Jobs and Other Wastes of Worldly Effort
What do you do with the sentiment that the government or Barack Obama or John Boner or the Times editorial board or whatever is/are failing to “do enough” to “create jobs”? We need more jobs! Yeah, um, okay, why? What are these jobs? Are they merely make-work for the purposes of providing people with money whereby they might reenter the cycle of consumption? Well, um, yes. I mean, read any random Krugman column, and that is the takeaway. Now a better Marxist than me might observe that there is what the Washington press would call “a disconnect” when labor is alienated from production; me, I am merely a bad sophist, and so I will ask instead what happens when work is alienated from meaning, when labor is not only unproductive but literally insignificant. Certainly in the white collar professions the problem in America is not an absence of jobs but a surfeit of them; even in these days of high unemployment and slow hiring, the office towers and corporate campuses are crowded with useless jobbers battering endlessly against the need to write more macros. The problem is in fact not that people need jobs but that people need money, and hobbling them to a desk or factory floor is the only moral and legitimate means of funneling currency into their empty jugs. We need to have fuller employment so that more people are getting paid so that the consumer economy expands ad inf. and repeat as necessary. There are, if you consider it even briefly, a half million or so unexamined assumptions underlying all of this. Why not simply provide for people whose employment is extraneous to actual need? Or, why not aim for economic shrinkage and negative population growth? Or . . . Well, look, I will not be the first to point out the near-total spiritual impoverishment of Homo economicus, but it’s a point that bears infinite repeating; if the most essential function of each individual human life is that it be employed to do something, anything, for four decades of its existence, if that is the true measure of man, then we should all commit suicide forthwith. There is no reason to go on living. There is naught but despair and untimely death. Better to pick the manner of one’s own departure. If the final purpose of your being is to toil for sustenance and then to die, then you are among the lowest orders of animals, a bare step beyond a paramecium. Look, I am tired of telling you that Democrats are ridiculous, that Republicans are ridiculous, that Barack Obama is a murderer, that Thomas Friedman is dumb, that Matthew Yglesias is silly, that teevee rots your brain. Beyond the merely pecuniary and the venial: what does your life mean to you beyond your paystub and your appetites?
I greatly value the Marxist critique, and I really enjoy the sardonic and subversive way IOZ presents it: it is important to ask ourselves the questions put forth above, and I sympathize with IOZ’s criticisms of the faulty premises behind both the growth paradigm and the modern consumer economy. But ultimately, I find his take empty of prescription and cold. I believe in compassion as a virtue, I believe people respond to incentives, and I believe incentives are often derived from the mechanisms of the state-politics-culture chimera more than they come from any external, biological or spiritual reality; especially at our civilization’s unprecedented level of organizational sophistication, policy can obscure or alter reality and cause economic agents to make poor decisions. Growth-at-all-costs has been the dominant economic paradigm since the industrial revolution, and in enacting policy consistent with growth-at-all-costs, we have created incentives for superfluous employment and therefore inefficient use of time and effort. The role of policy in spurring blind over-consumption has been well-documented: from chronically devaluing the dollar in order to discourage saving – to taxing income disproportionately when consumption tax models seem more promising – to bailouts and reinforcements of existing power structures that amplify the conspicuous consumption and entitlement mentality that has emerged from our corporate culture. As such, ours is a system where institutional knowledge gets rewarded over real knowledge, where institutional success is more highly valued than real success, and where a veneer of frenetic and frothing institutional atoms obscures truth; in other words, the purpose of our system is self-perpetuation first, coordinating supply and demand second. This causes needless suffering, and lives spent acquiescing to the whims of the system are an aggregate waste of worldly effort.
I mentioned before that “being a good fit for the culture” has been offered to me seriously and by multiple individuals as concrete, practical advice for getting a job in the United States. I did not know what this meant at first, but I think I do now. Since I have started looking for a job, I have spent increasingly greater amounts of time at the online venues BNET and LinkedIn; both are websites designed for people interested in “advancing their careers”, but BNET and LinkedIn are very different from each other. I have no idea how I got into BNET. One day, I found myself receiving daily emails from the organization, which is a subsidiary of CBS. At that time, I was interested in BNET more for simple sociological curiosity – remember this is the first time I’ve applied for a job in the U.S., and I’m still experiencing intense re-entry shock – than for what I perceived as promise of job search assistance. I welcomed – and continue to welcome – BNET’s presence in the virtual genkan of my Gmail inbox. Participation in LinkedIn, on the other hand, was an act of free will. Several people I know and respect recommended that I build a profile on the career-oriented social network, and I did.
BNET’s color motif is a garish lime green and black, and the site is fond of compiling nonsensical lists. Overt, vomitous SEO-writing is the norm. (SEO-writing is when writers research popular keywords used for search engines like Google and then assemble them into semi-coherent “articles” designed solely to game search engine algorithms into sending readers to that particular page over others that may be more useful. This practice is evil and childish at the same time – the equivalent of bleaching big, dong-shaped patterns onto the proverbial commons.) BNET’s most famous regular contributor is perhaps Penelope Trunk, whose persona claims to have Asperger’s Syndrome, writes about her sexual encounters, and defends job-hopping as sound and morally-upright practice. Granted, this could all be brilliant satire, or perhaps Trunk has volunteered to serve as totem on which is foisted the decline of American business culture. Indeed, the types of articles that regularly see press at BNET could not be distinguished from their own parodies: there are articles that promote obsession with meaningless formalities, articles that make you want to kill yourself for a thousand different reasons, and psychopathic shit that you can’t even believe someone somewhere is taking seriously. Overall, BNET offers solid advice for people trying to misrepresent themselves as indispensable to a particular company and/or for people trying to capitalize on the propensity of busy HR managers to mistake the appearance of professionalism for professionalism.
A few years back, a friend of mine joked that MySpace is for showing everyone how cool you are and Facebook is for showing everyone how smart you are. To this, I’d add that LinkedIn is about showing how serious you are about pretending to be serious about pretending to be serious about work. LinkedIn is user-driven and more in line with the prevailing Nepotism Model of Job Procurement (NMJP) but, of course, updated for an Internet of social networking: it’s Nepotism 2.0. LinkedIn has the added “bonus” of labyrinthine forums where stuffy people can assert-as-universal-fact their various personal opinions on what it means to be a professional at something*. The social network is (in)famous for having been blessed with what almost every expert considered a super-overvalued IPO – this even though, like many Internet businesses, LinkedIn doesn’t really even have anything resembling a business model or a revenue stream. Right now, LinkedIn is just some rest stop on the information superhighway where people can come together in hopes of meeting someone who will let them cut in line somewhere.
In order to pretend to have a meritocracy, there must be some semblance of fairness. Since there are only limited resources available to devote to finding the person most deserving of a particular station, some element of abstraction is necessary. Hence, the cover letter-resume one-two punch. (Japan maintains its pretensions to meritocracy – more successfully I’d argue – via an elaborate public examination system.) The errors wrought of abstraction are enough of a problem to begin with that when (1) gatekeepers and applicants alike forget the reason why cover letters and resumes exist in the first place and start seeing them as ends in themselves; and (2) the number of people tasked to evaluate resumes and cover letters decreases significantly while at the same time the number of resumes and cover letters thrown at a particular job increases significantly, the entire meritocratic job procurement system begins to hemorrhage à la BNET. LinkedIn, a guerrilla wielding a double-machete, jumps out of the jungle to cut through the staggering and blood-gushing meritocracy. Investors applaud. LinkedIn is pro-NMJP, in contrast to BNET’s cargo-cult pro-meritocratic posture. LinkedIn is also favored by companies and well-organized. Before joining LinkedIn, it took me several days to find one job I was interested in, write a cover letter, tweak my resume, and not get any kind of human response; in the same amount of time using LinkedIn, I can fire off ten or fifteen applications and get immediate and cordial rejections to them all. This represents a major increase in productivity; plus, constructive negative feedback is priceless.
Nevertheless, LinkedIn is not without its problems: around LinkedIn (and the irony of this is mind-blowing) has sprung up a network of hangers-on, shameless liars, and exploiters, like this guy and these guys, whose job title could best be described as “Lying Coach”. These scammers are not quite at 419-level in the sense that they are selling real products made of matter and real services made of whatever services are made of, and they may even believe that what they are doing is neutral at worse. Usually, these Eichmannscammers prey on the weakened psychological condition of the unemployed individual, just as fad diets exploit the overweight individual’s lack of self-esteem. The ideas these exploiter sites traffic in come from some kind of role-playing game reality, where magical elixirs or potions or bromides exist and can be purchased for some quantity of rupees or Imperial Credits. Consumption makes the individual impervious to damage, restores his health, allows him to lose all his weight quickly, tightens his muscles with no physical exertion whatsoever, increases his ability to hold an erection, secures him a free iPad, or finds him a job.
But, to return to IOZ’s cynical assessment above, when I step back and question the entire premise, that my procurement of a job depends on either the contents of one piece of paper or knowing someone, it all collapses on its own ridiculousness. That my seventeen years of formal American education (a public/private investment of more than $250,000) and approximately 15,000 hours of work experience (for someone in his late twenties) can be undercut with a pathetically obvious fake smile, manipulation of Google keywords, or the institutional wisdom imparted by a four-DVD course – or alternatively, that all my education and work experience can be undone by a cover letter that doesn’t reveal enough information or reveals too much information or a resume that contains bullet points but no objective statement or an objective statement but no bullet points or that any other Procrustean litmus tests actually matter is just ridiculous.
* I have a theory that people in online forums are not actually people in online forums but are in fact bots programmed by computer engineers at MIT and Caltech with competing variants of the Dungeons & Dragons alignment system. Once you know a particular “person’s” alignment, you can predict every single one of his comments. Having a discussion about evolution in the science writer’s forum? Well, Brenda F. is “lawful neutral”, so she’s going to respond to any digression or Christian-bashing with entreaties to stay on topic even if she’s not particularly religious. Steve S., however, is “chaotic evil”, so he’s just going to ratchet-up the Xian-bashing. Antonio W. is also “chaotic evil”, so he’s going to troll Steve S. by pretending to be devout. And so on. Sound improbable? You may be a mark!