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The Inequality of Equal Pay

“Equal pay! Equal pay!” the crowd chanted at the rally for the women’s soccer team after the ticker tape World Cup victory parade in New York. They were loud and insistent—and they didn’t mean it.

Team captain Megan Rapinoe confirmed this in her speech during the rally. She didn’t merely call for equal pay. She also thanked her teammates for their part in the triumph and then specified the contributions by the obscure uncelebs who bolstered them. She named the coaching staff, technical staff, medical staff, support staff, massage therapists, videographers, chef, security and media people.

“Thank you so much,” she said. “You make our jobs so easy. We don’t have to focus on anything other than what we have to do on the field. Thank you for that.”

The Thailand team didn’t have this level of support. They lost to the Americans 13-0. The teams that kept the score closer, like Spain and France, probably didn’t have such thorough assistance either. So they lost too.

Although Rapinoe rightly cited the support personnel as necessary for her team’s success, she didn’t say they should get equal pay. Nor did the countless commentators also demanding Equal Pay! They want the players to get paid on a par with members of the US men’s team. Or as Rapinoe said, the women should get double their current pay, and then double or quadruple that next time. The crowd claps and cheers.

But why should only the stars get the celestial rewards? They couldn’t be stars without the helpers Rapinoe listed.

Whatever the Market Will Bear

The traditional answer has been that everybody should get equal pay for equal work, as political party platforms have often said in appealing to women voters. Do professionals with salaries boosted by university degrees really work more than the janitors who clean their offices? Do money shufflers snagging millions per year really work more than the farm laborers gathering their food? Put the shufflers out in the fields and they will wilt faster than the crops they’re picking.

These brain teases have no clear or easy answers. So the usual resolution has been to concede that compensation should be whatever The Market will bear, with occasional stipulations that this ought not to be skewed by gender, race, ethnicity and such. But that solution supposes The Market is some disembodied entity, like the laws of physics, that impersonally grinds out ordained consequences.

It’s not. It’s a human contrivance that systematically favors some and punishes others. Rapinoe’s recitation of her team’s non-starring members proves this. The support staff were not players on the field but they were part of the team. Yet only the players became celebrities who can command bigger paychecks and endorsement deals bigger than that, because the global sports and media apparatus turned them into stars. This is The Market at work.

But take away the support staff and the team will get crushed like Thailand. Take away the decades of public policy and dollars devoted to developing women’s athletics in secondary schools and universities, and there won’t even be a squad capable of competing at the international level.

The team couldn’t function without the support, just as the hedge fund office couldn’t function without the janitors working overnight to prepare the place for the next day’s operations. These drudges are essential personnel, otherwise they wouldn’t have their jobs and meager paychecks at all.

So why do the stars get vastly greater rewards in money and acclaim? That’s hardly equal pay for equal work.

Dynastic Alliances

Or why did MacKenzie Bezos get just $38 billion in her recent divorce settlement with Jeff. Forbes estimates his net worth at $110 billion, most of which he accumulated during their marriage. Her share reflects only a portion of his Amazon stock. And she got no part of his Blue Origin space exploration toy, nor any of his Washington Post media toy. The settlement didn’t specify which one of them got which of their six properties (apparently meaning homes, mansions, ranches and the like). Whatever, she got far less than half of the couple’s assets. That’s hardly equal pay for equal work.

If she gets hitched again, it won’t be with the stable boy. Wealth tends to merge with wealth.

Consider some Hollywood sorts lately in the news. Camille Grammer was married to the actor Kelsey, until she wasn’t anymore. Upon departure she collected a $30 million settlement, which was deserving because “I just didn’t sit back, buying fancy clothes and shoving bonbons in my face. I mean, I worked hard.” Then she married an attorney at Arant Fox, one of the most gilded law firms catering to the bi-coastal Midases.

Love and romance may waft through these arrangements. But they are also dynastic alliances, which have a very long history, and not just because they unify and preserve fortunes. They also consolidate the power that property confers and transfer it through generations.

If the demand for equal pay does not pay attention to this, it will become a demand for ever greater dynastic consolidation.

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DAVID UNDERHILL lives in Mobile, Alabama. He can be reached at drunderhill@yahoo.com

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