Jill Abramson and the road to misery

In Coconuts, the Marx Brothers’ first movie, the bellhops at Groucho’s Florida hotel demand their wages. Groucho asks them whether they want to be “wage slaves.” When they answer in the negative, Groucho replies: “No, of course not. But what makes wage slaves? Wages!”

Wages make slaves out of many of us, and it’s reasonable for low earners to obsess over them. But high earners are a different story. For them, obsessing over what others make is the road, if not to slavery, than at least to misery.

In law firms, I’ve seen partners making a million dollars per year — more than they ever imagined they would earn when they started out — driven to distraction by the thought that another partner is making more money. Some might call it condign punishment. I call it a shame.

Which brings me to Jill Abramson. She apparently obsessed that she wasn’t as well compensated as her predecessor as executive editor and, when she was managing editor, another employee in a comparable position. Following the modern trend, Abramson dressed up her envy as a grievance about sexism.

Sexism there may be, but you can’t prove it simply by comparing Abramson’s salaries to others who have held the same or similar jobs. Top newspaper managers aren’t bellhops; their wages aren’t set according to scale. Rather, they are set based on how badly the newspaper wants the manager, the amount of money it thinks it can get him/her for, the financial wherewithal of the paper at a given moment, etc.

The same analysis applies to jobs at or near the top of any organization in a highly competitive business. The Washington Redskins didn’t pay Jim Zorn much less to coach the team than they paid Joe Gibbs (his predecessor) and Mike Shanahan (his successor) for any nefarious reason. For Zorn, the job was a big step up. Gibbs and Shanahan, both winners of multiple Super Bowls, had to be lured.

Based on the information I’ve seen, there is no reason to suspect that Abramson’s pay was the result of sexism, though the possibility can’t be ruled out.

But there is reason to suspect that her termination was based, at least in part, on an improper motive. A Times spokesperson apparently cited the fact that Abramson retained a lawyer in connection with her pay discrimination claim as a contributing factor in her discharge.

That smacks of retaliation for exercising her statutory right to challenge alleged sex discrimination. The law prohibits such retaliation. (However, without getting too legalistic, Abramson must prove that she wouldn’t have lost her job “but for” her complaints about pay discrimination and her resort to counsel).

Those of us in the “pox on both your houses” camp in this dispute look forward to a protracted public relations battle and, perhaps, litigation. Therein lies another road to misery.

In the meantime, here’s the one and only Groucho: