Can an economy that promotes sexual violence be ‘amazing’?
Labor Secretary Alex Acosta announces his resignation alongside President Donald Trump at the White House last week. | Andrew Harnik / AP

When he resigned his position as Labor Secretary in the Trump administration on Friday, Alexander Acosta explained, “It would be selfish to stay in this position and continue talking about a case that’s 12 years 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 backroom 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. And, oftentimes, vice-versa, as we’ll see below.

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 devalued, outside the workplace, and how they are valued, or devalued, 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).”

Miller quotes Paula England, professor of sociology at New York University and co-author of the study she cites, who points out that once women enter a field of work, “It just doesn’t look like it’s as important to the bottom line or requires as much skill…. Gender bias sneaks into those decisions.”

We need to understand that this devaluation of women is also what enables the sexual harassment, violence, and abuse of women and girls in our world. Such treatment and devaluation of women and girls finds validation across sectors of our world from the economic (Jeffrey Epstein) to the political (Trump and the GOP), to the highest of legal (Brett Kavanaugh) spheres.

Consider the following:

– The Trump administration revoked an Obama-era executive order prohibiting certain companies from forcing employees to pursue cases of sexual harassment or assault in the workplace through arbitration as opposed to the more public route of taking the case to court.

– In 2017, Trump’s White House threatened to withhold millions of dollars for sexual assault prevention from cities that did not comply with Trump’s desired immigration policies.

– In 2017, the White House objected to increased rights for victims of sexual assault in the military.

And let’s not get started on the more recent assaults across the nation on women’s reproductive rights.

These are social and labor issues. Can we talk about an “amazing economy” that is premised on sexual violence and discrimination? Can a labor secretary be “great” if he isn’t working to ensure the health, wellbeing, and fair treatment of all workers?

Let’s talk about the economy in all its dimensions, which means talking about hedge-fund billionaire Jeffrey Epstein’s serial raping of young girls and his sex-trafficking.

These are labor and economic issues, just as labor and economic issues are broadly human and human rights issues. Thus, when we talk about racism and sexism, ideologies that devalue people of color and women, we are necessarily talking about economic, labor, and class issues as well. Struggles for economic, labor, and class justice are fundamentally contestations over how people and their work are valued.

Let’s have a full discussion of all these issues and then decide if the economy is “amazing.”


Tim Libretti
Tim Libretti

Tim Libretti teaches in the English Department at a public university in Chicago where he lives with his two sons.