Thursday, January 30, 2014

Getting Your Just Desserts

Or your just deserts.  For Fox News host Martha MacCallum they might be the same thing for women:

Fox News host Martha MacCallum asserted on Wednesday that women did not want special laws ensuring equal for equal work because they already were compensated “exactly what they’re worth.”
After President Barack Obama used his State of the Union address on Tuesday to call on Congress to end workplace discrimination practices that “belong in a Mad Men episode,” Fox News asked two men, liberal radio host Alan Colmes and Fox News host Tucker Carlson, to debate equal pay for women.
Carlson argued that women actually made more than men if the time they “voluntarily” took off work to raise children was factored in.

“The numbers don’t lie,” he insisted. “The losers in the Obama economy have been men.”
MacCallum accused politicians of talking about female workers like they were victims “who we need to make sure she gets what she deserves.”
“The numbers, when you look at them, do not bear out that there is a war on women in the workplace,” the Fox News host added. “And I think it’s a question of how liberals and conservative view what needs to be done for women.”

This is such a fun word soup.  First, everyone and their great-uncle feels free to talk about the meaning of various earnings, despite the fact that there are mountains of actual economic research on the topic of the gender gap in wages and related questions.  This feeling that one knows stuff without knowing it angers me, because of that Puritan streak I have:  Do the research before you open your mouth and bare your fangs.  And no, we cannot just say that women are earning exactly what they are worth, which means all women in this country and in all jobs.

Another example of this not-knowing-your-facts is the very common argument that men earn more only because they work more hours in the labor market.  That's because most studies still show a difference in earnings when the hours spent working are held constant (taken into account).  It is true that some of the difference in overall earnings between men and women has to do with different paid work hours (unpaid work at home is not taken into account in those comparisons), but it is not true that the whole difference can be attributed to worked hour differences.

Second, there's the idea, again, that the gendered roles of who take care of children doesn't matter at all, that "choice" is the explanation for why women choose certain jobs, that women freely "choose" to earn less, that women "choose" to take time off for childbearing and child-rearing and so on.  This is an assertion, not something that we can deduce from research, this idea that all the reasons for gender differences in earnings are voluntary on women's part.

I have written about the way the term "choice" is used in political arguments before.  But the main  point worth repeating is that choice is carried out within a set of constraints.  Those constraints are different, on average, for men and women, and the consequences of certain "choices" are also different.  This doesn't mean that there is no choice, just that to understand why we end up with the roles we do end up with requires a study of the wider framework in which they take place.  And here the role of the Republicans as the party which fights tooth-and-nail against maternity leaves, subsidized health care and in general the idea of women in the public sphere matters.  It matters because they are pulling the framework within which women make these "free choices" in one direction.

A lot more could be written about that quote, such as a careful analysis of the losers and winners in the "Obama economy" which conflates the administration's action and inaction with the recent recession with what Republican governors have done in their states to increase unemployment and so on, and which carefully moves the magnifying lens from the group which is really doing well (those on the top of the earnings pyramid) to a kind of gendered re-reading of the data. 

Why the latter is tricky is because of the recession effects:  Men are more likely to lose jobs first in recessions because they are more likely to work in the bellwether industries (construction, manufacture and transportation), but men are also more likely to see recovery in those jobs faster.  The recovery from the recession (such as it is) is still an ongoing process, and, as we should expect, the unemployment rates of men and women are coming back towards their usual rough equality. 

But the new jobs people are getting, both men and women, do look like not-so-great-jobs.  And the large unemployment differences are between whites on the one side and blacks and Latinos on the other side, another topic Fox News will not address.