financial analysis for a corporation requires a college degree, computer skill, good speaking skills, etc. These are qualities that are more rare in the world. Some might say it is a way for society to establish a class system without specifically stating it, if you assume that the "skills" required for the financial analyst job really aren't that important and are just a way of differentiating the people who are acceptable to the position in an attempt to perpetuate the hold of a certain group of people to their cushy jobs. I somewhat have this opinion in certain cases, but would not make a blanket statement that this is the case in all instances. For the sake of argument, assume that the skills required for the finance jobs are actually legitimate requirements to do the job, be it a useless job or not. (See endnotes for a very appropriate quote related to this subject from Mark Twain.)3 To get back on the subject, let me state that I would never advocate things like a "living wage" or any other mandate that tries to legislate justness because it just doesn't work from an economic standpoint. This paper is meant to discuss the unfairness and explain the reasons for it and the methods for one to deal with the situation. As with many things in life, this is another case of "life's unfair." Chance is a large part of the functioning of the cosmos and you can still have a world where everyone is given the potential freedoms they deserve, while being placed in the "unfair" situation of being born into a poor country with a corrupt government.

An Exception: Bad Job Good Pay

There is the small class of jobs that have bad working conditions and pay pretty well. A garbage collector is known to make a pretty high wage. Many union jobs, like a city bus driver and dock crane operator, pay well and have excellent benefits. Both jobs have aspects that many would find undesirable. Garbage men have to wake up very early and smell bad smells, and lift heavy objects. Bus drivers have a lot of stress from city traffic and cannot go to the bathroom on demand due to being on the bus. In cases like these, high wages prevail because though the job is bad, it is desirable for workers to be loyal to the job and the pay makes the hard work worth it. These types of jobs are usually not in competitive industries, though. For instance, a burger-flipping job does not pay well and hence there is high turnover. To pay a rate that would significantly reduce turnover to a very low level would increase costs so much as to make high prices for food which is uncompetitive to alternative eating choices. In addition, these jobs are low skill and the business does not benefit that much from a long-tenured employee relative to a new employee. Therefore, there is no sense in paying more than needed to constantly attract warm bodies to the job, knowing they all will leave when they find something better. In other words, maybe you could reduce turnover at the Burger King you own by paying $12/hour. But, this would make you have to raise your Whopper prices much too much though. You could pay $10/hour, but at that rate, you still would lose workers, albeit at a slower pace, because the job stinks and you also would still have prices higher than normal that would drive away some customers. So you arrive at the lowest level people would accept a job at. It's either all or nothing. You either pay to retain, or pay at a rate of constant replacement for jobs in which low tenure is not a hardship to the business.

Benfiting From the Troubles of Others

A reason for the high living standards in the United States is the fact that so many other countries (with large populations) are so much worse off. On a positive note, the creation of the United States and the forming of the Constitution and determination to make the country a free and just society is a large part of why the U.S. is such a prosperous place to live in relative to the rest of the world. We have had our injustices, but hopefully will continue repairing them and we are at a point where as a society, it's not a bad place to be compared to other countries. Whatever your opinion of the country, we don't worry about civil wars, invasions, devaluation of currencies, extreme corruption, etc. that many countries are known for and which makes their citizens constantly fearful. But it definitely cannot be denied that our prosperity is greater because grading on the curve, we are much higher than most other countries. If the living standard in China were to increase to $10,000 per capita, things made there would cost more to Americans and we would get less for our money. The same can be said for the labor makeup within the U.S. as well. If everyone went to college and could be a financial analyst, then who would want to do the gas station attendant jobs? Either these positions would have to pay better or finance jobs would pay worse. Everybody is always clamoring to improve the situation of the less fortunate, but it is implicit that the middle-class on up benefit from their misfortune. We can force Nike to have better conditions for it's workers in Indonesia, but are we then willing to pay and extra $10 for those Air Jordans? There is a reason why clothes are so cheap. I have never seen a special brand that targets those consumers concerned that the maker of their clothing had good working conditions. I think most of us would balk at paying double the price for a shirt. But if the living and working standards of the countries that make clothes were as high as ours, that is what would be the case. I do believe that as a whole, we all benefit from the increase in world-wise standards in living both because most people want the world to be better off and economically it makes for better efficiency. In effect, the total pie in increased but the developed nations' slices are not as big as before when there was a greater disparity in living standards. Similarly, within the U.S., we state that it is important for everyone to get a good education while not stating that we enjoy the low prices we get from stores able to hire uneducated individuals at low salaries. As in the global sense, with everybody educated, total U.S. economic output increases, but the lack of space between the classes that exist make for a much less cushy existence for many. It really is like grading on the curve. If everybody is pretty smart, then being pretty smart holds less advantage than it would if there was a large segment of the population was dumb. Wages for the "smart person" jobs would be either lower or the jobs would be more difficult to get and prices for things typically made by the "dumb" people would be higher. While on the subject, I pose a question: How is it that so many people can add nothing real to the economy and yet it still grows and is rather healthy? Part of the reason, again, is the stability we enjoy from the systems established in the U.S. like a disciplined central bank and a not-too corrupt government usually embracing free market ideas. However, my theory for most of the reason is again related to the prior paragraph. There is a substantial amount of "wiggle room" in the world economy because so many countries are so far behind us from an economic standpoint. This means that a whole lot of people can be excess baggage in corporate America and still the companies can make a profit because there is not perfect competition across the globe. For instance, I can be hired to do some monthly report for Ford Motor Company that no one looks at making $50,000 per year. This company purchases $700 million worth of floor mats from some place in Sri Lanka which pays its workers $5 a day. The money saved in the cost of making the car from getting these cheap parts from less prosperous countries' work forces is what funds the budgets for the hiring of nothing-jobbers in the American workforce. Simply put, there is a large margin of error related to efficiency that is acceptable for U.S. companies due to the unequal standard of living around the world. This allows wasted labor to put no noticeable drag on the economy as the waste is being subsidized by the workers in other countries working for paltry pay. The same can be said of low paid workers in the U.S., as they too partly subsidize much of the economic waste, though to a lesser extent than foreign country workers.

Doing Nothing and Doing ABSOLUTELY Nothing, a Fine Distinction

Another point of contention can be made with regards to whether a job is "needed" or not. Many aspects of the jobs I have had have dealt with providing "comfort" to the senior decision makers in their decision-making. The methods and assumptions in modeling future financial outcomes might be a joke, but it makes people feel good to have had someone do some "analysis" on the subject so they don't feel like they are just guess into the future. My job at PMI mortgage insurance was really a front, like a fish store that is the headquarters for a bookie operation, so that they could point out to regulators the phony analysis that was done when in actuality, other decisions were the factor, namely the need to provide kickbacks to lenders for using our company as an insurer. At the same job, I was asked to back into a pricing for a bid on some business for which a guy's brother who worked for the lender had leaked the competing bid prices to us. This was the ultimate in nothing-work and bordered on immoral, though it really was just the absolute stupidness that lead me to get the hell out of that place soon after. Some jobs have people doing things like producing reports that no one cares about, but that are a "tradition" that no one cares about questioning. A favorite thing of mine is the multiple reports for the same information but in different forms and the time spent trying to reconcile the two reports and the political battles of whose report is the best one. One thing I am proud of is never adding to the waste for job security. If anything, I am more likely to point out the wastefulness of the tasks I am doing, though many times the task is important to the department in it's overall appearance to add value to the company so managers often won't act anyway on a recommendation to stop a process. I recall reading about a CEO that fired himself because he felt it was best for the company. Though it probably wasn't a big hardship on him, this is the kind of honesty that is to be commended. At certain times, having work to do that I felt added nothing to society wasn't an issue. The issue was not having anything to do at all. Since working after college, I estimate I have spent on average 30% of my time at work doing things completely unrelated to my job because there is nothing to do, mainly because of fuzzy job duties and lack of processes set up for the person in the job. The figure fluctuates greatly. I have just come off a period of 3 months where it would have been about 80%. Many people have asked me how I can stand doing nothing so much. They ask why I don't let people know that I have nothing to do. I don't because I know the job and would prefer to do absolute-nothing rather than do work that I know will have no point. Personally, I take great pride in the fact that I enjoy doing nothing because I do make good use of the time. I read numerous publication on the internet, correspond with friends via email, plan trips, trade stocks and check quotes, inform others (who must work) on interesting news items, enjoy a long lunch in the nice weather, nap, etc. Sometimes, I just like to think. Sometimes, I stare blankly at the screen with no thoughts. I consider it a good quality to have to be able to be calm enough to not always be functioning. I see it as a form of meditation. I really have no problem with excess time as I have a long history of it starting in high-school where I had study hall. I feel that I am not totally wasting my life while doing nothing at work because I am enriching my knowledge of the world and entertaining myself to the best extent that is possible when sitting in a 9' x 6' cubicle. I have often stated to people, "Thank the Lord for the internet" because there is no way I could make it though the nothing-times without it. I am very thankful for the technology, which is also how I have gotten my jobs in the first place, which is sort of ironic.

Nothing-Job Defined

I take the percentage of time when I am doing absolutely nothing. I add in the percentage of time when I am actually working but it is producing worthless things. Throw in the meetings discussing such things as negative equity on the balance sheet resulting from an accounting entry to the generating asset balancing account, or GABA2 (I got physically ill after this meeting) and it adds up to a very large percentage of time spent adding no value to the economy and possibly to society in general, and I mean close to 100%. And for this paper, a nothing-job means exactly that. A job that is nearly 100% in combination of either doing nothing or doing things that add no benefit to society or the company. In a nothing-job, you have a full-day orientation, part of which you are taught how to wash your hands. In a nothing-job, you produce work that you know is not used for any purpose. In a nothing-job, you have projects that have a high probability of being scrapped in the middle. A nothing-job can be at a nothing-company, in which case the entire business the company is in provides no real benefit to society and is solely due to some unnecessary regulation or cronyism. In this case, all jobs at the company are nothing jobs. On the same token, those of us with nothing-jobs need to earn a living and we do the nothing-jobs because they pay pretty well and because they aren't that difficult (as long as you can deal with the foolishness). Some people are forced into nothing jobs to support their family. They can't stand it but it is the best way for them to provide. Some people simply accept the nothing-job by choice because of the benefits they offer. In exchange for the partial or entire selling of one's souls, you get a pretty comfortable existence. In my case, I feel I am in this latter category, but I strive to not let the nothingness suck away too much of my exuberance for life. With respect to that, I think I have been somewhat successful, though there is no doubt that my zest for life has been partially drained from the amount of time my mind has been idle in my various jobs. It really takes a vigilant effort to prevent the nothing-job from its soul-sucking ways. As an analytical person, I am always on the lookout and fight against it. Unfortunately, most nothing-jobbers allow for their zest to slip away, though perhaps this is the best way to go, oblivious to the patheticness of your existence. This matteris very much open to debate. As will be discussed later, an important means of not letting your soul drain away is always continuing the activities you enjoy no matter how sapped you are mentally from your mind-numbing job. Sometimes this means forcing yourself to do things you don't feel like doing after work or on weekends, but you will be glad you persevered after you overcome the initial pain.

I am a Whore

Riding home past the San Francisco strip clubs on Broadway has got me thinking of something in relation to the topic at hand. How am I or anyone involved in a nothing-job different from a whore? Not that I propose to be an expert in whores, but it would seem reasonable that there are three types. 1) Whores that don't feel like their job is demeaning and are proud of what they do, 2) Whores that do feel it is demeaning and are emotionally distraught in dealing with it and feel trapped in the profession, and 3) whores that know it is demeaning but deal with it as something they have full control over and make a rational decision to do as a money-making venture. It bothers them somewhat, but not enough to quit and get a real job. The conscientious nothing-jobber like myself, knows that in effect they are selling themselves in that there is other work that might more agreeable, but want the fairly good money and relative ease of the job, like whore #3. They get their pleasure in life from non-job related activities. #3 can also battle back from her demeaning job by viewing her customers as equally demeaning themselves by seeking her services. In a sense, that is my view. If the job is going to make me into a whore, then I'm going to approach it without respect. From my experience, most people who have nothing-jobs act like whore #1, because their reality has been so skewed as to make them believe they are important. Those in the situation of #2 need to get out of the job immediately, if possible, for emotional well-being. For myself, I do not rule out never becoming a #2 whore and having to get out for the well-being of my mental health, but for the time-being I have been able to avoid the situation. The ultimate solution of to not be a whore at all while maintaining your living standards, and I feel this goal is certainly obtainable though very difficult and requires a great deal of good fortune. As I have often said to people, the three aspects of jobs are 1) money, 2) difficulty / workload, 3) interest level / fullfillingness. Ultimately, you want a job that pays well, isn't hard, and is very interesting to do and something you can be proud of. Rarely do all three combine in one job. A job-whore takes #1 and #2 while sacrificing #3. Most people who are job-whores do not know it.

A Benefit Rises out of the Nothingness

I accept my destiny to provide no benefit to the world in a working capacity. Therefore, I have thought of myself simply as a redistributor of wealth. Instead of working, all the people in nothing-jobs could simply stay home every day. Instead of paying us a salary, we would instruct our would-be employers whom they should make fund transfers in our name to. I would call up the payroll department and tell them to wire $5.00 to the burrito place down the street from me, $54 to squaw valley for the lift ticket I will be picking up on Saturday, $842 to my landlord, etc. It would be like voting with the employer's money for the services and products that I feel are worthwhile and that I enjoy and then doing them for free. In this sense, I can feel good that I am directing money in ways that I can be proud of like supporting restaurants that are good (no Mc) and rewarding other establishments that provide a good service or product to society that I like, and that I think is good for society. I am not buying drugs that supports scumbags who commit crimes. I am not wasting money on things that I think add nothing to society or are overpriced in comparison to their benefit to society such as fur coats, $100 Versace ties, $2 cokes from a vending machine, etc. In this sense, I feel good in that the way I spend the money I earn helps to create a world which I feel is good. In addition, I look at nothing-jobs as a necessary evil and consider myself and other in these positions to be "placeholders." This means that the nothing-jobs will exist for reason described earlier and you cannot change this fact. By agreeing to fill the position of a nothing-job, you are in effect freeing up another member of society to have a job this is truly beneficial to the world. Perhaps if I quit, my successor to my job would be someone who worked as a manager of a Safeway and had been taking finance classes at night with the dream of the cushier work environment compared to the high-stress of managing that type of operation. Safeway would have to find someone to fill his role and this might be difficult, since it is a tough job. They might fill it, but again, you have one less productive member always in this scenario. Of course, I could be that productive member, but it's hard to tell if your job will be such, unless you do something obvious like a police officer or a doctor which are easy to define the benefits which they give to society. And I also want to make it clear that not all corporate / finance jobs are nothing-jobs because some analysis and functions truly are necessary for a business to function or to maximize profitability. I'm only referring to my situation and the many others whom are in the workforce with me. Some of the others might not know it, or might try to delude themselves that they add value to the world, but they don't. To them, I say there is no shame except in that of lying to yourself about your usefulness. One shouldn't feel bad about doing nothing and earning a nice wage if you follow two simply rules:

  • One must have outside activities that are enjoyed during working and non-working hours. A job does not need to be a large part of ones life, other than the time involved. If it is a job that you enjoy, then it's okay to be a big part of your life, but there is no requirement for it to be so. If you have no outside interests, then a nothing-job can be depressing because you truly are wasting your life and you need to go find another occupation.
  • Be a good person. Be nice to people. Tip extra to those who do the harder jobs and subsidize your enjoyment by working for low-pay. Always tip the Vegas drink ladies for having to wear high heels and a bathing suit for the pleasure of the scummy, unshaven gambling men. In effect, the nothing-job people act as a charitable foundation in the way they spend their money. As such an organization, you want to support a worthy cause, and therefore people who perform services you enjoy for low wages need your support. It will still not bring them up to the level of income the stress of the job demands, but it's a step in the right direction. You can help in non-monetary ways as well be thanking the towel boy for his services or complimenting your gardener's work if he did a good job. Make a conscious effort to not be condescending to people in the "lower" positions because we all subconsciously do think less of these people even though it is really the opposite that should be true. Don't litter, obey laws, help an old lady pick up her purse should she drop it. Here you are adding non-economic benefits to society by simply making it a nicer place for everybody to live in. It is not necessary to actually do charitable work, but just don't add to the problems of the country and have at least some part in making it a brighter place. However, some charity is obviously a good means of further redistributing your earnings to those who you feel deserve it more, while still maintaining a comfortable existence for yourself.
An important clarification to #2 above is that you are not doing these things out of "guilt" for "ill-gotten" gains. You are doing these things because you feel it is the fair and right thing to do and you want society to be a better place for yourself and everybody to live in. You get pleasure out of being nice to someone and the fact that it makes them feel good which possibly offsets a little the miserableness of the job they must endure while you surf the net all day in yours for triple the pay. You get pleasure in knowing that you are supporting a local merchant who bakes excellent bread. Really, #2 is not about guilt, but about the satisfaction you bring to yourself by doing what is just.

A Depressing Thing

One thing that is sort of sad to think about is the fact the nothing-jobbers lack of purpose really extends to the people with real jobs. As a bus driver, you are performing a real service by transporting people to their work. However, if a large amount of the people you are transporting are themselves do nothing-jobs, then you as a bus driver are by association doing so as well. Of course, it true that at least some of the passengers would be doing real work, but you would know that many of them are nothing-jobbers adding nothing to the worth of the world. This idea, is too depressing to even talk about much, because it leads one to consider the pointlessness of life if everyone is doing nothing and basically arrives at the theory that all the people doing real work are slaves to the people doing nothing. Let us not speak of this theory again.

Conclusion / Summary

This paper has dealt with dealt with the issue of adding nothing to society in one's working capacity and yet getting paid for it. Not only that, but the nothing-jobber often-times is to receive much more than people in jobs adding more value to the world and which are more difficult and unpleasant to perform. Though there is a sound economic reason for this to occur, it nonetheless is still a source of amazement to me when I think of the apparent unjustness for the world to function this way. As a nothing-jobber, there is no need to feel guilty at being in this position, as it is just a matter of luck. Instead, the nothing-jobber is advised to make the best of the situation regarding his personal enjoyment in life and in doing what he can to rebalance some of the unfortunate inequities by both economic and non-economic means.

1 I have a proprietary method of computing earning per second that adjusts for holidays, vacation, and makes certain assumption for weekly hours for salaried positions. In other words, only while physically at work do you assume you are earning money and all other time off, lunch and transit time is unpaid. This total time spent in hours at work over the year is converted to seconds and then divided by the yearly salary. Bonuses not included here if any are given. Assume no sick time.

2 This was from PG&E. Sort of a funny aside on GABA. First, there was controversy on the pronunciation. I heard people say the "a" as in "apple" and some say is like "father." Based on the spelling, it was my opinion that the "father" sound was proper, but it sounded too uppity to me so I joined the "apple" camp. Also, In the meeting, my boss was in it can talked about GABA a lot. After, I asked him what it meant and he didn't know and it wasn't for a couple days before he could tell me what it stood for or even what it was in concept.

3 I include here a passage from Mark Twain's A Connecticuit Yankee in King Arthur's Court (end of chapter 28):

There are wise people who talk ever so knowingly and complacently about "the working classes," and satisfy themselves that a day's hard intellectual work is very much harder than a day's hard manual toil, and is righteously entitled to much bigger pay. Why, they really think that, you know, because they know all about the one, but haven't tried the other. But I know all about both; and so far as I am concerned, there isn't money enough in the universe to hire me to swing a pickaxe thirty days, but I will do the hardest kind of intellectual work for just as near nothing as you can cipher it down -and I will be satisfied, too. Intellectual "work" is misnamed; it is a pleasure, a dissipation, and is its own highest reward. The poorest paid architect, engineer, general, author, sculptor, painter, lecturer, advocate, legislator, actor, preacher, singer is constructively in heaven when he is at work; and as for the musician with the fiddle-bow in his hand who sits in the midst of a great orchestra with the ebbing and flowing tides of divine sound washing over him -why, certainly, he is at work, if you wish to call it that, but lord, it's a sarcasm just the same. The law of work does seem utterly unfair -but there it is, and nothing can change it: the higher the pay in enjoyment the worker gets out of it, the higher shall be his pay in cash, also. And it's also the very law of those transparent swindles, transmissible nobility and kingship.

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