On Equal Pay, the White House Moves from Noble-Lie Territory Toward Lie-Lie Territory

by Patrick Brennan

Last week on the Agenda, I noted that White House economic adviser Betsey Stevenson, a University of Michigan labor economist, defended the Obama administration’s use of the misleading factoid that women earn 77 cents on the dollar men do.

What was the explanation from an academic who clearly knows better? “You have to point to some number,” she said, even if it isn’t accurate, to draw people’s attention to what of course is a problem — discrimination in the workplace based on sex.

As I explained over on the Agenda, it doesn’t make a ton of sense to use a statistic that’s attributable mostly to things other than outright discrimination . . . while calling for making that discrimination illegal.

Anyway, Stevenson moved out of noble-lie territory into outright obfuscation on Monday, as part of the White House’s push for more equal-pay legislation this week. Women are ”stuck at 77 cents on the dollar, and that gender wage gap is seen very persistently across the income distribution, within occupations, across occupations, and we see it when men and women are working side by side doing identical work,” Stevenson said on a conference call, the Washington Examiner reports.

Unless you have a really loose definition of “very persistently” — which mathematicians and statisticians don’t, it means that the relationship between the figures remains the same — this is false. If you look within occupations, or at jobs within the same office, say, the gap is substantially smaller than 77 cents on the dollar.

Stevenson admitted later she misspoke: “If I said 77 cents was equal pay for equal work, then I completely misspoke. So let me just apologize and say that I certainly wouldn’t have meant to say that.” She admitted that the 77 cents figure is merely “the annual earnings of full-time, full-year women divided by the annual earnings of full-time, full-year men.”

And, she said, “there are a lot of things that go into that 77-cents figure, there are a lot of things that contribute and no one’s trying to say that it’s all about discrimination, but I don’t think there’s a better figure.” Well, there isn’t a better figure for the White House, no, in the sense that there isn’t a more accurate figure that doesn’t make the gap seem a lot narrower.

There are more accurate figures, though: The best estimates of the gap, after taking into account occupations, experience, etc., find something like a 5 to 7 percent gap. Five percent was the number found by a consulting report commissioned by the U.S. Department of Labor. If you want to tell the truth, it’s the “better number.”