Free speech in the digital age

I finally broke down and wrote a cancel-culture-adjacent piece. It originally appeared at Merion West, an online magazine. Since this essay contains themes I’ve been mulling over but have struggled to articulate for a while, I thought I’d reprint the piece here, with some commentary in the footnotes. Enjoy!

If I had to pick one thing America does better than any other nation, I’d have to go with free speech. The American commitment to free speech is legendary, codified by the First Amendment, which guarantees all Americans the right to worship, peacefully assemble, and otherwise express themselves without fear of government censorship.

As legal protections for freedom of expression go, the First Amendment remains the gold standard worldwide. We often take this for granted, forgetting that most people don’t live under the same conditions. Hold the American stance on freedom of speech in contrast with that of Iran or Saudi Arabia, where blasphemy is punishable by death, or China, where one-to-three million members of an ethno-religious sect are packed into concentration camps for crimes as spurious as abstaining from alcohol.*

If picking on theocracies and dictatorships strikes you as low-hanging fruit, recall that Europeans also live with less freedom of expression. A U.K. man was arrested and fined for posting a YouTube video that showed his girlfriend’s pug performing Nazi salutes, for example. By comparison, the American Civil Liberties Union has used the First Amendment to defend the rights of neo-Nazis and civil rights protestors alike to assemble.

Our commitment to the rights of others to express themselves, even if they hold heinous beliefs, is something uniquely American, perhaps the finest piece of our cultural heritage. Unfortunately, it’s a commitment we seem to be turning our backs on—and the First Amendment is often used as a moral license to do so.

The First Amendment guarantees one freedom from government censorship; it doesn’t establish the positive right to speech. This is as it should be, as anything more would require the compulsion of others to either hear or facilitate one’s speech. However, this allows people to take a narrow view of freedom of speech as being merely freedom from government censorship. We might call this the “showing you the door” strain of free speech thought. Such a view, while legally coherent, ignores that free speech has a cultural component as well—one that needs constant maintenance if it’s not to fall into disrepair.

That component might be described as a willingness to err on the side of permissiveness when it comes to public discourse—or perhaps an understanding that we generally tend to benefit from living in a culture where people can push boundaries without intolerable social and economic risk.** Its bedrock values are charity, humility, and tolerance. 

When I speak of a threat to free speech culture, I’m talking about the newly enabled impulse to defenestrate and defame people, often for trivial transgressions, sometimes years after the offense—“cancel culture,” if you must. It is distinct from free speech culture in that it doesn’t seek to confront opposing views but rather to erase them, often in ways that are financially or personally ruinous for the offending party. It’s the self-righteous, vindictive justice of the mob.

Because the internet

Anyone observer of humanity can tell you this is not new behavior. On the contrary, it’s been more the rule than the exception. But it does seem exacerbated and facilitated by modern life, especially the internet.

As more of life moved online, it became easily searchable, permanent, and largely public. This migration—the result of social encouragement to live in full view of your friends, casual acquaintances, and advertisers—has spawned a panopticonic social archive that can easily be turned against you.*** These are conditions unique to life in the 21st Century that many adults, let alone children, seem understandably ill-adept at navigating.

When paired with the rapid mutation of norms (also aided by the internet) surrounding acceptable speech and the mob mentality incentivized by social media and click-hungry outlets, this creates an environment ripe for reflexive, post-hoc defamation, to which even—or more accurately, especially—powerful liberal institutions (the very same tasked with guarding free inquiry) are showing little resistance

In such a hostile environment, the obvious choice becomes to abstain from speech that not only is controversial but also that which might someday be controversial. (The exception being those who are financially immune to cancelation and can thus be afforded public free thought.) This is clearly at odds with a culture of free speech, in which ideas can be freely debated, and people can change their minds over time. 

We’re already seeing the consequences: authors pulling their own books from publication for excruciatingly trivial offenses; professionals being fired for sharing objective research that supports unhappy findings. But the future consequences will be unseen: the important medical studies that aren’t conducted; the bold art that isn’t created; the policy failures that can’t be named, much less halted. From this vantage point, the future looks bleak, the province of the anodyne and ineffectual.

Censorship has been outsourced to private actors

Much like the social surveillance system under which we live (voluntarily, it must be said), the modern thought police regime is not a product of the state. Censorship has been outsourced to private companies and zealous volunteers, who are themselves often exercising their free speech rights in the course of policing others’ speech. From a legal standpoint, this is of course distinct from government censorship, and therefore not a First Amendment issue. No one has a right to a subreddit or a Twitter handle or a New York Times op-ed.

Yet it would be a mistake to say that these companies and individuals don’t or can’t pose a threat to free speech in the broader, cultural sense. To do so, you would have to ignore the market power of the relatively few actors that control the channels of speech in the modern era. The collapse of local media and the consolidation of firms within the industry, for example, have endowed the remaining actors with the power to filter the coverage of events and viewpoints that millions of Americans are exposed to. Do you trust them not to use it?

Over half of Americans get their news through Facebook, which is known to have manipulated users’ feeds to alter their emotions. Some 80% of search engine traffic flows through Google, home to famously opinionated, activist employees. About a quarter of journalists turn to Twitter—the use of which has been shown by at least one study to affect journalists’s judgement of newsworthiness—as their primary news source. The case of social media platforms and search engines is particularly illustrating: while they are private actors that users engage with of their own volition, network effects are built into their business models, meaning once established, they’re not as vulnerable to competition as other businesses and products are.

These companies are well within their legal rights to create their own policies and remove content that violates them, to algorithmically promote or suppress content on their properties, or to flag content as misinformation if they deem it so. But to deny that in doing so they might chill, stifle, or otherwise impact free expression is fanciful.

There are no easy fixes

Part of the irony of this problem is that addressing it in the most straightforward way (through policy or regulation) would actually represent a huge step in the wrong direction. Do I worry about the market power of companies that control the modern channels of speech? Yes, especially given the political power dynamics at play in many of our most powerful institutions. Do I think media polarization is dangerous and bad? You bet. But maintaining the independence of private actors, and thus the core of the First Amendment, is more important than the pursuit of an ephemeral unbiased public sphere.

That’s fine, because this isn’t a policy problem. It’s a cultural problem, and it requires a cultural solution: a revival of free speech culture and the virtues upon which it rests. We need to check our instincts to banish things we don’t like, and we need to voice our skepticism of those who over rely on the power of censorship.**** (It would probably also be a good idea for individuals to rethink how they use the internet.) 

I know this is a lot to ask, especially under the conditions of the digital age. But I have hope. Cultural free speech is a core American value and a key component of life in a pluralistic society. If anyone is going to defend it, it will be us.


* When I started writing this piece (about a week ago), Uyghur oppression was the most relevant example of Chinese human rights violation. By the time it was published, that had changed.

** This is one of those American ideals that has certainly never been implemented or enjoyed uniformly. As sociology professor Rod Graham points out, for a long time, you could risk losing your job and destroying your personal life by coming out as gay, for example. So while the tone of this piece is somewhat pessimistic about the state of modern free speech, I think it’s important to note that in a lot of ways, things have improved.

***  I should have also brought up that sometimes, as in many of the “Karen” videos going around, this social surveillance system is quite literally weaponized. There are incentives in place to do so—mainly the promise of money and virality for the poster.

****  There’s always going to be an Overton window; I don’t mean to suggest it could be any other way. That’s just part of living in a society.

Thoughts on Marc Andreessen’s IT’S TIME TO BUILD

Way way back in April of 2020, a venture capitalist named Marc Andreessen wrote an all-caps exhortation to western (particularly American) institutions and individuals: IT’S TIME TO BUILD. It’s a quick read, so I do recommend it. If that’s out of the question, you can get the gist from the opening paragraphs:

Every Western institution was unprepared for the coronavirus pandemic, despite many prior warnings. This monumental failure of institutional effectiveness will reverberate for the rest of the decade, but it’s not too early to ask why, and what we need to do about it.

Many of us would like to pin the cause on one political party or another, on one government or another. But the harsh reality is that it all failed — no Western country, or state, or city was prepared — and despite hard work and often extraordinary sacrifice by many people within these institutions. So the problem runs deeper than your favorite political opponent or your home nation.

Part of the problem is clearly foresight, a failure of imagination. But the other part of the problem is what we didn’t *do* in advance, and what we’re failing to do now. And that is a failure of action, and specifically our widespread inability to *build*.

We see this today with the things we urgently need but don’t have. We don’t have enough coronavirus tests, or test materials — including, amazingly, cotton swabs and common reagents. We don’t have enough ventilators, negative pressure rooms, and ICU beds. And we don’t have enough surgical masks, eye shields, and medical gowns — as I write this, New York City has put out a desperate call for rain ponchos to be used as medical gowns. Rain ponchos! In 2020! In America!

Marc Andreessen, “IT’S TIME TO BUILD”

Andreessen’s blog post is very good, even if it’s mostly an extended rallying cry. I think it was also very timely, as it alludes to a few subtextual themes I’m seeing come up more and more in politics:

  1. The US economy is increasingly concerned with rent extraction and distribution as opposed to genuinely productive economic activity, the latter having been off-shored to a great extent. The dollars-and-cents economic benefits of doing so aren’t really up for debate, but in social and political terms, the trade-off is looking less appealing these days. Prediction: interest in industrial policy is going to (continue to) increase among the right and possibly the left.
  2. Proceeding from a default assumption of capital scarcity is maybe not a smart way to make policy anymore. We are awash in money and not averse to printing more or deficit spending when the mood strikes. Obviously there’s a limit to how long you can get away with stuff like that, but if we can fight endless wars perhaps we can also fix a few roads.
  3. Maybe democracy is the problem? Others responded to Andreessen’s blog post by pointing out that there are political impediments to building as aggressively as Andreessen would like. Vox’s editor in chief, Ezra Klein, writes that American institutions public and private have become “vetocracies,” meaning that they’re biased against action instead of in its favor. Similarly, Steven Buss notes in Exponents Magazine that entrenched interests have captured regulators, making building, in many cases, illegal. Homeowners, for example, are hostile to development and form a powerful local political constituency.

    The thing is… isn’t this basically just policymakers being tuned into the desires of their constituents—or at least those inclined to make their voices heard? The only people who care enough to show up at a zoning meeting are the homeowners who don’t want the high-rise going in across the street. Professions lobby to be licensed so as to increase their income and limit competition, but members of the public generally don’t care enough to show up at the state house with a pitchfork.

    This is just the way it’s going to be, so maybe the answer is a system that doesn’t particularly care what its constituents have to say—or at least cares less in areas prone to regulatory capture.
  4. Finally, America’s ailments extend beyond the realms of economics and technocratic governance. Ours is a crisis of imagination, spirit, and mythology, exacerbated by the collapse of social capital across much of the nation. Consider the following anecdote1:

    In 1869, a businessman named George Atwater set out to install a network of rails throughout the city of Springfield, MA—from where I write presently—on which horses would pull carriages, a pre-electric trolley system. It seemed like such a ridiculous idea the board of aldermen laughed as they gave him permission and mocked him with an “initial investment” of eleven cents.

    Atwater built it anyway, and it turned out to be a huge success, expanding throughout the city and surpassing an annual ridership of 1 million by 1883. In 1890, less than a decade after the first electric power stations were built, the Springfield rail system began electrifying routes. By the next summer, all lines had been converted from horse to electric power. By 1904, ridership was 19 million; by 1916 it was 44 million.

    All of this—bold, successful investment in infrastructure, the rapid adoption of new technology, reliable and profitable public transportation—is technically possible today, yet this story could never take place in 2020. The aldermen would have dragged their feet, insisted on handouts to favored constituencies, and requested a handful of impact studies. Atwater would have stuck his investment in the stock market. The story would not have taken place here, because Springfield, like many former manufacturing cities, is in many ways a husk of its formerly productive self. Atwater would have lived in San Francisco, Boston, or New York.

Andreessen is right. It’s time to build. But let’s go broader than that: It’s time for a general return to alacrity in the public and private spheres, particularly for those of us who don’t live in one of the nexuses of the new economy. It’s time to rebuild social capital. It’s time to turn off autopilot.

Let’s fucking go.


  1. I came across this story in Lost Springfield, a local history book by Derek Strahan, who blogs at I really enjoyed the book, so if you’re interested in the region’s history, I’d check out Strahan’s work.

Massachusetts Cities and Coronavirus

Last week, I put together a few graphs of Massachusetts covid-19 county cases and correlates. Unfortunately, working at the county level didn’t create many data points, so there wasn’t much insight to be gained. I ended the blog post with a wishy-washy pledge to maybe try to compile a city-level data set.

Well, I didn’t do it. But the Massachusetts Department of Public Health did! Starting April 15, the DPH began tracking coronavirus cases in Massachusetts’s 351 towns and cities. I took those case counts and paired them with demographic and economic data from the 2018 American Community Survey to see if any patterns emerged.

Due to some quirks of the Census, it would have been really tedious to get the data I wanted for every town and city. I ended up opting for a shortcut of sorts — using cities and towns that were their own Census Designated Place. (Don’t ask.) After all was said and done, I was left with 54 cities and towns that I could pair with data from the 2018 American Community Survey.

This data set is biased toward larger areas, which probably also means younger and more diverse areas too. And, of course, all cities and towns in the set are from Massachusetts, which probably introduces other biases.

Anyway, here’s what I’ve found so far:

(Note: I’m using log-scale to condense case counts and, in the case below, population. Boston, for example, has over 4,000 cases [log(4,000) = 3.602], while Springfield has about 600 [log(600) = 2.778].)

Log cases are best predicted by log population. This is pretty much common sense: more people means more vectors for disease, and usually denser population. A regression summary is in the caption below the graph.

log(Cases) = 1.3472 * log(population) – 4.0471
R^2 = .7526
p-value < 2.2e-16

After population, race is the next-best indicator of case counts. I’d expected — based on media reports and the word of local officials — to find a relationship between the percentage of black or Hispanic residents and log cases. But that didn’t really show up. Instead, the proportion of residents that are non-Hispanic whites has the best linear relationship to log cases — and the only one with a negative slope. The regression summary statistics in the caption are only for the white-log case relationship.

log(cases) = -1.8623 * white + 3.5474
R^2 = .545
p-value: 1.887e-10

This does actually fit the narrative pretty nicely if we lump all non-white ethnic groups together mentally. But as I noted in the last post, race is collinear with so many other variables that it’s hard to know what we’re seeing.

There is, however, at least some indication that what we’re observing might really be about race. Other variables we would imagine to correlate to race and population have much weaker relationships to case counts. (“Public transport” is the percentage of people who take public transport to work, and “Poverty line” is the percentage of people below the poverty line.) I grabbed a bunch of variables like these, but so far, none of them are very helpful in explaining what’s going on.

Combining log population and the proportion of residents who are white gives us an adjusted R^2 of .8209, which is nice. But when I tried to use that model to predict case counts for four municipalities that weren’t among the 54 I’d defaulted into working with, it only did okay.

The problem, I think, is that the selection of cities in the data set I’m working with is biased toward larger areas. It’s also possible (in fact, likely) that there’s both more to the story and that an element of randomness is at play, too. Aside from age, it’s been hard for professionals to isolate significant risk factors.

A few MA covid graphs

This is a low-stakes post.

Massachusetts has been releasing county-level coronavirus case counts, which I paired with data from the US Census to look for patterns. I actually didn’t end up finding anything particularly interesting, but some of the graphs are nice, so I thought I’d share.

On case growth

A few days ago, it looked like the growth of covid cases in Massachusetts might be flattening. But as of yesterday, it seems like that’s not quite the case across the board. Here are the total case counts per 1,000 residents of each county county since March 15:

Dukes and Nantucket counties omitted.

And here are cases per 1,000 residents on April 7, with the geometric growth rate of cases over the last week indicated by color:

Growth rate calculated as (x_1/x_0)^(1/7)-1

Berkshire, Barnstable, and Franklin counties have the lowest case growth rates, ranging from 6.2% to 7.3% on average per day over the last week. These counties have some common characteristics:

  • They’re geographically remote;
  • They are the only MA counties to have experienced population decline over the last decade;
  • They have the highest non-Hispanic white populations per capita and the least foreign residents;
  • They have the greatest proportion of residents over 65 (at least 22% in each case!);
  • Franklin and Berkshire counties have the lowest population densities, at 102 and 141 people per square mile, respectively.

To me, the above is consistent with the idea that economic activity is a vector for the spread of coronavirus (not literally, but it gets people in contact which causes person-person transmission).

Plymouth, Hampden, and Bristol are the counties with the fastest-growing case counts, each of them averaging an increase of over 11% daily over the last week. These counties don’t have much in common, so I’m having trouble putting together a potential unifying narrative.

Race and population density as correlates

It’s starting to look like black Americans might be more susceptible to coronavirus than other racial and ethnic groups. At first glance, that appears to show up in county-level data. But upon closer examination, that doesn’t appear to be the case — first because population density and the percentage of black residents are collinear, and population per square mile has a higher correlation coefficient; and second because Suffolk county (Boston) is influencing the linear relationship in both cases. Adjusted R-squared drops heavily if we exclude Suffolk county from the data set. (Race and population density were the best predictors I found of cases per 1,000 residents.)

This isn’t to say race and its many correlates aren’t good predictors. I think it speaks more to the (severe) limits of the data set I’m working with. If I have time, I may try to build a city-level data set. If anyone knows of one (or something better), link me!

Should we be surprised that “young people” make up a substantial amount of coronavirus cases?

I’ve noticed media outlets are reporting that young adults make up a significant share of coronavirus cases with an air of incredulity.

My local paper posted on Facebook that “More than 50% of coronavirus cases in Massachusetts are people under the age of 50.” Very similarly, the Pittsburgh Post Gazette writes that “more than half of Pennsylvania’s confirmed COVID-19 patients are under 50 years old.” The New York Times, for its part, reports that “nearly 40 percent of patients sick enough to be hospitalized were age 20 to 54.” *

I can’t decide if this is a psyop to get young people to take the epidemic more seriously (as numerous spring-break photos show they should) or genuine surprise. If it’s the latter, I’m not sure if that’s warranted.

In each case, the age ranges in question are massive and not very meaningful without comparison to the age distribution of the general population. For example, in Massachusetts, about 63% of the population is under the age of 50. So if the incidence of coronavirus were age-independent, we might actually expect more cases among people under 50.

I think the issue, then, is that people seem to be assuming prevalence of the virus should be age-dependent to a higher degree than we’re observing. Maybe there’s a good Bayesian case to be made for this null hypothesis; I don’t know. But I feel like laypeople — local papers included — ought to be preceding with the assumption of age-independence, especially because we still don’t have much information.

Also, what’s going on with the under-20 crowd, which makes up 23% of the population but only 2.2% of MA coronavirus cases? Is Gen Z+ holding out on us?

The typo in the y-axis comes from the MA DPH data set, which has decided there are no 19-year-olds in the Bay State.

* This isn’t as egregious as the other two examples. It’s still a huge age range: about 48% of America is between the ages of 20 and 54. But since we’re talking about the severity of symptoms and hospitalizations, it seems much more noteworthy.

Armchair Psych: Why Elizabeth Warren’s Loss Inspires “Fury and Grief”

You may have noticed that Senator Elizabeth Warren has suspended her campaign for president after a disappointing showing in the Democratic primary. You may have also noticed that some people are very upset. A small sample:

I do believe Warren’s loss is particularly painful for her supporters — and not just those in the media. I’m going to bend my rule about not discussing electoral politics on this blog so I can offer an armchair psychologist take on why Elizabeth Warren’s defeat has inspired such “fury and grief.” The usual disclaimers apply, probably more than usual.


The first piece of the puzzle is that Warren’s supporters strongly identify with and admire her. Unlike, say, Bernie Sanders or Joe Biden, who are both personally wealthy and powerful but enjoy substantial support from the middle and lower classes, Elizabeth Warren actually has a lot in common with her supporters: white, highly educated professionals.

She is like them, only more so: a veteran of prestigious institutions from Boston to D.C., impeccably credentialed and accomplished, with grandchildren and a $12 million net worth to boot. She is “having it all” made flesh, an avatar of success. This encourages supporters to project themselves onto Warren. Their parasocial relationship makes her loss harder to deal with because it feels like a personal rejection, and in some ways, it is.

Technocracy and its True believers

Understanding Warren and her supporters as ideological technocrats is essential to making sense of their dismay at her poor performance. A technocrat’s authority is legitimized by displaying expertise, of which Warren did plenty. Her frequent allusions to her competence and preparedness — she has “a plan for that!” — are a straightforward appeal to technocratic ethos.

But raw displays of expertise are not the only route toward technocratic legitimacy, and indeed, few will have the occasion to put forth arcane “plans” to remake society and be taken seriously (though that is the dream). Expertise and the authority it grants can also be obtained through association with prestigious institutions.

Within these places, advancement, evaluation, and remuneration of personnel are typically formulaic matters. (For an example, check out the salary schedule for foreign service officers. Another is how public school teachers’ salaries are calculated.) This is a superficial gesture to the ideals of fairness and objectivity. The impersonality and aversion to qualitative data it necessitates are regarded as features, not bugs, of bureaucracy.

The reason this is important isn’t because Elizabeth Warren spent her career in such places. It’s because her supporters have too. These ideas are not only intuitive to them, they are fundamental, ethical truths. Elizabeth Warren deserves the job. She spent a lifetime earning it.

Whether or not the world should work this way is an open question. But to convince yourself this is the only morally valid way it could work, as Warren supporters seem to have, is an error in judgement. In practical terms, it’s a really poor model for understanding how actual voters make decisions about political leadership in a democracy. Presidential hopefuls wouldn’t be subjecting themselves to the Iowa State Fair if the election could be decided by a resume-scanning software.

The technocratic path and its costs

The technocratic path to power is not merely a career plan; it’s a full-blown ideology with ideas about what’s valuable, what constitutes a good life, and who deserves what. But underneath it lies the universal, deeply held human desire for esteem.

Recall that Elizabeth Warren is an aspirational figure for the upper-middle class, which defines itself by its intellect and is preoccupied with the markings thereof. Her path is their path, the Gramscian march that culminates in power and respect. Her decisive failure to obtain their platonic form, then, calls into question the legitimacy of the rules they’ve been playing by and the immense sacrifices doing so requires.

If giving years of your life and hundreds of thousands of dollars to the machine doesn’t buy you unquestioned esteem, what’s the point? You could have relaxed more, could have taken a job that actually paid and bought a house. You could have just pulled a Scott Alexander and exorcised your passions in a blog! But time only goes forward, so the present and future have to justify the past.

Status quo bias and sexism

Last item of note. The portrayal of Warren’s sound defeat as sexism is as predictable as it is unfalsifiable. But for the purposes of this blog post, we’re not really interested in if it’s true so much as the idea that her supporters want it to be true.

As I see it, sexism provides the least challenging explanation for her failure, not intellectually — it requires some serious mental gymnastics to fit her third-place finish in Massachusetts (among Democratic women!) into that narrative — but personally and philosophically.

If someone is rejected for their immutable qualities, those doing the rejecting can be safely dismissed as bigots, and their opinions need not be taken too seriously. It’s not me; it’s you. The rejection of an ethos is different, because it’s not a repudiation of what you happen to be but rather what you choose to be. It’s harder for Warren supporters to swallow because they share her convictions, part of which is that they possess The Truth (which is why they should be in charge of policy and journalism and academia and human resources and…). This is like the ultimate public repudiation of that.

But most of all, the cure for sexism — no doubt some combination of activism; advocacy; TED Talks; and a ubiquitous, memetic media campaign — requires no change on their part. They’re already doing these things; in fact, there are entire industries and departments, staffed by the Warren demographic, devoted to these endeavors. Insofar as their daily lives are concerned, doubling down on sexism being the problem is activism against change.

Smoking and the Hispanic Paradox

In the course of writing last month’s post about U-haul’s no-nicotine policy, I created the following graph:

This visualization didn’t make the final cut, but it’s nonetheless cool. It demonstrates that smoking rates among Hispanics are far less responsive to income than those of other ethnic groups (though even for Hispanics, the relationship between income and smoking rates is statistically significant). I was surprised to find this relationship, but apparently it’s a known factor of the phenomenon called “the Hispanic Paradox” (alternatively known as the “Latino Paradox”).

The paradox is that, on average, American Hispanics live longer than their non-Hispanic white counterparts, even though the former tend to have lower incomes and less education. The causes aren’t entirely understood, but Hispanics’ low smoking rates are thought to be a major contributor.

Source: Center for Disease Control, 2013

Some of the difference in smoking rates can be explained by immigration. Latin American countries tend to have lower smoking rates than the United States. Among those born in the United States, only Mexican-Ameicans seem to retain lower smoking rates and the attendant mortality advantage over non-Hispanic whites. It will be interesting to see if the Paradox ebbs as native-born Hispanics begin to account for more of the Hispanic population.

The Hispanic Paradox illustrates the capricious power of cultural influence on real-world outcomes — and conversely forces us to confront our limited ability to re-engineer the world.

We tend to think of (the physical, policy, social, or economic) environment and choice as the chief determinants of human behavior and outcomes. But we are just as much a product of the commingling of genetics and culture. The paths before us are well-worn by our predecessors, and we would be arrogant to think we can wholly resist their inclinations.

Review: Bullshit Jobs: A Theory

In 1930, the economist John Keynes predicted that by the century’s end, technology would have advanced such that citizens in rich countries would be working 15-hour weeks. Ninety years later, it’s safe to say that prediction didn’t materialize. In Bullshit Jobs: A Theory, anthropologist David Graeber offers an explanation as to why.

According to Graeber, technological advances had indeed obviated much of the necessary work by the late 20th Century. But for cultural and political reasons, we have filled the void with largely pointless drudgery — bullshit jobs, as Graeber terms them.

A bullshit job is not merely unenjoyable. Rather, it’s “a form of paid employment that is so completely pointless, unnecessary, or pernicious that even the employee cannot justify its existence,” though they’re obliged to pretend otherwise.

They are usually white-collar positions, ranging from corporate lawyers to college administrators to middle managers the world over. Also included are those jobs that exist only to support the “bullshitization” of the economy: the all-night pizza delivers, dog washers, and others whose jobs are only necessary because everyone is too busy working.

At the end of the day, whether or not a job is bullshit is an assessment best left to the employee. According to two surveys conducted in the wake of Graeber’s original essay on the subject, around 40% of (British and Dutch) workers believe their jobs make no meaningful contribution to society. All told, Graeber believes bullshit jobs may comprise over half of all employment.

Meaningless jobs

Here is about where your head should be exploding, because from the mainstream economic perspective, this makes no sense. People and firms are assumed to be utility maximizing, so the idea that companies are hiring droves of pointless workers evokes some serious cognitive dissonance.

Graeber offers a few complementary explanations for why companies would do this. The easiest one to engage with is the idea that the nature of the economy changed when it underwent financialization. The name of the game is no longer the production of goods or services that people need or want. Instead, many companies are preoccupied with rent-seeking and redistributing wealth in a system Graeber calls “corporate feudalism.” As an example of what this entails, he points out that General Motors now derives most of its profits not from selling cars but from interest collected on auto loans.

The economic role of bullshit jobs in corporate feudalism is to make operations less efficient, which, from an extractive standpoint, is preferable. To borrow an analogy from the book, if you make your money dealing with leaky pipes, do you fix them or do you let them continue to leak?

Like its historical predecessor, corporate feudalism is as much a political system as it is an economic one. Graeber describes it as such:

“In the process [of extracting and redistributing resources], one creates an entourage of followers that is both the visible measure of one’s pomp and magnificence, and at the same time, a means of distributing political favor: for instance, by buying off potential malcontents, rewarding faithful allies, or creating an elaborate hierarchy of honors and titles for lower-ranking nobles to squabble over.”

From the micro perspective, then, bullshit jobs serve the political purposes of increasing the prestige of managers and middle managers by adding employees beneath them and ingratiating the middle class with the politics of their bosses. In a more abstract sense, Graeber believes bullshit jobs also preoccupy the masses, who, with time on their hands, could pose a danger to the status quo.

In addition to the financialization of the economy, Graeber attributes the rise of bullshit employment to cultural and political vectors that elevate work to a moral imperative and a rite of passage. He believes we use the misery of the workplace to justify enjoying the fruits of our consumerist culture — meals delivered by GrubHub, Netflix, etc. — which in turn are the only ways we can eke enjoyment out of a life dominated by spiritually numbing make-work.

Work and the misery it often entails, in other words, have become ends in their own rights, not merely means to achieve material subsistence. That explains why we as a society don’t object to the growth of pointless employment and why it can simultaneously be true that most people hate their jobs and derive a sense of dignity and self-worth from them. The result, in Graeber’s words, is that “economies around the world have, increasingly, become vast engines for producing nonsense.”

This might not be so terrible if it didn’t inspire such mental, physical, and spiritual anguish. Bullshit jobs are particularly disillusioning for a members of a society that views work as the primary way we leave a mark on the world. They frustrate an innate human desire to provide meaningful service. Interviewees report depression and fantasies of communist revolutions and climate change-induced apocalypses.

Yet when the time comes to offer a solution, Graeber mostly declines — save for a brief endorsement of universal basic income — claiming that the point of the book is not to make policy recommendations but to begin a discussion about what a genuinely free society might look like.


Bullshit Jobs: A Theory is unique in that it takes seriously the widely held suspicion that millions of us are, indeed, wasting vast amounts of our time at our desks. At least for me, this felt really relatable. I’ve held and quit (with nothing else lined up) a bullshit job, my fear of financial precarity eventually overwhelmed by self-loathing.

A lot of academic books are anodyne and, well, boring. This book essentially looks the modern economy in the eye and calls it a lie, so it’s not that. It’s a welcome throwback to a more radical, deontological strain of leftist moral philosophy, and given that even Microsoft Japan is beginning to suspect their workers really only need four hours a day in the office, the book feels especially timely.

Graeber uses data sparingly for a text of this size and register, mostly making his case through historical and philosophical appeals. This probably ends up working better than a more data-driven approach — say the kind favored by an economist — would have, since the book deals with a lot of qualitative information and is an exploratory work.

Freedom from mainstream economic dogma is a big part of what makes this book work. For better or worse, Bullshit Jobs flies in the face of economic axioms like revealed preferences and the rational actor model. In some ways, this is a necessary antidote to the usually unstated presumption that the economy can be meaningfully separated from other domains of social life. Other times, it sounds like the ravings of a boomer anarchist. But in both cases, it’s fun.


The book is in large part a restatement of Graeber’s original essay on the subject for Strike!, “On the Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs.” Many of the ways in which he expands on the original essay are probably more interesting to him than the reader. This includes a progressively refined definition of bullshit jobs, a typology of the five kinds of bullshit jobs, and dozens of interviews that take up a lot more real estate than necessary.

Similarly, the decision not to dwell on solutions is frustrating to the reader. I get that it’s fun and cathartic to expound on the ills of society, especially if you’ve got something novel to say. But in this case, Graeber knows we’re familiar with his argument — he even reproduced his original essay in the forward to the book! In the five years separating the Strike! essay from the book, couldn’t he have come up with something in the way of a solution?

To the extent that a solution is offered, it’s universal basic income (UBI). Cool. It’s ironic that Graeber spends much of his book assailing consumerism only to arrive at the policy recommendation that most wholly embraces the idea that most people are only valuable to the economy as consumers.

Graeber imagines that having their basic financial needs met will liberate people to do what interests them (or to not work, should they so choose). But we already have large populations that live under similar conditions, and it doesn’t seem like they’re spiritually flourishing. In fact, they seem pretty miserable, probably because they feel alienated from society.

If bullshit jobs are the matrix’s way of reconciling humans’ desire to contribute with their growing redundancy, maybe the solution is simply better bullshit jobs. It would have been interesting to read Graeber’s recommendations on how the status quo could be improved short of a complete re-imagination of the economy.

Finally, Graeber is way too bullish on education and wayyyy too hard on finance. His contempt for the latter is biblical; the word “usurious” even makes an appearance. Perhaps Graeber has never needed to borrow money. If he had, he might be more open to the idea that lending money to people is actually a very useful service, even if you charge them for the privilege.

Meanwhile, education is often held in contrast to bullshit employment as some sort of paragon of meaningfulness. I suppose that’s Graeber’s right as an academic. But it feels strange to write an entire book about the phenomenon of pointless white-collar employment and not even discuss the rise of higher education as a cause or effect! In my view, increasing educational attainment is quite plausibly: 1) responsible for the overproduction of elites, which in turn creates the cultural demand for bullshit jobs; and 2) an autoimmune response of the economy to that same surplus of white-collar workers (meaning that school is used to delay their entry into the job market while maintaining their consumer status).

And if you want to talk about feudalism, how does the higher education system escape your wrath? Universities are basically hedge funds at this point, and they are quite guilty of indebting their customers, extracting fees and tolls from them, erecting pointless bureaucracies, and “creating an elaborate hierarchy of honors and titles for lower-ranking nobles to squabble over!” Alas.

Should you read this book?

As indicated, I think you could probably get away with just reading the article that inspired the book. If you think you have a bullshit job, and you’re in need of some catharsis, then I’d say go for it. It will probably feel good to know you aren’t alone in your misery.