Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Monday, January 21, 2008

Unequal Pay for Equal Work

Postmodern Papist links to a post by ZippyCatholic on the Distributist website What's Wrong With The World entitled descriptively: "Single People and Women Should Receive Less Pay For Equivalent Work". The author argues that as one of the key elements of morality is treating people as people rather than objects towards one's own ends, that employers should take their employees' states in life in account, rather than simply their productivity and job descriptions. A husband should, he argues, be paid more than a single person, a father of five paid more than a father of two, etc. The argument is not that this should be the only factor. Job importance and performance would still be taken into account. But all other things being equal, those with greater family responsibilities would be paid more. (The comments thread is immense, and I haven't read all of it, but Zippy does develop his concept in some more detail in the first 40 or so that I've read. It's worth reading at least some to get more of a feel where he's going with it.)

Now, if you're like me, you may have an instant and highly negative reaction to this idea. However, as I thought about it, it's not strictly speaking the idea of "unequal pay for equal work" that I object to. "Work" is a rather difficult thing to pin down, in many cases, but even assuming two employees to be producing roughly equal results in equal roles within a company, there are a number of other factors which often are taken into account in their compensation. For instance, it's often that case that people who have been with the company longer receive extra consideration (in salary, bonuses, vacation, or all three) over those who are new, all other things being equal. This isn't just a perk. Long term employees carry a lot of institutional knowledge which is essential in ways that are not always obvious at first. And simply not having to train new employees all the time saves the company a lot of effort and lost productivity. Similarly, companies sometimes identify "development" employees that they actively want to keep for a long time, and compensate them accordingly in order to encourage loyalty.

So there are a number of ways in which people are paid for something other than just their "work" which are widely accepted. What, then, is wrong with Zippy's idea here?

Well, the desire here is to strengthen the traditional family by making sure that heads of household are paid a living wage, and more generally treating people as people rather than labor commodities by paying them according to their family situations. That's a laudable goal, but I think the danger here is in trying to support something through contrived means.

When it comes to supporting the traditional family, perhaps its best to start from the basics. What is the natural human condition, as we found it 5,000+ years ago as early fixed villages were first forming, and as continued for many people in the world until only a few centuries ago? Originally, one's ability to have one's own family was directly related to one's ability to provide enough food and shelter for a mate and offspring. Your main occupation was either raising food, or providing some sort of craft in return for which you were provided with food. From a Distributist point of view, I would assume this should be a fairly familiar, and indeed, attractive.

So in this natural state, how was it assured that a man could support a family? Well, generally speaking a man remained either attached to his father's occupation, or if he went off on his own, lived singly, until he felt (and could convince his potential wife and in-laws) that he was able to support a family. This was a commonly-enough discussed concern until the beginning of the 20th century. Could a man afford a wife? Could he afford a family? Was he able to offer his intended bride a good home?

Now obviously, things could go wrong: harvests could fail, houses could burn down, livestock could die. If after a man married his means of supporting the family failed, his first recourse would be to the two spouse's families, and after that to the wider local community. And indeed, people gave a lot of thought as to what sort of family they were marrying into.

Clearly, the fields and livestock could not be told, "I'm getting married now. You're expected to produce at least twice as much." A man's ability to support a family was predicated on his ability to produce food, or good exchangeable for food, on a scale to support a family -- and then go on doing so until his children were old enough to support him in their turn.

Many things have changed between that sort of essentially agrarian, subsistence society and our own. However, I think it is often the case that policies which most resemble that "natural state" for families and society will prove the healthiest for us even in the present. This is where I think Zippy's suggestions go astray.

I do not have any objections to removing any legal restrictions that might keep a small business owner from taking one of his employees aside and saying to him, "You've just got married, and you're probably thinking a lot about where you're going in the long term at the moment. We value your work here, and we want to make sure that you stay with our company in the years to come, so I'd like to take this opportunity to offer you a raise." However, I do strongly dislike the idea of having some sort of institutionalized system whereby there is some sort of family- size-and-responsibility-modifier on everyone's compensation plan. This seems to strip the breadwinner of his traditional dignity as a person responsible for finding a way to earn enough to have a family, and for to continue to support his family once he has one. Instead, the head of household now goes to his boss, hat in hand, and says, "Excuse me sir. My wife and I are expecting again, and so I wonder if perhaps I could make a little more." The breadwinner is no longer the head of his or her household -- the breadwinner's employer is.

Paying people according to how useful their work (and potential and knowledge) is to the company may not be a perfect system, but in many ways it continues to echo the ancient calculus that humans have had to perform ever since they were told, "By the sweat of your brow shall you earn your bread, Until you return to the ground, from which you were taken."

If someone isn't making enough, he can seek to find a way to do more work, or to do work that is more valued -- a few words to describe a process that can seem daunting if not nearly impossible at times. But then, the Biblical metaphor is itself pretty bleak. While I'm certainly in favor of humanizing the relationship between employer and employee, it seems to me essential that increased earnings be tied to increased productivity and/or responsibility -- not only because it keeps the economics whole, but because it ties in to the inherent dignity of earning one's living.

22 comments:

Kiwi Nomad 2006 said...

As a single woman and a female, I can be allowed to look askance at this system. Some years back there was a study done about who the most disadvantaged groups here in NZ were. We do have a lot more social welfare benefits etc than you have in the US, many of them aimed at families. It turned out that single females were the most disadvantaged group ;-)

Literacy-chic said...

And really, there are so many circumstances in which a woman might have to assume the sole responsibility for her family--like it or not!! I'm really rather flabbergasted by the suggestion.

Your arguments are reasonable and interesting, but don't really cut to the heart of the injustice. I think perhaps the second biggest problem with even trying this kind of experiment is that it would require the entire country's economic structure to return to one that no longer exists. I'm not even going to address the first--namely, what this implies about women who do work.

Darwin said...

Agreed on both. I think it was my sense of fairness that was most immediately offended. Be as useful - make the same. That just seems most fair. (Not to mention the fact that I think it's not necessarily any of your employer's damn business what your family need is, so long as you're doing your job.)

I took the tack I did in order to try to refute it on its own ground -- but I think both of your reasons for recoiling against the idea are quite right, and I agree with them wholeheartedly.

Literacy-chic said...

Yes, you did a nice job considering the argument for what it was. That's a skill I wish I could teach to students!!

rhinemouse said...

Also, it seems to me that having your salary rely on how needy your boss thinks you are can lead nowhere good.

Foxfier, formerly Sailorette said...

My gut response: it costs more to have someone who is married?

Don't hire married people.

Talk about a subsidy to homosexuals and serial un-formalized poligamists....

Unless you count the children that folks have, in which case it would just be a subsidy to homosexuals, and those who are sterilized.

Catholic Bibliophagist said...

What immediately struck me was that here was another attempt at social engineering, albeit with somewhat different goals than usual.

But if the proposal had been, "Let's offer people with children smaller annual raises in order to discourage unchecked population growth perhaps the manipulative aspects would have been clearer to the poster you linked to.

Anonymous said...

If people with kids have to be paid more, then companies won't hire people with kids. Duh. Companies will also fabricate reasons to lay people off for getting married and having more kids.

The social effects of this are easy to predict: millions of people "living in sin" and hiding their kids from the public eye in order to maintain their employability; and even more millions of people forgoing marriage and reproduction altogether. If getting married means living on welfare, no one will get married.

Or, maybe the government will foresee these things, and enact new regulations that require companies to hire a certain number of married people and people with kids. Quotas. We all know how much pro-family voters and pro-business voters have embraced quotas in the past.

Yes, this is obviously an excellent idea.

Darwin said...

To be fair to the author, he advocated down in the comments a corporate tax system that rewarded companies for employing married workers above unmarried, and those with more children above those with less.

Still, I think the necessity of coming up with all this manipulation serves to underline that trying to fabricate a system, however good intentioned, is not necessarily a good idea.

Blackadder said...

Excellent post.

Rick Lugari said...

I didn't read much of the thread, but I think Zippy may be faulted (inculpably) in his presentation but I think he is starting from a solid foundation. Had he started from square one (no small chore and really impossible in this sort of medium) the many and varied criticisms may have been averted. I mean that with no disrespect to Zippy, there's just too many modern day preconceived notions and assumptions to be overcome before stating something that to the modern ear sounds so bold or insane. Unfortunately, I am in no way equipped to really offer much of a defense due to my lack of skills and knowledge so I apologize for opening my mouth without being prepared to go to the mat on it. In an act of intellectual cowardice I offer what I consider the best expression of the idea(l)s Zippy is putting forth:

G.K.Chesterton's What's Wrong with the World and The Superstition of Divorce. They can be found together in Chesterton's Collected Works Vol. 4. I'm sure not everybody will agree with Chesterton on these matters, but at least they will have a fair understanding of the arguments. Much better than any of could do in the realm of blogs. Again, I know this comment is squirrelly, but everyone, especially Catholics, should read those books.

Nârwen said...

What about people who have dependents who are not children ? Demographically, this is going to be a big issue, as soon we will have a glut of elderly parents, with the burden of helping them falling on only one or two children each.

M.Z. Forrest said...

You are making a pretty gross assumption: A society can be organized through disincentivizing the family. Despite your 5000 year-old speculation, we have pretty decent knowledge on the state of affairs 50 years ago. Gender discrimination was not prohibitted by law, and we found a wage gap between male and female earnings even when controlling for education and experience. While fictionalized, I remember the scene from 9-to-5 where the boss tells the woman she can't be paid as much as the guy because he has a mortgage to pay. Such consideration is not foreign to the experience of man.

j. christian said...

You rightly remove the discussion of pay from the relatively recent historical development of corporate jobs to the more common practice of subsistence farming. The truth about labor productivity and wages becomes painfully apparent that way.

Another way to frame it would be with private contracts. I hire a (unmarried, childless) plumber who puts in new copper pipes and a new kitchen sink, and charges me $5000 dollars for it. The sink gets clogged, so I call another plumber who easily unclogs the drain. He then hands me a bill for $5000, explaining that he has 15 kids, a sick wife, and elderly parents he needs to support... I try to be generous, but what does this example say about the reward expected in return for some amount of work?

Darwin said...

Ummm. Help me out here: How am I assuming that a society can be organized through disincentivizing the family?

In a agrarian/craftsman economy, your "income" was pretty directly proportional to what you produced -- which on the agrarian side was also highly dependent on factors beyond your control. There's nothing speculative about that, it continued on as long as we _had_ an agrarian/craftsman economy. Fields did not produce more crops because they knew they were now owned by a married man.

As for the 50s, and their fictionalizations (both in entertainment and in the minds of the current generation) -- I do not have a problem with not having legislation banning gender discrimination. I think we have far too much legislation as it is. But at the same time, I've got to say that the "Because he's got a mortgage to pay" exchange you quote simply offends my sense of fairness. I've got no problem with paying based on seniority and potential, but the "because he's got a mortgage to pay" line suggests the boss knows a lot of things about how the woman lives or ought to live which are simply not his business. What, should women not be allowed to have mortgages?

M.Z. Forrest said...

Yes, you are making a fundamentally flawed assumption. In agrarian society, the head of household had to make provision for the entire family. Work that demanded the skills of HOD was priced accordingly. If you sent a child to work or a spouse, it was a net gain regardless because you still retained the provision obligations.

Beyond the speculatory realm, we have really good data over the last hundred years. We know that women used to make roughly 50 cents on the dollar. There were certain jobs called "women's work" that a family was expected not to take. There were certain jobs that were called men's jobs because women were expected to fullfill their marital duties.

What, should women not be allowed to have mortgages?
Apologizes for society offending your feminist ideals.

Darwin said...

Yes, you are making a fundamentally flawed assumption. In agrarian society, the head of household had to make provision for the entire family. Work that demanded the skills of HOD was priced accordingly. If you sent a child to work or a spouse, it was a net gain regardless because you still retained the provision obligations.

Ummmm. Maybe I'm missing out on some economist-speak here. Or maybe we're thinking different types of farming.

Generally, a family subsistence or small cash-crop farm would already involve all able-bodied people in the family working in some sense or another. So its true that after children became old enough to be really useful, there was a net gain. For any serious kind of labor, "really useful" probably meant at least 9-10, which is a good six years sooner than children in a modern wage-earning society are generally able to make an economic contribution to the family. Though children under that age can at least be very helpful in providing cleaning, house maintenance and babysitting serves starting by age 10 -- services modern two-income families often end up paying for instead. So I'd say there's some contribution though it's not huge. (Obviously, it's great if there's a family business, because then the kids can learn to help at a younger age, which is generally good for them and the family.)

Beyond the speculatory realm, we have really good data over the last hundred years. We know that women used to make roughly 50 cents on the dollar. There were certain jobs called "women's work" that a family was expected not to take. There were certain jobs that were called men's jobs because women were expected to fullfill their marital duties.

Call me weird, but I tend to think of the medieval village as being a much better model or a healthy Catholic society than 50s Detroit -- and agrarian and craftsmen societies in general more than industrial ones.

That said, I agree that there has traditionally been "men's work" and "women's work" and that women's work has traditionally paid less than men's -- and I don't really have a problem with that. But the distinction between men's and women's work was generally not an assumption that all men were rearing families and no women were, but rather that "men's work" was more physically demanding, and more productive.

What I do have a problem with is either saying you won't hire a woman to do a job she's fully capable of simply because she's a woman, or hiring her but paying her half the wage a man would be paid. At the human level, I think it fails to recognize all the situations in which women _do_ have to providers, whether widows or women whose husbands cannot work for some reason, single women or divorced women. There are a host of reasons why a woman might have to provide for direct or indirect family, or might simply have accepted a single vocation. Whatever the reason, it simply strikes me as unfair (and contrived) to pay the gender rather than the work.

Apologizes for society offending your feminist ideals.

I must admit, it's deeply charming to me that by _someone's_ definition I have feminist ideals.

Literacy-chic said...

That said, I agree that there has traditionally been "men's work" and "women's work" and that women's work has traditionally paid less than men's -- and I don't really have a problem with that.

Can we clarify whether we are talking about housecleaning and childrearing or schoolteaching and governessing, chambermaiding, or other non-existent gerunds? What is women's work? I guess I'm just non-traditional enough not to know... Or have more feminist ideals than my colleagues know...

Literacy-chic said...

Incidently, how might the concept of the "dignity of work" color this discussion? Is some work more dignified than other work based on who performs or is meant to perform it, or does honest work maintain its dignity, but the dignity of the individual is subject to judgment by the employer--or, in this case, the theorist? And really, are women in an ideal traditionalist society not entitled to private property? So then what was Jane Austen complaining about as long as her heroines married well? Oh wait! That was the problem!! Men! Where to find them! And how to catch them! And whether they were reliable! What's a woman to do but be content with her lot? I hate to burst your little bubbles here, but not all men--even those with large families--are honorable Christians. There are men out there who would take the higher rate of pay for their families of 6 kids and pocket the money, leaving their pregnant wives $50/week while taking vacations. What we are talking about here is utopia--that's right, no place.

Darwin said...

Can we clarify whether we are talking about housecleaning and childrearing or schoolteaching and governessing, chambermaiding, or other non-existent gerunds? What is women's work?

Well, what I was thinking of was that in highly manual-labor based societies, certain jobs were usually reserved for men on a physical ability basis, while others were generally assigned to women -- though that could be more fluid. So since I was thinking agrarian village, I'd put plowing and harvesting and woodcutting and sheep shearing in more of a "men's work" category while things like gardening, spinning, milking and churning might fall more in a "women's work" category. (These terms should not, obviously, be taken as absolute, since with sufficient determination women did do "men's work" when they had to, and if there was need men did "women's work" as well.)

In a more modern setting, riveting and welding and trench digging might be seen as more "men's work" while answering phones might be seen as "women's work".

But this is exactly where things run into trouble -- and I think people attached to the wrong kinds of traditions do themselves and society a disservice. It seems to me that the dignity of work is best served by paying someone what the work is worth, which I'd tend to define as being closely related to what it produces, how much you want it, and how hard it is to do.

By this set of definitions, a lot of traditional "men's work" (taking the term to refer to things where women's generally smaller stature would be a handicap) is simply not as valuable these days as unisex work, which some people might think of as "women's work" if they're overly bought-into a certain type of machismo. This has served to cause massive problems for some parts of society (especially recently rural populations like some groups of immigrants) where the men drop out of school as soon as possible to work as agricultural day laborers or some other highly manual occupation, while the women finish school and get indoor jobs as sales clerks or receptionists or nurse's aides. Pretty soon, the women are making twice what the men are and don't see why they should put up with the men coming home drunk every night. (Victor Davis Hanson writes about this phenomenon in Mexifornia, but you see it in other recently rural parts of the country as well.)

To me, it seems the answer to this is for people to value work for what it achieves, rather than for what they imagine they themselves ought to be worth.

Literacy-chic said...

Those definitions work for me, but the terms are quite loaded, especially as I seem to be thinking most about traditional English society rather than the American pioneer days, which is what I think about when I read your posts. However, if this scheme were to be judged as preferable, it would have to be broadly applicable--to either type of society, and then some. I think it's clear that it couldn't work in today's society, at least not without massive restructuring, and unless we had a kind of theocracy in place to make sure that men were acting responsibly when they received their higher share, it could never work. Even if we wanted it to.

Darwin said...

Agreed, I don't think that "men's work" really applies these days: unless you're talking about laying water mains or serving in a combat platoon.

I guess my wider point was: If there ever was a justifiable reason for paying "men's work" more (and I think there was in some cases), it was that it was more productive, not that it was done by the head of a household. I don't like this idea of work being paid according to who is doing it rather than what is being done.