Exhibit A in Sen. Barack Obama's case that he is the women's candidate, despite Sen. John McCain's choice of Gov. Sarah Palin as his running mate, is that "she's opposed, like John McCain is, to equal pay for equal work."
Did I miss something? Did Sarah Palin, suffused with subliminal notions of female inferiority, rebate back a portion of her paycheck as governor because the incumbent she ousted was a man? I don't think so.
After all, the Equal Pay Act, which compels equal pay for equal work, has been federal law for 45 years and I haven't detected a clamor to repeal it. So Obama must mean something other than what he's saying.
Turns out, he does. What he's really talking about is a profoundly radical concept that was thoroughly discredited three decades ago but was revived last year by the Democratic Party's most left-wing elements--an idea variously depicted as pay equity, comparable worth, or most accurately, wage socialism.
The notion is based on the theory that the wage gap--the different average wage earned by men and women--is attributable not to life or career choices, but to sex discrimination. As the National Committee on Pay Equity explains it, wage discrimination can be shown when the "composite of skill, effort, responsibility and work conditions are equivalent in value, even if the jobs are dissimilar."
The idea gained currency briefly in the early 1980s when a federal judge found that a Washington state wage survey--which showed wage differentials between male- and female-dominated jobs of "equal value" (such as truck drivers and secretaries)--demonstrated sex discrimination. That ruling was overturned and the idea died a deservedly painful death when economists showed that nearly all of the wage gap is explained by selection of college majors, job choices, careers interrupted for motherhood and the like.
In a similar lawsuit involving Illinois, I represented women who had defied gender stereotypes to become prison guards. They were none too happy to learn that they were overpaid because entry-level secretaries, whose work was of "equal value," were paid less. As one of them quipped, "I've never seen a typewriter attack anyone."
What wage socialism overlooks is that choices have market consequences--and that the proper purpose of civil rights laws is securing equal opportunity, not equal results. Since the death of comparable worth, women have poured into previously male professional bastions. Today women outnumber men in colleges and law schools--and higher wages predictably are following.
Yet last year, Obama joined with a handful of other senators to co-sponsor the "Fair Pay Act," which would amend the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to make comparable worth the law of the land. Notably missing from the sponsors were Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton and Obama's running mate, Sen. Joseph Biden. Presumably that makes Clinton and Biden "opposed . . . to equal pay for equal work."
Were Obama's bill to become law, it would wreak economic havoc. Every job that is disproportionately male would be compared, by "objective" analysis, to every job that presently is female dominated. If the respective wages don't correlate to the experts' assessment of relative "value," the employer will have to equalize wages. (Another bill, also called the "Fair Pay Act," would vastly extend the time frame for filing wage discrimination claims.)
Comparable worth is so last century. Like the old vampire sequels, Dracula has arisen and Van Helsing has to come out of retirement to knock one in for the team.
While the likes of Hillary Clinton, Meg Whitman, Oprah Winfrey, Danica Patrick and Madonna are smashing stereotypes--and reaping the attendant financial rewards--along comes Barack Obama to tell them women aren't capable of doing that on their own. His comparable worth proposal, perversely, would provide positive economic reinforcement for women to remain in the very occupations in which they supposedly are subordinated.
Meanwhile, invoking not the mantle of equity but of opportunity, that sexist--Sarah Palin--is poised to break through the proverbial glass ceiling once and for all. That is, unless Barack Obama manages to keep it intact.
Clint Bolick is litigation director at the Goldwater Institute and research fellow for the Hoover Institution.