If you read the transcript of the now famous exchange between Senator Obama and Joe the Plumber, you learn that Obama was making the point that rich people like him and those that make more than $250,000 a year should pay more taxes so that people who make less can pay fewer taxes – and so we can invest in our future. Now we learn from Senator McCain and the Fox News Channel that this is a fundamental principle of communism. I don’t think so. Let’s try to remember folks: In a communist system no one is supposed to make $250,000. It turns out that Joe is probably not about to make $250,000, has missed a few tax payments and may not even be a plumber. This is the symbolic hero of the McCain-Palin ticket.
We have all gotten used to the loose relationship between truth and American politics during this long and tedious presidential campaign. What is most disconcerting about this recent decent into attack politics is that it moves us further away from the discussion about debt and responsibility that we need to have in this country.
The fact is that we are living beyond our means. Individually and as a nation, we are saving too little and spending too much. We assume taxation is too high, and that “people can do a better job of spending their own money than the government can.” Perhaps that is true, but it’s beside the point. The market is the best way we know to efficiently produce and distribute goods and services and to generate wealth. But a market left on its own will result in the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer. The mixed economies of the 20th and 21st centuries found a better way. Through regulation of capitalism and investment in collective resources like schools, roads, water, sewage treatment and other infrastructure we created enough wealth to build a mass middle class. Yes, we learned how to spread the wealth around … We found it created a class of consumers that fueled economic growth. This wasn’t done by the free market alone. It was done by our government working with the private sector. That is the beauty of a mixed economy. It balances individual and community benefits. The myth of government as the enemy of the people has been a cynical manipulation by politicians who should know better.
The problem is that we have placed too much emphasis in our culture on consumerism and not enough on other values. The idea of sacrifice, thrift and saving has been thoroughly discredited. The idea of government as an instrument of good and an expression of our national community has been discarded. The result has been the economic meltdown we are now struggling to avert. Which brings me to Joe the Plumber and John McCain: If this country is truly “first”, why isn’t it patriotic to pay your fair share of taxes? Why are we celebrating a guy who is too selfish to pay his fair share?
There is this idea that government is a big, fat wasteful bureaucracy. Otherwise, why would we be running such a huge deficit? Let’s remember that when Bill Clinton left the White House we were running a federal surplus. Here in New York, Mayor Mike Bloomberg managed to put money into a rainy day fund. Did Washington suddenly become wasteful in January 2001? George W Bush assumed the presidency, lowered taxes, started an expensive war and refused to ask the American people to sacrifice anything – except the lives of soldiers. We asked nothing of the many and everything of the few. It’s a shameful principle and it is at the heart of our problem as a nation.
So here we are celebrating this guy who may or may not be a plumber who doesn’t like to pay his taxes. At the very point when we need to take a deep breath and re-sort our priorities, we are back to the old anti-government nonsense. This is a national moment when we are going to have to figure out a way to reform our educational institutions and rebuild our energy and transportation infrastructure. It will take sacrifice, deferred gratification and investment in the future. Our current path guarantees that our children will be poisoned and impoverished. We need to call on the better part of our culture and our values: The part that heroically withstood imprisonment during the Vietnam War: the part that decided not to go from Harvard Law to a fancy law firm, but to work as a community organizer in Chicago. Barak Obama is a man of deep principle. John McCain is a genuine American hero. We should celebrate their values and follow their example. Not the one offered by Joe the Plumber.