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.

Praise

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.

Criticism

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.

Cigarette Daydreams

Last week, U-Haul announced that beginning February 1 of this year it would no longer hire nicotine users in the 21 states that permit employers to take that information into account when hiring. To be clear, this covers use outside of the workplace, and it could affect former smokers who use nicotine patches or similar delivery systems.

If you didn’t hear about this, you have my envy and my respect, as it probably indicates that you’re employed and/or don’t spend hours on Twitter, where the topic was briefly trending.

From what I can tell, the reaction has mostly been cynicism about U-Haul wanting to cut healthcare expenses. I think that’s probably true; smokers can indeed be charged higher premiums than non-smokers under the Affordable Care Act, and presumably U-Haul will cover at least some of this.

But since I spent a small chunk of last year’s blog posts talking about selection effects and signalling (most notably here, here, and here), I feel obliged to point out that selecting against smokers is also an effective way to screen for other undesirable qualities in employees. As smoking rates have plunged, smoking has become an increasingly good proxy for a bunch of socioeconomic factors.

(Pardon the use of 2013 data in the following charts; I happened to have this version of the BRFSS on my laptop, and went with it for convenience. I don’t think there’s a good reason the general idea should have changed much in the interceding years.)

For example, smokers, and to a lesser extent, former smokers, miss more days due to their physical or mental health than non-smokers:

Smokers miss more days
The examples given in the BRFSS codebook of “usual activities” are work, self-care, or recreation.

They’re also more likely to have less education and to have lower incomes:

Educational attainment by smoking status

Income bracket by smoking status

Notably, U-Haul is pitching this as a step in “fostering a culture of wellness”:

“We are deeply invested in the well-being of our Team Members,” said U-Haul Chief of Staff Jessica Lopez in a press release. “Nicotine products are addictive and pose a variety of serious health risks. This policy is a responsible step in fostering a culture of wellness at U-Haul, with the goal of helping our Team Members on their health journey.”

So here we have a company policy that is ostensibly for the benefit of employees’ health, but the actual consequences of which will be to save money for the employer and disproportionately preclude the candidacies of many low-SES applicants. Mind you, this is for a job at U-Haul during a period of supposedly record-low unemployment.

I think what bugs me most about this is a feeling (which could be wrong but is at least widespread) that there are diminishing opportunities—especially for low-SES Americans—to participate in the productive side of the economy, which by all indication is something that gives people a sense of meaning and self-respect.

I also can’t shake the feeling that a more powerful or organized constituency would be able to generate some public sympathy in a similar situation. If U-Haul made it policy to deny employment to obese people, presumably to similar effect, there would have been a cascade of outraged NYT opinion pieces and an ACLU lawsuit.

Still more hilarious is the contrast with growing corporate, public, and governmental acceptance (or even endorsement) of marijuana use. A new, publicly announced prohibition on employee use of marijuana would come across as horribly retrograde and likely receive more negative attention.

Smokers, alas, are nearly universally reviled, out of the graces of the upper classes and on the wrong side of demographics.

Kicking Away the Ladder?

A report from the Pew Center is the latest to document America’s rapidly declining religiosity. Pew’s numbers show a 12-point decrease in the percentage of Americans calling themselves Christians between 2009 and 2019, while those describing themselves as atheists, agnostics, or “nothing in particular” have risen from 17% to 26%.

These findings are mirrored in the General Social Survey, which has been asking respondents about their religious affiliation since 1972.

religious nones
Shaded area represents 95% confidence interval

The demographic surge of the religiously unaffiliated is a story of treatment effects triumphing over selection effects. A little context will help explain.

Natural selection seems to decidedly favor the religious. As the social psychologist Ara Norenzayan details in Big Gods (an excellent if at times slow book), religious societies, specifically those that follow omnipotent, moralizing “Big Gods,” have historically been able to outcompete others. To summarize Norenzayan’s findings, this is due to three factors, the first two of which are increased trust and greater social stability, both made possible by supernatural monitors (gods) that have allowed societies to scale by “building moral communities of strangers.”

In recent history, some societies (think Scandinavia and Japan) have been able to “kick away the ladder” of religion, replicating the monitoring effects of Big Gods through trusted civic institutions—police, courts, and others that allow for anonymous actors to cooperate in the same way religion used to. But there’s one other important advantage of religious societies that secular societies haven‘t been able to engineer: above-replacement fertility rates.

Fertility by Religion
I’ve restricted my search to 30 – 45-year-olds to try to account for the fact that older Americans are on average more religious and have more children. Huge confidence interval for Jewish women reflect low sample sizes.

The religiously unaffiliated reproduce at notably lower rates—so much so that, even as I’m writing a blog post about their astronomical demographic growth in America, the Pew Center projects they will decline as a share of the global population, from 16% to 13% between 2010 and 2050.

shrinking religiously unaffiliated.png

Followers of Big Gods, especially those of fundamentalist branches of religion, tend to have more children. Note: this is mirrored by the liberal-conservative fertility gap, and both are fueled in part by divergent views on reproduction.

To give you a sloppy illustration, consider the graph below, which I constructed using national-level data from 55 countries that appear in the 2012 Win-Gallup International Global Index of Religiosity and Atheism and Gapminder total fertility rate data from the same year. Nearly every country with an above-replacement fertility rate has a majority-religious population by quite a large margin.

more religion more babies
Horizontal line represents “replacement rate” of 2.1 children per woman. Vertical line represents median religious society in the data set.

In a personal email quoted by Norenzayan in Big Gods, a colleague confides that despite reviewing all available data and case studies back to early Greece and India, he was unable to find a single example of a secular society maintaining a birth rate higher than two children per women for even a century. France, Germany, Japan, and quite a few other countries are trying—and failing—to address this problem with a variety of subsidies. Thus far, there is no secular substitute for religion’s fertility premium.

So with forces of nature solidly in support of religion, why is it rapidly losing ground across the rich world? It turns out there are countervailing secularizing forces that, it feels safe to say, have grown powerful enough to chip away at the natural demographic advantage of the religious. Unlike the selection effects that propel religiosity, these are treatment effects, meaning they’re driven by exposure to certain conditions. In addition to the aforementioned creation of secular civic institutions, those conditions include education, rising incomes, and the general removal of existential threat (of the “where is my food coming from” variety, anyway).

Notably, somewhere around 78% of all “religious nones” are “converts,” if you will, meaning they were born into a religion and ceased to identify with it over time.

While there is some observable increase of religious unaffiliation within generations, the flight from religiosity is largely driven by generational replacement. In other words, it’s not like longtime worshipers have suddenly lost faith en masse—it’s that their grandchildren aren’t interested, and older generations are losing ground demographically. This fits the pattern of other paradigmatic shifts in public opinion, and to me, suggests there’s an element of timing involved, that conditional secularization may be contingent upon one’s formative environment.

The question that remains to be seen is whether or not the secularizing rich world can support itself. Our economies, infrastructure, and social welfare systems are reliant on people, and a large population that doesn’t reproduce will age with dramatic consequences (see Baby Boomers). In the long run, this is probably one of the most consequential political issues out there.

Birds, Bees, and (Abortion) Bans

Last Tuesday, abortion-rights advocates around the country held rallies in response to restrictive abortion laws or bills passed or introduced in several states. At the events, legislators and protesters decried the bills as an attack on women’s rights, an attempt by men to control women’s bodies.

This refrain, that abortion is an issue that divides the sexes, is a common narrative — at least in my social and professional circles. But it’s discordant with data that shows that men and women within a given society, including the United States, often have very similar views on abortion. A graphic from the Pew Center illustrates this nicely:

FT_18.12.14_femaleMaleAbortion420px

Broadly speaking, with respect to the above graph, the differences between nations are much greater than the sex-based differences within them. This suggests to me that cultural factors play a larger role than sex in determining one’s position on abortion and that men and women seem roughly equally sensitive to these forces.

I wanted to check if a similar phenomenon could be observed within the United States’ population. To get a sense of this, I pulled data from the 2018 General Social Survey, which asks respondents “whether or not [they] think it should be possible for a pregnant woman to obtain a legal abortion if the woman wants it for any reason” — a question similar but not identical to the one the Pew Center asks above.

Unfortunately, the GSS doesn’t release data about which state respondents live in unless you pay for it, which I’m not going to do (since I have certainly not made any money with this blog). So that means we can’t examine the opinions of residents where legislators have moved toward a more restrictive stance on abortion. We can, however, get data at the regional level, which seems like an OK proxy.

The regions used by the GSS aren’t entirely conventional — for example, Montana and New Mexico are both in the “Mountain” region — so here’s a chart for reference:

Gss Map

Keeping with the format, if not pleasing aesthetics, of the Pew graph, here are the results by region, arranged by the percentage of women who think a pregnant woman should be able to get an abortion for any reason.

abortion any reason
My chart title game is weak. Forgive me. Again, the text of the prompt is: “Please tell me whether or not you think it should be possible for a pregnant woman to obtain a legal abortion if the woman wants it for any reason.”

Our regional chart resembles Pew’s international chart in that it shows larger variances between regions than within them. Notably, the four regions below the national average — South Atlantic, West South Central, West North Central, and East South Central — contain states where restrictive abortion bills have been introduced. Even more notably, women in three of those four regions are less likely than men to have responded affirmatively.

Let’s take a look at another question from the GSS that asks respondents for their views on the morality of abortion. The question is, “Leaving aside whether or not you think abortion should be legal, are you morally opposed to abortion or not, or would you say it depends?”

Again, results are sorted by the percentage of female respondents — this time those stating a moral opposition to abortion.

Moral opposition abortion
The question as written is: “Leaving aside whether or not you think abortion should be legal, are you morally opposed to abortion or not, or would you say it depends?”

In nearly every region in the United States, the percentage of women morally opposed to abortion is greater than the share of men reporting the same. I was so surprised by these results I checked my code three times, but there you have it. It may be explained in part by greater religiosity among women. Nonetheless, it’s out of sync with the narrative that the push for a more restrictive stance on abortion is a manifestation of men’s desires to enforce their beliefs on women since by and large the women in question share these beliefs. (That said, the bills and laws, from what I can tell, are wildly out of step with the way Americans broadly think about abortion.)

I’ll wrap up by saying that I don’t believe the people decrying a war on women’s rights are being disingenuous. I know enough people, men and women, who hold this belief to know that’s sincerely the way they see things. I don’t know very many, possibly any, strictly anti-abortion people — New Englander here — but I think it’s necessary to take their claims on good faith, too. Presumably 30% of women in the South East are not hostile to women’s rights as they see them.

What Colleges Sell (continued)

I’m obviously not one to prioritize quantity when it comes to writing. Counting this one, I’ve written four blog posts this year — not great for a guy whose New Year’s resolution set the pace at two per month. Even less so when you consider that half of them have now been follow-up posts.

However, there was some interesting Facebook discussion on my last post that I felt merited some elucidation here, where those who don’t follow me on social media can digest it. (I won’t ask anyone to follow on social, but to those of you who are here via social media, you should subscribe to get these posts by email.) I’m also working on something else that’s a bit involved, and I thought this would be a good stopgap.

As loyal readers are aware, my last post touched on the college-admissions scandal and the cultural legwork being done by our vision of education as a transformative asset.

Elite colleges sell these ideas back to us by marketing education as a transformative experience, an extrinsic asset to be wielded. In an unequal society, this is a particularly comforting message, because it implies:

  1. The world works on meritocracy. High-status individuals not only are better than most, they became so through efforts the rest of us can replicate.
  2. We can achieve equality of outcomes with sufficient resources. This has the added bonus of perpetuating the demand for high-end education.

An observation I couldn’t figure out how to work in is that getting into elite colleges seems by far the hardest part of graduating from them. Admissions is, after all, the part of the process the accused parents were cheating, and to my knowledge, none of the students involved were in danger of failing out, despite having been let in under false pretense.

The low bar for good grades at elite colleges, the “Harvard A,”¹ is so widely acknowledged that to call it an open secret would be misleading.² Stuart Rojstaczer, the author of gradeinflation.com documents two distinct periods of grade inflation in the last 50 years: the Vietnam War era, in which men who flunked out would likely be sent off to fight an unpopular war, and the “Student as a Consumer” era of today.

The transition to the latter has meant a change in teaching philosophy and an increased centrality of the admissions process. On his website, Mr Rojstaczer quotes a former University of Wisconsin Chancellor as saying, “Today, our attitude is we do our screening of students at the time of admission. Once students have been admitted, we have said to them, ‘You have what it takes to succeed.’ Then it’s our job to help them succeed.” (Emphasis mine.)

This is consistent with my not-so-between-the-lines theorizing that the later-in-life achievements of elite colleges grads are mostly attributable to selection effects, not education. It turns out this was studied by Alan Krueger and Stacy Dale, who found salary differences between elite college graduates and those who applied to elite schools but didn’t attend were “generally indistinguishable from zero.”

Of course, this is kind of depressing, because if good schools don’t make “winners,” but rather attract and rebrand them, then it’s a lot easier to attribute their graduates’ success to factors that are not only beyond their control but for which there are likely no or few policy levers — genetics, culture, family structure, and others.

I think this is an unwelcome conclusion to the point that even incontrovertible evidence — whatever that would look like — would be ignored or stigmatized by polite society. Most people probably agree that public policy should keep away from these areas of life.³

Regardless, I think we should be more honest with ourselves about our obsession with elite schools and our expectations of education more generally.

*

Footnotes:

  1. In case you don’t feel like clicking the link: In 2013, Harvard’s dean revealed the median grade awarded at the school to be an A-, while the most common grade given was a straight A.
  2. Though apparently to a lesser degree, this has been the case at four-year colleges across the board, not just top-tier private ones.
  3. Then again, maybe they don’t. A recent survey of over 400 US adults found “nontrivial” levels of support for eugenic policies among the public, increasing with the belief that various traits — intelligence, poverty, and criminality — are heritable and also associated with attitudes held by the respondent about the group in question. The questions in the study were framed as support for policies that would encourage or discourage people with particular traits to have more or fewer children. (If you have 10 minutes, read the study, freely accessible at slatestarcodex. Also good: Scott Alexander’s piece on social censorship, in which the aforementioned paper is linked.)

What Colleges Sell

The recent college-admissions scandal has me, and probably many of you, thinking about the institutional power of elite colleges. It’s remarkable that even those we would consider society’s “winners” aren’t immune to their pull. Take for example Olivia Giannulli, who is from a wealthy family; has nearly 2 million YouTube followers; owns a successful cosmetics line (pre-scandal, anyway); and whose parents, Laurie Loughlin and Mossimo Giannulli, allegedly paid $500,000 to get her and her sister accepted to USC.

Why?

The standard line is that the point of college is to learn. Getting into a better school avails one of better information, which translates into more marketable skills—human capital accrual, in economics jargon. The many deficiencies of this view have birthed the somewhat-cynical “signaling theory”: the idea that college degrees serve mainly as signals to employers of positive, pre-existing characteristics like intelligence or attention to detail.

Signalling theory is powerfully convincing, but it doesn’t fully explain the insanity endemic to the elite college scene. There’s more going on at the individual, familial, and societal levels.

First the individual. If the human capital isn’t the point, social capital could be. The student bodies of elite schools are well curated for networking among the intelligent, the wealthy, and what we might call the “legacy crowd”—non-mutually exclusive groups that mutually benefit from this four-year mixer. Who you sit next to in class might matter more than what’s being taught.

Colleges, particularly those of renown, provide a sense of unabashed community that is in short supply elsewhere in American life. If you read universities’ marketing or speak with admissions staff, this is often a selling point. The idea that former classmates and fraternity brothers become a nepotistic social network post-graduation is intuitive, and probably a very compelling reason to attend a particular school.¹

What’s true for the individual is true for the family. Parents want the best for their children, and they know the kinds of doors attending the right school will open. But for parents, there are added elements at stake: self- and peer-appraisal.² That is, as educational attainment has become accepted not only as a means to but validation of social mobility, parents have come to define their success by the institutions their children attend. YouGov polling found that thirty-four percent of parents would pay a college prep organization to take a college admittance test on their child’s behalf. One in four would pay college officials to get their child into a good school.

college bribery 2

I’d bet this is an understatement caused by social-desirability bias.³

Last up, and most interesting, is society at large. Even though most of us won’t attend a very prestigious university, if we attend one at all, the legitimacy of those institutions still rests on our perception. For us to be bought in, we need a culturally acceptable premise for the power enjoyed by Harvard, Yale, and the like—a role that can’t be filled by the networking and status-driven benefits I’ve described so far. This brings us full circle, back to the idea of higher education as a method of information conveyance.

Though the human capital accrual theory of education is probably bunk, most people’s belief in it feels sincere. In my view, this is the confluence of three phenomena: observed correlations between educational attainment and positive outcomes, our cultural commitments to self-sufficiency and equal opportunity, and a mostly unstated but potent desire to manufacture equality of outcomes.

Elite colleges sell these ideas back to us by marketing education as a transformative experience, an extrinsic asset to be wielded. In an unequal society, this is a particularly comforting message, because it implies:

  1. The world works on meritocracy. High-status individuals not only are better than most, they became so through efforts the rest of us can replicate.
  2. We can achieve equality of outcomes with sufficient resources. This has the added bonus of perpetuating the demand for high-end education.

The meritocratic, knowledge-driven higher education model is a product we’re all happy to buy because we like what it says about us. Its violation is disillusioning on a societal level, hence the disproportionate outrage created by scandal involving some 50 students.

Perhaps this is an opportunity to reexamine our relationship with and expectations of the upper echelons of higher education. If we find signaling theory compelling, and I personally do, shouldn’t a society committed to equality of opportunity and social mobility seek to marginalize, rather than fetishize, the institutional power of these universities?

Somewhat more darkly, we should ask ourselves if our belief in the transformative power of education might not be the product of our collective willing ignorance—a noble lie we tell ourselves to avoid confronting problems to which we have few or no solutions. If pre-existing traits—innate intelligence, social connections, wealth, and others—most accurately explain one’s success, what of the increasingly selective institutions that facilitate their convergence?

*

Footnotes:

  1. Though I’ve heard plenty of anecdotal claims to this effect (including from an admissions officer during a grad school interview), I don’t have any hard proof. If one of you knows of a such a study, point me in the right direction.
  2. I just wanted to note that this feels very in line with the general trend of wealthier people having fewer children but spending an enormous amount of resources to give them even very marginal advantages.
  3. This is when people respond to polls in the ways they think are more likely to be viewed favorably by others. Basically, people under-report bad behavior (maybe using drugs or committing crimes) and over-report good behavior (like voting).

The Kids Are All Right: Follow-up

My post on the relationship between ideology and fertility rates generated some great feedback and critiques (albeit mostly on a Facebook thread). Sadly, none of this was related to the awesome pun in the title of the piece. (Seriously, no love for “The Kids Are All Right”?)

Well, life goes on.

In light of the interest in the subject, I’ve decided to do a quick follow-up piece to address some readers’ questions and adding a bit of information, particularly as relates to this graph from the original post:

Conservative have more kids

1. Are there more people on the political left?

A couple people asked about the ideological composition of the nation and the sample I used. This is an important question, because if the political right makes up a small enough minority of the population or sample, then my graph, which shows the average number of children per respondents of different ideologies but doesn’t convey sample sizes, is a bit misleading—or at least less compelling. So my fault for not going into it in the first place.

Per the most recent polling by Gallup, The American electorate identifies as roughly 26% liberal, 35% moderate, and 35% conservative. This is after two decades of a slow, steady increase in the percentage of Americans calling themselves “liberal.” More on that later.

The sample I pulled from the General Social Survey (GSS) reflects Gallup’s national numbers pretty well: out of the total 8,539 respondents sampled, 2,346 (27.47%) identified as some degree of liberal, 3,285 (38.47%) as moderate, and 2,908 (34.50%) as some degree of conservative.

sample distribution

2. Are there more women on the political left?

I believe this question is getting at the same idea: if the majority of women are left of moderate, then the higher fertility of women on the right is less consequential for the electorate. According to Gallup’s national numbers, 30% of women identify as liberals—the same percentage as call themselves conservatives. For men, those numbers are notably different: 40% and 21%, respectively.

The sample I used showed more gender parity in ideologies, but it’s not hugely off. At any rate, the important thing is that the elevated fertility rates of conservative women can’t be written off as the effect of a small sample size.

men and women political ideologies

3. But the population has been getting more liberal. Doesn’t that kind of throw a wrench in this narrative?

Only time will tell, I suppose! To be clear, this is how many people read the tea leaves, and the story I’m telling is a bit of heterodoxy. While I can’t offer a firm answer to this question now, I have a few remarks:

  • The past is no guarantee of the future. (Ask GE shareholders, amirite?) Just because the electorate has been getting more liberal doesn’t mean it will continue to.
  • I suspect the secular trend toward liberalization is as influenced by macroeconomics and sociological factors as it is individual characteristics and experiences. The question is, what will be the effects of today’s macroeconomic and sociological upheaval on future voters—or their children?
  • Relatedly, I think time horizon matters a great deal when evaluating whether or not the future looks liberal or conservative. This is theory on my part, but maybe populations naturally move to the right over the long term (because conservatives reproduce more) unless cultural forces pulling leftward—economic globalization?—are sufficiently strong and sustained.
  • Finally, I think it’s worth noting that America’s liberal ranks are mostly swelling at the expense of its moderate contingent, perhaps due to increasing political polarization.

americans becoming more liberal
America has been getting more liberal at the expense of its moderate contingent

*

There were a few questions brought up to which I don’t have good answers at the moment. Without promising when, if at all, to address them—I’ve learned not to make firm commitments relating to this fine blog—here are two excellent threads I should follow:

  • Does completing various life milestones (having children, buying a house, getting married) make people more conservative? There must be some longitudinal studies on this somewhere…
  • To what extent do children’s political views match their parents’, and is there symmetry between liberals and conservatives in this regard? (I linked to one study by Gallup in the last post that suggested a 70% match between parents and their children, but there’s probably a lot more work on this out there.)

The Kids Are All Right

A notion that’s become somewhat common among the left in recent years is that American conservatives are demographically doomed. Very often, this is discussed in terms of race and age—an allusion to the declining share of the non-Hispanic white American population and the accompanying erosion of its political sway, as well as the fact that conservatives tend to be older.

On its face, this seems like a tidy theory. But under the surface, I think it’s a great deal more complicated than the (sometimes wishful) theorizing of liberal pundits allows.

First, as I wrote a couple of weeks ago, the American concept of race, whiteness in particular, is a moving target. I think there’s a solid chance it will look quite a bit different in a couple of decades. But a more interesting foil, I think, to the liberals-own-tomorrow theory manifests itself in fertility rates.

People are having fewer children the rich world over, causing consternation among governments of countries whose economic futures depend on population growth. The political implications of this alone are fascinating, but the general trend obscures another interesting story: the intranational ideological disparity in fertility.

Liberals, it appears, are having fewer children than their conservative counterparts. Combing through General Social Survey (GSS) results from the last 10 years provides a clear view of this phenomenon. Among heterosexual men between the ages of 35 and 50, those who identify as “extremely liberal” had on average 1.79 children, whereas those describing themselves as “extremely conservative” had 2.43. For women, the difference was even starker: “extremely liberal” women had 1.69 on average to “extremely conservative” women’s 2.63.

Conservative have more kids

Many factors contribute to this disparity—most of which concern liberal women’s increased preferences for family planning. Anecdotally, liberals are later to marry, more likely to pursue advanced degrees, less religious, and, among women, more likely to pursue careers—the confluence of which makes for fewer babies. This trend seems to have gotten stronger over the past few decades.

Widening Child Gap
Note: Data for this graph are inclusive of all respondents 18 and older, meaning there’s probably some bias toward conservatives having more children, as they tend to be older. It’s also possible that causality flows both ways: having families might make people more conservative.

All this is significant because there’s at least some evidence that, most of the time, children end up inheriting their parents’ political views. This makes sense whether you view political ideology as a product of nature—differences in brain structure that give some a proclivity for novelty and others an aversion to risk—or nurture. Either way, if liberals are bearing and raising fewer children, it could mean fewer liberal adults down the line.

There are a few signs this might already be happening. One study found that after decades of decline, high school students’ support for traditional gender roles in the family has been rising steadily since 1994. Goldman Sachs pegs the ascendant Generation Z as especially fiscally conservative. Finally, a survey by the Hispanic Heritage Foundation of 50,000 14 – 18-year-olds found—shockingly, in my view—that the majority identified as Republicans and would support Donald Trump in the 2016 election. (An important caveat to this survey was that nearly a third of those polled would have declined to vote, had they been able.)

The policy preferences of an increasingly conservative nation are one thing—and obviously ideology colors one’s assessment of how good or bad that would be. But what really worries me is the thought of an even more politically segmented society; one in which an increasingly liberal minority of elites maintains control of the nation’s cultural power centers and an increasingly conservative majority grows frustrated with its obsolescence in the new economy, which, intentionally or not, places a premium on educational attainment, city-living, and delayed entry into family life.

Whether it comes to pass or not, we shall see.

Sex!

Now that I have your attention

A week or two ago, the Atlantic published a great article by Kate Julian about the declining rates of sexual activity in young Americans. This was a bit of serendipity, as I’d recently been digging through the General Social Survey (GSS) searching for evidence of the same trend.

Looking at 18- to 35-year-old respondents—segmented by race and sex and without adjusting for other factors—I found that, loosely speaking, almost all demographic groups seemed to be experiencing a slight increase in celibacy.

No Sex
Note: In 2012, respondents from almost all groups reported nearly zero instances of sexlessness in the last year. I chalked it up to an outlier year and left it off to (hopefully) lend more accuracy to the trend lines.

This is rather surprising, given societal and technological developments over the last 30 years. To paraphrase Ms Julian’s opener: Sexual mores have greatly relaxed. Birth control and other forms of contraception are ubiquitous and affordable. Dating apps make it easier than ever to link supply and demand.

The stage seems set for a hedonistic revolution, but that’s not what we’re seeing.

Some factors implicated by her reporting include the over-scheduling of young adults, helicopter parenting, bad sex that leaves them (particularly young women) hesitant to come back for more, and increased inhibition among Millennials of both sexes.

But what interests me most is how the decline in sexual activity is partly due to a rise in anti-social behavior brought on by technology—a retreat from the interpersonal “meatworld” to bespoke pornography, sexting, and often fruitless screen-swiping. A feedback loop forms: The rarefication of in-person courtship has rendered it overly forward, which leaves less opportunity for young people to develop the social skills necessary to meet partners without the aid of an app.

I’ve never considered myself a Luddite; as recently as a few months ago, I was praising the internet for making “it easier than ever for people to exchange ideas.” But I have to admit I’m finding myself increasingly disillusioned by technology of the social media variety. Insofar as its mission is to bring people together, it seems to be failing.

Perhaps I’m growing cynical and dismal in my old age. Or—more likely “and”—perhaps there’s no suitable substitute for IRL socialization, and our quest for online community-building is inherently quixotic.

*

P.S. I looked into sexual activity frequencies for respondents ages 18 through 22 since the GSS started including the question in 1989, looking for changes in the college-age population. It’s not much, but it’s a bit interesting, so I’m including it here.

18-22 sex