Senator Hillary Clinton launched her putative 2008 presidential bid this year by speaking as a centrist on issues from abortion to violence in popular culture. This willingness to break from her party’s extremes — from and the radical feminists — is a sign of strength. Rather than kowtowing to the fringe to win primaries, she?s already focusing on the general campaign.

Or so the story goes.

But on April 19, Hillary was returning to her liberal roots by joining the high priestesses of feminism in marking “Equal Pay Day.” According to feminist calculations, the first four months of 2005 were spent making up for last year’s wage gap; today, women supposedly will have finally earned as much as men in 2004. She will introduce legislation to “fix” this gap and thereby end a grave injustice.

Senator Clinton can count on a widespread public belief that women receive 75 cents for every man’s dollar. Yet the public doesn’t know the full story. That 75 cents-on-the-dollar mantra is derived from Department of Labor data that compares the median income of a full-time working (outside-the-home) woman to that of a full-time working man. And yes: that woman earns about three quarters of the man’s salary.

Unfortunately, this ignores more than it reveals. Important factors including occupation, number of years and hours worked, and education aren’t taken into account. Moreover, on average, women tend to make lifestyle choices that lead to lower earnings than men.

Consider that women typically take about a decade out of the workforce caring for family. It’s reasonable that a 35-year-old woman reentering the workforce after ten years earns less than a man or woman who worked continuously during that time.

Such choices greatly skew wage statistics. In Why Men Earn More, Warren Farrell — a former board member of the National Organization for Women’s New York chapter — identifies 25 decisions that individuals make when choosing jobs and reveals how, on average, men are more likely than women to make decisions that increase pay. Not only do women take more time out of the labor force and work fewer hours than do men, women also avoid jobs that require a great deal of travel or relocation. Men assume more high-risk jobs — 92 percent of occupational deaths occur among men — and endeavors that require braving the elements outdoors.

By fixating on the red herring of discrimination, many women fail to make adjustments that would fatten their paychecks. Dr. Farrell outlines how women can increase earnings, but notes that higher pay often comes at a price — be it greater physical risk, more time on the road, or more hours in the office.

Even if most women aren’t willing to sacrifice flexibility or comfort for money, knowing that the deck isn’t stacked against them is important. The phony wage-gap debate perpetuates the lie that lower pay is nearly always evidence of sexism. In reality, pay differences may simply reflect different priorities — ones in which women can be proud. Money isn’t everything. A prison guard may earn more than an elementary-school teacher, but most teachers aren’t looking to trade places.

Hillary Clinton’s legislation would attempt to eliminate these tradeoffs by putting a Washington bureaucracy in charge of overseeing how wages are determined. Under the new regime, employers would have to pay equal salaries to “equivalent” jobs — however bureaucrats choose to define that — and businesses would likely respond by offering fewer employment options. Senator Clinton’s fellow lawyers, who will exploit the system to launch thousands of lawsuits, will be the only real winners from the thicket of red tape.

Senator Clinton may ignore the good news that women are not de facto victims of discrimination, but the rest of us should not. America’s women — not bureaucrats — know best how to make tradeoffs between higher pay, greater personal fulfillment, and the other factors that drive our employment choices.