Like every single thing the campaign has tried in the past three months, McCain's "Joe the Plumber" gambit has backfired. By choosing a person – a real one – to embody the working-class authenticity that Republican candidates so desperately apply like cheap cologne, it makes far easier the task of pointing out the deranged reasoning that underlies "hard hat" conservatism. Joe the Plumber is not a fraud, a rich contractor playing at middle class. He earns right around the median income for a man of his age – about $50,000. He doesn't lack authenticity. What he lacks, based on his circumstances and rank-ordering of important political issues, is brainpower.
Joe lives near Toledo, Ohio. The most charitable way I can describe that city is "post-industrial shithole." The city's unemployment rate is 9% as measured with the Bureau of Labor Statistics' woefully understated methodology. There are many thousands of foreclosed homes within the city limits at this moment; Toledo is in the top ten large cities nationwide for foreclosures. Its population has fallen from 384,000 in 1970 to 285,000 today. Its violent crime rate is fully double the national average and rising. Based on nine common economic indicators, Lucas County (home of Toledo) ranks 87th out of 88 counties in Ohio for economic performance between 2001-2008. Annual bankruptcy filings have increased 23% in the same time period, while the percentage of residents in poverty has increased from 12% to a third-world-like 17%. Nearly 8000 manufacturing jobs have been eliminated in just six years (2001-2007). Toledo proper gained national attention for its unprecedented 7.5% drop in median home price in just 12 months. Real incomes are falling. In short, Toledo is in what its hometown newspaper calls a "downward spiral." Every vital sign is flatlining and the city is entering what is likely a terminal economic torpor.
None of this matters to Joe the Plumber, of course. He lies awake at night worrying about taxes. That he lives in a picture-perfect example of the kinds of cities that right-wing economic policies have rendered moribund is irrelevant. What keeps Joe on edge and bubbling with entitled white male rage is Barack Hussein Tax-&-Spend Obama's dastardly, amoral plan to raise taxes. I suppose that make sense, right? Nothing wrong with Joe wanting to hold on to his money during hard times!
That Joe would receive a healthy tax cut under either candidate's proposal is irrelevant. Obama's plan raises taxes on the comically wealthy, ergo Joe must object. The rationale behind Joe's intense concern about taxes is puzzling. There are several possibilities:
1. Brainwashed by a steady diet of sub-moronic talk radio, Joe honestly does not understand what Obama and McCain are proposing in their tax plans and how it affects him. He knows nothing beyond "Democrats in Power = Higher Taxes, Hardcore Marxism, and Chuck Schumer Will Probably Kill Your Dog."
2. Joe feels compelled to take a moral stand against the mere concept of tax increases, perverting for his own purposes the idea that "If a single person is oppressed, none are free."
3. Joe realizes that he does not make $250,000 but, regardless of his age and limited economic potential, thinks that he will soon.
The final point is, in my opinion, at the heart of all blue-collar Tax Bitching – "Average Joes" staring saucer-eyed at The Glenn Beck Show full of blood-curdling rage and fantastical rationalizations of how they will someday be in the top tax bracket. Joe the Plumber, in essence, is unconcerned with Toledo's very tangible economic implosion. He is literally standing among the ruins of a city and a middle class he allegedly represents braying about what tax rate he might have to pay when he "makes it."
All of the Joes out there who wouldn't know Horatio Alger from a hole in the ground are living out the author's most vivid jerk-off fantasies. Everyone makes it to the top as long as they work hard and vote Republican. Making a quarter-mil per year is common; it is practically a birthright. As Mike pointed out recently, note this wonderful comment from an article on the right wing's "Let's Move to Canada" freak-out in the face of a Democratic landslide:
The best medicine is to teach people how to make money, lots of it. The more people who believe that they can earn $250,000 in the next few years, and the more that actually do, the less enthusiasm there will be for confiscating “plumber’s wealth.”
The last time someone told me I could be earning $250,000 in a year or two, I was watching an infomercial at 4:30 AM. But the healthy combination of ignorance and delusion have created an entire generation of Joe the Morons who don't understand what taxes do and do not apply to them, where they stand on the economic spectrum, and what constitutes an appropriate time to take moral stands based on a solipsistic and warped view of reality.