'Comparable Worth' Rears Ugly Head in the Age of Obama

There are some public policy ideas that won't die -- no matter how bad they are. One of these is "comparable worth." It is built on the misguided policy notion that there is a gap in pay between men and women that cannot be accounted for except by subtle gender discrimination. And it survives by confusing the public that the only goal is to assure men and women performing the same work are paid "equally."

The basic idea behind comparable worth is that the government will determine which jobs are "comparable" -- a truck driver and a school teacher, a welder and a nurse -- and mandate that they should be paid equally. The theory is that those sneaky schools and hospitals evade the free marketplace in determining wages, taking advantage and "undervaluing" those jobs with higher percentages of female employees. Government will sort all that out and restore "gender fairness." The CEO of the Center for Equal Opportunity, Roger Clegg, writing in 2008 reminds us:

President Ronald Reagan correctly called comparable worth "a cockamamie idea." A great lesson of economic theory, not to mention historical experience, is that government-set wages and prices not only curtail freedom, but lead to shortages, surpluses and market disruptions.

The goal is a government-controlled system of wage controls which mandates which jobs have the same intrinsic value as others and requires employers to rework their wage scales or face unrelenting litigation. What administration could be in favor of such pervasive meddling in the private sector? Well, this bad idea may have found a home in the Obama administration, which has no problem directing private firms' compensation and determining which employees are receiving "excessive" payment for their labor.

Federal law since passage of the Equal Pay Act of 1963 has prohibited employers from paying men more than women for doing the same job. (And women more than men.) But liberal women's rights activists have persisted in claiming that women still face wage discrimination against men. We heard in the Obama campaign the claim that women are only paid 77% of what men receive. But that figure is highly suspect. As the Wall Street Journal reported, the actual figure for all women's median pay is 80.2% of men.

But even that may be wrong. In their study Women's Figures: An Illustrated Guide to the Economic Progress of Women in America, Diana-Furchott Roth and Christine Stolba determined that when a variety of factors are accounted for, including experience, part time work, skill level, etc., the wage differential is virtually nonexistent. They point to women between 16 and 24 who earn on average 92% of men. Another study by June O'Neill of the American Economic Review puts that figure at 98%. Moreover, without any massive government intervention into the economy, the "problem" over time is steadily correcting itself.

Proponents of female victimhood, of course, do not mention that men in the current recession are being laid off in numbers that vastly exceed women. This report notes:

Since the recession began in December 2007, more than 80 percent of those laid off have been men, thanks to their disproportionate slice of jobs in hard-hit fields such as construction and manufacturing, according to government data. In November, women held more than 49 percent of jobs in the country. And since many are with more stable employers such as schools and hospitals, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics suggests women soon could outnumber men in the workplace for the first time in the nation's history.

No men's movement has yet arisen for "gender equality in layoffs."