Thursday, October 20, 2016

Our sterile pursuits

Consider this:
Does anyone, for instance, believe that tax accountants contribute to national wealth or to productivity, and altogether add to society’s well-being, whether material, physical or spiritual?
Perhaps you are thinking that it is so typical of this left-of-center blogger to beat up on tax accountants.  If so, ahem, you don't know me then ;)

The writer also follows up with another comment that we are wasting well-educated human intellect on such "essentially sterile pursuits.”

So, who said that?  Peter Drucker. Yep, that Drucker.

It is bizarre how in a liberal democracy we continue to add taxes and tax-breaks, which almost always end up making creative work for tax accountants and attorneys, while making even more money for corporations, when the whole idea of government collecting revenue is for the "public interest."  At the end of the day, a presidential contender struts around with everybody understanding that he paid no taxes thanks to all those lines in the tax code and all those accountants.  It is a fine mess that we have created, and even an Alexander cannot handle this Gordian Knot!

To some extent, the tax attorney/accountant jobs that we have created are not that different from the textbook case of paying people to dig holes and have them fill those hole back.  We pass laws that create all those tax loopholes, and then these highly educated folks get paid to needle the thread through those holes.  One hell of a Keynesian jobs creation scheme, except that the ones who benefit from it usually attack Keynesian ideas.

But, back to Drucker's point on highly educated people following sterile pursuits.  I wish I had known this phrase back in my undergraduate days, because all I knew then was that I didn't want to waste my life in sterile pursuits.  But, it took me a while to also figure out what might be a worthwhile pursuit.

I am yet again reminded of the observation on "bullshit jobs" that I blogged about.  In another place, that same author--David Graeber, who is as far from Drucker as can be possible in the political economic spectrum--notes:
A world without teachers or dock-workers would soon be in trouble. But it’s not entirely clear how humanity would suffer were all private equity CEOs, lobbyists, PR researchers, actuaries, telemarketers, bailiffs or legal consultants to similarly vanish
Of course, that is a a little exaggerated.  Without actuaries?  But Graeber's larger point is no different from Drucker's.

Like many, I too worry that the automation that is rapidly coming down our way will further drive many into sterile pursuits, instead of liberating us to pursue activities that will add meaning.  My father commented a while ago, "everybody says they are consultants.  But I don't understand what they are consulting about."  The next time he says that I should perhaps tell him that most are sterile pursuits--only because that sounds more official than saying "bullshit jobs."


Ramesh said...

I understand where the sentiment comes from, but there are shades of grey.

Why is the tax code so complex. Its simply because finding a set of rules that most of us can subscribe to is fiendishly complex because we all have so many different views. Lets try the tax code

We could have a one line tax code. A tax of 30% is levied on all income. Full stop.

But then, almost everybody would agree that low wage earners should not be taxed. AS kid making $10 by selling lemonade for example. So you have to set slabs of taxes exempting trivial incomes. Fine.

Next you would have to try and avoid taxing some things twice. For example, when you pay in to social security, you are paying it out of taxed income and then when you receive a social security cheque , you have to pay tax on it too. So you have to get into some deductions at least - giving a deduction for social security contributions, medical insurance, etc

Once you have opened deductions, then you like to allow deductions for some good things maybe. Perhaps charitable donations.

Go on like this, and you'll very soon be back to the tax code you have.

When you have complexity, you have to find expertise to cope with it. Enter tax accountants. Its inevitable.

Sriram Khé said...

"Once you have opened deductions" ... exactly!
Ideally, we would question whether the deduction is in the public interest. But, the messy nature of democracy through which we prefer to articulate the public interest means that an overwhelming percentage of those tax-related legislation and regulations are not at all in the public interest and, instead, are designed to enhance private interests for which we hire highly educated and capable people who spend their lives in such "sterile pursuits"

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