Thursday, October 16, 2008

Some thoughts on Joe the Plumber and Horatio Alger

I switched on the presidential debate about five minutes in last night, and was almost immediately bewildered by the repeated invocation of "Joe the Plumber" as the epitome, apparently, of working-class America. My three main thoughts, in the order that I had them, were "Who the fuck is Joe the Plumber?" "Is he Joe Six-Pack's brother-in-law, or something?" and, "Why is every working-class American cliche named 'Joe'?"

I have since learned that Joe the Plumber is a real person -- Joe Wurzelbacher of Toledo, Ohio -- who asked a question of Obama about his tax plan. The nub of the matter, and what McCain tried to hammer Obama about, was that Joe wants to buy the business he works for, but that if he succeeds in doing so he will then likely be earning over $250,000 a year -- which is the point at which Obama's proposed tax hike kicks in. Joe is thus ambivalent , because while he is currently in the bracket that will see his taxes go down under Obama's plan, he has his eye on a future success that will see him (again, under Obama's plan) being taxed more.

Joe the Plumber, thanks to John McCain's adoption of his quandary in last night's debate, has suddenly become a national figure; even before last night, he was interviewed on Fox News, in which he said "[Obama] said he wants to distribute wealth. And I mean, I'm not trying to make statements here, but, I mean, that's kind of a socialist viewpoint. You know, I work for that. You know, it's my discretion who I want to give my money to, it's not the government decide that I make a little too much and so I need to share it with other people. I just -- that's not the American Dream."

Ah, the American Dream ... the reason I'm kind of fascinated with Joe the Plumber is that he's a living embodiment of the contradiction inherent in the American Dream. First of all, kudos to Joe for having worked so hard to be in a position to be one of the few who can genuinely claim to represent the substance of that dream, the rags-to-riches narrative that Horatio Alger used in his two hundred and seventy dime novels about penniless but spunky young men who rose to be captains of industry. The problem is, Joe the Plumber is the exception to the rule, and Obama phrased it rather well in last night's debate when he pointed out "five years ago, when you were in the position to buy your business, you needed a tax cut then."

One of the great problems at the heart of the American Dream is that it makes lower-incomes reluctant to tax millionaires, because they cling to the hope that they might one day be millionaires. Joe the Plumber's dilemma exemplifies this equivocation: do you want to be more heavily taxed, proportionally, when you have less money or when you have more? I suppose the Republican (and Conservative) answer is "none of the above", but with two wars, crumbling infrastructure and a $700B bailout in the works, that seems less and less feasible. That raging socialist Oliver Wendell Holmes himself once said “I like paying taxes. With them I buy civilization.”*

Of course, Obama didn't do himself any favours when he said to Joe "I just want to make sure that everybody who is behind you that they've got a chance to success, too. I think when you spread the wealth around, it's good for everybody." Ouch -- and a bell went off at Fox News and McCain campaign headquarters (I know, tomato, toh-mah-toh), if the number of times McCain used the phrase "spread the wealth around" during the debate is any indication. I know that in a certain part of the conservative mind "spreading the wealth around" = "communism," but can we not perhaps agree that this equation is both simplistic and disingenuous? That government's principal function, be it big or small, is to redistribute wealth (i..e. taxes) for roads, bridges, running water, the civil service, and education? To say nothing of that little government agency called the Department of Defense?

I don't know anyone who likes paying taxes or who sends in their forms in April with a cheerful smile, and I certainly remember feeling blindsided when I looked at how much was taken off my first real paycheck. And this is all perhaps an academic argument for me, as I'm unlikely to ever be in the quarter-million dollar salary range (or to be taxed by the IRS rather than Revenue Canada, for that matter), but if I was looking to make that kind of money ten or twenty years down the road and I could choose whether to pay proportionally more tax now or then, that would be a no-brainer for me.


*Thomas Friedman had an excellent column on taxes and patriotism recently. Read it here.


Nikki Stafford said...

Turns out Joe the Plumber is a fraud. SHOCKER.

Chris in NF said...


Oi, the pain in my side from the laughing ...