Joe the Plumber’s claim to fame is that
the cameras happened to be rolling when he bumped into Barack Obama and
spouted his erroneous concept of what Obama’s tax plan would do for
working people. Let’s think on this: Whose advice would you take? I
know I won’t be calling Gen. Powell if my sewer backs up.
Joe the Plumber became John McCain’s
symbol for people who don’t like taxes. Joe, whose real title is “Joe
the guy without the license who works for the actual plumber,”
apparently dislikes taxes so much that he has not paid his share to the
state of Ohio in recent years. There is at least one tax lien against
Joe, but that didn’t seem to bother McCain or inhibit his embrace of
Joe, who, in the midst of the media frenzy, finally realized that he
was actually looking down the barrel of a tax cut if Obama has his way.
Joe became a pawn in McCain’s last-ditch
effort to turn around Ohio and Pennsylvania and somehow preserve an
option for winning the presidency. For a while McCain even renamed his
campaign swing through Florida the “Joe the Plumber Tour.”
John McCain wants you to think that
Barack Obama is a socialist who wants to redistribute the nation’s
wealth. This is the same Barack Obama who just voted, along with John
McCain, to give George Bush’s Treasury Department the right to dispense
$700 billion to the nation’s banks.
Since they couldn’t make stick the
notion that we should be afraid of Obama because he’s a terrorist, they
are now reaching back to an earlier era to accuse him of being part of
the Red Menace. If this doesn’t work, expect to hear accusations that
Obama is a closet Tory with ties to Benedict Arnold.
With the Plumber offensive, McCain and
his running mate, Sarah Palin, are tapping into a longstanding notion
among Americans that redistribution of wealth is somehow un-American.
It is a gigantic act of collective denial: a people raised in homes
bought with tax credits and GI mortgages and educated in public schools
and subsidized state universities can indulge themselves in the fantasy
that we are all rugged individuals who have no one to thank for our
good forturne but ourselves.
The prospect of government grabbing hold
of your money and redistributing it to someone else is scary to many
Americans. It should be, but that’s exactly what has been happening in
this country for the past three decades, only the money has been
flowing in the wrong direction.
The week after the plumber story
threatened to replace Todd Palin as the central focus of the campaign,
Syracuse was visited by a man I will call “Steve the Reporter.” I don’t
know if Steve makes enough to be harmed by the Obama tax plan (which
would raise income taxes on people making more than $250,000), but I do
know that he has produced a book that chronicles the lives of people
making considerably less.
If we are to have an intelligent conversation about redistributing wealth in this country, Steve Greenhouse’s book, The Big Squeeze: Tough Times for the American Worker
(Random House, New York City; 320 pages; $25.95/hardcover) is as good a
place as any to start. Greenhouse points out that the wages of working
people have been stagnant since the 1970s. At a time when productivity
has been going up, the share going to workers is declining. Part of
that is due to government policy. Another part of that is government
failure to lead us through the transition to a global economy, as it
led us in the transition to the industrial age.
“A profound shift has left a broad swath
of the American workforce on a lower plane than in decades past, with
health coverage, pension benefits, job security, workloads, stress
levels and often wages growing worse for millions of workers,” writes
Greenhouse did not interview Joe the
Plumber, but his book is filled with stories of Americans wondering
what happened to their American dream. In the book we meet Kathy the
Steelworker, a Syracuse native harassed and fired for trying to form a
union. We meet Jennifer the Temp Worker, now entering her 10th year at
Hewlett-Packard. We meet Drew the Family Dollar Manager, forced to work
such long hours that he sometimes sleeps in the stockroom. His wife
brings the kids by after closing hours so they can see their dad.
Hard times for all of us? Hardly. Steve the Reporter continues:
“That the American worker faces this
squeeze in the early years of this century is particularly troubling
because the squeeze has occurred while the economy, corporate profits
and worker productivity have all been growing robustly. In recent
years, a disconcerting disconnect has emerged, with corporate profits
soaring while workers’ wages stagnated.”
Greenhouse, who covers labor for The New York Times,
points out that the Big Squeeze, which has been going on for 30 years,
has gotten worse in these Bush years. For the first time in history,
real household income for working people failed to increase during the
first five years of this century. “Even though corporate profits have
doubled since. . . November 2001, and even though employee productivity
has risen more than 15 percent since then, the average wage for the
typical American worker has inched up just 1 percent after inflation.”
In this story we meet ourselves, and our
neighbors, and we end up asking how this could have happened in a
country that claims to believe in rewarding effort. And wondering how a
candidate who has done little to support the dreams of average
Americans gets to masquerade as a champion of working families.
It is not surprising that in frightening
economic times, many of us will be frightened. Fear never helped us
find our way out of a crisis. In fact, it is our greatest enemy. Didn’t
Franklin Roosevelt say something like that? Here’s something else he
said: “The test of our progress is not whether we add more to the
abundance of those who have much; it is whether we provide enough for
those who have too little.”
That quote is the prologue to Steve the
Reporter’s book. It is also a fitting epitaph for the economic policies
of the Bush years.