What's the Matter with Kansas? = Joe the Plumber

I haven't read What's the Matter with Kansas? by Thomas Frank. I've heard it discussed enough to know that it's shorthand for asking why poor and working class people often seem to vote against their self-interest, in favor of tax cuts to corporations and rich people as if trickle-down economics had ever proven effective.

If you haven't heard the hubbub over "Joe the Plumber", I'm not going to give a recap here. That's what links are for. Here's video of Obama talking to Joe Wurzelbacher while campaigning in Ohio around Oct 13 or 14, 2008. Here's a transcript of what they said. Here's a transcript of the third presidential debate from 15 Oct 2008, in which McCain gave Joe the Plumber his fifteen minutes of fame (or fifteen megs, whichever comes first) as a potential victim of Obama's proposed tax plan.

The problem with Kansas and Ohio and everywhere that people consistently vote against their own self-interest is that they're voting for a fantasy of what could someday be in their self-interest, not what is currently and realistically in their self-interest. Lots of our friends and neighbors and co-workers are so bewitched with dreams of winning the lotto that they lose all sense of probability. They baselessly worry about keeping taxes low on rich people in anticipation of soon becoming one.

I'm using lotto as exaggerated substitute for the unlikely American dream of moving up to McCain's $5 million middle class. (I know, it was just a joke. Guess you had to be there. As Harry Shearer says: for your own safety, leave comedy to the professionals.) People too often count on getting a huge raise every year or getting a promotion on a regular basis, or trading up for better jobs at better companies every few months or years. They may have accepted that becoming a rock star someday is a childish dream, but they still expect to start as a mail clerk and work their way up to CEO. Their expectations of upward mobility are not tempered even when they know people who have worked in the mail room in the same position for decades, when no one around them is experiencing that kind of legendary Horatio Alger levitation.

Joe the Plumber does not own a small business. He was not really asking Obama about his own self-interest. Here's what Joe the Plumber said when he introduced himself to Obama: "I'm getting ready to buy a company that makes about $250,000 … $270-$280,000 a year."

Right. I'm getting ready to accept the position of vice president in charge of Harry Potter merchandizing for Scholastic Inc.

I'm getting ready to marry Scarlett Johansen, Jenna Fisher, Tyra Banks, Hayden Panatierre, and the chick who plays Sarah on "Chuck". Talking some of them into divorcing their current husbands is an integral part of my plan, but you can treat it like a done deal because like I told you, I'm
getting ready to do it.

I'm getting ready to offer Martha Stewart a position as our housekeeper. She'll make her own dresses in the style of the other Fundamentalist Mormons in our Texas compound, which will be built based on designs by Todd Palin.

I'm getting ready to retain Anthony Bourdain and Paula Deen as live-in cooks/entertainers. They'll have a knife fight every morning to determine which of them gets the privilege of cooking for me and my harem that day.

I'm getting ready for my long lost great uncle to bequeath his castle and swampy estate to me, and I'll own it free and clear as long as I stay there one week with Scooby Doo and we don't get scared away by the Rat Monster of Gruesome Gulch who's really the groundskeeper in yet another rubber mask. Are you still with me, Sen. Obama? In case all that happens and I can afford to buy the company, and if I'm then too stupid with business accounting to write-off a bunch of expenses and make it look like I'm making under $250 grand, then omg I'll have to pay teh higher taxes, won't I??!1!/?! I'll have to buy gold-plated hankerchiefs to wipe away my richly salted tears at the thought of losing some of my phantom money which I do not have right now, which would probably still be more money after your tax increase than I'm making right now. That would be a fantastic tragedy, wouldn't it, Sen. Obama? In the sense of this whole thing being a fantasy.

Yeah, Obama's plan will require an incredible bureaucracy of registration for your unicorn halters too. If you are able to buy $250,000 worth of leatherwork and tack used in riding griffins, pegasuses, mermaids, manticores, chimeras, Klingons, demons, tauntauns or other mythical creatures, your taxes will go up on all that too.

Joe the Plumber only works as a randomly sampled entrepreneurial working stiff if you see him as a stereotype without looking at real situations, like the one he is in. I wouldn't fault the guy for owing $1200 in back taxes and another $1200 to a hospital, when his annual income is in the range of $40k as of 2006. To be in debt, especially medical bills, makes him more sympathetic and more average. But to talk about buying a huge business while carrying those debts, that doesn't sound like someone who's going to run a business very well even if he realistically could afford it. It certainly doesn't sound like someone in a position to righteously pounce on Obama's tax proposal. Lucky for him, if the business brings him $252,399 salary next year, then he can pay off that $2400, accurately report his adjusted gross income as $249,999, and not have to pay in Obama's higher tax bracket anyway (which brings it back to the level people paid under Clinton, not some unprecedented new level of strangulation taxation).

And please do the math before you cry the river. Let's say it's not a complete fantasy. Let's say a guy who earned $40k in 2006 is in a realistic position to buy a business that "makes" $250,000 to $280,000 per year. Is that number supposed to represent the profit after all the expenses and other salaries are paid, or just the total income for the business? Because if he has any expenses or other salaries to pay out of $250,000 total income for the business, then how is he going to get a salary of $250,000 for himself and get taxed at the higher rate?

If $250,000 is his profit, and I'm taking that to mean the amount of salary paid to the owner, are we supposed to have a pity party for someone who has enough money and/or credit right now to buy that business? Forgive my amateur understanding of business value, but that number is not the price of buying the business either. I've read some pundits talking about this as a $250,000 business but I don't think that's accurate. You don't sell a business for $250k when it brings in that much profit year after year. There's probably some rule of thumb for this. What price would be appropriate for a company that brings in that much profit? Wouldn't it be misleading to call a person "working class" or "middle class" if he had enough money to place a down payment on that and somehow finance the rest, even if he had been a plumber [or plumber's assistant] for fifteen years?

The way the original conversation should have gone between Joe and Barack is like this:

Joe: "Hi, my name is Joe Wurzelbacher. I am in no position to make anywhere near enough money for my taxes to be raised under your plan, but it amuses me to fantasize about it. Your new plan is gonna tax my daydreams more, isn't it?"

Obama: "You have nothing to worry about, Joe. We could talk about all the hypotheticals that would apply if you earned that much money, about how my tax plan and foreign policy and healthcare plan would affect the dreams of your train going in and out of the tunnel. But you are in no position to make enough money for your taxes to be raised under my plan. Sorry to burst your bubble, but you won't look like Britney if you dance in her bikinis or yellow pythons either. Accept reality and vote for what's best here in your real world."

Joe: "I am sorry to have wasted your time."

How do we show Joe the Plumber and my mom and working class Republicans that they have been screwing themselves and the country voting for lotto fantasy scenarios? (Sorry, Ma.) Why do non-rich people keep crying rivers for the insignificant extra burdens on rich people (actually the transfer of their own wealth to subsidize rich people), as if they are likely to ever become rich people, as if eight years of Reagan and four of Bush and eight more Bush hadn't demonstrated that trickle-down economics is a myth?

The problem with "Kansas" is they'd believe your economic plan to distribute tax dollars among leprechauns, whose magic pockets will cause any cash placed therein to multiply and appear in the pockets of all who live near the leprechauns. Working people don't realize how likely it is that they'll remain in the ballpark of their current income level, that they're now less likely than some Europeans to experience "upward mobility" to middle class (whatever that is) or richer. For rich people and the politicians they own, the gullibility of working Americans is magically delicious.


  • At 6:08 PM , Blogger Berin Kinsman said...

    People don't vote issues. People vote cults of personality. Joe the Plumber doesn't have to do anything with pesky facts to be used in the media war.

  • At 9:31 PM , Blogger Deidzoeb said...

    Good call. Then the question that needs to precede all this is, how do we convince people that candidate personality has been ineffective in guiding their votes so far, and that we need to vote issues?


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