Useless jobs and their importance to the economy

I've been a bit mean about the Daily Mail these past few days, since Paul Dacre claimed that indulging his own neo-Victorian brand of puritanical prurience constituted a vital democratic principle. Still, we mustn't forget all the good they do, so I'm delighted to note that Richard Littlejohn is in top form with a splendid rant about all the Guardian-advertised non-jobs that, he predicts, will prove strangely recession-proof:

Yes, Britain's five-a- day coordinators, diversity managers, equality officers, elf 'n'safety enforcers and carbon-footprint campaigners can all sleep easily in their beds.

While private companies are either contracting or going to the wall, the public sector continues to party like it's 1999. There'll be no shake-out in the Town Halls, no Christmas parties cancelled in Whitehall. We won't be seeing sobbing civil servants standing outside government office blocks with their personal effects in a cardboard box and a P45 in their back pocket.

Far from it. While the productive sector of the economy disappears down the plughole, taking with it millions of jobs, the public sector is still hiring merrily as if the nearcollapse of the global banking system never happened.

Littlejohn found some splendidly pointless-sounding job descriptions in the most recent Guardian supplement. Nottinghamshire NHS was advertising for an assistant director of equality and human rights, salary up to £77,179 a year. "Acting as our champion on equality, diversity and human rights," the ad ran, "you will work in collaboration with our external partners to develop and co-ordinate strategic policies." The same county's police "are looking for a Performance, Partnerships and Business Development Manager, just shy of £40,000 a year." And so forth.

None of these new public servants is providing anything most people would remotely consider to be a public service. Local government, in particular, is increasingly a conspiracy against the paying public, extracting ever more taxes in exchange for an ever-worsening level of provision.

They're more interested in dreaming up exciting new rules, fines and punishments and finding elaborate excuses for not doing what we pay them for - such as emptying the dustbins once a week.

As Littlejohn points out, there are fashions in these pseudo-jobs, which seem important at the time but years later can seem quaint. He gives the example of AIDS co-ordinators who seemed to be everywhere in the Eighties - "there were more people in Britain earning a good living from Aids than were actually dying from it." Not necessarily a bad thing, of course. A better example might be the lavish sums of public money that were channelled towards "experts" to save us from the entirely fictional Millennium bug. It was perhaps appropriate that the Conservative MP who made it his aim to alert the country to that coming calamity was one of the most idiotic and undistinguished ever to have sat in Parliament. Littlejohn might also have mentioned cumbersome machinery behind Gordon Brown's tax credits, a system that expensively "gives people money" rather than taxing them less to begin with.

The next big job-creation scam, Littlejohn prophesies, will be to do with global warming - and I've no doubt that scientists working on genuine carbon-reduction schemes or renewable energy will be vastly outnumbered by paper-shuffling compliance officers and the like. On the other hand, the system of carbon offsets will inevitably produce its own derivatives market, which will, if nothing else, give some of the laid-off bankers a new way of earning their bonuses. There will be a new bubble along very soon.

Littlejohn misses what might well turn out to be the largest job-creation scheme of all, database management, the thousands of people who will be collating all that information the government is determined to gather about what we eat, where we go and which internet sites we frequent. Internet censorship, now just a whisper, is likely to become huge as the politicians attempt to fulfil Andy Burnham's promise to make the Web safe for children. Imagine the millions of hours that online regulators will spend watching YouTube to ensure it has no dubious content, the thousands of hours that will be spent trawling through blogs. A tough job, but someone will be paid to do it. Quite a few someones, no doubt. Much of the onus for these monitoring and censoring systems will be placed on private-sector ISPs and on companies such as Google rather than charged to the public purse, but we'll still all end up paying for it.

Similarly, the government's ongoing obsession with faith issues may lead to theology becoming the new media studies: although it is a nice philosophical question which of those two subjects is the most useless. Child protection systems, in the wake of the Baby P tragedy, are likely to become yet more elaborate, bureaucratic, expensive and useless. You can't eliminate every risk in life, but you can spend a huge amount of money trying; and the more you pledge to spend, as a politician, the more "caring" you appear.

Littlejohn's most acute point is that many of these otiose public-sector jobs are entirely new; somehow, until this moment, humanity has survived without them. But it isn't just newly-devised jobs that are proliferating. For some years now, the Royal Navy has boasted more admirals than ships - indeed, as the number of warships has inexorably declined so the top brass has just as steadily increased, making a reality of WS Gilbert's joke in HMS Pinafore that to "stay close to your desk and never go to sea" was the best route to becoming "ruler of the Queen's Navee". MI5 has so expanded to meet the terrorist threat that it now employs more officers than there are potential terror suspects to keep an eye on. And that's without counting the increasing numbers of specialist police who are doing more or less the same job.

Someone of a paranoid turn of mind (possibly even Mr Littlejohn, to judge from some of his journalism) might conclude that this is all a cunning plan;that there's something in it for the Labour party beyond the obvious benefit that it helps keep unemployment figures within politically manageable limits. All these public sector employees, with their gold-plated pensions, know better than to hazard their parasitic careers by voting Tory, goes the theory - and, being good Guardian reading types (otherwise how would they learn of these jobs in the first place?) they're probably Labour voters anyway. There may be a small element of truth here. But the state - and the pseudo-state of consultancies, private-sector regulators, contractees and quasi-autonomous charities - has a marked tendency to increase in size whoever is in power. The most a Conservative government is able to achieve is to slow the process - or divert the fake jobs into the private sector, as the Thatcher government, which first brought in the consultancies and the quangocracy, tended to do. Many of David Cameron's most seemingly radical proposals, in fact, amount to little more than transferring directly state-funded services to superficially private but actually state-dependent agencies.

The truth is that the remorseless growth of the useless classes - the vast majority of whom, of course, are simply normal, well-intentioned people earning their crust and trying to pay the mortgage - has its own momentum. Government, to justify its continued existence, must be doing something: legislating, setting up reviews, imposing standards (or, more often these days, implementing EU directives), responding to the news agenda. The ideological imperative of government, since the days of the Egyptian pharoahs, is the creation of order out of chaos. As small swirling eddies of chaos are brought within the purview of the state, new ones appear - or are noticed for the first time, or become "doable". The state is always growing, like a slime-mold, by itself or via its intermediaries, gradually smothering everything. That is what it does. And whether the need for the government to "do something" about this or that issue is internally or externally generated, the upshot is always the same: new people have to be employed, or contracted, to do it. And they, in turn, will need to be monitored and regulated, and that, too, will mean new jobs.

Which brings me to Littlejohn's view that, sooner or later, the public's tolerance with the bloated and unnecessary state sector will run out - or the system will collapse spontaneously, under the weight of its own unsustainable expense. He writes:

Remember this when Gordon Brown talks about 'prudence' and 'investment'. It's his reckless spending, putting 800,000 more people on the public payroll, which has left Britain worst-equipped of any industrialised country to deal with the downturn.

...We are now two nations - those who have to make a living in the real world and the army of subsidised public 'servants' guaranteed their jobs and index-linked pensions regardless of cost.

While millions of us in the competitive sector of the economy stare down the barrel of redundancy, the feather-bedded inhabitants of Brown's bloated client state are insulated from the realities of his economic mismanagement.

At first sight, this is obvious. The bureaucrats and pseudo-bureaucrats are not making anything, growing anything, or earning anything from foreign trade and investment - and their activities make life far more complicated and expensive for those who do. Sooner or later - sooner, the way things are going - the state will simply bankrupt itself. Public pensions, in particular, represent a frightening liability. At times, the most attractive solution is that proposed by Douglas Adams in Hitch Hikers Guide to the Galaxy, of loading all these employees onto a giant spaceship and sending them off to colonise a distant planet.

Yet many of the supernumerary jobs, looked at another way, are just a means of redistributing money. If all the awareness trainers and diversity co-ordinators were thrown out of work they would stop paying taxes, they would have no money to spend on luxury items, and they would become dependent on the state. (Which, of course, they already are.) And impeccably private sector service industries would find they had fewer customers which, in an economically tight environment, could make the difference between success and failure. Few diversity co-ordinators, I suspect, are regular buyers of the Daily Mail. Even so, Littlejohn himself is more dependent than perhaps he knows on the economic sifting effect of so much apparently useless activity.

There is a perceptible mood of disappointment among Conservatives at the lack of radical thinking or even a strong narrative emanating from the top leadership team of David Cameron and George Osborne. As Iain Martin says in the Telegraph, "One of the Conservative Party's roles is supposed to be that it exists for moments in history such as these, when Leftists who have spent all the money unwisely have decided that the answer is even more of what put the country in a hole in the first place." To some extent I agree. For Gordon Brown to pose as the nation's saviour after seven years of improvidence is absurd, and while the Tory lead is still perceptible in the polls that is scarcely to the credit of the virtually silent Conservative front bench. And the unfortunate yacht business will have confirmed many cynical minds in their impression that, faces aside, a change of government will alter little.

Yet the Tories' caution is understandable. An incoming government determined to shrink the size of the state back within manigeable - and sane - dimensions would face a stark dilemma. For the lopsided polity we now inhabit - part nanny and part thief - is also a large part of the economy. It was one thing for the Thatcher government to stand by and let the old industries crumble, for the devastation, however painful, was explicable as the necessary birth-pangs of a new economy; and, in any case, the service sector soon expanded to pick up the slack. But what jobs will be created for redundant diversity co-ordinators, and who will create them?


WeepingCross said…
I like your point about the state employment scheme: since coming to realise how much local authorities used to provide gainful employment for people with learning difficulties, enabling them to play a far greater role in their communities than they might otherwise have done, I've been rather favourable to the idea. Of course apart from briefly arranging clothes hangers and moving boxed lamps around the stockroom at British Home Stores, I've never worked in the private sector at all: independent trust, army, local authority, church. I, I suspect like the majority of human beings, am not by choice a competitive, thrusting individualist perpetually honing my skills audit to do down the next person in the interview room. All that's just bollocks. Give me a job and I'm much happier than having to fight other people for one. It would, however, be more palatable if the people the public sector employed actually did something to make life nicer for us all, like being park-keepers, swimming-bath attendants, and things like that.
Anonymous said…
"Littlejohn misses what might well turn out to be the largest job-creation scheme of all, database management, the thousands of people who will be collating all that information the government is determined to gather about what we eat, where we go and which internet sites we frequent."

He doesn't overlook it, he just doesn't give a fiddler's fuck about civil liberties.

Only genuine skilled jobs in manufacturing & trades will get people into real work rather than fucking around working for large corporations or the state. Encourage SMEs, self-employment & a manufacturing base.

We can't all work at Gap, Pizza Hut... or a few people in the city, as lawyers, management consultants, accountants & god knows what shite.
Anonymous said…
Brilliant piece again. As you say the sifting does a lot of good in its way - like worms turning the earth - and your argument would be familiar to FDR.

You cannot be too harsh on the Mail, for me - it is a dreadful dreadful paper.
The fact that they have equality officers means that any hope of equality is destroyed as quotas and positive discrimination take hold.
Anonymous said…
Well done on another great essay, one that cuts to the heart of the current economic system. Among the endless targets set for local councils etc, why not add the target of saving money! Then we could use the money for things like universal preschool childcare, which would simultaneously create jobs and add skilled people to the workforce.
valdemar said…
Clowntime has a point - is being a financial advisor or a sales co-ordinator or an estate agent a 'real' job when it's so obviously ninety per cent bullshit? Lawyers and doctors work in the private sector, but most seem to depend on the state. Oh, and our wonderful defence industry? Not many shoulder-launched AA missiles on sale at Asda, last time I checked.

I work in the public sector (No! Sound of jaws hitting floors) and I've sat through a lot of training courses given by well-paid private consultants.

And redistributing wealth is as good a reason to create a job as any. After all, the old landed gentry apparently existed to redistribute wealth away from the peasants. Their side of the 'bargain' was to lead cavalry charges or command frigates. I think the modern system is less absurd, even though the old one did give us some nice big houses and the novels of Miss Austen.
Anonymous said…
>>But what jobs will be created for redundant diversity co-ordinators, and who will create them<<

They can come and work in my factory packing stuff into boxes - I have four vacancies.

Anonymous said…
"If all the awareness trainers and diversity co-ordinators were thrown out of work they would stop paying taxes..."


They don't pay taxes as it is.

They are just paid a bit less than they think, that's all, because the state keeps some of what it pretends to pay them.

They are tax-eaters.

Only the wealth-creating private sector actually pays anything to increase the coffers of the State.

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