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Not About Joe the Plumber

The furor over this poor guy has illustrated to me one of the problems of presidential campaigning in America. It’s not about analyzing policies to determine who they impact, to what extent, and for what purpose, nor indeed it is about whether the policies will accomplish that purpose. It’s rather all about engaging people’s emotions.

I was reading AllahPundit over at HotAir who is quoting a report that Joe the Plumber may be in trouble for plumbing without a license. It’s not that I object to the law being enforced. I even think that someone who lives in a glass house and then invites the hail of rocks should be prepared for the results. That doesn’t mean I excuse either the people who point out the person in the glass house, while failing to mention, nor do I excuse the rock throwers.

The proper issue here is tax policies and who they impact. Joe the Plumber was supposed to put a face on that issue. If the McCain campaign was doing their job, they would have figured out whether the business was worth $250,000 (or perhaps much less), or was bringing in $250,000, and they would have discovered whether that was gross receipts or profits. Then they could have determined whether Obama’s tax plan would make it impossible for this particular person to own a business or not.

On the Democratic side, the proper response is simply that Obama’s tax plan does not tax this poor man to anything like the extent claimed by McCain, and that in fact his taxes will drop. So his complaint is that if he manages to make over $250,000 per year at some later time, he would be taxed more heavily on part of that income. Now that is a legitimate issue to discuss, because I want Joe the Plumbers all over the country to be interested in growing their businesses. It’s just not as emotional as the question of whether or not he can buy the business now.

Here’s the thing. It can’t possibly be news to my conservative friends, but they sure are acting like it is. Businesses already have to pay taxes, and just like any other expense, those taxes might make it impossible for you to start or expand your business. That’s going to be true at any tax rate.

You have to ask more about taxes than just whether they are bigger or smaller. What are they spent on? Who is getting taxed, and how much?

We’re hearing a great deal about redistributing income. Some people are acting as though one candidate won’t redistribute while the other will. Actually, there is redistribution now and there will be redistribution then. The question is by how much, and what will it be spent on.

I don’t hear Republican activists complaining about either taxes or budget deficits when the war in Iraq is on the line. Democrats are not complaining generally when it’s social programs that are involved.

Now my pro-war friends will probably point out that the war in Iraq was, according to them, a necessity. We have to defend ourselves; we don’t have to provide health care for everyone. So we will spend on an invasion of Iraq irrespective of income, but we won’t do so when people have no health insurance. We can pull together the money, or more accurately pretend we have the money (and a government can get by with pretending for a long time), for Wall Street, but not for individuals.

But in fact any war, and the war on terror is no exception, involves deciding how to apply limited resources to accomplishing one’s goals in the war. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again–the war in Iraq was a horrible strategic decision. It wasted American and Iraqi lives, and it wasted resources that could have been spent better elsewhere. It was not a necessity.

We need to start looking for the details in these kinds of issues. When we borrow as a government it’s important to ask what we’re borrowing for. If we’re raising taxes, we need to ask what we’re going to accomplish with the money. If we’re building infrastructure, that’s one thing, while if we’re borrowing just to keep the basics running, that’s another. It’s sort of like home finance. If you’re borrowing to buy a practical family vehicle, that’s very different from finding you have to put your electricity bill on a credit card.

Both parties have been lying to the American people and pretending that we can have what they offer without having to pay for it. In this case, I find Republicans more guilty than Democrats recently, because they always propose lowering taxes, but are much less forthcoming on lowering expenditures. Then they spend their time throwing rocks at Democrats who propose modest increases to pay for a small portion. I’d be more inclined to defend the Democrats is they were proposing amounts that would actually pay for their programs, but if they did they wouldn’t need my defense; they’d be losing so badly that nothing could possible help.

So while on the one hand this isn’t about Joe the Plumber, in another way it is, because politicians who believe that you, the voter, can’t handle a rational discussion of policy want the issue to be about whether that one guy can buy a business, one that turns out to have been out of reach in any case.

So the tax policy discussion is bypassed and we can sling emotions around the blogosphere and a bit in the media, yet at the end of the day, few people know more about the actual tax proposals than they did before.

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