Opportunity for sale.

Gossip, speculation, and scuttlebutt about politics.
Jan. 28 2009 5:50 PM

Opportunity for Sale

Psst! Wanna buy an internship?

Three years ago, Ellen Gamerman reported in the Wall Street Journal on a deeply discouraging trend: Summer internships were being put up for bid at charity auctions for elite private schools. You could see immediately how so grotesquely inegalitarian a practice might evolve. Corporate bigwigs felt they were making a noble sacrifice by donating internships to their kids' place of learning. Private—ahem, I mean "independent"—schools were usually scrupulous in dedicating the proceeds to scholarship programs. Winning bidders were making generous charitable contributions (these items didn't go cheap), officially recognized as such by the Internal Revenue Service, which allowed a tax deduction for the bid amount spent in excess of market value. Within this tiny bubble of human interaction, all parties were doing good. Outside it, they were conspiring to make life even more of a rigged game than it already is.

I figured Gamerman's story would get wide pickup, provoke outraged public hearings, maybe even inspire some creative sort of criminal investigation (though you can't really prosecute people for violating the Declaration of Independence's claim that all men are created equal). I was wrong. Equality of opportunity was no longer a fashionable topic, except as it pertained to race or gender (where it enjoys some legal protection) or to sexual orientation (where public attitudes are evolving toward greater tolerance). The failure of college kids who lacked means or connections to get choice internships was not new, and the formal monetization of such internships didn't seem to shock very many people. As the Brazilians say: "When shit acquires value the poor are born without assholes."

The problem with such world-weariness is that it encourages bad situations to get worse. In the Jan. 28 Wall Street Journal, Sue Shellenbarger reports that the selling of internships has blossomed into a cottage industry. There's no mention of private schools—is it too much to hope that the earlier Journal piece shamed them out of it?—but other charities now auction off internships routinely. Web sites aggregate these auctions for the bidder's convenience. At CharityFolks.com, the current bid on a semester-long internship at ID-PR, a "public-relations powerhouse," is $2,500. ("Get your foot in the door today!") Or maybe you'd like to "jump start your career in the music industry" with an internship at Atlantic Records, cradle of rhythm and blues (a genre nursed largely without help from career-minded collegians). Next bid: $2,500. Proceeds from the sale of both internships go to the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California, where equality apparently must take a back seat to freedom. On CharityBuzz.com, I'm sorry to report, the bidding on an internship with fashion designer Caroline Herrera (proceeds to New York University Hospital for Joint Diseases) is already closed, as it is on an internship with Rolling Stone magazine (proceeds: New York Restoration Project). Better luck next time!

Inevitably, the internship-selling racket has slipped the surly bonds of philanthropy and entered the for-profit marketplace. An outfit called the University of Dreams guarantees placement or your money back. Summer-internship fees (the University of Dreams prefers to call it "tuition") range from $5,499 to $9,499. For 3 percent extra, you can pay on an installment plan. The interns have been placed with firms like Hill and Knowlton and Smith Barney (did a rich, dumb intern start the credit crunch?) in Barcelona, Chicago, Costa Rica, Hong Kong, London, Los Angeles, New York, San Diego, San Francisco, Sydney, and Washington, D.C. For-profit consultants like Fast Track Internships are extending the principle of SAT prep to internships by teaching marginally literate students how to polish their résumés and cover letters and by guiding them to potential summer employers. Like the University of Dreams, Fast Track Internships offers a money-back guarantee. Its Web site boasts that it can tap into 85 percent of all internships that are never advertised, a proposition that suggests divine omniscience. Prices range from $799 for an unpaid internship to $999 for a paid internship to $1,999 for a full-time job.

"It's a huge misconception to say this is a program for rich kids," Eric Lochtefeld, CEO of University of Dreams, told the Journal. "The average student comes from the middle class, and their parents dig deep." To whatever extent that were true, inegalitarianism would shade into encyclopedia-salesman-style exploitation. The company "has begun funding scholarships and grants for low-income applicants," the Journal reports. But that merely lowers the price of opportunity. Whoever said a summer internship was something you had to pay for? The idea of getting a job is that they're supposed to pay you.

Timothy Noah is a former Slate staffer. His  book about income inequality is The Great Divergence.

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