The Unequal-Pay Delusion

Published October 17, 2014

National Review Online

Voters are souring on the Democratic party. Apparently all it takes is six years of economic torpor; the disastrous debut of the biggest new federal program in two generations; record levels of federal debt; revelations of scandals and malfeasance at the Veterans Administration, the IRS, the Secret Service, and the Justice Department; Russian revanchism on the march; a rampaging army of (literal) cutthroats gobbling up territory in the Middle East; and the feeble and patronizing government response to a modern plague.

Truly, it says something about the reputation of the Democratic party that even now, 50 percent of those responding to a CBS News poll said that the Democrats are the party that “cares more about the needs and problems of people like yourself.” Only 34 percent chose the Republicans.

On other matters, the Democrats have lost a lot of altitude in recent months. An October CBS poll found that Republicans enjoy a nine-point lead over Democrats on the question of which party can better handle the economy. Republicans are eleven points ahead on foreign policy, and 21 points ahead on terrorism.

A Pew survey found that Republicans score better than Democrats on most of the issues that voters care a lot about — specifically the economy, jobs, the way the federal government works, ISIS, and the federal budget deficit. Democrats scored better on matters that voters don’t find all that compelling, like climate change, abortion, and access to contraception.

The one outlier on the Pew survey was “equal pay for women.” That issue is the only one that voters both care about and think Democrats are better at handling.

This is a triumph of spin — a solution in search of a problem. Are there women who face pay discrimination? Sure, but (a) not that many, and (b) they already have access to a plethora of remedies in state and federal laws. Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, and other Democrats are proposing that we adopt a federal statute making it illegal to pay men more than women for performing the same work. It’s such a good idea that it was passed — in 1963. It’s called the Equal Pay Act.

That’s not all. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act also contains penalties for wage discrimination. As Gerald Skoning explained in the Wall Street Journal, those include but are not limited to “back pay, attorneys’ fees, injunctive relief, prejudgment interest, $300,000 in punitive and compensatory damages, an additional $10,000 in penalties, and a prison sentence of up to six months for an employer who willfully violates the law.” What will Democrats think of next? How about a law outlawing price fixing? Oh wait, the Sherman Act was passed in 1890.

Well, all these laws may be on the books, yet women still earn less than men, right? Women certainly appear to believe so. Sixty percent of Millennial women, for example, told Pew that “men generally earn more for doing the same work,” and 75 percent of women believe that society must continue to “make the changes needed to bring about equality in the workplace.”

Yet when respondents were asked about the situation in their own workplaces, 75 percent of women said the sexes were paid equally for the same work. Only one in ten thought women were paid less.

As noted above, remedies for wage discrimination are abundant in the law. The solutions for other problems highlighted by the Pew survey of Millennials are not so apparent. Young women continue to outperform young men in education, labor-force participation, and yes, wages. A single, childless woman in her 20s now out-earns her male counterparts, Forbes reports. While 45 percent of women between 18 and 24 are enrolled in college, only 38 percent of young men are. Women’s wages have been trending up since 1980, while men’s have been sliding down. That’s for the men who are still working. Men’s labor-force participation has declined steadily over the past several decades, and it now lags behind women.

We don’t know what it portends that women are outperforming men in college-graduation rates, wages, and labor-force participation. It may make it harder for women to find suitable men to marry, just for starters. It may also increase the numbers of rootless men, which is never good for any civilization. The relatively poor performance of men over the past several decades is the social problem that goes unnoticed in our politics and our discourse. But it’s a much, much bigger challenge than “equal pay for women.”

— Mona Charen is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. © 2014 Creators Syndicate, Inc.

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