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Friday, Jun 2, 2006

Anya Kamenetz, author of Generation Debt, had a ludicrous editorial in The New York Times the other day about the pernicious growth of internships, which has already prompted these takedowns from economists and policy analysts. Kamenetz worries that interns are exploited on the one hand, because they are often unpaid, and that they distort the job market by taking away paying jobs from other qualified college graduates. She even compares them to illegal immigrants, which doesn’t really make any sense. Interns aren’t stupid, and they know the value of what they are doing. No one points a bayonet at them and forces them to open mail for a Conde Nast deputy editor or a state senator or whatever. The point is that interns can volunteer to work gratis because they have parents who can support them while they extend the lucrative network that got them the internship in the first place. Internships are actually well paid in social capital; the contacts you get more often than not launch you in your career (or get you out of it before it is too late). As Will Wilkinson points out in one of the takedowns linked above, Kasenetz herself profited immensely from the network her internship at the Village Voice procured for her. He writes, “I think that perhaps one thing that Kamenetz may have in common with me, and many others, is that her success shakes all our faith in the meritocracy.”


Kasenetz is right that internships “fly in the face of meritocracy — you must be rich enough to work without pay to get your foot in the door. And they enhance the power of social connections over ability to match people with desirable careers.” What’s scandalous about internships, if anything, is the nepotistic way they are usually distributed, to someone’s niece or nephew, or to the last intern’s roommate, or to the students of a college professor who has a buddy in a corporation. These sorts of internships entrench networking as basically more valuable than actual work skills, which leads people to naturally conclude that the only work skills our postindustrial economy needs are people skills, the ability to not piss people off and ingratiate oneself in the elevator. (Of course, America’s most famous recent intern found other ways to extend her people-pleasing skills.) And because the networks are nepotistic, they seal off the upper eschelons to outsiders, who have to work their way up the old-fashioned way, which is not at all, usually. That seems to me what internships are all about; they are like Ivy League admissions. Corporations get the “right” people in whlie extorting something from them (free labor, onerous application fees, etc.) to make it look less egregious. Economists tend to reject these sorts of complaints about meritocracy’s failure with the tough-shit apothegm: the upper class always has the advantage in every situation (not just internships), so that inherent fact becomes an externality. As Andrew Samwick puts it in his takedown: “No one would deny the simple fact that students who come from well off families have more opportunities than those who come from less well off families.” Yes, it is a simple fact, but it is still lamentable, and democracies, if they are to mean anything other than laissez-faire economics, should address it and work to correct it. Internships do the opposite; they preserve the advantage and mystify it so it doesn’t seem so outrageously unfair.


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Friday, Jun 2, 2006

Excellent article from the Guardian: Adam Webb’s Making a song and dance


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Thursday, Jun 1, 2006

Some more on that director from Sotheby’s astounding declaration in BusinessWeek that China is “an exciting, hip and cool place to be collecting.” Art, Chinese or otherwise, generally just sits there inert, unchanging. But by claiming that it is “cool” and/or “hip” one inserts it into the fashion cycle, which allows it to be used up, even if it doesn’t make the art entirely useful. In other words, because it can be used up, it can suddenly be consumed, something we all understand without any special art-history instruction. Better still, in consuming its “cool”  we are really consuming our own ability to keep up with cool rather than the specific artwork itself, which gets left behind and is actually insignificant to this process. “Cool” always elevates us to the level of the abstract, wherein we ourselves are the only real substantial thing. We are raised to a heightened awareness of ourselves, and our own ability to anticipate fashion’s flow, or at least follow it adeptly and belong to an elite status group. We become all-meaningful and Chinese art means nothing, a temporary signifier, a placeholder for ourselves, the people who are actually important.


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Wednesday, May 31, 2006

BusinessWeek ran a short item about collecting Chinese art that featured one of Sotheby’s directors declaring that China is “an exciting, hip and cool place to be collecting.” Not only is it exciting but it’s hip and also cool? So I guess collecting there is not a bad idea because it doesn’t suck. Chinese art is totally awesome because it’s so amazingly righteous and far out.


The redundancy here makes it obvious that words like hip and cool don’t really mean anything objective, that they are just overheated rhetorical attempts to generate excitement. But nevertheless the world is saturated with coolhunters and hipsters who are all brokering these empty concepts into a way of making a living. This item makes clear what is pretty much always the case, that these words signify nothing but the ability for someone to make a quick buck, probably at your expense. They who will profit have already got there first and declared it “cool,” which means they probably own the rights to the proceeds of its exploitation, whether “it” is Chinese art, cell-phone TV shows, an energy drink or a band about to break through. When something is held to be cool, it’s best to avoid it unless you want to pay to be swept up in some pointless phenomenon for the hell of it—unless you are one of those people who like to do the wave at stadiums and ignore the game that’s going on.


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Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Why are business best-sellers so frequently idiotic, when businesspeople themselves are not? Peter Hansen’s review of business books like Who Moved My Cheese? suggests a few answers. (Also, it’s astounding that a blog for a fairly obscure think-tank publication could attract this much comment spam.) It may be that motivational business books are primarily escapist vehicles offering a simplistic world of easy answers, many of which any sentient reader will have already thought of his own. This makes a reader feel smart and secure, reassuring him that his own thoughts are probably sufficient enough to help him weather any career crises. But for those nonsentient denizens of the cubicled world, they are escapist by allowing people to dream of taking clear and simple steps toward success (always simplified into sheer wealthiness) while sitting around having facile fables decoded for them in third-grade level prose. As Hansen puts it, “People who merely dream of being big winners in the rat race are the ones actually reading these books; the real winners, the successful entrepreneurs and executives, can’t have time for such distractions.” Achievers don’t need their intellect flattered by reading silly books and anticipating their self-evident arguments. They actually confront the challenges of surviving capitalism’s brutal competition. (A side thought: capitalism’s defenders always like to tout the healthful benefits of competition to character, yet it seems that the loudest defenders of competition against welfare-state interventionism are those who know full well that the game is already rigged in their favor).


Hansen also points out the dark side of these books, what he calls their “peculiarly American nihilism” which suspends all ethical judgments and reduces all forms of friendship to self-interested manipulation, what economists sometimes like to call “rationality.” This generally culminates logically in advice to be a kiss-up, kick-down management stoolie in order to get ahead in hierarchical power structures. Such books refuse to acknowledge a skill as useful if it can’t be used to help a corporation grow: “One subtle effect of books like [Now, Discover Your Strengths] is to redefine human strengths as the ones that productive organizations in fact need. The authors encourage us to discover our strengths so that we can put them to use in our careers. Thus empathy makes one suited for sales (rather than, say, friendship or raising children); imagination makes one suited for formulating business strategy (rather than art or, if allied with other abilities, philosophy or science); and so forth. There is no suggestion that our strengths or virtues point to anything higher than our careers.” In Hanson’s view, this fosters a false consciousness that redeems the emptiness of our atomized lives (stripped as they are of meaningful community or family ties) by stressing the workplace as the arena where one discovers identity. I’m more inclined to think they rationalize the absence of meaningful work for most people in this economy and try to drum up significance for workplace accomplishments that leave most of us feeling hollow. Soul-crushing jobs and rote consumerism don’t add up to fulfillment, no matter how much family joy you inject into it.


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