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Incomparable Waste


By Joseph F Kahn

COMPARABLE worth advocates are shouting louder than ever. Strikers at Yale created a national stir last month by demanding that the government and the university recognize their claim to equal pay for work which, by some standard yet undeveloped, would be judged similar. Soon-to-be Massachusetts Sen. John F. Kerry has wholeheartedly endorsed the movement toward national legislation requiring businesses to institute comparable worth pay scales. The concept sounds good, but then so did Communism.

The theory behind comparable worth is that jobs should pay in proportion to the difficulty of labor involved, not to the status attached to the position. The argument has gathered political momentum because it is linked with the issues of sex and racial discrimination--minorities and women typically occupy jobs which many claim are underpaid in relation to similar jobs commonly held by white males. Yet while advocates of comparable worth defend the theory as a means to greater equality, legislation requiring businesses to adopt a pay scale along such lines would not only have a deleterious effect on businesses throughout the nation but would also seriously impede the workers' quest for wealth and would put yet another hole in the taxpayer's pocket.

Government legislation, as opposed to pressure from the private sector, will only aggravate inequalities which capitalism creates. The long-term cost of instituting government agencies to oversee the distribution of wages in the corporateworld would outweigh the advantages completely and would render the legislation very unpopular.

IMAGINE the enormous bureaucracy which would be needed to enforce complicated comparable worth legislation. Aside from the sheer cost of maintaining such a force in an era which demands economic restraint, already over-crowded courts would be inundated with complaints brought forward by the necessarily random guidelines of the agency. Thousands of employees would be needed to inspect the payroll practices of millions of businesses. This country simply cannot financially afford the burden of such a socialist task force.

Disregarding for the moment the potential economic backlash of comparable worth, there remains the practical hurdles of how the government would determine such a pay scale. It would need to consider an infinite number of variables in order to render a fair and equitable system of worker value. Every time a new position is created in the private world, every time a new employee is hired, the government would have to insure that the worker's pay is measured in a systematized way. Should every worker be judged not by his own ability and potential but by the ability and potential but by the ability and potential of others who are determined to be like him?

Consider the application of this process to the Harvard grading system. A large committee of students and faculty might endeavor to insure fair distribution of grades. For why should grading, a measure vital to the college student, be left to the whims of teaching fellows? No longer would a section leader simply determine a grade by analysis of a student's work, but each grade would be subjected to rigorous verification and justification. The committee would consider the difficulty of paper topics a student undertakes, the availability of books in area libraries related to that topic, and the complexity of the student's sentence structure on the final exam. It would need to determine the difficulty of the couse in comparison with other courses so that students taking "guts" would not receive unduly high grades. Maybe it should take into account the professor's ability to enunciate clearly lest a student miss a key phrase in lecture. Such a calculus leaves little room for the distinctive talents of the individual.

CLOSE TO HOME, some have argued that the future of Massachusetts' businesses depended on the forced adoption of such measures. But such a move would be disastrous--skyrocketing taxes and other employment restrictions would force high-tech businesses to leave the area. With the competition between the East and the Southwest to attract profitable industry, the last thing we should do is to make Massachusetts less profitable. The Bay State lost much of its industry in the last decade to high taxes, but Governor Dukakis has worked hard to keep the remaining businesses and to attract new high-tech industry by an intricate system of tax incentives and gubernatorial clout. Comparable worth legislation would severely weaken his program and compromise our future.

It seems, however, that very few proponents of comparable worth pay scales, as represented by the Yale strikers (now back at work at least temporarily), really care about the future well-being of business. Rather, they are primarily concerned with sex and race discrimination and believe that legislation requiring equal pay for comparable work will resolve that dilemma. But sex and race are only a small piece of the pie when it comes to determining wages; employers must also consider skill, performance, supply and demand. To ignore the market values on labor would be fallacious; it would compromise our entire economic-system. If the jobs which women predominantly assume are consistently lower paying, then either the job is of little value or women are being discriminated against. But consider a secretary, a position only decades ago occupied almost solely by men. Those male secretaries and clerks were still some of the lowest paid of all laborers because many of these presently female-oriented jobs were considered temporary and easily filled. Those male secretaries and clerks were still some of the lowest paid of all laborers because many of these presently female-oriented jobs were considered temporary and easily filled. Those females who wish higher pay and increased opportunity should look elsewhere as men now do--the doors of employment and opportunity are wide open in this country. The American laborer is not undervalued, just stubborn.

In addition to the questionable financial, practical and moral implications of comparable worth, the long-term benefit for workers is negative. If a company is forced to pay secretaries at the rate of computer operators, then the company may well attempt to rid themselves of the secretaries altogether. If a warehouse must pay forklift drivers the equivalent of truck drivers, then it will attempt to do without forklift drivers. In this age of automation, much can change. If a business can no longer determine the value of their employees given its budget, then it will automate at the employees' expense. For the value of many workers to their company lies in how much the company is forced to spend on wages. If the government demands that forklift drivers receive pay equal to truck drivers, it may save money to automate the warehouse. If secretaries demand more than their worth in relation to business needs, why not computerize secretarial work? Pushing for comparable worth on a national level only encourages dehumanization and diminished opportunity.

AMERICA'S standard of living rises far above any country with a socialized standard of pay, and this in itself should testify to the need to avoid it. I am not suggesting that workers become the puppets of business for their own good, rather that workers must play the game rather than take away some of the cards. If secretaries feel slighted, maybe they should become computer operators. Maybe they should go on strike--no one is advocating the abolition of unions, boycotts or pickets to improve the worker's lot. Just as it is up to the individual to attain his goals, it is up the the individual to enjoy the fruits of his labor. If we sacrifice our individuality on one count, we risk sacrificing it on all counts.

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