Equality, Suffrage and a Fetish for Money

Aug 18, 2010

Tabitha Hale writes:

I received an email from the Jen O’Malley Dillon, Executive Director of the DNC today. I’ll spare you the absurd text of the entire email, but here are some excerpts:

For the first 144 years of this country’s existence, women were not guaranteed the right to vote — and winning that right did not come easily. Women’s suffrage took a movement. It took organizers who worked tirelessly and allies who fought for the cause in the halls of power. On August 18th, 1920, when the legislature of the state of Tennessee voted to ratify the 19th Amendment and affirm its place in the Constitution, it passed by a single vote. But the fight for full equality is not finished. In 2008, a woman in the United States earned only 77 cents for every dollar earned by a man. For women of color, the disparity is even greater. We have a choice with this election about whether we want to continue the fight to bring down barriers...

Hale goes on to note:

Equating today’s political climate to that of the suffragettes is nothing short of embarrassing – all Americans have the right and duty to vote. This is not the 1920′s, and we are fighting a very different battle.

A different battle indeed, one that also centers on choice. Suffragettes were fighting to give women equality of choice; those fighting for "full equality" are trying to actually legislate away choice. The 23 cent "pay gap" mentioned in the email above and its proposed legislative remedies are always a hot topic; here is an article from a few weeks ago by David Leonhardt in the NY Times:

Women and men with similar qualifications — age, education, experience — are much more likely to be treated similarly today than in the past. The pay gap between them, while still not zero, has shrunk to just a few percentage points. Yet once you look beyond the tidy comparisons of supposedly identical men and women, the picture is much less sunny. There are still only 15 Fortune 500 companies with a female chief executive. Men dominate the next rungs of management in most fields, too. Over all, full-time female workers make a whopping 23 percent less on average than full-time male workers. What’s going on? Men and women are not identical, of course. Many more women take time off from work. Many more women work part time at some point in their careers. Many more women can’t get to work early or stay late.

And our economy exacts a terribly steep price for any time away from work — in both pay and promotions. People often cannot just pick up where they have left off. Entire career paths are closed off. The hit to earnings is permanent. The fact that the job market has evolved in this way is no accident. It’s a result of policy choices. As Jane Waldfogel, a Columbia University professor who studies families and work, says, "American feminists made a conscious choice to emphasize equal rights and equal opportunities, but not to talk about policies that would address family responsibilities." "Women do almost as well as men today," Ms. Waldfogel said, "as long as they don’t have children."

...Taking the next step toward workplace equality probably has to start with an acknowledgment that most parents can’t have it all — at least as long as part-time work, flexible schedules and long leaves do so much career damage...The best hope for making progress against today’s gender inequality probably involves some combination of legal and cultural changes, which happens to be the same combination that beat back the old sexism. We’ll have to get beyond the Mommy Wars and instead create rewarding career paths even for parents — fathers, too — who take months or years off. We’ll have to get more creative about part-time and flexible work, too.

There is much that was good in this article -- for instance the acknowledgment that most of the current "pay gap" is the result of individual choice rather than discrimination; but I believe that the overall tone is one of those cultural changes we need to make -- the idea that giving up "pay and promotions" is a "terribly steep price" to pay for time away from work. These are only two of the many things that people value and depending on the weight that you assign to each of your values giving up a little might gain you a lot. Equality is a matter of ensuring equal access to opportunity, not ensuring identical outcomes in some areas depending on which opportunities you choose to take.

On a similar note around the same time the NY Times article appeared, Don Boudreaux wrote on income inequality in general noting: "Not only does achievement of such "equality" require the state to treat people unequally, obsession with income equality also reflects a Scrooge-like fetish for money."  More from Boudreaux:

Consider a man who spends long hours at the gym.  He does so for the same reasons that another man spends long hours at work: to gain an advantage and a sense of achievement.  Are gym-man’s broad shoulders, bulging biceps, and ripped torso appropriate objects of envy by couch-potato man?  Is this envy a social problem demanding government action?  Should gym-man be scorned as greedy for working extra-hard to improve his physique – extra-hard work that likely wins gym-man disproportionate access to attractive mates?  Should government force gym-man to share his beautiful babes with couch-potato man?  Should gym-man’s muscles, or natural good looks, be taxed?

If we recognize that envy of other persons' physiques is a sentiment deserving only ridicule, why do so many "Progressives" excuse – or even positively approve of – envy of other persons' monetary assets?

It is true that culturally speaking women are more likely to have to make the tough choices about work-life balance. But as we all seek to fit our values into a dynamic 24/7 economy, let’s not overlook the obvious, immediate, power-of-the-individual solution: choosing the right place to work and choosing the right partner at home.

Update: The above post has been interpreted many different ways, few of which were intended. It is the belief of both the U.S. Chamber and I that women should have equal employment opportunity. In the above I was attempting, rather poorly, to point out that using the wage gap as the only measure of full equality provides an incomplete picture. The post was unclear in its message and I would like to apologize to those for whom it has caused offense. There was no intent to dismiss the challenges women face in the economy or diminish their substantial contributions.

Update2: A post from U.S. Chamber COO David Chavern.

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