The horizon is not so far as we can see, but as far as we can imagine

At a Societal Level “Can’t Afford” Is Bullshit

John Maynard Keynes – “Anything we can do, we can afford.”

Money tells you how much of society’s resources you can command. Can you use that building, that land or that person?

It’s more than that, of course, but this is its most fundamental use.

But we are all familiar with the fact that often there are empty buildings, unemployed people and land which is not being used productively. We also know that often what people, land and buildings are being used to do is a bad: a net negative.

99% of Wall Street, for just one example. 85% of the US military, for a second.

We use money so much that we forget that it’s only a proxy. What matters is the actual resources: do we have enough, epople, land, buildings, oil, steel, and other resources to do something or can we get the resources we need, either by moving people and other resources away from bad stuff to good stuff, or by creating more resources.

If we have enough or can create enough or can redistribute enough resources, we can do that thing, whatever it is. The limit isn’t money, the limit is actual, real resources.

Estimates of bullshit jobs are at about 40% or so. I’d personally put it higher: jobs that either are pointless or actively harmful are the majority of what we do.

We can do plenty, any time we really, as societies, want to.

There will come a time, and that time is not so distant, where we can’t. Where real and painful decisions will have to be made, but we are still, in most of the developed world, in a surplus situation, with a lot of resources mis-allocated. Reallocate them and we can fix many of our problems and mitigate almost all the rest, while actually improving human and animal welfare massively.

“Afford” is a word for people, not a word for governments who can print money. For them, the question is “does the country have the resources and can they be mobilized?”

We can make the world and ourselves better when we want to, at least for now.


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The Distributed Nature Of Collapse


Open Thread


  1. Willy

    As somebody who’s only ever worked his ass off doing necessary jobs, I’m curious what these bullshit jobs are. In my own experience, many seem to involve patching up some folly which a “penny wise pound foolish” management strategy caused.

    Sure… stocking up a power structure with useless underlings… But wont most of those underlings do whatever it takes to appear valuable so they stay employed? That relationship seems symbiotic to me.

    Promoting and rewarding elite manipulators instead of elite problem solvers seems closer to the root of the issue. Shapiro gets way more than Graeber did. But whatever, bullshit jobs seems a symptom of a cultural dysfunction from late-stage capitalism.

    There was a meme going around in my former engineering business back in the 80’s-90’s, along the lines of “confidence and arrogance = competency and intelligence”. Makes cursory sense I guess. Yet that little bit of common wisdom didn’t quite ‘feel right” even to my naïve young self. In later years I’d learn that the most intelligent amongst us are actually far more cautious and humble than the brash Dunning-Krugers who won’t look before they leap.

    Just as there used to be real power in doing wrong then begging for forgiveness later, we’re now seeing power doing wrong then making scapegoats do all the begging. That’s a sign of a culture collapsing. All the wrong people are getting promoted and rewarded because corporate and cultural mechanisms against them have broken down. Or been made to.

  2. Soredemos

    The nature of money is an issue where people are often greatly confused, often holding several mutually contradictory views. And it can be extraordinarily difficult to break through to people on the subject.

    Many people are convinced money is a thing in and of itself. So coins are valuable if they contain precious metals, but bills are worthless funny money. The fake printing press money is going to collapse any day now (no one seems to realize that almost literally all currencies today are ‘fake fiat’ money), while Gaddafi was killed because he was about to usher in new age of pan-African prosperity (extremely unlikely; the currency would have likely collapsed into deflation and been abandoned), etc. The woolly thinking has little to no relation to where someone is politically. The right will be convinced real money is gold and silver (it isn’t, and never really was) so they’ll horde it, while the left will be convinced money is backed by oil (it isn’t) and some mysterious thing called the petrodollar is going to collapse and drag the Ameriican Empire down with it.

    It’s a subject where we’ve been subjected to propaganda narratives for at least a couple centuries. The notion that it went barter > coins > credit has been the accepted myth since some economists essentially invented it out of nothing. The reality is it went credit > state coinage > barter when the system breaks down. Which we know because we have thousands of the cuneiform tablets that record the development process. The first coins were minted by a government to pay its soldiers,
    and imbued with value by being accepted as tax payments. Money doesn’t have intrinsic value, and it doesn’t have to be backed by anything (but if you insist on thinking in those terms, it’s backed by taxes).

  3. Soredemos


    Bullshit jobs is itself a mostly bullshit concept. It was popularized, though probably not invented, by Graeber (ironically as an anthropologist, and a larping anarchist one at that, he had one of the few genuinely bullshit jobs). It’s a strawman. Few jobs are truly entirely bullshit. But many jobs contain certain percentages of bullshit.

  4. Feral Finster

    For some mystifying reason, we never hear “but we can’t afford it!” when it comes time to bail the billionaires out at the casino again, or when it comes time to put another pointless war on the national credit card.

  5. Jorge

    Thank you for articulating the part about paying soldiers and taxation. It does demonstrate why currency value should be stable (aka why Bitcoin cannot be money). A corollary is, that the govt. is usually the largest bureaucracy in a country, and that bureaucracy needs stability in budgeting. So, the govt. badly needs the currency to have stable value so that it can do its own operations sensibly, let alone the political problems caused by fluctuating currency values

  6. bruce wilder

    Playing the games that money and money finance enables is a large part of what people do to live their economic lives in the so-called developed world. A fair number of people do OK in mastering those games and a small number do way more than OK, becoming centimillionaires and billionaires. Not very many people have either the life experience or the idealism to understand much about money on a meta-level.

    I wouldn’t count a role for precious metals out in the brave new world of central bank digital currencies. One thing the prophets of monetary theory seldom draw attention to is that monetary regimes get overhauled on a pretty regular time cycle and with the collapse of any economic basis for American hegemony and the skyrocketing of dollar-denominated debts of all kinds, the global financial system is bound to death and re-birth.

  7. Willy

    Money is supposed to be a way to store resources in some efficient way. It becomes bullshit when society equates the amount of money one has with the amount of resources they deserve.

    For me, that’s the best way to measure a “bullshit job”. It’s crossed some threshold where actual resources are not deserved from the work one has done to acquire that money/resources. In a functional capitalist society (theoretical, since all capitalisms are or become bullshit over time) everybody knows what the value of everything is including labor. In such a world nobody’s fooled by the fly-by night roofer, the covert union-buster, the silver spoon buffoon, or the elected political representative who spends all their time proclaiming that everything would be just fine if it wasn’t for those goddamned trannies.

    Capitalism falls apart when bullshit people dominate the common culture, turning jobs, money and resources into a confused mass of bullshit for the rest of us. In a better world most would know how to determine degrees of bullshit and how to keep it under control. Maybe we’ve had periods of time where this was more the case and we should focus on studying up on those times.

    There was an old adage from my former business which the nefarious popularized: “confusion creates cash”. They’d teeter-totter designs, create scapegoats out of rumorous air, and work together in gangs to keep the cultural focus off of determining actual value for damned near anything. They succeeded at turning the mutual striving for some kind of “bottom-line value” into a psychopath’s playground full of bullshit jobs.

    But then I never read Graeber’s book. Maybe that was his entire point, I dunno.

  8. anon y'mouse

    isn’t this just the underlying realization of MMT?

    and yet haven’t you said you don’t like MMT? granted, there are things i disagree with that the MMT proselytizers advocate for to “complete” MMT that i am not necessarily for, but i don’t disagree with your post which seems merely like a restatement of MMT principles.


  9. Nathan

    Respectfully, I would avoid using the term “print money.” Sovereign governments,like the US federal government, create money, the US dollar in this case, when they purchase goods and services that are available for sale in their money units(US dollars) at a price the government is willing to pay. Sure, some amount of currency is printed, but those printed currencies are a replacement of already existing money that was previously created by the government.

  10. Creigh Gordon

    Willy: most relevant resources, not only material resources like food but also human industriousness and ingenuity, can’t be effectively stored, at least not for very long. Society, in other words, is a Ponzi scheme.

    Anonymouse: that resources are the constraint for society, not money, is a central concept of MMT, although MMT usually applies the concept to national economies, not society as such.

    Nathan: I often use the term “printing” even though I’m aware most money is just an electronic ledger entry. I feel like the term “printing” resonates with my intended audience, and in any case there are no significant differences between the effects of physical money and electronic money.

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