President Obama’s continual comments on what he calls “fairness” reminded me of an incident that took place many years ago when I was a college student.  This was 1968, the most infamous year in an infamous decade: the 60s.  I was a conservative swimming upstream against the growing currents of liberalism.  Women were burning their bras and college students were burning their draft cards.  In America’s colleges and universities, as Bob Dylan observed, the times they were a changing.  Conservatives were out and liberals were in.

During class one day our left-leaning professor commented that the workplace we would enter after graduation was rife with inequality. He claimed the reason for this unacceptable situation was a self-protective conspiracy of white, middle-aged men who covertly discriminated against women and minorities. The professor, himself a white, middle-aged man, was an outspoken advocate of government-coerced income equality and told us so on many occasions. On this day he quoted statistics showing how much more men earned overall than women and minorities. Although his political views had nothing to do with the content of the course, my classmates typically just nodded dutifully and accepted the professor’s leftist outbursts.  I, on the other hand, felt the need to respectfully disagree.

On this particular day, the professor noticed my skeptical look and asked if I disagreed with him.  We had already had several encounters earlier in the semester, so the professor knew where I stood.  In fact, looking back I suspect he was baiting me on this day hoping to engage in his favorite sport: putting students in their place.  The professor was usually able to maintain an admirable calm as he dissected student arguments and then cast them aside like the insignificant ramblings of inferior beings.  But this time things were different.  In fact, my response sent him into an apoplectic fit.

I stipulated that men did indeed earn more than women and minorities but that he was wrong about the causes of the disparity.  He attributed the differences to discrimination.  I countered that poor career choice was the bigger culprit and that women and minorities could close the income gap by simply choosing to pursue different careers.  He seethed with anger when I said that he was comparing apples and oranges because his amalgamation of the data compared engineers against elementary school teachers and physicians against nurses.  Engineering and medicine—which are male dominated—are higher paying professions than elementary education and nursing because of the principles of free market economics.

When I claimed that women and minorities could narrow the income gap by simply choosing to pursue careers in engineering, medicine, and other high-paying fields instead of elementary education and nursing, the professor had to visibly calm himself.  But when I concluded by claiming that the income gap was more a product of the free market and career choice than discrimination, the professor had heard enough.

Visibly angry, he challenged me to a duel, actually the academic version of a duel: a debate.  He substituted an insult for the traditional slap across the face, calling my views “ridiculous” and “absurd.” Stung by his words, I would have preferred a real duel with my choice of weapons, but if the best I could get was a debate I would take it.  The issue was settled.  During the next class the professor and I would duke it out—academically speaking—over government coerced income equality versus the free market and individual career choice.

Our debate took place as scheduled with the professor leading off.  His voice dripping with unconcealed scorn for his unworthy opponent—me—the professor presented a virtual atlas of statistics showing that women and minorities in the same professions earned less than their white male counterparts.  Obviously, he was determined to disarm my earlier argument about poor career choice by showing that women and minorities in certain professions earned less than men in the same professions.   He finished with a flourish and turned to me as if to say, “So there!” Consequently, I thought he would pass out when my opening statement was, “So what!”  I explained to the class that the professor’s statistics not only failed to refute my contention that that career choice is the biggest determiner of earnings but they, instead, proved my point.

To support my contention, I parsed some of the professor’s statistics more carefully.  For example, his contention that female physicians earn less than male physicians resulted from sloppy research on his part.  He should have dug a little deeper.  The overwhelming majority of individuals who choose the higher-paying specialties in the medical profession (e.g. surgeons) are men while the higher percentages of women are found in the lower-paying specialties (e.g. pediatrics).  The free market decides that highly-specialized surgeons earn more than pediatricians, and the people who choose these medical specialties—men, women, and minorities—do so of their own volition.

After making the same point about several other professions, I closed my portion of the debate by commenting on a side issue the professor had raised: racial and gender quotas in the workplace.  He was for the use of quotas.  To this I simply responded that I would support quotas in the workplace when they applied consistently to all occupations, including those in the NFL, NBA, and professional baseball.  Noticing several of my classmates nodding approval, I felt I had won the debate.  But, alas, it turned out to be a case of winning the battle but losing the war.  The professor gave me a C for the course.  In talking with my classmates, it appeared that everyone else—smirk, smirk—got an A.