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The Zero-Sum Economy

The anthropologist David Graeber has argued that as much as 30% of all work is performed in “bullshit jobs,” which are unnecessary to produce truly valuable goods and services but arise from competition for income and status. But the deeper problem is that more and more economic activity performs a merely distributive function.

LONDON – Across the global economy, the potential for automation seems huge. Adidas’ “Speedfactory” in Bavaria will employ 160 workers to produce 500,000 pairs of shoes each year, a productivity rate over five times higher than in typical factories today. The British Retail Consortium estimates that retail jobs could fall from three million to 2.1 million within ten years, with only a small fraction replaced by new jobs in online retailing. Many financial-services companies see the potential to cut information-processing jobs to a small fraction of current levels.

And yet, despite all this, measured productivity growth across the developed economies has slowed. One possible explanation, recently considered by Andrew Haldane, chief economist of the Bank of England, is that while some companies rapidly grasp the new opportunities, others do so only slowly, producing a wide productivity dispersion even within the same sector. But dispersion alone cannot explain slowing productivity growth: that would require an increase in the degree of dispersion.

However, to focus on how technology is applied to existing jobs may be to look in the wrong place, for the clue to the productivity paradox may instead be found in the activities to which displaced workers move. David Graeber of the London School of Economics argues that as much as 30% of all work is performed in “bullshit jobs,” which are unnecessary to produce truly valuable goods and services but arise from competition for income and status.

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