I'm Grateful to Have This Chance to Say Something about Gratitude

Reihan is puzzled by my bafflement regarding Anya Kamenetz. In the course of his rather more defensible spin on what he takes Kamenetz to be saying, Reihan writes:

Kamenetz is advancing the argument that there is a danger in “performative passion.” Disguising the ultimately transactional nature of employment, by offering unpaid internships that are often very different from traditional apprenticeships (which offered valuable skills in exchange for “free” labor), may well serve the interests of employers at the expense of salaried employees. Will writes, incredulously,

Is really she saying that ingratitude is a precondition for unionization?

Well, yes. It’s not clear that one should be grateful for a job, assuming you do your work and keep your nose clean. You are, after all, providing useful services in exchange, which is why you deserve a fair wage. Gratitude doesn’t enter the picture. Gratitude is, you’d think, more something you’d find in a servile society, in which employment at a fair wage is seen as an unearned privilege. This is the left has traditionally liked tight labor markets — less bowing scraping. There’s something to this.

The anti-gratitude line of thinking strikes this quasi-Mormon lad as strange and, well, ungrateful. Let’s set aside the fact that gratitude is extremely good for psychological well-being, and that people would in general be better off if they were more grateful for more things. The bone of contention is whether being offered a job merits gratitude. I think in most cases it pretty obviously does. There is no point in being anything less than wholehearted about the transactional nature of employment. But that means not being vulgarly materialistic about the nature of the transaction.

Let’s talk about unpaid internships, and then jobs. A lot of times, the transaction between an unpaid intern and an employer comes to something like this: the employee offers the intern an opportunity (to gain experience, to make contacts, to prove herself) and the intern is expected to pay for the opportunity by making the most of it. This requires doing some work, sometimes even putting your back into it. But the scales balance in these cases not because the value of intern’s labor matches her non-existent wages, but because the intern has done justice to the opportunity she has been given. She dived in, learned the trade, made a bunch of valuable contacts, showed her chutzpah, etc. That’s often enough to make an employer both satisfied and proud. I would even say that a good employer or supervisor ought to feel grateful for the good work of a good intern, for the experience of seeing someone do justice to the opportunity they’ve been given. The idea that the exchange of gratitude is an integral part of a healthy and humane workplace seems to me worth defending.

When a Cato intern does some work for me, I’m almost as concerned with what they’re getting out of it as what I am. I’m most annoyed when I feel like they are squandering their chance to get something from the experience, not when they’re not working hard—though those things are usually pretty closely related. Maybe that’s just me, but I don’t think I’m weird or unusually benovelent. Obviously, unpaid interns aren’t working to make money. They’re not trying to make money. They’re trying to get something else. Employers and supervisors know that, and are usually trying to help them get it. If some reasearching and filing gets done along the way, then that’s wonderful. The lack of pay in unpaid internships gives employers amazingly little leverage in milking labor or pretty much anything from interns. Generally people apply for unpaid internships because their track-record doesn’t merit a paying gig in that area. They may have no relevant track-record. Or lots of people with equally good records all want scarce jobs in that field. The’re often applying for the chance to prove that their labor is valuable, that they deserve a paying spot. I can’t see why you shouldn’t be grateful for being given that chance, if a chance is what you wanted.

Now, about paid work. I think the big question here is a framework issue about how to understand employer-employee relations in general. I comprehensively reject the Marx-inflected agonistic labor-capital relationship. That might be helpful in thinking about labor contracts between coal miners and management in a company town. But not so helpful in an extended competitive labor market, and especially not helpful when thinking about internships for college kids. I want to think about the relationship as a classic Smithian positive sum game, since it is. And once you’re past the most basic physical scutwork, which is not usually intern fodder, work agreements are only partially about wages.

Employers want employees who, in addition to dependably performing their assigned tasks according to the job description, are pleasant colleagues, participate in and contribute to the culture of the firm, and so on. Employees want pleasant work environments, understanding and accomodating managers, interesting work, meaningful relationships with co-workers, a sense of being valued that goes beyond the number on the paycheck, etc. Most relevant to the internship discussion, I think, is the desire to work in an area that draws on our strengths and that really engages us psychologically. And that’s what are we’re really talking about, isn’t it? Landing a job we, and lots of other people, would really like to have. Here’s Reihan:

. . . she’s on to something, particularly as her argument relates to a narrow yet significant slice of the population, namely the young people streaming into the second-tier glamour professions, e.g., publishing, prestige journalism, etc. Unpaid internships are the gatekeepers in this world, effectively excluding a lot of people from modest backgrounds. Sad to say, this is largely a function of extremely narrow margins. Only a small handful of freelancers can thrive; the rest struggle to get by, in large part because there will always be a vast, perhaps inexhaustible supply of bright, overeducated young people who want to see their names in print. This is tournament theory at its worst.

We’re talking about competition over a handful of really attractive jobs. If Kamenetz was saying that it sucks for graduates of the University of Northern Iowa, for example, that they’re at a disadvantage relative to Yalies when it comes to landing internships at the Village Voice, then I guess she’s right. But that in a nutshell is why there is a big tournament to get into Yale, right? People from modest backgrounds are effectively excluded if they didn’t get into a prestige school. But how effectively excluded are those of us who graduated mainly with connections to the Marshalltown Community Theater? Not very!

Rather relevantly, advances in technology are partly breaking down some of the old barriers to entry. I don’t know any UNI grads who interned at the Voice, or who, like Reihan and a couple of my Ivied former housemates, were “writer-researchers” at the New Republic. But a guy from my college poetry class now has his own internet media mini-empire. And a few too many of my friends got their fancy media jobs through high-quality blogging for me to worry that much about the unpaid intern faculty club good ol’ boy network. It has never been easier for people with talent to create a platform and get recognized. So let’s just keep making it easier. If the problem is TNR not employing enough up-and-comers from the hood and the sticks, then maybe you should just ask TNR to try harder to be good egalitarian meritocrats. But nobody in competitive prestige fields—not even good egalitarians—really want to gamble much on unknown quantities, which is, again, why people compete so feverishly for the signal of a prestige school. The kid who edited the Columbia Spectator is a good bet to get the punctuation right on the magazine web site. But I digress.

[Addendum: FYI, TNR “writer-researcher” is a (not very well-) paid gig. The point was just that this is an example of an highly coveted entry point in prestige media that is almost exclusive territory of prestige school graduates.]
The point was gratitude. If Reihan is right that there is an “inexhaustible supply” of overeducated young people who would all like one of same seven (give or take) jobs, then it seems like you should feel especially grateful to get one of them. If many other people deserved the opportunity as much as you did, but you got it, then I’d think you’d feel pretty glad about that, and keen to make the most of it—to do your best to honor the opportunity and balance the scale unsettled by giving the job to you rather than someone else just as ex ante deserving. This is a pretty far cry from the cigar-chomping capitalist valuing your labor at up to $10 and hour and your accepting an offer for an immiserating $2.50 because of your utter lack of other options and hence weak bargaining power. This is getting a huge break. Taking a better paying job that you like a little bit less may be disappointing, but it hardly smacks of injustice. I know a lot of people would love to have a job like mine, and I can’t imagine being anything but immensely grateful for having it.

Let’s get back to what Kamenetz said…

. . . internships promote overidentification with employers: I make sacrifices to work free, therefore I must love my work. A sociologist at the University of Washington, Gina Neff, who has studied the coping strategies of interns in communications industries, calls the phenomenon “performative passion.” … How are twentysomethings ever going to win back health benefits and pension plans when they learn to be grateful to work for nothing?

False consciousness explanations are the last refuge of the desperate. Why doesn’t the world agree with me? Brainwashing by the liberal media! Capitalist control of the organs of propaganda! Getting people to say “death tax” instead of “estate tax” turns voters into addled zombies unable to think straight! “Performative passion!” “The coping strategies of interns”? What exactly are they coping with. Well, clearly, the profound injustice of working on terms AK condescendingly disapproves of. If someone seems to really like her internship, then she must be suffering from a kind of low-grade Stockholm Syndrome. But of course, interns aren’t hostages. And in this case, the false consciousness comes after the choice to work for free. So what explains that? Why would you choose to make sacrifices to do it? Because the expected payoff is bigger than the sacrifice? Because you want a chance to do be involved in something you love? Isn’t “I’m sacrificing to work for free, therefore I must love it?” almost exactly backwards? Rather, we make sacrifices to do things we love. We perform passionately because we are passionate about what we are doing.

Summing up, I find the agonistic conception of the labor market simply odious. I think it is false as a description of the labor market in general, super-false as a description of the market for prestige intellectual work, and encourages a sensibility that is psychologically corrosive, and (ironically?) quite likely a hindrance to labor market success. Any healthy relationship, including work relationships, involves an ongoing exchange of gratitude. Proper gratitude is not servile. Gratitude is the virtuous mean between a grasping sense of entitlement, on one extreme, and servility, on the other. Nor does gratitude breed complacency and impede progressive social change. That is the work of ignorance, fear, and hopelessness.

Addendum: In response to Reihan’s absurdly kind claim that I’m “one of his favorite public intellectuals,” let me repay the compliment and say that, on paper at least, Reihan is our greatest living freestyle rapper. I’ll address other parts of Reihan’s post later.

Author: Will Wilkinson

Vice President for Research at the Niskanen Center