Archive for March, 2012

Abolish the Unpaid Internship
March 9, 2012

internship

internship (Photo credit: Sean MacEntee)

Someone must have dosed my morning coffee, because one of Charles Murray’s ideas is making sense:

For one thing, we should get rid of unpaid internships. The children of the new upper class hardly ever get real jobs during summer vacation. Instead, they get internships at places like the Brookings Institution, the American Enterprise Institute (where I work) or a senator’s office.

It amounts to career assistance for rich, smart children. Those from the middle and working class, struggling to pay for college, can’t afford to work for free. Internships pave the way for children to move seamlessly from their privileged upbringings to privileged careers without ever holding a job that is boring or physically demanding.

So let the labor unions win this one: If you are not a religious organization and have more than 10 employees, the minimum wage law should apply to anyone who shows up for work every day.

Yes. A hundred thousand times, yes. And not just for the reasons that Murray gives. Even if you already have your desired career as a skilled white collar professional, unpaid internships devalue your labor by taking a portion of it from you and putting in the hands of unpaid workers. This is an old, old managerial trick: find a class of people who can be trained to do some of the same work for cheaper (or, in this case, nothing but college credits), thereby putting downward pressure on the wages of the more experienced employees and forcing them to produce more. It worked for factory owners in the heyday of Taylorism, and it can work for the Huffington Post today.

In fact, the Huffington post actually auctions off some of its internships for thousands of dollars. Doing work for free is now a privilege that will cost you about as much as a used car. And that’s not including transportation, opportunity costs, and all the other expenses of working even an internship you’re not paying for.

So what does all of that get you? Vanishingly little, these days. As unpaid internships have proliferated (and become seemingly obligatory if you want to enter a skilled white-collar profession), they’ve also come to displace the labor of even unskilled, low-wage workers. The most recent (and extreme) example of this phenomenon is perhaps the clothing chain Anthropologie’s “visual display internship,” which is essentially minimum-wage window display work, but without the “wage” part.

Ross Perlin, author of the book Intern Nation: How to Earn Nothing and Learn Little in the Brave New Economy, has written at length about the indignities of uncompensated labor, but his most urgent message is prescriptive: it’s time for unpaid interns to recognize themselves as workers, and organize as workers. From a May 2011 essay in In These Times:

Present, former and future interns need to take action to restore the promise and dignity of work. Until now, young people have ceded everything, asking only for a foot in the door. It’s time to stop spreading the internship gospel. Stop thinking your labor is, was, or will be worthless. Just because you have a student ID and live in a dorm doesn’t mean you’re not also a worker. Identify and organize as interns, and form alliances with like-minded groups such as temps and freelancers. If you’ve moved on, don’t forget the rookie of the workforce, the unpaid kid doing menial and administrative work: the intern.

If we’re ever going to realize Murray’s proposal of abolishing the unpaid internship entirely, it needs to start now with grassroots intern organizing. Occupy Internships was a step in that right direction, but it seems to have stalled. Hopefully it comes back, but in the event that it doesn’t, the next move is probably education. Interns, college students, people who work with interns: talk amongst yourselves and see what can be done in your workplace or across workplaces. Also keep in mind that many of the most-sought after unpaid internships are at ostensibly progressive institutions that like to trumpet their commitment to the interests of regular working folk. Maybe it’s time to remind the heads of those organizations that this shit starts at home.

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Nope, No Alliance Here
March 8, 2012

In a post titled The Left-Right Anti-Yglesias Alliance, Matthew Schmitz suggests that Ross Douthat’s recent quarrel with Matthew Yglesias echoes lefty critiques of so-called pity-charity liberalism.* Both Douthat and the non-neoliberal left, Schmitz writes, argue “that a certain brand of economic thinking is blinkered to the types of things that allow humans to flourish and realize goods that won’t always be easily captured on surveys, things like dignified work and, yes, a stable family.”

That’s a fair gloss of Douthat’s critique — as well as the critique made on folks on the left, such as Freddie DeBoer, Mike Konczal and myself — but it’s hardly grounds for an alliance. And in this particular instance, I don’t think any of the lefties Schmitz cites would accuse of Yglesias of being blind to the unquantifiables that contributes to human flourishing. To understand why not, let’s take a look at the offending Ygz passage that kicked this whole thing off:

The obvious place to look for an explanation of the declining marriage rate is the vast increase in the economic opportunities available to women. Newly empowered and less dependent on male economic support, women have become somewhat choosier and are now less likely to be married than in the past. You can perhaps make the case that this is bad for kids, and that as a society we should return to total economic disempowerment of women in order to force people into two-parent households. But why not just look at progress and call it “progress”? There is evidence that family instability is hard on children, but as seen above, there’s no reason to think we’re witnessing systematic generational decline.

“Economic empowerment” as a concept is not so far removed from agency, autonomy, and the other virtues you’ll see extolled in my writing on labor. And when Konczal writes about “human dignity” in the workplace, he seems to be getting at much the same thing. Our criticisms of neoliberal economic policy tend to be grounded in a conviction that it is, at worst, overly coercive, and, at best, insufficiently emancipatory. Here, Yglesias is whole-heartedly endorsing gender parity in economic autonomy, which seems like sort of a no-brainer from my corner of the ideological spectrum.

Douthat’s critique, it’s true, accuses Yglesias of being concerned only with “some form of continued growth and a relative social stability.” But once you recognize the centrality of empowerment to Yglesias’ argument, that accusation looks pretty plainly false. Douthat seems to have misconstrued the nature of the argument by equating empowerment with an increased ability to pursue one’s “short-term rational interests” (presumably in the economic sense). That ability may be a consequence of empowerment, but they’re not identical notions — and by trying to make them appear identical, Douthat makes the classic neoliberal mistake of reducing complicated philosophical/psychological categories to their measurable economic effects.

Presumably this is so he can sap gender equality in the workplace of its moral appeal so that any state of affairs that encourages heterosexual marriage — even at the expense of gender equality — looks preferable. But for our purposes, it doesn’t really matter why Douthat makes the negative argument he does; the main takeaway is that the argument only works if you take “empowerment” to be some sort of code for “a more efficient specimen of homo economicus.” To be sure, if you’re willing to take that leap, then Douthat’s argument starts looking structurally similar to the left critique of neoliberalism in a very shallow sort of way. But once you decontextualize an argument so much that it really only amounts to, “X framework fails to account for Y,” then a lot of critiques look very similar. It doesn’t mean that the similarities are particularly meaningful.

*For a recent example of the latter type of critique, see my piece in The New Inquiry.

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Koch’d Out
March 5, 2012

Fellow denizens of the left:

You may have heard rumblings of an attempted Koch brothers takeover of the Cato Institute. You may have then asked yourself: Wait, don’t the Koch brothers already control the Cato Institute? Or you may have smirked a little bit at the notion of infighting within the party of laissez faire. Or maybe it just doesn’t seem important to you one way or another.

But personally? This dirty welfare-and-unions-loving pinko finds ample reason to be unabashedly supportive of Cato’s anti-Koch insurgency. Their economic policy output may be usually misguided, often even contemptible and sneering, but it’s still better than it would be if the organization were the Koch-subsidized GOP SuperPAC that it always has been in the progressive imagination. Independence of spirit and some sort of internal integrity is better than none of either. It certainly makes for more fruitful arguments between libertarians and the left.

Besides, Cato’s work on Internet privacy and criminal justice is invaluable (thanks in no small part to friends of the blog Julian Sanchez and Jon Blanks). If Cato gets subsumed into the conservative Beltway borg, then civil libertarians lose a stauncher ally than they’re likely to find — let’s face it — anywhere on the center-left.

But the main thing is that if intellectual freedom matters, it always matters. Keep Cato free and feisty.

Read Jon and Julian for more.

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