Sunday, October 05, 2008

For a need-based economy?

The questions my last post on unpaid internships brought up are as follows: a) What's unfair about unpaid internships if those who take them are rich kids anyway, and b) what does it matter who gets to go into low-paid fields like journalism? (There was also a comment calling me a "poor little rich girl," by someone who has not read the terms of my TA-ship, it appears. No, grad students aren't exactly 'poor,' but cultural capital won't buy you a dishwasher.) So, one at a time.

On the one hand, a college kid whose parents cover rent, food, and tuition does not seem deserving of payment. On the other, labor done is labor done. See: The Ethicist. In this sense, work is not need-based. Individual hiring decisions (see: bosses who hire immigrant labor over summer-job-seeking students, either out of altruism or out of an idea of who'll do the most work for the least pay for the longest time), work-study programs, scholarships, and so on are another matter. Once hired, he who completes a task that contributes to a firm's income receives compensation. The worker's possible outside sources of wealth don't enter into it.

If I seem biased, it could be because I worked during college, even though the money I made went straight to H&M and mochas. Perhaps I should have refrained from applying to work at the library and subsequent jobs, hoping someone more deserving would take my spot. But I felt I'd be embarrassed with myself to be an adult whose parents paid for absolutely everything, even while acknowledging that I was not financially independent. I just felt that if I was old enough to have a beer, I was old enough to work to pay for it. Did this make me a more or less objectionable rich-college-kid? Clearly, and understandably, to many who do/did pay their own way, all students getting help from their parents are inherently objectionable. But so long as their are families that can afford--in part or whole-- to send their kids to college, it's worth considering what's the more ethical option for those in that situation.

Post-college, as is the normal situation, I pay my own bills and rent. But I'm still someone who grew up in a posh part of Manhattan, and I benefit from the privilege that comes with being pale and from that locale. Yet no one calls me up at the end of each pay period to ask whether maybe, given the advantages I've had, we should send my entire paycheck to someone more unfortunate. I work, I get paid, end of story. Which is convenient, given that having the mannerisms and style of dress of a given class will not, on its own, pay my rent.

Taking this away from the tedious realm of the personal, what we have to ask is, do we want the youth from better-off families working or not? Even if one can only really know 'the value of a dollar' if one is working to feed three kids, the experiences of work--responsibility, dealing with bosses, budgeting paychecks--still, to use a tired expression, build character. Keeping 'the rich' (again, broadly defined) in unpaid positions means 'saving' work for those who need it, but it also means creating an upper class extremely alienated from the rest of the country. One often hears people tell the idle rich to get a job; should we denigrate those who do with equal enthusiasm? Repeating 'your privilege is showing' or some such will not help breed a class of somewhat-less-obnoxious rich individuals; encouraging the rich to work just might.

Of course, nothing stops the truly wealthy from volunteering rather than working (and no, interning for free at Conde Nast is not 'volunteering'), or from donating their paycheck to charity. This is, however, a reasonable solution only for the select few --what of a college student whose parents pay for tuition, room and board, and nothing more? What about the recent college grad who'd have the option of moving back in with his parents and volunteering, but who chooses instead to work, so as to live in his own place? There's a wide range between money being no object and needing to work to survive. The question remains: should one have to demonstrate need to be paid for one's work, and how dire a need must there be?

Which brings us to b). Yes, it does matter if fields like journalism are restricted to the rich. Public-opinion makers should not come exclusively from one class of society. This, of course, leads to the question of the survival of print journalism, which I don't feel like addressing/feel qualified to address.


Daniel said...

Have you read any Peter Singer? Particularly, Famine, Affluence, and Morality. He promotes the idea that anybody living in any level abundance while other people in the world starve is morally indefensible. That is, instead of using money to increase our level of comfort (or pay for beer), regardless of whether we earned it or not, we are morally obligated to donate the money to alleviate the poverty of others.

Phoebe said...

I've heard of the argument, but haven't read that book. I doubt many people share that view, but at any rate it shouldn't apply more to college students than to others. For those with a less-extreme take on the matter, do we want the young and privileged 'knowing an honest day's work' or not? Is the loss of having someone already well-to-do making an extra $100 a week offset by the gain to society of that person's character-building?

Daniel said...

Heh. I guess that whether or not earning an extra $100 a week actually builds character depends on what the actual job is. I worked some in school (never when I thought it would threaten my school work), but it was generally issues research for political campaigns and wasn't particularly taxing. Compare that with friends I had in college who were waiting tables at The Cheesecake Factory and it is not what I (and much of the Joe SixPack society) would call character building work, even though both are an "honest day's work."

And besides, in the sort of feel good way that makes for sappy movies about how we all should 'give back' and Dr. Singer would approve of, doesn't it build more character for the student whose parents pay for room, board, and tuition to spend his time volunteering (or working and donating all his money) than working for leisure money? At least, I suspect that that sort of character building is better for "society."

(Reading back, I think I digressed a bit... sorry)

Daniel said...

P.S. Famine, Affluence, and Morality is just a paper. So, easily skimmed.

Phoebe said...

Volunteering/donating and working part-time are not mutually exclusive--again, assuming non-Singer-extremist positions, we could say the ideal student would do both.

But I would say the character-building that comes from working is not necessarily less beneficial to society than that which comes of working for one's own purchases. It's worth getting used to the idea that sometimes you have to do things you don't find enjoyable (or, as with volunteering, meaningful) in order to get something you tangibly want. I felt I got this out of the jobs I had while an undergrad, jobs of both the Joe-Six-Pack and the effete-college-student variety. When you work for pay, your employer assumes your pay is your reward, and does not need to treat you as delicately as a professor, volunteer coordinator, friend, or family member would. In short, dealing with a boss is a humbling experience. The 'never worked a day' kid has not had this experience, and society suffers from that.

Daniel said...

I agree... it's pro-society character-building to learn the lesson of delayed gratification. That's the way it is going to be later in life and the sooner it is learned, the better.
But I think that the actual job that is done impacts the extent to which that lesson is learned.

Andrew Stevens said...

Just to clarify my question on the previous thread where I asked if we should require pay for volunteers, it was a genuine question since you had said "for moral and perhaps legal reasons, no job's pay should be 'zero,' even if there are many people willing to take the job at no pay." This would seem to include volunteer work, though I have no objection to your qualifying it so that it doesn't. I 100% agree that a distinction can and probably should be made between an unpaid intern and a volunteer. However, the reason why unpaid interns are legal is because unpaid interns have been recognized as being "volunteers" legally. It is still common practice for people who want to break into medical or veterinary fields to volunteer in order to gain job experience. I don't think many people object to the practice in fields like health care. It's when it filtered into professions where people don't normally volunteer that the objections started.

And, for what it's worth, I have no objections to students' getting help from their parents and I certainly don't find it inherently objectionable. I believe parents who help put their kids through school are going above and beyond and it's probably to their credit, but parents certainly don't have a moral obligation to do so. Student loans are readily available and cheap. We hear all the time about how much money a college degree is worth (the present value of which is usually, though not always, greater than its cost), so it certainly doesn't seem unjust to have the beneficiary of that increase in earning power pay for it him or herself.

And you have to give credit to New York Times Magazine. When they decided to pick a guy to write a column called The Ethicist, they decided to choose a journalist with no training whatsoever (or even any interest in) ethical philosophy and, indeed, no ethical philosophy whatsoever. Jacob Levy wrote a good article about Cohen shortly after Cohen started his egregious column. As he points out, most of what Cohen does is dispense Ann Landers-ish advice and when he strays from that, he just sounds like an ignoramus with a rather obvious political ideology, rather than an ethical philosophy.

Now, Peter Singer is another caliber of thinker altogether. It is a joy to read Singer. I do believe he is often wrong, but it can be devilishly difficult to figure out why (whereas with Cohen, it is usually immediately obvious why he is wrong).

Phoebe said...

The Ethicist may often be wrong, and may be fully unqualified, but in the case I link to, he was correct. How correct he was was apparently memorable, which is how I remembered that not-so-recent column well enough to link to it.

As for not objecting to parents helping their kids, you might not, but you could well be the exception. The entire comment threads to any post referring to college students on, say, Gawker, leads to one rant after the next, each a variant of, 'I had to work as a waitress to pay for my state-school education, so I hate rich college kids whose parents pay for everything.'

And, back to the volunteer question. It is easy to imagine what it means, morally, to volunteer in a hospital. What would it mean to volunteer at a fashion magazine? This is where I think unpaid internships enter into it--they simply used to be called entry-level jobs, but everything got bumped back a bit once employers realized they could start paying only at level 2.

Phoebe said...

What I now realize this post didn't quite make clear is how this relates to the previous one. Basically, the question was whether white (implication: wealthy, since they were already known to be working unpaid) college students are justified in asking that their internships be paid. Gawker said no, I said yes.

Daniel said...

Andrew: "Now, Peter Singer is another caliber of thinker altogether. It is a joy to read Singer. I do believe he is often wrong, but it can be devilishly difficult to figure out why."

That is exactly what I find so delightful about reading Singer. It always takes me a while of thinking about some of his ideas to figure out what about it I (fundamentally) don't agree with. Sometimes, I fall back on the whole "foolish consistency being the hobgoblin of little minds" rationale, but that always seems like something of a cop-out.

Will121 said...

Although it’s a bit off topic from Pheobe’s post, I don’t want to let all this pro Singer stuff go completely unqualified. Although I generally like the guy’s work, I do think it has problems.

When you use a utilitarian framework you can have what I’ll imprecisely call “weighted utilitarianism” in which every entity worthy of moral consideration has both a utility number and a weighting of how important their utility number is when maximizing overall utility or you can have unweighted utilitarianism where every entity worthy of moral consideration has utility number and all are equally important in your maximization function.

From his many arguments for vegetarianism, its pretty clear Singer considers animals as being worthy of moral consideration (as I think people probably should). However, if you use an unweighted utilitarianism with animals worthy of consideration, then there is no way to not reach the conclusion that you are obligated to sell all your possessions, donate the proceeds to greenpeace, and then kill yourself posthaste since even the most minimalist low impact modern existence probably causes more pain to animals than the utility we experience. (To make clear that I’m not straw manning Singer, I’ll note that he does not advocate mass suicides)

From the non advocacy of mass suicide, we can tell that he is for some kind of weighed utilitarianism. The problem is once you get to weighted utilitarianism all the ethical heavy lifting lies in assigning weights as basically any moral choice can be flipped one way or the other by changing the weights of the effected parties. From the Singer I’ve read (which is not all his work, as I’ve mostly focused on his animal welfare articles) he doesn’t provide a great mechanism for assigning weights which means on some level you are just doing higher order hand waving when making moral decisions in a Singer framework.

Miss Self-Important said...

Short of elevating StreetWise to national opinion-making status, how exactly are journalists--who typically require at least a college education--going to be culled from among the poor? Even if journalists begin poor, by the time they've gone through college and gotten work experience, they're pretty middle class. Journalism is a highly status-remunerative field (as you say in your post above), and at those publications where that's not the case (the Podunk Gazette), there is usually only limited public-opinion making taking place.

Also, why does everyone look at the parents-paying-for-college scenario from the perspective of the receiving (therefore "spoiled") child? What about the parents who have worked hard with the goal of giving their children as many advantages as possible? Don't they have an ethical claim too?

Daniel said...

Will121, I don't think that anybody was unequivocally praising Singer. I think that we were merely saying that he is enjoyable to read just because he challenges so many assumptions and beliefs that we have.

MSI - I've had an ongoing version of the debate about parents-paying-for-college scenario from the perspective of the child. Basically, it comes down to Rawls' veil of ignorance. I have trouble with the veil of ignorance precisely because we aren't randomly born into a random spot in society. From a parent's perspective, the parent's work hard and save and provide for their children precisely so that the child will have a leg up. Our ancestors made decisions (within some constraints) specifically to impact their progeny. So, in a sense, I agree that the parents have ethical claims - so much as you believe that one generation is tied to its history and ancestors.

Andrew Stevens said...

Within a utilitarian framework, Singer makes some phenomenal points. As Will121 points out, it is possible to avoid some of Singer's conclusions even in a utilitarian framework and I agree with Will121 that Singer isn't quite bold enough to agree with the Voluntary Human Extinction Movement, even though his logic does seem to lead there. It's fascinating since Singer normally isn't afraid to go wherever his logic leads.

Singer, by the way, certainly doesn't act consistently with his moral views. He doesn't himself live anywhere near as simply as he advocates people living. He himself would and does correctly point out that the fact that he does not and possibly cannot live up to his own philosophy doesn't falsify his philosophy and he's right about that. The problem with his philosophy is that, while it might be appropriate for gods or angels, it is clearly inappropriate for human beings here on planet Earth.

I disagree with Singer primarily because I'm not a utilitarian of any sort, weighted or otherwise. W.D. Ross had probably the best critique of utilitarianism. Utilitarianism, he said, "seems to simplify unduly our relations to our fellows. It says, in effect, that the only morally significant relation in which my neighbors stand to me is that of being possible beneficiaries by my action. They do stand in this relation to me, and this relation is morally significant. But they may also stand to me in the relation of promisee to promisor, of creditor to debtor, of wife to husband, of child to parent, of friend to friend, of fellow countryman to fellow countryman, and the like; and each of these relations is the foundation of a prima facie duty, which is more or less incumbent on me according to the circumstances of the case."

This leads me to Miss Self-Important's point which is that I agree with her that it is justifiable for parents to treat their children differently from other children. I think most pure utilitarians have to deny this. There just isn't any space in "the greatest good for the greatest number" for differential treatment like this.

As for Randy Cohen's response linked to above, it's much harder to critique. He reaches some ethical conclusions which are not self-evident (the Marxists believed that people should be paid according to their need, rather than the job they do) and he doesn't bother to actually argue for his beliefs. His conclusions are certainly plausible and may well be correct, but it's hard to figure out what the moral theory is behind both A) pay should be based on the act, not the actor and B) pay should be "not just what the market will bear, but a decent living wage." The gentleman he was responding to was talking about paying people to do odd jobs. Obviously, "what the market will bear" is what he's paying the teenagers. He is, essentially, making a charitable donation (disguised as pay so as not to offend their pride) to those adults who need the work. I don't believe Cohen made a particularly persuasive case against this practice, though, again, he may well be correct.