When he resigned his position as Labor Secretary in the Trump administration yesterday, Alexander Acosta explained, “It would be selfish to stay in this position and continue talking about a case that’s 12 year old, rather than the amazing economy we have right now.” For his part, Trump hailed Acosta as “a great labor secretary,” even going so far as to defend the plea deal Acosta’s office made with Jeffrey Epstein back in 2008.
Acosta’s remarks, and Trump’s affirmation, raise the question of whether or not we can really talk about economic matters apart from issues regarding violence against women and young girls.
Epstein serially raped young girls, and Acosta, for all intents and purposes, minimalized the gravity of these crimes by negotiating a back-room deal for Epstein’s punishment that was barely, in terms proportional to the grossness and heinousness of the crimes, a slap on the wrist.
Is talking about these serial rapes and Acosta’s effective cover-up really distinct from talking about the economy?
Isn’t that kind of like a captain of the mid-19th-century cotton industry in the U.S. talking about the amazing economy but deflecting issues of lynching and other forms of violence against African Americans, including the inhumane, violent, and exploitive enslavement of African Americans that was the basis for the economy itself?
The legitimation of violence against groups of people is premised on, enabled by, the larger social devaluation of the lives of those groups of people. And we have to recognize that our social values and our economic modes of valuing people do not operate independently of one another.
The workplace is a central site in our society, in our political economy, where we express and decide people’s value, people’s worth.
How we value people in the workplace—how we decide, say, how much Black lives and women’s lives matter—relates directly, indeed conditions and determines, how we value people in the world at large.
CBS journalist Norah O’Donnell put it well when commenting on Charlie Rose’s firing in November 2017 for his repeated sexual harassment of women in the workplace. She said, “Let me be very clear. There is no excuse for this alleged behavior. It is systematic and pervasive and I’ve been doing a lot of listening.” She added, “Women cannot achieve equality in the workplace or in society until there is a reckoning.”
She makes clear the relationship between how women are valued, or de-valued, outside the workplace, and how they are valued, or de-valued, in the workplace.
In short, how we value the work people do in economic terms bears direct correlation to how we value people in social and political terms.
Claire Cain Miller, in a 2016 New York Times piece titled “As Women Take Over a Male-Dominated Field, the Pay drops,” presents this point clearly as she takes on the question of why women’s median incomes stubbornly lag 20% behind men’s. Her study of the research yields this conclusion: “Work done by women simply isn’t valued as highly.”
And this reality isn’t because of any inherent value in the work itself; it’s because of the people doing it and the way our society values those people.
She points out that typically the gender pay gap has been attributed to the tendency of women and men to enter different professions. Miller, however, contests this easy conclusion, citing research demonstrating that “when women enter fields in greater numbers, pay declines — for the very same jobs that more men were doing before.”
She offers the following evidence and examples:
Consider the discrepancies in jobs requiring similar education and responsibility, or similar skills, but divided by gender. The median earnings of information technology managers (mostly men) are 27 percent higher than human resources managers (mostly women), according to Bureau of Labor Statistics data. At the other end of the wage spectrum, janitors (usually men) earn 22 percent more than maids and housecleaners (usually women).