An All Too Average Joe

I have a confession to make: I never really liked “Joe The Plumber.”

I’ve known quite a few people like Joe, and I tend to not enjoy discussing politics with them. They combine a rather shallow and simplistic understanding of politics with a forceful, aggressive personality and try to bully others with their beliefs. Here in New Hampshire, they were one of the two dominant factions in the Republican party that held sway here for decades — the side I called the “arrogant stupid.” (They were balanced by the “arrogant rich,” and both sides have had the arrogance kicked out of them over the past few years.)

Whenever I hear Joe talk, I hear someone who insists that things are a lot simpler than they are, and anyone who disagrees is obviously trying to pull something. I thought it was a mistake to give him any kind of prominence or make him any kind of spokesman — he was obviously out of his depth, and obviously had no way of even recognizing that.

But I always appreciated him as a symbol, as a constant reminder of an essential truth about the left: they simply cannot stand being challenged, and will do whatever they can to silence those who challenge them.

Think back to the day when Samuel Joseph Wurzelbacher suddenly found himself a national figure.

Joe was at his own home, in his own front yard, playing with his kids when candidate Barack Obama made an unscheduled stop in his neighborhood. Joe, figuring “what the hell,” went over and asked the man who would be president a fairly simple (and self-serving question: “I’m getting ready to buy a company that makes 250-280 thousand a year. Your new tax plan’s gonna tax me more, isn’t it?”

An utterly innocuous question, but — as is often the case — the answer was far more revealing — and damaging — than the question.

Obama: What’s your name?

Joe: My name’s Joe Wurzelbacher.

Obama: Good to see you, Joe.

Joe: I’m getting ready to buy a company that makes about $250,000 … $270-$280,000 a year.

Obama: All right.

Joe: Your new tax plan’s gonna tax me more, isn’t it?

Obama: Well, here’s what’s gonna happen. If you’re a small business which you would qualify as, first of all, you’d get a 50 percent tax credit, so you get a cut on taxes for your health care costs. So you would actually get a tax cut on that front. If your revenue is above $250,000, then from $250,000 down, your taxes are gonna stay the same. It is true that for … say, from $250,000 up, from $250,000 to $300,000 or so …

Joe: Well, here’s my question …

Obama: I just want to answer your question. So, for that additional amount, you’d go from 36 to 39 percent, which is what it was under Bill Clinton. And the reason we’re doing that is because 95 percent of small businesses make less than $250,000 so what I want to do is give them a tax cut. I want to give all these folks who are bus drivers, teachers, auto workers who make less … I want to give them a tax cut and so what we’re doing is, we are saying that folks who make more than $250,000 that that marginal amount above $250,000, they’re gonna be taxed at a 39 instead of a 36 percent rate.

Joe: Well, the reason why I ask you about the American Dream I mean, I work hard. I’m a plumber, I work 10-12 hours a day …

Obama: Absolutely.

Joe: … and I’m, you know, buying this company and I’m gonna continue to work that way. Now, if I buy another truck and adding something else to it and, you know, build the company, you know, I’m getting taxed more and more while fulfilling the American Dream.

Obama: Well, here’s a way of thinking about it. How long have you been a plumber? How long have you been working?

Joe: Fifteen years.

Obama: Okay. So, over the last 15 years, when you weren’t making $250,000, you would have been getting a tax cut from me. So you’d actually have more money, which means you would have saved more, which means that you would have gotten to the point where you could build your small business quicker than under the current tax code. So there are two ways of looking at it. I mean, one way of looking at it is, now that you’ve become more successful …

Joe: Through hard work.

Obama: … through hard work, you don’t want to be taxed as much.

Joe: Exactly.

Obama: Which I understand. But another way of looking at it is, 95 percent of folks who are making less than $250,000, they may be working hard, too, but they’re being taxed at a higher rate than they would be under mine. So what I’m doing is … you know, put yourself back 10 years ago when you were only making whatever — $60,000 or $70,000. Under my tax plan, you would be keeping more of your paycheck, you’d be spending lower taxes, which means that you would have saved and gotten to the point where you are faster. Now, look, nobody likes high taxes, right? Of course not. But what’s happened is that we end up … we’ve cut taxes a lot for folks like me who make a lot more than $250,000. We haven’t given a break to folks who make less and, as a consequence, the average wage and income for just ordinary folks, the vast majority of Americans, has actually gone down over the last eight years. So all I want to do is … I’ve got a tax cut. The only thing that changes is, I’m going to cut taxes a little bit more for the folks who are most in need, and for the 5 percent of the folks who are doing very well, even though they’ve been working hard … and I understand that; I appreciate that … I just want to make sure that they’re paying a little bit more in order to pay for those other tax cuts. Now, I respect your disagreement, but I just want you to be clear. It’s not that I want to punish your success. I just want to make sure that everybody who is behind you, that they’ve got a chance at success, too.

Joe: It seems like you’d be welcome to a flat tax then.

Obama: You know, I would be open to it except for … here’s the problem with the flat tax. If you actually put a flat tax together, you’d probably … in order for it to work and replace all the revenue that we’ve got, you’d probably end up having to make it like about a 40 percent sales tax. I mean, the value added, making it up. Now, some people say 23 or 25, but, in truth, when you add up all the revenue that would need to be raised, you’d have to slap on a whole bunch of sales taxes on it. And I do believe that for folks like me who are, you know, have worked hard but, frankly, also been lucky, I don’t mind paying just a little bit more than the waitress who I just met over there, who’s … things are slow and she can barely make the rent. Because my attitude is that if the economy’s good for folks from the bottom up, it’s gonna be good for everybody. If you’ve got a plumbing business, you’re gonna be better off if you’ve got a whole bunch of customers who can afford to hire you. And right now, everybody’s so pinched that business is bad for everybody. And I think when you spread the wealth around, it’s good for everybody. But, listen, I respect what you do and I respect your question. And even if I don’t get your vote, I’m still gonna be working hard on your behalf ’cause I want to make sure … small businesses are what creates jobs in this country and I want to encourage it. All right. (applause) One other thing I didn’t mention. For small-business people, I’m gonna eliminate the capital gains tax, so what it means is if your business succeeds and let’s say you take it from a $250,000 business to a $500,000 business, that capital gains that you get, we’re not gonna tax you on it ’cause I want you to grow more so you’re actually going … you may end up … I’d have to look at your particular business but you might end up paying lower taxes under my plan and my approach than under John McCain’s plan. I can’t guarantee that ’cause I’d have to take a look at your business.

Joe: Okay, I understand that.

Obama: All right. Thanks for the question, though. I appreciate it. Okay, guys, I gotta get out here. I’ve gotta go prepare for this debate. But that was pretty good timing. Thanks.

Not one thing Joe said in that whole exchange is really worthy of attention. But a single line from Obama leaped out at everyone:

And I think when you spread the wealth around, it’s good for everybody.

In general, that’s a sound principle. Overconcentration of wealth is a bad thing.

The questions are, who decides whose wealth gets spread around, and how?

In this answer, Barack Obama gave his answer: the government. The government will decide when you’ve made enough, how much you have that should be “spread around,” and how it will be spread around.

I disagree. I think the first answer should be “whoever made the money.” I choose how I spread my money around, and I think that — once certain essential services are accounted for — the government should, by and large, butt out.

Obama’s statement fulfills the classic definition of a gaffe: when someone says something a bit too honest.

This, naturally, had to be covered up. The first option is to ignore such things, but that was never an option. This statement was flying around the world. It couldn’t be silenced.

So, then, plan B. Shoot the messenger. In this case, divert attention from “did you hear what Obama said?” to “did you hear about that liar, Joe The Plumber?” Joe had dared appear on camera asking a question of a presidential candidate, so suddenly he was a Public Figure and he had invited us to turn his life into an open book. Within days, we all knew that he had tax issues, wasn’t a fully licensed plumber, and — gasp! — wasn’t even really named “Joe!”

No wonder this guy comes across as pissed most of the time. For one brief moment of talking with a guy who wanted his vote, his life’s been turned upside down. Some Democratic activists even broke the law in trying to dig up dirt on the guy. He wasn’t prepared for that to happen — and, really, who would be?

After that, Joe made quite a few blunders and public missteps. But I’m more than willing to give him a pass for them. The guy never sought the spotlight, and was just trying to make the best of a bad situation that he never asked for.

No, I don’t think I’d enjoy spending time with Joe The Plumber. God help me, I think I’d rather hang out with Joe Biden. At least with Biden, I could finally ask him the question I’ve been dying to ask for over 20 years: “do you honestly believe your own bullshit, and how?”

But overall, I have more respect for the plumber than the veep. For one, he’s earned an honest living.

(Hat tip to the Tax Professor, who reminded me of a lot of things I’ve been meaning to say about Mr. Wurzelbacher.)

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