The story goes that a chemist, a physicist and an economist are stranded on an island with cans of food. The chemist proposes heating the cans with fire. The physicist plans to smash them with rocks. The economist says, “Assume a can opener.” In the Jan. 24 column, “Equal pay is anti-feminist,” the author assumes a can opener.
Equal pay protection helps solve endemic market failures in the labor market. The column’s author assumes there is no failure. He sees women earning 77 cents on the dollar as a feature, not a flaw, of the market. The market must be working, so a woman’s labor must be worth 77 percent of a man’s, so tampering with this equilibrium must distort the market and disadvantage women whose only advantage was willingness to accept lesser pay for lesser work.
Armed with the most dangerous amount of knowledge—a little—the author is optimistic about the labor market. It is a shame he holds such a dismal view of women.
Part of the feminist project—indeed, any project to promote equity for historically disadvantaged groups—is to shatter the bedrock assumption that women are less than. I am saddened to see the author join an infuriatingly large group of people who refuse to afford women the same benefit of the doubt as they extend to the market. It is emphatically feminist to assume something’s wrong when women are treated unequally.
Even if he were right (he’s not), we should want to reorder the market better to accommodate women and enjoy the societal benefits of treating half the population with dignity, even if it means a smaller pie in the short run. Or, even more radically, maybe we should reorder our social mores and demand more of fathers who do not assume their share of caregiving and uncompensated labor, shifting the burden away from women who must often choose between family and career. (Pardon the heteronormativity; I have limited space).