by Rob Horning

2 June 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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