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Is Obama’s next frontier is dry-cleaning bill equality?

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Now that Barack Obama has taken the country to the cleaners, he is refocusing his crusade for fairness on the cleaning bills. Yesterday, at his “equal pay” event at the White House, he interrupted his prepared remarks with a plug for his woefully unpopular health care law and a “joke”:

[I] know it’s equal pay and not Obamacare day, but I do want to point out that the affordable care act guarantees free preventive care like mammograms and contraceptive care and ends the days when you can be charged more for being a woman when it comes to your health insurance. That’s true for everybody. That’s just one more place where things were not fair. We’ll talk about dry cleaners next, right? I know that — I don’t know why it cost more for Michelle’s blouse than my shirt. [Emphasis added]

His two “unscripted” detours were curious, but they were also stale. The entire spiel was a retread of remarks he made at a 2012 pep rally (video here), except back then he also said, “And soon, insurance companies will no longer be able to deny coverage based on preexisting conditions like breast cancer.” Now that the government is the agency denying coverage for cancer treatment, the president apparently thought it best to omit this boast.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eox_Aq67in4

But back to his “joke.” How, you might ask, can you tell when he’s joking since everything that comes out of his mouth sounds like a joke, albeit an unfunny one. You can tell in this case because his audience cackled appreciatively.

You can also tell because Washington Post writing duo Juliet Eilperin and Kate Zezima took it semi-seriously, devoting a column to (in their words) “dry cleaning disparity.” Here are two of their four bullet points:

1. Women routinely pay more than men to get their clothes cleaned professionally. In 2009 New York City resident Janet Floyd decided to survey dry cleaners there and found that when it came to laundering, men paid an average of $2.86 per shirt compared to the $4.95 women paid. Dry cleaners often complain their machines are built to launder men's garments, making women's clothing more labor intensive, and in some cases, they will only dry clean — rather than launder — women's shirts.

2. There is no overarching federal law that prohibits charging men and women differently for similar services. Charging women more for dry cleaning or a haircut, in other words, is different from discriminating on the basis of gender when it comes to housing or job decisions. There are some city and local ordinances that bar gender-based pricing, but even these have exceptions. The New York City Council adopted a bill banning “the public display of discriminatory pricing based on gender” in 1988, for example, but this does not apply to services that require a different level of labor.

Notice that in the paragraph devoted to item 1, Eilperin and Zezima include a legitimate counterargument to their claim, which raises the question of why they included it in the first place. Item 2 is similarly self-critiquing inasmuch as we live in a free-market society, where price controls are limited to essential goods and services, of which dry cleaning is not one.

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