The Baffling Mind of Anya Kamenetz

Anya Kamenetz's mind is an ideological funhouse mirror designed to baffle and enrage the economically literate. In an op-ed yesterday in the NY Times, Kamenetz laments the rise of unpaid internships, and asks the question foremost in all our minds: “What if the growth of unpaid internships is bad for the labor market and for individual careers?”

Kamenetz suggests, sensibly enough, that some students might be better off getting a paying gig rather than going into debt to finance an unpaid internship. Otherwise the article is a bundle of nonsense packaged in hypocrisy.

It's hard to know what to pick out, let's try here:

Although it's not being offered this year, the A.F.L.-C.I.O.'s Union Summer internship program, which provides a small stipend, has shaped thousands of college-educated career organizers. And yet interestingly, the percentage of young workers who hold an actual union card is less than 5 percent, compared with an overall national private-sector union rate of 12.5 percent. How are twentysomethings ever going to win back health benefits and pension plans when they learn to be grateful to work for nothing?

So, the Cato Institute has an internship program that has turned out thousands of highly informed college educated libertarians. Would it be “interesting” to note that, say, only 5 percent of twenty-somethings are libertarians? I don't know. Are you interested? I think she meant “tragically,” or better yet, “embarrassingly,” not “interestingly.” It would be more interesting—more informative at least—to know at what age most unionized workers got their union cards. I imagine that less than 1 percent of 18 year olds have a union card. At that rate how will 18 year olds ever achieve social justice! (Let us not speak of the rates of union participation among 12 year olds!) The last sentence above is a triumph of misguided hope over intelligence. Lavish benefits packages—the sort causing GM to tank—will return just as soon as workers become less grateful and more unionized? Is really she saying that ingratitude is a precondition for unionization?

Moving on…

The Bureau of Labor Statistics does not identify interns or track the economic impact of unpaid internships. But we can do a quick-and-dirty calculation: according to Princeton Review's “Internship Bible,” there were 100,000 internship positions in 2005. Let's assume that out of those, 50,000 unpaid interns are employed full time for 12 weeks each summer at an average minimum wage of $5.15 an hour. That's a nearly $124 million yearly contribution to the welfare of corporate America.

Hold on! Earlier, Kamenetz mentions unpaid internships on Capitol Hill, which is full of more corporate shills than it should be, but still. Here in DC, surely the intern capital of America, most of the gigs are in government and non-profits. Anyway, just a few paragraphs back, Kamenetz writes that “unpaid internships are not jobs, only simulations,” in which case one would expect them to be making only a simulated contribution to the concern, corporate or not, to which they are attached. Are unpaids really working or aren't they? Pick one!

This may be my favorite:

In this way, unpaid interns are like illegal immigrants. They create an oversupply of people willing to work for low wages, or in the case of interns, literally nothing. Moreover, a recent survey by Britain's National Union of Journalists found that an influx of unpaid graduates kept wages down and patched up the gaps left by job cuts.

Those first two sentences are . . . good lord . . . they are . . . a veritable library containing volume upon volume of what Kamenetz doesn't understand about social reality. Man, I've gotta say, the whole world crashes in upon your head these days—ideological shock troops descend to declaim your scientific illiteracy—if you raise a well-informed peep about the uncertain art of modeling immensely complex dynamic systems, like the climate, mathematically. Yet you can nonsensically say that there is “an oversupply of people willing to work for low wages” without the editors of the NYT batting an eye, apparently.

Kamenetz means what by “oversupply”? That there are people willing to work for low wages milling around with nothing to do—that there is a high unemployment rate for workers willing to work for low wages? That's what an “oversupply” of workers should mean. But no. Kamenetz's complaint is that too many people are working and getting paid—paid less than Anya Kamenetz thinks they should. I don't know if Kamenetz has had a bad experience with an intern, or a Mexican, but why would she should would want to deny them the right work on terms they find attractive? What is the correct supply of people, like interns, willing to work for nothing? How about people willing to pay to work for you? How many of those should we allow? Let us consult the planners… Kamenetz clearly wants to subsidize certain privileged classes of workers by creating barriers to free labor market participation. The “correct” supply of Mexicans and free interns is, I suppose, a function of how big Kamenetz thinks that subsidy should be. Of course, she has no idea how big. She hasn't even thought about it.

Last, I guess we should not be shocked to discover that Kamenetz—now infamous for her socially tone-deaf braggadocio over her overabundance of wedding silver as she was promoting her book about the inescapable financial woes of twenty-somethings like her!—may well be the poster child for the benefits of the unpaid internship. In her column she writes,

I was an unpaid intern at a newspaper from March 2002, my senior year, until a few months after graduation. I took it for granted, as most students do, that working without pay was the best possible preparation for success; parents usually agree to subsidize their offspring's internships on this basis. But what if we're wrong?

Well, she certainly didn't mislead her no doubt generous parents. On her personal website, Kamenetz reproduces a profile from the Boston Phoenix, which tell us that:

She began contributing as an intern for the Village Voice — writing music and book reviews — during her senior year in college. A Voice assignment on “the new economics of being young” soon turned into the “Generation Debt” column.

And the “Generation Debt” column turned into the Generation Debt book published by a Penguin imprint, which won her a growing reputation for semi-coherent economics and labor punditry—op-eds in the NY Times, even, about how unpaid internships, like the one that made her semi-famous, are just terrible.

Those of us who cringe in sympathetic embarrassment upon reading Anya Kamenetz's attempts at “analysis” can only wish she had followed her own advice to spend “Long hours on your feet waiting tables,” doing work that “may not be particularly edifying,” learning “that work is a routine of obligation, relieved by external reward, where you contribute value to a larger enterprise.” And may the Voice have the courage to bar the doors against odious free labor, and spare us all.

[Update: Just checked Technorati links… Garance Franke-Ruta thinks Kamenetz's piece is “brilliant“! However, it speaks well of young Ezra Klein that “Anya Kamenetz's op-ed didn't make much sense to [him].” Elsewehere, Andrew Samwick, a real economist, “shakes [his] head in disbelief” and points out the “sheer lunacy” of Kamenetz's argument. 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.]

What's the Message, Washington?

Paul Graham says

I find every ambitious town sends you a message. New York tells you “you should make more money.” LA tells you “you should be better looking.” Rome tells you “you should dress better.” London tells you “you should be hipper.” The Bay Area tells you “you should live better.” And Cambridge tells you “you should read some of those books you've been meaning to.”

What does Washington, DC tell you?

The first thing that came to my mind is: “you should get more powerful friends.” What are you hearing?

Tories for Happiness

The politics of happiness research just got a bit more interesting. British Conservative leader David Cameron is now campaigning on a happiness platform. In a speech at a conference organized by Google in Hertfordshire, Cameron said,

It's time we admitted that there's more to life than money, and it's time we focused not just on GDP, but on GWB—General Well-Being.

This is interesting because up until now, the politics of “well-being” have been primarily a welfare-liberal or social democratic phenomenon. So why the happiness schtick for the Tories? Why now? The Financial Times editorial page says:

Continue reading “Tories for Happiness”

Formula for What? Aggregation v. Coordination

The BBC has been running a six part documentary called The Happiness Formula that appears to buy in almost completely to Lord Layard's technocratic Benthamite vision. I'll be putting up several posts responding to a number of the articles posted on the BBC website. For now, here is Daniel Ben-Ami at Spiked Online, who begins with the fundamental objection:

The critical flaw of the BBC's new six-part documentary on happiness was apparent from the start. It assumed that happiness should be the key goal for society and then set out to illustrate the contention. . .

A crucial distinction that I'm willing to make over and over is the distinction between aggregative and coordinative conceptions of social goals.

In an aggregative or summative conception, the goal is simply to maximize the amount of something valuable, such as happiness or pleasure. Aggregative conceptions of the social good run into Rawls/Nozick separateness of persons problems, since individuals are treated primarily as little containers for value. We should want individuals to contain as much of THE VALUE as possible not primarily because that's what makes their life go well from their point of view. Indeed, it may not be; we may wish to dispassionately contemplate significant form, to exhaust ourselves in pursuit of an elusive, recondite truth, or to achieve purity of spirit through mortification of the flesh. Well, too bad. Our projects have worth only insofar as the advance THE PROJECT—maximizing the balance of pleasure over pain.

Ben-Ami rightly notes that “the pursuit of happiness” in the Declaration names a right, not a duty. In the basically Lockean conception of agency common to many of the American Founders, it was taken as a basic psychological truth that action is motivated by the prospect of our own happiness, because that's the way God made us. Interference with the pursuit of what God created us to pursue contravenes the laws of nature, and not even Kings have authority to do that. Given that we are each motivated by happiness, given that we will seek our self-interest, how can a society's institutions coordinate thousands of individual happiness-oriented pursuits. Whan Adams says “the divine science of politics is the science of social happiness, and the blessings of society depend entirely on the constitutions of government,” he has in mind the way constitutions structure or coordinate individual behavior. “Social happiness” is a not a sum of individual utilities. Social happiness is a well-ordered system in which millions of acts of individual self-interest are harmoniously coordinated.

Now, Enlightenment psychological hedonism is false. People can and are motivated by all sorts of things. However, it remains that individuals are motivated almost entirely by their individual projects, if not by happiness or pleasure. We can bracket the questions of what motivates us, and of what is ultimately valuable, and find that the question of social happiness—the question of the “divine science of politics”—construed as the problem of creating a stable set of institutions that coordinates and orders the pursuit of our individual projects, remains in full force.

Now, happiness is a primary goal for very many people, and so knowledge of what contributes to happiness will be useful indeed. But it is a giant mistake to assume that happiness is the sole value, that science says so, or to extrapolate from millions of happiness-oriented projects to THE PROJECT, which is a pernicious myth. The divine science of social happiness is not the science of summation, it is the science of coordination.

[Cross-posted from Happiness and Public Policy.]

Précarité is the Price You Must Pay

One of the things I've learned in my study of the happiness literature is that people don't take enough risks. The evidence seems to indicate that many people would be happier if they quit their job and either went into business for themselves, or found a new job that better matched their individual strengths—even if it is a job that pays significantly less. (You can take a quiz here, at psychologist Martin Seligman's website, to find out what your signature strengths are.)

Because we are so risk-averse—so wary of experiencing losses—and because we tend to predict that the downside of a risky decision will be bigger than it actually will be, doing what is most likely to make us happy—taking the periodic entrepreneurial gamble—requires a kind of bravery. But that's just the personal side of the matter. Culturally, we need a climate of opinion that values risk and rewards initiative with respect and praise, reinforcing and encouraging personal courage. Institutionally, we need a flexible labor market that allows us to easily enter and exit new jobs in search of a good match for our interests and strengths, and a system of laws that does not make it difficult and expensive for people to start their own businesses.

This interesting article from Sunday's Boston Globe about Brett Zaccardi, who dropped out of college to start his own “alternative media and communications agency,” makes this point well, even drawing on psychologist Daniel Gilbert's work on predicting our future feelings:

When it comes to career schemes, we do not have accurate imaginations about what life will be like for us in different situations, says Daniel Gilbert, professor of psychology and author of ''Stumbling on Happiness.” Our most accurate information about what will make us happy comes from snooping on other people to see if they are happy. And the best way to watch other people is to be in a variety of offices. Gilbert calls the informal process of judging other peoples' happiness ''surrogation.” He says ''surrogation is the best way to predict if we'll be happy. Observe how happy people are in different situations.”

. . .

So what do you need to know before you decide? Figure out what was bad about the jobs you've had so you don't duplicate the problem. Then just start testing the waters — put a toe in the current to see how it feels. Then take a leap, and if you don't like where you land, reframe your landing pad as just a steppingstone. And put your foot in the water again.

''We should have more trust in our own resilience and less confidence in our predictions about how we'll feel,” Gilbert says. ''We should be a bit more humble and a bit more brave.”

Clearly, this kind of serial toe dipping and steppingstone strolling requires an institutional climate where labor market entry and exit is easy, and where starting a new business is not a huge hassle. The predictable consequence of this kind of openness and dynamism will be a bit of volatility in employment and earnings, but if that's what it takes, that's what it takes.

Now, compare this absolutely gob smacking exchange between writer James Traub and Ségolène Royal in Traub's NYT Magazine profile of the French politician (via Virginia Postrel):

In fact, Royal seems innocent of any taint of economic liberalism. She regards Villepin's peremptory imposition of the new law as a sign of a systematic failure to listen to ordinary people; but she does not view the national suspicion of market forces as a comparable source of paralysis. I was surprised, I said during our interview, that someone whose entire life constituted a triumph over adversity would join the campaign to insure against précarité….Royal countered my observation with a familiar refrain: “The problem is that everybody isn't subject to insecurity. Do you see businessmen being fired for incompetence? The young see politicians, who also have a stable and secure job, being civil servants, lecturing others on insecurity. So the young graduate will say, 'In the name of what am I going to sign an insecure contract?' ”

Then the conversation took an odd turn. Royal asked me, with the air of someone pulling out a trump card, “Are you in an insecure situation?” Actually, I explained, as a contract writer for this magazine, I have little security.

Royal wasn't going to be put off the scent that easily. “Yes, but how many years does your contract last?”

“I sign a new one every year.”

Now she was frankly incredulous. “You could be fired every year?” For all her own experience, Royal apparently viewed précarité as a kind of socioeconomic stigma rather than the price you might choose to pay for freedom. Or maybe you could say that for her, as for the left generally–and not only in France–market liberalism and globalization have the status merely of fact, which is categorically inferior to a right. This is no less so if the fact appears to obviate the right. “The global economy shouldn't be supported by wage earners,” Royal insisted. “They have to be able to build a future, like any human being.”

This is amazing in part because many of us have never had anything but an “at-will” contract, according to which we can be fired any minute. And we should consider ourselves lucky. Societies obsessed with abolishing précarité—the so-called precariousness of dynamic markets—tend to implement rules that lock people into the first career track they set foot in, or lock people (immigrants especially) out of the labor market altogether. Regulatory insulation against employment and wage instability does provide a kind of stability—just not the kind that makes for satisfied lives. You get, on the one hand, stable sub-optimal matches between individual strengths and jobs, since it is difficult under those conditions to dip your toes in lots of different currents. In which case, careers are less likely to be seen as “callings” and work is less likely to be experienced as meaningful and intrinsically satisfying (causing demand for things like six hour work days and six weeks of vacation to go up.) On the other hand, you get stable levels of high unemployment. Studies show that long-term unemployment delivers a big hit to happiness only slightly less toxic than divorce. As it turns out, a little précarité is not simply, as Traub writes “the price you must choose to pay for freedom,” but the price you must pay for happiness.

[Cross-posted from Cato@Liberty.]