The Times West Virginian

Z_CNHI News Service

April 11, 2014

Obama's equal pay exaggeration leads us all into danger

Editor's note: CNHI newspapers that are not weekly subscribers to Taylor Armerding's column may publish this one if they notify him at t.armerding@verizon.net.

A couple of disclaimers before wading into the inflammatory topic of gender equity:

- I support realistic equality: Equal opportunity and equal pay for equal work with all other things – experience, skill, training and performance – being relatively equal. I don’t include the fantasy that equal opportunity must yield equal results. If it did, I would have spent part of my career making millions playing in the NBA and a decade or so after that making a few more million as a folk-rock star.

- I have worked for several female editors during my career, all of whom were excellent. All of whom, I am sure, were paid more than I was – as they should have been.

That said, I don’t believe that President Obama, with a stroke of his “executive-order” pen this past week, is going to cure whatever malicious pay inequities between the genders may or may not exist in a nation of more than 150 million workers.

I don’t believe the president thinks it will solve anything, either; even left-leaning media have acknowledged that this initiative is entirely political, designed to distract voters from the lies he told about his signature legislation, Obamacare, and to curry favor with female voters, who were a major reason he holds the office he does.

This is all about trying to hold onto Democratic control of the Senate during this fall’s mid-term elections with an initiative that has about as much depth as a slogan on a bumper sticker: Democrats love apple pie! Republicans hate apple pie! Vote Democrat!

Indeed, the absurdity of the whole thing was highlighted when the president’s spin machine went into overdrive after a few spoilsports pointed out that the median annual salary last year for women working in the White House was $65,000, while for men it was $73,729.

That means women working in the White House made 88 cents for every dollar male staffers made – not a whole lot better than the president’s claim that women in the American workforce, on average, make 77 cents for every dollar a man earns, which he called an “embarrassment.”

White House press secretary Jay Carney complained that the raw statistic about the White House was misleading because it included the salaries of all staff members, including those at the lowest levels, where women outnumber men. 


Well, yes, Jay, of course it is misleading. But that is the point; the president has used the same misleading method to declare that gender inequity in pay is a national embarrassment. So, what you’re really saying is that you want the president to get a pass, but everybody else to get sued.

Indeed, the Paycheck Fairness Act should be subtitled The Trial Lawyers’ Full-Employment Act. It will add layers of regulation and paperwork to already overburdened businesses, and increase litigation over pay – none of which will help the employment or salary prospects of women or men.

Yes, some gender pay disparity exists. But more sober economists on all sides say the divide is really more like 5 to 10 cents, when factors like the one Carney cited are included.

Other factors are that men tend to work more than 40 hours per week while women tend to work 35 to 39 hours, yet all those jobs are still considered full-time; women are more likely to drop out of the workforce temporarily to have children, meaning they have fewer years of experience when they return; mothers tend to seek jobs where they are willing to forego a higher salary in exchange for more flexible hours; women tend to choose vocations that offer lower pay in the labor market; and more men are likely to pursue high-risk occupations that pay more because of that risk.

Those lead to differences caused by choice, not discrimination. And we’re all pro-choice, aren’t we?

As several economists have noted, if businesses really could get away with paying women 23 percent less than men for the exact same job with the exact same hours, requiring the same level of education, skill and experience, it would be tough for men to get jobs. Wouldn't employers jump at the chance to cut labor costs by that much? That is the best evidence that the president’s claim is a wild exaggeration.

Indeed, in a direct, apples-to-apples comparison, the difference in pay comes close to disappearing. The federal Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that single women who have never married earned 96 percent of what men earned in 2012.

It also doesn’t take performance into account. In my newspaper career, I’ve known reporters who broke numerous stories, whose writing was clear and crisp, and who never missed a deadline. I’ve known others who essentially mailed it in, had little motivation to cover anything beyond meetings and needed heavy editing. Should both have received the same pay because they were working at “equivalent” jobs?

The Paycheck Fairness Act says yes, which is both absurd and dangerous.

Yes, the existing pay disparity is a problem, but it is much smaller than the president claimed, it does not amount to a “war on women,” and it does not require heavy-handed regulation and oversight to correct.

The one element of the president’s order that makes sense – lifting rules forbidding employees from discussing their pay with one another – would probably do more to even things out than the political theater we’re seeing.

Don’t be fooled – this is not about helping women. It’s about holding political power.

Taylor Armerding is an independent columnist. Contact him at t.armerding@verizon.net.

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