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BULLSHIT JOBS

A THEORY

Overlong, but the book offers comfort to those who are performing the white-collar version of burger-flipping and hating...

Forget Piketty or Marx. Graeber (Anthropology/London School of Economics; The Utopia of Rules: On Technology, Stupidity, and the Secret Joys of Bureaucracy, 2015, etc.) is calling bullshit when it comes to the wage-slave economy.

Cleaning gym lockers; prepping potatoes for the fryer; giving sponge baths to hospice patients. Those are the “shit jobs.” But then there’s working as a corporate lawyer, as an administrative vice president in a state college, or as an HR mediator. Now, as Graeber puts it, we’re in provisional definition territory: “A bullshit job is a form of employment that is so completely pointless, unnecessary, or pernicious that even the employee cannot justify its existence even though the employee feels obliged to pretend that this is not the case.” By the author’s estimate, that’s about half the jobs in the economy, organized at the gracious consent of the mega-wealthy for their benefit, with a whole slew of jobs, from fast-food cook to dog walker, organized around the bullshit jobs to service the bullshit jobsters so that they can spend almost all their waking hours having at it. It’s a pretty cheerless view of the economy, but Graeber makes good points along the way, including the aside that the reason people hate unionized workers who do nonbullshit work—teaching elementary school, building cars—is precisely because they’re not stuck in bullshit jobs. The circularity aside, it makes for solid social criticism, especially when the author fine-tunes the definition: There are bullshit jobs, but within that broad category there are “duct-taping jobs,” the stuff IT guys do to keep the machines running instead of the company spending money to buy decent gear. There’s a logic to it all. As Orwell noted, “a population busy working, even at completely useless occupations, doesn’t have time to do much else.” Whence, as Graeber concludes, the eternal bullshit.

Overlong, but the book offers comfort to those who are performing the white-collar version of burger-flipping and hating every minute of it.

Pub Date: May 15, 2018

ISBN: 978-1-5011-4331-1

Page Count: 368

Publisher: Simon & Schuster

Review Posted Online: March 18, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1, 2018

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WHEN BREATH BECOMES AIR

A moving meditation on mortality by a gifted writer whose dual perspectives of physician and patient provide a singular...

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A neurosurgeon with a passion for literature tragically finds his perfect subject after his diagnosis of terminal lung cancer.

Writing isn’t brain surgery, but it’s rare when someone adept at the latter is also so accomplished at the former. Searching for meaning and purpose in his life, Kalanithi pursued a doctorate in literature and had felt certain that he wouldn’t enter the field of medicine, in which his father and other members of his family excelled. “But I couldn’t let go of the question,” he writes, after realizing that his goals “didn’t quite fit in an English department.” “Where did biology, morality, literature and philosophy intersect?” So he decided to set aside his doctoral dissertation and belatedly prepare for medical school, which “would allow me a chance to find answers that are not in books, to find a different sort of sublime, to forge relationships with the suffering, and to keep following the question of what makes human life meaningful, even in the face of death and decay.” The author’s empathy undoubtedly made him an exceptional doctor, and the precision of his prose—as well as the moral purpose underscoring it—suggests that he could have written a good book on any subject he chose. Part of what makes this book so essential is the fact that it was written under a death sentence following the diagnosis that upended his life, just as he was preparing to end his residency and attract offers at the top of his profession. Kalanithi learned he might have 10 years to live or perhaps five. Should he return to neurosurgery (he could and did), or should he write (he also did)? Should he and his wife have a baby? They did, eight months before he died, which was less than two years after the original diagnosis. “The fact of death is unsettling,” he understates. “Yet there is no other way to live.”

A moving meditation on mortality by a gifted writer whose dual perspectives of physician and patient provide a singular clarity.

Pub Date: Jan. 19, 2016

ISBN: 978-0-8129-8840-6

Page Count: 248

Publisher: Random House

Review Posted Online: Sept. 29, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 15, 2015

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GOOD ECONOMICS FOR HARD TIMES

Occasionally wonky but overall a good case for how the dismal science can make the world less—well, dismal.

“Quality of life means more than just consumption”: Two MIT economists urge that a smarter, more politically aware economics be brought to bear on social issues.

It’s no secret, write Banerjee and Duflo (co-authors: Poor Economics: A Radical Rethinking of the Way To Fight Global Poverty, 2011), that “we seem to have fallen on hard times.” Immigration, trade, inequality, and taxation problems present themselves daily, and they seem to be intractable. Economics can be put to use in figuring out these big-issue questions. Data can be adduced, for example, to answer the question of whether immigration tends to suppress wages. The answer: “There is no evidence low-skilled migration to rich countries drives wage and employment down for the natives.” In fact, it opens up opportunities for those natives by freeing them to look for better work. The problem becomes thornier when it comes to the matter of free trade; as the authors observe, “left-behind people live in left-behind places,” which explains why regional poverty descended on Appalachia when so many manufacturing jobs left for China in the age of globalism, leaving behind not just left-behind people but also people ripe for exploitation by nationalist politicians. The authors add, interestingly, that the same thing occurred in parts of Germany, Spain, and Norway that fell victim to the “China shock.” In what they call a “slightly technical aside,” they build a case for addressing trade issues not with trade wars but with consumption taxes: “It makes no sense to ask agricultural workers to lose their jobs just so steelworkers can keep theirs, which is what tariffs accomplish.” Policymakers might want to consider such counsel, especially when it is coupled with the observation that free trade benefits workers in poor countries but punishes workers in rich ones.

Occasionally wonky but overall a good case for how the dismal science can make the world less—well, dismal.

Pub Date: Nov. 12, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-61039-950-0

Page Count: 432

Publisher: PublicAffairs

Review Posted Online: Aug. 28, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 15, 2019

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