Matthew Yglesias announces that his employer, The American Prospect magazine in Washington, is seeking interns.

One of his commenters raises an important point:

Honest question. One thing I’ve never understood: why is it exploitation for, say, GM to hire somebody for $2.00 per hour, but perfectly ok for TAP or Congress to hire somebody for $0.00/summer?

Another writes:

How is someone supposed to live on erm, nothing for a whole summer? Or is this another one of those tilted toward the rich things?

It reminds me of an article I read years ago in the Baffler magazine. I can’t find the full text online, but a summary from Utne Reader is available as are some excepts on another site.

The author, Jim Frederick, calculated that MTV alone saves more than $642,270 a year by relying on the free labour of interns, and that American business as a whole saves $39.5 million per year through unpaid intern labour. He also offered this explaination of why so many young things are willing to be exploited, and the consequences to the social composition of the “glamour industries”:

First, a bit of basic employment-market economics. The glamour industries enjoy a tremendous surplus of labor. There are more people who want media jobs than can be employed. Therefore labor is cheap, as demonstrated by the industry’s already low salaries ($18,000 a year for an editorial assistant is not uncommon, which is about $9 dollars an hour, assuming the most optimistic work schedule possible). Left to its own devices, a rational market with surplus labor will bid wages down almost to the point where no one will accept a job. If it can, a market will bid the wages all the way down to zero, as long as someone, anyone, will do the work, for whatever real or imagined benefit. Which brings us back to Jessica and Chip. For them and their classmates the imagined benefits of an internship are so great that real benefits — you know, wages — have been bid out of existence. Businesses, obviously, have a real, bottom-line incentive to encourage the trend toward labor that is not only free, but without any type of obligation whatsoever. In other words, interns are restructuring the labor market. Thanks to those who can afford to win the labor auction with the lowest possible price — I’ll work for free! — those without outside (read “parental”) support are forced to take tremendous real-dollar losses to stay competitive, or they are simply priced out of competition entirely. This ensures that the glamour industries remain the land of the rich and privileged, for they are the only people who can absorb a short-term loss to get an imagined long-term gain.

Here in Britain, the oversupply of entry level hacks willing to work for imagined benefits extends to local newspapers, where scandalously low pay is the norm. Roy Greenslade documents it in his Media Guardian column this week.