There's an interesting piece by James Surowiecki in the The New Yorker that breaks down the Lilly Ledbetter story pretty clearly and succinctly. It calls John McCain and the Republican party out as dishonest, and illustrates one of the right's favorite tactics in the process.
Just for a little background, Lilly Ledbetter is the Goodyear middle manager from Alabama who was discriminated against throughout her career, and when she sued, was rhetorically spat on by the Supreme Court when they ruled that because she didn't file a suit within 180 days of the initial discriminatory act, she'd missed her chance. Congress tried to pass a law that would gave closed that loophole, and Republicans in the Senate filibustered it. To his credit, Surowiecki says just that--there are no false equivalencies like "it died in Congress" in his piece.
The most interesting part of the piece to me, however, comes when Surowiecki expands his argument.
Decades ago, the economist Gary Becker showed that “taste-based” discrimination (pure prejudice) could not survive in a truly competitive talent market, because unprejudiced companies would outperform prejudiced ones by hiring smart women and minorities. Yet the introduction of blind auditions at major symphony orchestras, starting in the seventies, has increased by fifty per cent the likelihood of female performers’ advancing—a clear sign that, for decades, orchestras had made bad talent decisions because of their prejudice without being punished. More striking, recent work by Kerwin Charles and Jonathan Guryan, of the University of Chicago, shows that, under certain reasonable conditions, market competition will not necessarily eradicate discrimination. That may be why, they suggest, the gap between black and white wages is widest in the most prejudiced parts of the U.S.—precisely what you’d expect if businessmen could discriminate and get away with it.Which I think illustrates the difference between theory and practice perfectly. In theory, Becker may have been correct, but the reality is that few talent markets are truly competitive, at least to the point where it makes a huge difference in performance.
A good example of what Becker is talking about would be in competitive sports. That's a truly competitive talent market, and guess what? Race discrimination is much rarer there. When it does appear, it's often in the opinions of onlookers, such as when Rush Limbaugh made his asinine comments about Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb a few years ago. I can promise you, the people who matter--McNabb's coach Andy Reid and the Eagles ownership--don't care what color McNabb's skin is as long as he's leading the Eagles to wins.
But that's an elite sport, where there's a tremendously small number of people who can do the job. But is there a competitive disadvantage to hiring a slightly less-qualified white man to load trucks with a forklift if you can pay him the same as an African-American? Not likely. I know from experience that the difference between an elite forklift driver and an average one isn't all that noticeable. And as a result, the company that engages in discriminatory hiring practices doesn't suffer.
Surowiecki's argument limps a little at the end--he says that Republican opposition to the bill, framed a little differently, would be principled.
And so there is a principled argument against the Ledbetter bill: namely, that Lilly Ledbetter was an adult; that if she didn’t think she was being paid fairly she was free to ask for more money or to leave; and that government interference with the idea of what constitutes fair pay is likely to cause more problems than it’s worth. Unlike the current opposition to the bill, this is an honest position to take.But there's nothing principled about that position, because it also fails in the theoretical versus practical world test. The reality is that many people don't have good options when it comes to challenging the status quo where they work. There aren't other employment options locally, or they can't afford to take the chance that they'll go without health insurance, for example, and as a result, their only real option is to suck it up--unless government is on their side. And last I checked, government was nominally supposed to represent us, not businesses. But that's the Republican party for you--never on the side of the little person.