Are Unpaid Internships A Social Evil? Ask Our Political Leaders

Next time you notice some politician demanding a higher minimum wage and denouncing private employers for underpaying labor, chances are good the message reached you with the help of an unpaid student intern. Last week a Washington Post opinion contributor unsurprisingly revealed that the Obama White House is itself taking on about 150 such interns this summer, even as it keeps dreaming up new ways to extend and toughen the coverage of the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 for everyone else. New York State Sen. Daniel Squadron, sponsor of a bill to raise the minimum wage at many employers to $15/hour, turns out to offer his own unpaid internships (minimum commitment: 3 days a week), while Del. Heather Mizeur, the left-most Democratic candidate for Maryland governor, has advised would-be Campaign Fellows that “All positions are unpaid and you must provide your own phone and laptop.”  All this following two years of agitation by labor activists and class-action lawyers about the iniquity of unpaid internships.

More about politicians’ double standards in a moment: should, in fact, the government ban such internships for private employers? I answer “no” in a new U.S. News “Debate Club” also featuring an entry by Dan Rothschild of R Street Institute as well as contributions by three advocates of a ban. Excerpt from mine:

With eyes wide open, students with many options have long sought out voluntary unpaid internships because they’re an arrangement that can rationally benefit both sides.

In an Auburn University working paper last month (via), four economists reported on a study that found internship experience was associated with a 14 percent increase in the rate at which prospective employers request interviews of job seekers. As a predictor of the rate of callbacks, an internship on the resume actually worked much better than a business degree itself.

Yet class-action lawyers and labor activists now attack internships as — in the trendy, elastic new term — “wage theft.” These same lawyers and activists go to court demanding millions of dollars retrospectively over arrangements both sides understood perfectly well at the time to be unpaid — and think shakedowns like these should *not* be called “theft.” …

In modern America, it’s never more than a short jump from “this set-up isn’t for everyone” to “let’s ban it.”

I go on to discuss the sclerosis of the European job market, especially when it comes to youth employment, and observe that the “campaign against internships is part of a wider campaign against low-pay work options in general — call it a campaign to get rid of any stepping stones in the stream that aren’t sturdy enough to support a whole family.” And I note the curious contrast with higher education pointed out by my colleague Andrew Coulson: “Paying to Learn Nothing = Legal. Paying Nothing to Learn = Illegal.”

But back to the politicos. My reaction to the stories above is not to try to shame President Obama or Sen. Squadron. To begin with, we know exactly what fix they are likely to propose once we “win” that debate: mulct taxpayers in Terre Haute and Ticonderoga to provide stipends for highly credentialed White House or Albany interns who are already probably headed for the top 10 percent of the income distribution no matter what. Another victory for salving our consciences about inequality!

Instead, I hope stories like the above lead some supporters of Obama, Squadron and Mizeur to rethink their notions of exploitation and unpaid labor. Why wouldn’t a 22-year-old with a laptop and a few free months take a flyer to work for a dynamic political operation, or (mutatis mutandis) hang out in a foreign correspondent’s office, or be the coffee-bringer while getting to see how a Hollywood studio makes a film? Why shouldn’t consenting parties be free to make a choice like these for themselves, rather than our presuming to make it for them? [adapted and expanded from Overlawyered]