Bullshit Jobs

This story article was linked on Marginal Revolution. In the comments, a fellow named Bill points out that rent-seeking inevitably leads to worthless occupations. The source story is one of those snarky rants that have become popular with Millennials. They like that blend of pointless irony and dismissive disgust with reality. It seems like a strange affectation, as it implies a combination of naivete, obliviousness and solipsism. Of course, there is the strong possibility that millennials are in fact naive, dumb and solipsistic.

Economists will naturally reject the the assertion that there are “bullshit” jobs, because it lies outside their belief set. No profession is controlled by its tools like economics and since they have not tools to measure culture or biology, those things are left out of their models. That’s a story for another day. The important bit is that even in the private sector, loads of worthless jobs are created because they favor the state. Or, those jobs exist because they favor some cultural push by the state, like diversity training, for example.

One place you see this is in sports entertainment. In the days before cable, the sideline reporter did not exist. The reason is two-fold. One is women don’t know much about sports and therefore were not in the sports business. The other reason is no one would pay to have these bunnies on the field. The money was not there to do it.The job of sideline reporter is not a lot different than that of cheerleader. They pretend it is a real job, but it’s not. The girls come and go, because they are just not that important.

Government created cable monopolies have changed all that. ESPN can tax 100 million homes through their cable bill, which they do for about $8 a month. According to people who track this stuff, ESPN is watched by 20% of cable homes. That means the other 80 million homes are paying $80 bucks a year so ESPN can hire T&A to strut along the sidelines. ESPN is a great marketing machine, but it is mostly a rent-seeker. It spends a portion of its $9 billion in revenue bribing politicians and cable operators.

There is nothing new about rent-seeking. Government is the monopoly of force in a society, which means they can force people to do stuff and not do stuff. In a democracy, bribing elected officials so they will force people to do stuff that favors your business, is as old as democracy itself. Ben Franklin was a rent seeker. he got government contracts for printing and he got them by buttering up government officials. That’s how it works.

Franklin is a good example of how rent seeking can have unintended consequences down stream from the event itself. Franklin was a printer. His government contracts did not keep his presses running full time, so he he used the excess time to print fliers, newspapers and almanacs. In a way, government contracts underwrote the birth of the newspaper business in the colonies. Sports oligopolies and cable oligopolies are rent seekers that are altering the very nature of media, as a consequence of their rent seeking.

Put another way, rent seeking creates make work. Economics can understand the first part, but they struggle to understand the second part. they certainly don’t grasp the cultural impact of the second part. The legions of people in make work jobs want to keep those make work jobs. The employees of government contractors, for example, are the most effective lobbyists for more government. Northern Virginia, the home of government employees, media and political operators, is a billion dollar lobbying machine now.

Anyway, here is one of my all time favorite bits on the bullshit job theme.