Bench Memos

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NPR: Comparably Worthless


NPR Marketplace had an insipid segment yesterday on what John Roberts said about comparable worth in 1984. I was interviewed for the segment and therefore was interested in how it turned out. It provides, I think, a textbook example of the everyday falsehoods and distortions of the Left. Consider:

1. Here’s how the NPR reporter, Amy Scott, introduces the concept of comparable worth: “In the early 1980s an idea caught on: What if you paid laundry workers, who tended to be women, as much as truck drivers, who tended to be men? The wage gap between male- and female-dominated jobs would shrink.”

With this false portrayal of comparable worth (which even Justice Brennan labeled a “controversial concept”) as popular, Scott slides the listener past the obvious questions that any sentient person would have. Such as (to name just a few): On what basis can the job of a truck driver and the job of a laundry worker be said to have comparable “worth”? What does the concept of job “worth” even mean, and how is it to be determined? Wouldn’t a system of comparable worth require that central planners set economy-wide job compensation according to their own subjective evaluations of relative worth? What obstacles, if any, are there to women becoming truck drivers? And if they’re becoming laundry workers rather than truck drivers, might there be sensible reasons for their choices?

2. The entire segment conflates the fundamental distinction that Roberts drew between equal-pay laws (“equal pay for equal work”) and comparable worth. Marcia Greenberger of the “nonprofit” National Women’s Law Center makes this attack on Roberts: “His description of what the problems were that women were facing completely eliminated the whole notion of sex discrimination as having any role to play in the lower pay that women receive.” But Roberts’s clear point was that federal law properly gave victims of sex discrimination relief when they were denied access to a job for which they were qualified or when they received less pay. It is true that he did not embrace Greenberger’s ideological assumption that the “wage gap” between laundry workers and truck drivers is necessarily a result of sex discrimination. But why should he have done so?

3. Here’s how Scott introduces my comments: “Ed Whelan is president of the conservative Ethics and Public Policy Center. He says Roberts had no objection to workplace equality. He simply disagreed with the idea that judges and bureaucrats should enforce it.”

The last sentence is a ludicrous misstatement of my explanation of Roberts’s distinction between equal-pay laws (which certainly require judicial and administrative enforcement) and comparable worth. And it distracts the listener from my actual explanation that followed.

Note, by the way, that Scott identifies the National Women’s Law Center as “nonprofit” rather than “liberal,” but she gives the Ethics and Public Policy Center—which is also nonprofit, as I will personally attest if you choose to send us a tax-deductible contribution—the “conservative” label.

4. Scott closes with Senator Snowe’s statement that she hoped that Roberts “now possessed an openness on wage discrimination”—as though he had ever opposed equal pay.

In retrospect, it is obvious to me that Scott and Greenberger had already orchestrated the story line when Scott called me to give the appearance of balance. My efforts to persuade her that her premises were all wrong were futile.


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