Under Full Employment, Your Job Could Be "Anime Appraiser"

i can tell your future: just look what's in your hand,, but i can't stop for nothin im just playing in the band.

“yeah, God bless the radio, all that fine fine music without all the messed up musicians” - Lifter Puller, “Secret Santa Cruz”

Now that Bruenig-Dayen-Carter discourse about the role of “postscarcity” in subject formation and the production and consumption of music is back, I’ve actually got a response this time. On a long enough timeline, I actually have a lot I’d like to write about this, particularly about vocaloids/vtubers, the location of “authenticity” of musical performance in the body and about the different social and technological swings that push around the labor-capital tradeoff in the production and consumption of music. Also, hopefully, I’ll get to write in the register of Jacques Barzun about Stereolab. With that preamble out of the way, I had originally written this post as a goofy, just-for-fun riffing on a Sunday morning, so please don’t take it too serious. There are obviously acres of more important economic problems happening out there right now, but it’s fun to indulge in some “what-ifs.”

Our argument here is ultimately that – if we suspend for a moment the constant disbelief that a Marxo point of view brings to bear – Baumol’s cost disease is actually bullish for the long-run prospects of achieving full employment. This is in contrast to the default view of so many melancholic Europeans that the cost disease eats into profits in a way that dooms Social Democracy forever. Even more fun, it’s bullish in a way that brings us past one of online’s favorite ideas: a Job Guarantee for Posting. Since I’m doing this in large part for my own entertainment, we’re going to get this outcome via high theory from France and Japan rather than tables about capex, capacity utilization, and the impact of hedonic adjustments on measured productivity across different sectors.

In a few places lately, and especially in the recent paid-subscriber-only pieces on this substack, I’ve talked about the possibility that we might get to see high enough demand to get “unbalanced growth” in the Hirschman sense. As Keynes points out, this strategy runs into a problem when trying to secure full employment in the long run. Over time, more and more of the economy will have to be dedicated to “sumptuary” production and consumption, rather than to the kind of investment that increases productive capacity. This happens for all kinds of Harrodian reasons that I’ve already explained in-depth to my dear paying subscribers here, and which I will return to in this month’s paid post as well, but I can give a pocket summary for the cheapskates.

As simply as possible and in the aggregate, the Keynesian multiplier operates through increases in investment. Increases in investment create increases in employment, but also in productive capacity. If the higher level of investment is going to be sustained, that previous investment is going to have to be validated by purchases in the present and the future. If investment creates capacity faster than it increases demand for output, you’ll eventually run into some problems. If you want to durably maintain full employment, you have to shift a larger and larger portion of your investment and workers towards efforts that don’t increase future capacity beyond what future demand can satisfy.

Surprising absolutely no one, this is something the French figured out in an incomprehensible way in the later years of the trente glorieuses, and which the Japanese figured out in a way that absolutely no one took seriously during the boom years of the 80s and 90s.

Everyone is familiar with the boring parts of Baudrillard, “welcome to the desert of the real” and all that. Simulacra and simulation, boring, sophomore year, yawn. What is actually entertaining in Baudrillard, and what I’m going to use today, is that his earlier stuff – The System of Objects in particular – was meant and can be read as a response to, and intensification of, Marx. The core idea here is, in a french accented with a love for midcentury american hamburger stands: “what if you had a system of production that, instead of producing commodities - like, physical commodities - instead just produced ideas. But like, the ideas themselves were like, the commodities. Like, what if you could just like…sell…representation…man.”

This feels really obvious today, now that all the expensive movies are just ways to rearrange earlier units of intellectual property, and where patent trolls can make a healthy living pissing everyone else off and restricting access to the benefits of scientific and technological progress. At the time, the idea that the spectacle was not a collection of images, but a social relation among people, mediated by images, was a novel idea!

The thing is, this “social relation” is, as the French would say, always already a relation of both production and consumption. This is usually taken to be a bad thing, it seems wasteful, unnecessary, “materialist” in the sense of about consumption rather than about billiard balls. Today though, we’re going to ask: if we have to shift production and consumption away from things that increase capacity, maybe, this is Good Actually?

To get there, we go to Georges Bataille, another old dead Frenchman. His only real work on political economy – he was mostly a particularly literary pornographer – The Accursed Share, makes nearly the same arguments that Keynes does in the more long-view chapters in the General Theory, but in a very French register.

As quickly as possible, the idea is that the economy always produces a “surplus” beyond what could possibly be “captured” and “put to productive use.” The economy always produces more than it can use on doing capex to producing more economy and more capacity. Where Bataille gets fun is in the claim that this has always been the case, and that the Marxian “overproduction crisis” is just one kind of way this can happen. As a Frenchman in the mid-20th century, he goes through a bunch of dubious anthropology to prove this point, but we are going to rely here on Keynes’ account of the macroeconomy rather than a Frenchman’s account of the horrors of Aztec society here.

If we presume with Bataille that the goal of political economy is full employment and the improvement of the standard of living for all people – rather than some eurocom or autonomist daydream – we can see how tightly this links up with Keynes. For both, the central insight is that in the long run we are going to have to learn how to party, if we want to keep everyone employed.

Bataille’s big thing is that the surplus which can’t be productively absorbed should effervesce into “eroticism,” and “expenditure without recompense.” I can’t help but feel this phrasing is in large part because he was a literary horndog in the line of Citizen de Sade, but it is on the right track. A less icky way of putting things might be the achievement of “good states of mind” that Zach Carter ascribes to Keynes and the Bloomsbury set as a Moorean ultimate goal in his book. In order to keep capacity from outrunning what can be handled by demand, we need to widen the scope of folks who are included in participation in “sumptuary consumption.”

In a way, Bataille’s “expenditure without recompense” is a little like doing Baumol’s cost disease on purpose, but it takes a wider lens to see this. The idea behind Baumol is that there are industries where progressive capital development yields productivity increases, and that there are those where it doesn’t. The classic example is the fact that over the 20th century, the number of cars produced per automotive worker went upwards pretty steadily, while the number of haircuts given per barber remained basically flat.

As things like automobiles or TVs see more investment and higher productivity, you get either higher consumption (in an egalitarian high-demand environment) or automation and job loss (in a faux-feudal low-demand environment). Though some people are in the process of making a career arguing that that low-demand environment is natural and unavoidable, I think that’s pretty silly.

The problem for Baumol is, no one is interested in investing in industries where this isn’t the case – traditionally, services – because the return doesn’t change much whether you invest a lot or a little. A barber can only give so many haircuts at a time, the opera can only seat so many people. Worse, people still want the services provided by these constant-productivity industries.

The reason it’s referred to as Baumol’s “cost disease” is that the wages in sectors where productivity is increasing and the wages where productivity is flat are assumed to grow at the same pace over time. If the wages of barbering haven’t changed in a hundred years, who would want to start a barbershop? Since wages are rising in the “cost disease” sectors without productivity rising, prices will have to rise to keep pace, and thus create inflation. It’s worth noting that Baumol’s model does presume the tight labor markets of the midcentury US; without those, you get a switching between the kinds of punishing low-wage care work Gabe Winant talks about, and just the flat-out non-provision of services.

It doesn’t have to be this way though. If the problem of securing full employment in the long run is one of balancing the need for current investment expenditure (to secure full employment at time t) against keeping current capacity at a level that current employment can validate (to secure full-employment level investment at time t+1) then Baumol can actually be our friend! The inflation that comes with a gradual expansion of the flat-productivity sectors helps burn off the surplus that Bataille argues “can’t be productively absorbed.”

To keep everyone in the increasing-productivity sectors employed, more and more people will need to work in sectors where productivity isn’t increasing. This might feel a little weird if we are thinking of “luxury” as “excess” to what needs to be produced. From a full employment point of view, it is a little silly to try to divide jobs based on “necessary” and “unnecessary.” Without validating demand from elsewhere, all the folks in the oh-so-serious heavy industries and “material base” are liable to find themselves unemployed victims of a recession.

There’s a joke to be made about that Marx quote about “The less you eat, drink and read books; the less you go to the theatre, the dance hall, the public house; the less you think, love, theorize, sing, paint, fence, etc.,” here, I think.

One of the best ways to achieve this “expenditure without recompense” through the cultivation of a service sector with wages that keep pace with manufacturing or “productive” investment is through the Baudrillardian “production of signs.” Because these images just mediate social relations, and the social field can always get thicker without running out of room, it’s only natural to wrap work around and around like a Poincaré solenoid that passes through the entire space of the social world in a chaotic 1-dimensional path.

Think of this like shifting “production” in Civilization to “culture” instead of buildings or military units. A bigger, and better-paid cultural sector helps create the demand required for full employment without risking overcapacity and Harrodian Instability in the longer-run. Online, some would call this a, “Job Guarantee for Posting” regime. I have written about a version of it before in more explicitly high-MMT phraseology here. Culture is nonrivalrous, and as long as the purchase of it creates wages that feed the rest of the productive system, it will serve the role of Keynesian “sumptuary” consumption or Bataillean “expenditure without recompense,” by generating needed demand without generating excess capacity.

This idea makes some folks anxious though, because there remains a general sense that there are two kinds of sources of culture: Genuine Auteurs and the “culture industry” of Frankfurt School infamy. Bringing in the government seems, a priori, like it’s going to make all those folks more, rather than less, upset:

If we manage aggregate demand by producing culture, isn’t that going to produce a lot of bad culture? Won’t people just make dumb fan art and adapt outward? How many people can really have the kind of Genuine Deep Experiences that lead to Great Art™? Don’t le peuple not have access to the kind of education needed to make something anyone would pay attention to? Won’t it be boring and tasteless?

Or, on the other side of the argument:

Isn’t the market what determines whether something is good or bad? If someone isn’t able to sell what they’re trying to sell, why should anyone intervene? These high-grossing movies are obviously far better than {whatever particular example, pick yer poison}, because they appeal to so many more people who are able to vote with their dollars! Subsidizing these minority interest things is just snobbery and cultural elitism.

There was a whole kerfuffle a few months back, which is back on the timeline, between Matt Bruenig, David Dayen and Zach Carter, among others. There were two basic through-lines, that parallel some of the anxieties above.

On the consumer side, there’s a worry that unlimited availability of media kills audience formation and subject formation in the audience by swamping them with available possibilities. It used to be one way (you had to know a guy who knew a guy to get a cassette copy of a bootlegged show) which created a distinct approach to community-building, and now it’s another way (you can find anything you want online) which doesn’t automatically create a community in the same way. This is then contrasted with a “consumer utopia” that represents “real postscarcity” by virtue of technology having advanced far enough that you can just click around and listen through the catalogs of most record labels at home.

On the producer side, there’s the same worry since the Alternative Nation of the 90s that gatekeepers – the big 5 labels then, tech companies now – both prohibited “real” artists from making a living, while also homogenizing the output of the kinds of artists that were able to “make it.” It used to be that there was some assumed national baseline, and then individual locations evolved their own unique countercultural approaches that made them distinct from every other location. It’s assumed that it used to be that - by virtue of a shared attempt at negation of a cultural whole - it was possible for artistically distinctive scenes to spring up of their own accord everywhere. If that presumed cultural whole were to disappear, or be atomized into every individual, well, no grain of sand no pearl.

I will lay my cards on the table here and say that I think most culture should either be made in a big warehouse by well-paid professionals, or at home between friends for fun. Things are always only ever kinds of conversations, and you find the ones that are interesting. Wider availability of media gives you more entry points to the conversation, but makes it harder to make exclusive judgements about who is and isn’t in the conversation you’re looking to participate in.

My personal stances are always boring though, they’re just where I’d like to live, so I’m going to go back to presenting more interesting ones that other people have.

What some of my favorite Japanese social theorists have argued – alongside, strangely, Patton Oswalt – is not only that the otakus have got figured out how to deal with “postscarcity,” but that they have figured it out in a so neatly Kojeve-Lacan-Baudrillard way that it manages to execute what, to some, are the scariest parts of the culture of communism.

Hiroki Azuma’s “Otaku: Japan’s Database Animals” traces this lineage. His basic idea is that, rather than a romanticist-inflected network of “original” artworks, otaku culture consists of iteratively and contingently deploying bits of a database of agreed-upon possible representations. Rather than an anxiety about “authenticity” and “copies,” you have the infinite proliferation of derived works that are only connected to the original by virtue of their use of common tropes. Every Media Studies 101 lecture on this starts with a reference to the “copy without an original” in Ghost in the Shell.

Folks watch anime and write doujinshi about it, or read doujinshi and make meals about it, or read light novels and make light novels about making manga based on light novels. There’s a division between the “professional” levels and the “amateur” levels, but most folks on both sides work as though participating in a conversation. This is in turn structurally reinforced through institutions like Comiket, where the line between amateur and professional can disappear. We’re not going to talk about the actual working conditions, as everybody knows, every animator is overworked to the point of death at all times. But this is little different from the beloved “starving artist.”

The “courtly art” of professionally-produced works may lay out individual characters, or plots, or tropes, but the employment of any of these aren’t restricted to the original creators, whether by law or convention. The “production of signs” and “consumption of signs” ping-pong back and forth on one another, creating work and effective demand without creating capacity that must be validated. Like in a sacred harp singing, there is no “audience,” because everyone who can hear is expected to participate. The division between an inside and outside of cultural production stops making sense, and by losing that division, the anxieties about inauthentic cultural production become a decision made by each participant.

This is a little abstract, so to quote from Azuma [I have added some explanations in brackets, his references are pretty old at this point]:

Otaku culture is filled with derivative works; originals and derivative works are produced and consumed as if they were of “equal value.” However, not all of such derivative works actually have the same value…underneath the simulacra exists a database, a device that sorts good simulacra from bad ones [and] regulating the flow of derivative works. The 773rd Bikkuriman sticker [made by an enthusiast, rather than the snack company that produced the original run of 772 unique stickers] must adequately share a common database with the previous 772 stickers, or it would not be regarded as a derivative work to begin with. Ayanami Nurturing Project [a tie-in game for Neon Genesis Evangelion where the player raises Rei, and has little to do with the original series] must adequately share a worldview with Evangelion, and the design of Di Gi Charat [an anime shop mascot based on aspects of then-popular characters who was eventually turned into an anime protagonist] must adequately sample moe-elements [granular pieces of character design considered moe [sort of an extreme form of cute] at the time] from the late 1990s. Simulacra created without recognition of these processes will be weeded out by the market and disappear.

In other words, in postmodernity, a new opposition is emerging between the simulacra and the database, in place of the previous opposition between the original and the copy. In the past, the original work was “an original” and the derivative work “a copy.” Only herein exists the criterion for judging the quality of a work. For example, in the case of Evangelion, the TV series created by Anno Hideaki is a “work” connected with the authorship and his original message, while derivative works by amateurs and related commercial projects are mere copies. People are supposed to strictly distinguish between these two in consuming them.

However, in reality, over the past twenty years a consumer behavior that does not discriminate between these two categories has been gaining more and more power. Instead, as I mentioned above, the database of characters, settings, and moe-elements is on the rise and with it a different variety of standards applied to the database…emerging with it is a different kind of criteria based on one’s relation to this database. A copy is judged not by its distance from an original but by its distance from the database.

Azuma gets spun about this, because he sees in this approach to the production and consumption of signs the end of the “Individual” in the sense attributable to romantic Sturm-und-Drang or the Hegelian master-slave dialectic. If everything can be described with relationship to a database of attributes, then that must mean (to him) that there is no uniqueness nor individuality to be found. Everyone is just a mess of correlations, but happy to be that way, without the kind of deep inner life that the emphasis on “originality” presumably induces. Without Lacanian “lack” and “dominance” and “desire-of-the-desire-of-the-other,” forming basic parts of subject construction, Azuma, like Kojeve, worries that this eliminates the “human” from humanity, and returns them to “animality,” where they just hang out and have a good time.

Different sociologists draw different things from this, but all agree on the basic revisions to then-contemporary western media theory. How far this is from the anxieties that Matt, Zach and David bring up I leave as an exercise to the reader.

Rather than the artwork as something that represents a determinate Fact about a Genuine Auteur being consumed by an audience which allocates social capital based on the ability to sus out fakes or copies, you have an interactive social process of production and consumption. Audiences produce artists who produce audiences around and around in circles.

However, this is avowedly not poptimism. Marvel is not about to let people make and sell unlicensed novels using its intellectual property. The representation or elision of one thing or another in some produced work doesn’t mean anything. You can let people enjoy things or not, and break out into social groups based on which things you want to let people around you enjoy. Outside of specific worlds where it’s encouraged - one thinks about live bootlegs of jam bands - it’s hard to imagine something like Comiket in an American form being met with anything other than a shipping crate of Cease and Desist orders.

Even the practice of sampling in music has become expensive enough to work as a Veblenian “invidious distinction:” something you do to prove your power by wasting money where others can’t. Where sampling used to be something you did because you were too broke to track drums right, it’s now something you do to prove you can afford the licensing. It’s gotten so bad that even the inversion of this dynamic is itself a mark of “invidious distinction:” how else should we read Kanye flexing how deep his lawyers go by refusing to acknowledge an Aphex Twin sample?

Ultimately, this all leads – as it does in Dewey – to the conviction that the effective management of aggregate demand is a central means by which everyone is allowed to participate in making the world. Presuming a high-demand environment and an egalitarian approach to wages, the “production of signs” becomes a way to secure long run full employment while creating a space for democratic play in culture.

Best of all, we’ve even done this before. As Susan Quinn argues in Furious Improvisation: How the WPA and a Cast of Thousands Made High Art out of Desperate Times, alongside a more recent piece from Max Holleran in the New Republic, outsize government investment in culture works exceedingly well to bring the rest of the economy back online, and to keep it there.

It’s been a long weird trek through this piece, but hopefully everyone’s hung on. In the end, “Anime appraiser,” ultimately, is not a bad stand-in for the kinds of jobs required to achieve full employment in the long run.