And the Winner Is... Joe the Plumber
In the competition for fame and recognition, Joe the Plumber may have been the real winner of last night's Presidential debate.
His exchange with Obama last weekend in Ohio was a gift to John McCain, who has finally found in Joe a way to personify the idea that Obama is so liberal that he's really a closet socialist:
"Your new tax plan is going to tax me more, isn't it?" the plumber asked Obama fearfully, complaining that he was being taxed "more and more for fulfilling the American dream."
"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 for success too," Obama responded. "My attitude is that if the economy's good for folks from the bottom up, it's gonna be good for everybody. ... I think when you spread the wealth around, it's good for everybody.
Most critics have focused on the socialist aura of the phrase "spread the wealth around," and McCain made sure to hammer it home during the debate, mentioning it again and again. It was an effective ploy, although how effective in terms of attracting voters remains to be seen. McCain is counting on the fact that nobody likes to pay more taxes and have the money given to others, especially when there's a recession going on -- except of course for Obama, who noted during the debate, "well, I don't mind paying a little more."
Obama may not mind: his income was pretty good last year. But Joe the Plumber minds very much, as does Joe Six-Pack. It's even possible that Joe Biden minds.
The words "spread the wealth around" have gotten all the attention so far, and rightly so. But when I first heard Obama's exchange with Joe the Plumber I noticed another meaningful phrase: "a chance for success too."
Obama is suggesting that, by taking money from someone such as Joe and spreading it around to people behind him in some metaphoric economic line (through so-called "tax cuts" that are actually refundable tax credits for those who pay no taxes at all), government will be giving them a "chance for success" that they previously lacked.
If I had to encapsulate the most salient difference between Right and Left it would be that the Right is interested in fostering equality of opportunity, while the Left is interested in equality of outcome (no, I'm not the first to think of it). This redistribution of income is described here by Obama as the former, but actually represents an attempt at the latter.
Our country has made vast strides in fostering equality of opportunity, even going so far as to institute affirmative action in an attempt to redress wrongs by giving groups previously discriminated against present advantages in the success sweepstakes. It's not a perfect world, of course, and so there can be no perfect equality of opportunity. But we've come closer and closer to that ideal.
However, people will always differ in their abilities, drive, intelligence, and even their luck. Some will be able to overcome almost any handicap and be successful, while others will start life with every seeming advantage and end up with little. This cannot be changed; it is part of the human condition. Transferring some minor amount of money from one person who has it to another who lacks it may indeed enable the latter to buy a few things -- even perhaps basics such as food -- that he or she lacks. It may enhance his/her life in certain ways, or the life of his/her family. It may go a little way towards equalizing the economic outcome.
But it does not give that person a chance for success that he -- or she -- heretofore lacked, which is what Obama is implying. The only way his tax proposals would do that is if the recipient were to gain enough money from this transfer to enable him to use the extra funds to obtain more education and go to college or a trade school, or to market an invention or start a business (highly unlikely; these things cost too much money). Even then, one might argue that it isn't furthering his chance of success so much as his ability to access the means to success that are already open to all who are motivated and can pay (or can get scholarships or grants).
You may think I'm quibbling over semantics. But I believe that by his seemingly casual words Obama revealed his deep commitment to a philosophy of redistribution of wealth in order to further equality of outcome, and that he either doesn't think equality of opportunity is enough or he believes this country doesn't offer it. Whether we label this kind of thinking socialist or not (and we could argue about that one), it most certainly is typically liberal -- the sort of thing that has earned him the rating of most liberal senator of all.
And I suspect it goes against the thinking of most Americans.
Perhaps that's why 74% of CEOs surveyed by Chief Executive magazine have said they believe that an Obama presidency would be disastrous for the nation, leading to an increase in unemployment.
If they are correct in their prediction, the ironic result of Obama's election to the highest office in the land would be that those who are presumably standing in line behind Joe the Plumber would experience a lowering not of their chance of success but of their actual success.
If so, it wouldn't be the first irony of this election.