Mike Konczal and Sarah Leonard on the Myth of American Meritocracy

By Roosevelt Institute |

On the latest episode of “Fireside Chats,” Roosevelt Institute Fellow Mike Konczal brings in Sarah Leonard, editor at Dissent and The New Inquiry, to discuss the ways that student debt and unpaid internships have completely skewed the labor market. Mike used to think of internships as an equal opportunity mechanism, but then realized “you have to be able to feed yourself, you have to be able to survive,” something that’s hard to pull off when you’re deep in debt and not making any money.

As Sarah bluntly puts it, “American meritocracy has always been a myth,” but now these two forces have conspired even more to allow “people who make it to the top” to consolidate power there and “consolidate it for their children.” Not only does a young person need money to take an unpaid position, but those who go into debt to get through college have an even harder time doing so if they need to work to pay off those loans. “Internships are absolutely a reinforcer of privilege,” she concludes.

Mike compares student debt to the indenture system that brought Europeans to America’s shores: it was set up “to solve an economic problem, a problem of travel,” and now we have a similar problem in which we need to “get people who have significant talents to grow the economy to the spaces where they have their talents fully developed and they’re capable of exercising those talents.” The biggest question? “How do we pay for it?” In other words, how do we make it affordable for everyone to have people get the education they need to best contribute to the economy?

Compounding this, Sarah notes that the language around student debt is about “investing in yourself,” but in reality the need to take on massive amounts of debt to get an education isn’t a way to open up opportunities at all. “It restricts your freedom after college,” she says.

Watch the full segment below for their discussion of precarious work, the future of organized labor, and “Sex in the City” feminism:

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