How Manipulation Works

By Jon F. Merz

Let me preface this post by saying I am an Independent when it comes to politics. I have some things that I am conservative about (mostly national security issues) and yet I am also very socially liberal. As far as I’m concerned most, if not all, politicians are two sides of the same coin. I think serving in Congress should be like jury duty rather than an opportunity to stay in Washington and skim the system for the rest of your life. And there’s hypocrisy on both sides of the aisle.

Okay, so this is an election year, which means the manipulation machines of both parties are hard at work. It also provides a great opportunity to point out how they manipulate facts in order to sow confusion and spread misinformation to the general public. We’re going to take a look at one such example right now.

Last night over on my Facebook page, I posed a question directly at those female friends of mine who happen to tilt to the Right or consider themselves Republican. I wrote, “How do you reconcile your support of Republican agendas when every single one of them just voted against the equal pay for women bill? Are you truly interested in being seen as equal to men or is that not important to you? If what we hear from the Right is to be believed, then this election is all about the economy – and yet, they just voted NOT to give equal pay to you; they just voted NOT to improve YOUR economy. Does that make sense?”

Specifically, I wanted to hear from Republican women. I didn’t get any responses. But then late last night (I went to bed early before he posted) another friend of mine, Scott Brody posted this reply to another one of my friends who had called out legislators in this way: “So my question is, should female legislators be paid less than male legislators? Perhaps THAT would make them see the light.”

Scott’s response was this: “Laurie, your question about legislators needs to be posed to Nancy Pelosi who pays the women on her staff less than the men for the same jobs.” Scott also had some other comments about both sides of the aisle that aren’t germane to this post. But his initial line there intrigued me. And being Independent, I consider it mandatory that I try to figure out if there’s any truth to such a claim.

I googled the following search string: “nancy pelosi staff salaries” and a bunch of hits came up. The first was for a website called Legistorm and then every other hit on the first page was for a Right-Wing blowhole website from the likes of Michelle Malkin, The Washington Beacon, and others. I clicked Malkin’s website first and saw her assertion (well, not HER assertion, but some dude named Doug Powers) that Pelosi’s staffers make less than their male counterparts. The blog post would seem to be backed up by a quote box that linked to another Right-Wing blowhole that said – nearly word-for-word, mind you – the exact same charge that Malkin did. (Side note: this is a favored tactic of the right: hand out a script and then repeat the exact same wording over and over – none of their proxies stray from the script, they just keep hammering it home – and eventually people will believe it – whatever it is. Democrats, by comparison, often suffer because they can’t get everybody on the same page saying the same lines, so their message comes across as diluted and confusing.)

The Washington Beacon’s article linked back to Legistorm, so that’s where I went. But first, look at the “script” – this is the talking point that the Right wants to use to combat the fact that every single Republican just voted against the Equal Pay Bill for women. Here’s how they are trying to avoid that by leveling the following charge:

“According to publicly available salary data at the website Legistorm, Pelosi’s female employees earned an average annual salary of $96,394 in fiscal year 2011. Male employees earned $123,000 on average, a difference of 27.6 percent. The gap is even larger if calculated using the median salaries for men and women. For Pelosi’s female employees, the median annual salary was $93,320 in 2011, compared to $130,455 for male employees—a difference of $37,135, or 40 percent. Pelosi’s entire staff—men and women—earned an average annual salary of $108,150 and a median salary of $114,662. By both measures, women made considerably less.

Those percentage points are the “whoppers” they want people talking about. Those percentage points would lead you to believe, “Holy crap, what a hypocrite Pelosi is.” And because the Right knows all too well that the vast majority of the people it speaks to will not go and research these claims, they can float something like this out there, see it get traction, and not have to worry about the fact that their claims are, well…full of crap.

So, let’s head over to Legistorm and see for ourselves. Legistorm is a website that tracks Congressional data and tries to be a non-partisan entity. And they have disclaimers on their website like the following: “Congressional staff salaries shown are the amount paid in the period shown. They are not annual salaries. Because bonuses may be included here and other payments may not be (most notably with aides working for multiple offices or for a political campaign committee), please use caution in extrapolating annual salaries from the figures shown here.”

Hmm, “please use caution in extrapolating annual salaries from the figures shown here…” Something to keep in mind as we progress. Going back to the “script,” the Right claims that for fiscal 2011, women on Pelosi’s staff earned a difference of 27.6% or 40% versus male counterparts depending on whether you want to look at averages or medians. Legistorm lists figures on a quarterly basis, which means in order to figure out the annual pay for staffers, you have to get the ol’ calculator out and do some basic accounting. Even for a math-phobe like me, this isn’t asking too much.

The bone of contention with regards to the Equal Pay Bill is that women are paid LESS than men for the same work. It’s important to remember that. Because what immediately stands out as you look at Pelosi’s staff is that very few people share the same job title. In fact, there are only two job titles that are identical and have more than one person working with that title. Those titles are: Staff Assistant and Co-Director of Communications. Every other staffer has a different job title. And those titles range as they should.

Why is this important? Because in the same way that no rational human being would expect someone working the fryolator at McDonald’s to earn as much as a neurosurgeon, no one should likewise expect that everyone in Pelosi’s office will be earning the same salary given the fact that they have DIFFERENT jobs with DIFFERENT responsibilities. But the “script” that the Right wants to use to manipulate you into thinking Pelosi is a hypocrite is deliberately set up in just that way.

Let’s get back to the folks who actually DO share a job title in the Pelosi office. At varying times in 2011, Pelosi had upwards of five Staff Assistants. Three of them were women and two were men. None of them worked all four quarters. Ally worked for just two, Katie for three, Patricio for two, Ricardo for three, and Ethan for just one.

Katie for her three quarters of work earned $24,301.42 while Ricardo for his three quarters of work earned $29,641.80. Ricardo was paid $5,340.38 more than Katie. Which is a difference of a shade over 22% for the same job.

GASP! Shocking! How dare Pelosi pay Ricardo 22% more for the same job that Katie has. What a hypocrite! ZOMG!

But wait…going back in time to the previous years, we see that the first time Katie shows up on the pay register is in fiscal 2011. But Ricardo worked in Pelosi’s office back in 2010. So Ricardo had more experience or previous experience than Katie did and was probably hired on at a slight pay difference for just that reason. As any rational human being would expect. More experience? More pay. That simple.

Let’s move on to the second job title that features more than one worker and that was for the Co-Director of Communications. Robyn and David both split this title and it’s not unreasonable to think their duties are probably about the same. So what about their pay for fiscal 2011?

Robyn earned $38,660.51 while David earned $40,005.21. That’s a difference of $1,344.70 or 3.48%. Now, both of them have been around since 2007 and both were put into their current position in February 2011. So, why did David earn an earth-shattering mind-blowing insanely-insulting extra $1,344.70 more than Robyn? Part of the reason is he worked a shade more overtime than Robyn did – to the tune of $133.41. But another part of the reason may be that David’s position was listed as being with the Office of the Speaker of the House up until January 2011 when Pelosi had to give up the Speaker role to John Boehnert. During that time, David was primarily working in the Speaker’s office and not in Pelosi’s congressional office, although he soon transitioned over once Pelosi lost the Speaker position. Robyn, on the other hand, was always employed in the actual Congressional office. Now, I don’t know for certain, but it seems there might be a shade more prestige and therefore money attached to working out of the Speaker’s office than there would in the normal Congressional office. But I’m not sure.

There’s definitely a discrepancy there, but the discrepancy is hardly what the Right wants you to believe. It’s not some insane amount of money. We’re talking about $1,344.70 or the equivalent to $25 bucks a week.

As to the Right’s use of percentages like 27.6% or 40% that’s just bullshit. They’re comparing apples and oranges and expecting you to be dumb enough to swallow the whole twisted mess. I don’t expect a Staff Assistant in Pelosi’s office to make the same amount of money as the District Administrator makes. And yet, that’s exactly what the Right wants you to think in this case.

And why does it work? Because in our fast-paced lives, it takes time to research this stuff and figure out where the truth is. Now, it may, in fact, be that there is some pay discrepancy there between David and Robyn – after all, $25 bucks is well, not much – and if so, then clearly Pelosi needs to rectify that on the next performance review-

-huh? Did you say “performance review?”

Why yes, I did, actually. And therein lies the variable that we unfortunately do not have access to. It’s entirely possible – especially since for the first two years of her employment Robyn earned MORE than David – that either Robyn had a not-so-good performance review or that David had a stellar performance review that gave him this extra $25 bucks per week. You know those pesky reviews…sometimes you get a decent one, sometimes not so much, and sometimes you get a great one. And you get a little extra pay for those great reviews. Merit increases, I think they’re called.

Food for thought.

The genius of the Right is that they come out with a script and then everyone repeats it verbatim. That script is then reposted on blogs that link to other Right Wing blogs that link to Right Wing newspapers and columnists. And the old adage of the more you see it, the more it must be true comes into play. Links on one article go to another website that repeats the same talking points over and over. And since most people are lazy at best and uneducated at worst, the script is seen and believed.

I don’t like Nancy Pelosi nor do I dislike her anymore than I do most politicians. But trying to generate silliness like this as a means of combating outrage over Republicans blocking the Equal Pay Bill is simply ridiculous. The percentages used might be right, but the jobs aren’t the same, and things like experience, overtime, and performance reviews weren’t taken into account.

At the end of the day, you can cook numbers and get pretty much any result you want. The Right knows this. They know they can twist things just so and give the appearance they are correct – and they know better still that the vast majority of people are too lazy to do basic fact-checking or too dumb to question it or too filled with hatred that they don’t even care if they’re being lied to. It happens on the Left as well. And there are just as many vehement nutjobs on the Left as there are on the Right.

So rather than swallow the scripts that the players read and post, make sure you do some homework and try to get the real truth. You owe to yourself to do so. The world already has enough sheep.

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