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.]

Author: Will Wilkinson

Vice President for Research at the Niskanen Center