The Best and the Brightest

This article first appeared in our Summer 2008 edition of Impact.

Few things in life are as rewarding as shaping the minds and character of young people. As the Mackinac Center celebrates its 20th anniversary, one of the more enjoyable walks down memory lane has involved the myriad of first-rate interns who have passed through our doors. Many have gone on to labor for the freedom movement directly or indirectly.

Since 1987, the Center has employed more than 80 interns in various capacities. One summer alone saw a brigade of 15 students serving internships in our Midland headquarters. While most have been from Michigan, the Center has hosted interns from far-flung places like Ireland, the Czech Republic and Texas. Most assisted on specific, finite research projects, but some worked as editors, graphic designers and Web programmers. A consistent trait among the interns is that they seem to have enjoyed their time at the Center and look back on their experience as useful and positive.

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The Mackinac Center does too. As much as we gave to these interns in terms of job and life experience, we received back in top-flight assistance that resulted in real impact. For instance, David L. DiGiuseppe, the very first research intern ever employed by the Center, contributed to a privatization profile of Ann Arbor that prompted real privatization efforts in the city.

Below is a sampling of the successes Mackinac Center interns have gone on to achieve.

Peter Leeson of Midland served four consecutive internships at the Mackinac Center beginning in 1997. The Center discovered Leeson after our president, Lawrence W. Reed, read a letter to the editor Leeson had written to the Midland Daily News critiquing a writer’s economic analysis. Leeson went on to receive an undergraduate degree in economics from Hillsdale College and a Ph.D. from George Mason University in Virginia.

Leeson is now a professor for the study of capitalism in the Department of Economics at GMU and is widely published in academic journals. His first book, “The Invisible Hook,” examines the economics of piracy and is scheduled for release in 2009. “Interning at the Mackinac Center was one of the most enjoyable and intellectually stimulating times of my life,” said Leeson. “I learned tremendously from the Center’s superlative employees and recommend Center internships to anyone interested in learning about liberty and advancing its cause.”

Daniel Smith, also of Midland, served two internships at the Center. Smith went to GMU to study economics in its graduate program last fall. He is a graduate of Northwood University and, in a small twist of fate, an assistant to Peter Leeson.

At the Center, Daniel was responsible for conducting two different summer surveys of school support service privatization. With these findings he co-authored the “Michigan School Privatization Survey 2007.” In the five different summers in which the Center conducted surveys of the more than 550 Michigan public school districts, only twice did we achieve a 100 percent response rate. Smith was at the helm both times.

This bull-dog tenacity helped him achieve an “A” in microeconomic theory from famous professor, author and radio host Walter Williams. Williams is reputedly parsimonious with high grades, but Smith’s exceptional ability put him over the top. After receiving his Ph.D, Smith hopes to return to Midland to work as a professor at Northwood University and an adjunct scholar with the Mackinac Center.

Shawn Miller, a two-time intern with the Mackinac Center, earned an undergraduate degree in mechanical engineering and a law degree from Notre Dame. After practicing law in southern California, Miller decided to pursue a Ph.D. in economics at GMU. Miller says he wants to dedicate the remainder of his working life to advancing sound policy using a marriage of law and economics. Ultimately, Miller sees himself litigating for liberty as part of a public interest law firm or market-friendly think tank. He plans to write, debate and teach about the importance of free markets and free people.

Tara (Thelen) Velting came to us in a less-than-traditional manner. In 2000, Center Fiscal Policy Director Michael LaFaive received a call from a Michigan resident who admired our work and advanced Tara’s name as an intern prospect — without actually having discussed it with Tara. Impressed by the caller’s description, LaFaive contacted her and asked her to apply. She did and became a significant contributor to Center work. After earning her law degree from GMU, she returned to Michigan and has twice performed pro bono legal work for the Center: an analysis of statutory changes involving the Michigan Economic Growth Authority program and a Viewpoint commentary on Medicaid.

Nathan Russell served two internships with the Mackinac Center (2004 and 2005) before beginning a Ph.D. program in economics at GMU. He earned a master’s degree there in 2006 and is set to receive his doctorate in 2009. He currently works as an adjunct professor of economics at Patrick Henry College in Virginia. He intends to continue teaching and working with think tanks.

Ryan Oprea served an internship in 2000 along with Peter Leeson and together they pursued doctorates in economics at GMU. Oprea is now an associate professor at the University of California Santa Cruz. His areas of research include experimental economics and industrial organization.

Of course, there are many other former interns of whom we are extremely proud. Sean Lewis and Laura Davis went on to earn law degrees from the University of Michigan. While working for the Center, Lewis began the necessary but arduous task of describing Michigan laws in plain language for the Center’s popular Web site. He is considering a position at the U.S. Justice Department. Davis worked in the fiscal policy department and has authored several articles on privatization during and after her internship. Davis went on to co-author a student housing privatization study for the Los Angeles-based Reason Foundation. She is currently working in Turkey.

Two of our interns went on to Harvard and Yale Law. Another, Erin De Pree, earned a Ph.D. in theoretical particle physics in June. A few years ago she told us that she took lessons she learned at the Mackinac Center back to school with her. She said the practice of debriefing every “performance” helped her avoid repeating errors that may have cropped up in her work or that of colleagues. Her sister Joann, also a former intern, works as a prosecutor in Washington state. Matt Wilczek, now an executive with Mitsubishi Caterpillar in Texas, also credits Mackinac training for some of his success. “The Mackinac Center rounded out my education; it was the perfect finishing school,” he said. “I can’t think of a better way to transition from an academic environment to the business environment. Even after 10 years I still draw from the leadership examples I experienced at the Mackinac Center.”

Unfortunately, space prevents us from highlighting every intern success story. Fortunately, every summer brings to the Center a new crop of students, along with their energy, passion, character and scholarship. We delight in their successes, especially when we see so many of them involved in the freedom movement.