Monday, April 05, 2010

Saving us from ourselves

I believe Paul Krugman and others on the left have advanced the argument that government performs less well under Republican administrations because of the deep skepticism and resentment of government with which the political right views government. The argument holds that its basically akin to putting a vegetarian in charge of a butcher shop. I'll leave it to others to assess the merits of the argument.

This article reminded me however, that even if Krugman's theory is correct, we should also keep in mind the dangers of staffing public sector positions with those who deeply believe in the power of government and zealously carry out their assigned roles. It's a reminder that paying government officials to sleep at their desk rather than perform actual work may be money well spent:
With job openings scarce for young people, the number of unpaid internships has climbed in recent years, leading federal and state regulators to worry that more employers are illegally using such internships for free labor.

Convinced that many unpaid internships violate minimum wage laws, officials in Oregon, California and other states have begun investigations and fined employers. Last year, M. Patricia Smith, then New York’s labor commissioner, ordered investigations into several firms’ internships. Now, as the federal Labor Department’s top law enforcement official, she and the wage and hour division are stepping up enforcement nationwide.
Let's think about this for a minute. Unpaid internships are a consensual relationship where interns do not earn a wage. Instead they are compensated for their labor in the form of experience. If the experience is viewed as insufficient compensation they can always leave. So what's the problem? The interns obviously think this arrangement is worth their while, otherwise they would sever ties with the employer (now if interns are being chained to their desks or prohibited from leaving their employer's premises by armed guards, that's something else).

In steps the Labor Department to save these interns from themselves. While defenders of activist government can cite the back wages paid to interns in certain circumstances following government intervention as vindication of the more activist approach, the net result will almost assuredly be a greater reluctance on the part of employers to take on unpaid interns. Who needs more government harassment or a potential lawsuit?

Eliminating an unpaid internship program will be a small inconvenience for most employers, given that interns are low productive employees who lack experience (the whole reason they are there in the first place). Those who will bear the brunt of this initiative are the potential unpaid interns who will be denied an avenue to obtain the experience needed to compete in an ever more competitive job environment. The government is ultimately hurting those it means to help. Once again we discover the road that leads to hell is paved with good intentions.

On a personal note I performed an unpaid internship one summer to gain experience. I think it played a role in finding work after college. Too bad that because of an overzealous government some other college students may not have the same opportunities.

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