THE BLOG
11/21/2008 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Parable of the Poor and Rich Plumber

The days since the last presidential debate have been preoccupied with efforts to give satisfaction to "Joe the plumber." As everyone who follows the election knows, Joe Wurzelbacher presented himself to Barack Obama on the campaign trail in Ohio as an average American with reasonable doubts about Obama's tax program.

The Obama plan reduces or leaves untouched the income tax on persons earning less than a quarter of a million dollars a year. Above that amount, it would tax the earner at a slightly higher rate.

Wurzelbacher, at present, earns far less than a quarter of a million; but in the conversational exchange that has made him famous, he imagined himself as a successful plumbing entrepreneur, sitting atop a yearly income of $300,000. What then? Would I, he asked Obama, be required to pay higher taxes than someone earning a tenth as much?

Obama gave the honest answer. He added that the jump from 36% to 39% need not seem very onerous to a prospering businessman; and (he repeated) the increase applied only to Americans whose earnings place them in the top five percent. Throughout the exchange, Obama was clear, patient, and full of details. Mastery of a policy to which he has once committed his name is among his major strengths as a politician. Thus far, conciseness is not. His listener in Ohio seemed to be trying to remember his own next line or somehow to regain a foothold in a conversation that had taken so wide a turn.

The length of the encounter was surprising. Obama seems here to have surrendered to the professional deformation of every gifted speaker--the illusion that if only you stay in the argument long enough, you can persuade anyone. It was this belief, too, that gave scope for his use of the phrase "spread the wealth around." And those were the words the McCain-Palin campaign seized upon. The words are now taken to supply all the evidence anyone needs that Barack Obama was a "socialist" all along, a reckless democrat who would gladly level the deserving rich with the undeserving poor.

The truth is that Obama in Ohio spoke the language of American democracy, which has always included a perception that wealth is a form of power, and that stupendous inequalities of wealth produce an undemocratic inequality of power. His questioner, angry in anticipation that he could not hold onto all of the $300,000 he might hypothetically earn in a year, spoke the language of righteous self-interest; and he cited as his irrefutable authority "the American dream." If I follow that dream, said the Joe of today, hoarding the wealth of the Joe of tomorrow, why should I ever pay a higher tax?

Obama's answer was simple and Christian. Once you have been helped by a tax break to prosper and to grow relatively rich, it seems fair to give others lower down the ladder the same chance that once helped you.

We Americans suffer from a self-imposed immaturity. It goes back to the Reagan years and the dream of unregulated commerce--of great riches to which all eventually will surely rise; of a gambling society in which every citizen always wins his bet against an unbreakable bank. Joe had swallowed that dream. Obama, by contrast, with his suggestion of a small adjustment toward a graduated tax, was explaining the realism of the progressive tax that began with Theodore Roosevelt.

And yet, when Obama evokes a society in which you begin by working for someone else, pass on to work as your own boss, and end by employing others, he is going back further than Theodore Roosevelt. This was a favorite topic with Abraham Lincoln, a politician whose ideas of labor and progress were memorably captured in his Address to the Wisconsin State Agricultural Society (September 30, 1859). "The prudent, penniless beginner in the world," said Lincoln, "labors for wages awhile, saves a surplus with which to buy tools or land for himself; then labors on his own account another while, and at length hires another new beginner to help him." That the prosperous employer should assist the beginner was a natural corollary, for Lincoln, of his understanding of non-slave labor. Selfishness or, as he called it, "self-interest" was a symptom of a slavish mind, and incompatible with the high morale of democracy.

Is the American dream a selfish dream? Obama's questioner in Ohio seemed to believe that it was, and that it was always meant to be. It is clear the McCain-Palin campaign is doing everything it can to encourage that belief. In the latest ads, they are cultivating the fear of "socialism" much as Barry Goldwater in 1964 cultivated the fear that Medicare was a harbinger of "socialized medicine." This is a subject on which Americans some day soon will have to choose between Goldwater and Reagan, on the one hand, and Lincoln and Roosevelt on the other; and it is a consequential choice: between a selective dependency on government which cuts out the uses of government for persons less well off than oneself, and acceptance of the value of limited government that does "for a community of people" (as Lincoln said elsewhere) "whatever they need to have done, but can not do, at all, or cannot so well do, for themselves--in their separate, and individual capacities."

The American dream has sometimes meant the selfish gamble that everyone takes and that all expect to win. But of the American dream when it comes in this questionable shape, we ought to begin to be wary. Not because all dreams, like all hopes that assist people in living their lives, are not to be sympathized with, but because it is possible for a platitude to acquire such an air of sacredness that the mere mention of it aborts all understanding and all thought.