Sunday, March 30, 2014

Why are smart people being asked to work for free?

One of the better political commentators out there is Ted Rall (website  He's also a cartoonist with a deceptively crude but powerful style.  Nonetheless, there is something that even he doesn't quite get.

For speaking out against things like stupid wars, corrupt bank bailouts etc., Rall has been largely blacklisted by the mainstream corporate press.  However, he continues to get requests from people or organizations to write or draw things for free.  He rightly refuses - people should be paid for their work - but then makes the mistake of thinking that this sort of abuse can be corrected by forming some sort of union or guild or agitating on blogs or whatnot.  That's silly.  This presumption of being able to get smart people to work for free is yet another example of a flooded labor market.  The problem can only be solved by stopping the rich from continuing to force populations ever higher - if you refuse to admit this and fight against it, you might as well give up.

Remember: the economic value of a  commodity has nothing to do with its intrinsic value, but only on the relative balance of supply and demand for it.  So if you are a talented artist, and there a million other unemployed similarly talented artists desperate for work, you have no leverage.  People can ask that you work for them for free, and you may well oblige in the desperate hope that you will get 'noticed' and maybe even get a 'reputation' and a 'real job someday'.

That's why unpaid internships are currently all the rage.  A major television network recently asked a historian friend of mine to do a lot of background work for a television documentary - but they offered no pay!  They just expected this person to do the work because they were a big time network and maybe (maybe!) he could make valuable connections etc.  Well my friend refused - correctly - but I expect that this network will find some other unemployed historian desperate enough to work for free.  

That's why they are doing this - because they are getting away with it!  They are in effect bleeding the unemployed/underemployed professional middle class of their last savings, getting free labor in exchange for - most likely - nothing at all.   But that's what people do when they are desperate.

The answer is a tight labor market.  Stop uncontrolled third-world immigration.  Stop all this propaganda about how we must have ever more people to avoid a 'worker shortage'.  Stop wasting resources in financial speculation, and go back to investing in developing real resources and real physical capital which will help on the demand side.  Employers should be the desperate ones, not regular people.  When people are in limited supply relative to the demand, businesses will stop this 'unpaid internship' garbage.  But not before.

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