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Friday, October 17, 2008

The Media Finds a Shiny New Bauble

Obama speaks to Wurzelbacher
It's a case study in missing the damned point. During the final presidential debate, Barack Obama and John McCain spent a fairly good amount of time talking about -- and to -- "Joe the Plumber." Yes, Joe Wurzelbacher's a real guy. He came up because he got a very detailed answer to a tax question at an Obama event. So John McCain brought him up. At this point, Joe the Plumber's importance to America probably should've ended. He was an example and could just as well have been hypothetical. But Joe's real, so the press needed to make a minor celebrity of him. I imagine some stereotypical newspaper editor with a cigar, waving his hands at reporters and talking about "big, big news."

"Go out and find out everything you can about this guy!" Editor Stereotype says, "I want to know how much he makes [about $40k last year], how he votes [Republican], what he pays in taxes [he owes $1,183], is he registered to vote [yes, but his registration is misspelled], how's he feel about the occupation of Iraq [he thinks it's the greatest thing ever]... Go, go, go! America wants to know!"

Like I say, totally missing the point. I got most of that info from the Toledo Blade, but it's all over the media. In fact, Samuel Joseph Wurzelbacher already has his own Wikipedia page.

None of which has a damned thing to do with the context. He was brought in the debate in relation to taxation. Almost none of the "Joe the Plumber" stories have anything to do with that. Wurzelbacher's a freakin' Jeopardy question waiting to happen -- a trivial little sidetrip the media took once. What's important is the context in which he was brought to our attention.

Like I say, he might as well be hypothetical. In fact, given what he told Obama and what the truth is, Wurzelbacher is hypothetical. His situation does not exist.

Joe claims that he's planning on buying a business that makes $250,000 a year and that Obama's tax plan would raise his taxes. Let's not get bogged down in whether this is true or not [turns out it's not], let's explore the example -- you know, the way the media should be dealing with this whole thing.

John McCain continues to claim that small businesses would see their taxes increase under Obama's tax plan. "I will not stand for a tax increase on small business income. Fifty percent of small business income taxes are paid by small businesses," John McCain said in the debate. "That's 16 million jobs in America. And what you want to do to Joe the plumber and millions more like him is have their taxes increased and not be able to realize the American dream of owning their own business." Fifty percent of small business taxes are paid by small businesses? Who's paying the other fifty? We don't go to John McCain for sense. Disregarding whatever the hell it was he was trying to say, he's off the mark when he says small businesses will suffer under an Obama tax policy.


"While Obama does favor raising the top two rates, the quote is not true because not all the small business income of those in the top two rates is taxed at the 33% and 35% rates," said Gerald Prante, a senior economist at the nonpartisan Tax Foundation.

The bottom line: McCain's claim only works by using an overly broad definition of what counts as a "small business" - and even with that definition, fewer than 2% of business owners would be hit by Obama's proposed rate increase. For those who are affected, the increase would be levied only on a part of their earnings, not all of them.

Still, the Republican line is "raise taxes on top wage earners, wave goodbye to jobs." But Obama's plan would raise taxes on top earners to roughly the same level as they were before Bush showed up -- i.e., the rate of the Clinton years. Seems to me that worked pretty well.

In fact, the boogeyman of shuttered businesses because of high taxation is more of a straw man, not born out by history. During the fifties, under Eisenhower (a Republican, by the way), the top marginal tax rate was 91% -- that'd be the same fifties that conservatives pine for with all their little hearts. Obama's top marginal rate would be in the neighborhood of 50%. Historically speaking, Obama's increase is modest. And it wouldn't hit people like Wurzelbacher anyway.

And remember all that runaway inflation during the fifties? The massive unemployment? The way all the rich people were so horribly taxed they all became homeless, because they couldn't afford to be rich anymore?

Yeah, that didn't happen. If a top rate of 91% didn't bring America to her knees, it's hard to believe that 50% would. Given reality, John McCain's warnings are as real as Joe the Plumber's license.

But, of course, none of that is what the media is concentrating on -- despite the fact that it was the reason Joe Wurzelbacher was brought up in the first place. No, Joe the Plumber, like Charo or Paris Hilton, is suddenly famous for being famous. You don't care about all that tax stuff, that's boring. What you need to know is what he thinks about Social Security [he's against it] -- despite the fact that he's not running for anything.

If we've learned anything from this, it's that the media is easily distracted by ridiculously trivial crap. Given the opportunity to use a funny moment from a debate to educate the public about the candidates' positions, they didn't take it. What they did was make some right wing nutjob a minor celebrity, while ignoring the reason for his celebrity.

From here on out, how about we pretend that Joe the Plumber is hypothetical? It seems like that's the only way we can get substantive coverage of the example he represents.


1 comment:

Anonymous said...

would joe have even bothered obama with his little bullshit story if there hadn't been cameras around?

i'm not surprised that the media seized on it though. they'll always prefer a personal story to "boring" policy debates.