October 16, 2008

Joe The Plumber

Lots of talk this morning about "Joe The Plumber," an imaginary, "average" American who John McCain started speaking to in the debate last night. Obama picked up the trope and now Joe The Plumber is in every house across this great nation of ours.

Well, thing is, it's hard to find Joe The Plumber in real life. Plumbers, you can find. Getting them to show up on time, now, that may be a different story. A friend at work has this joke -- "How do you become a contractor? Well, the Licensing Board periodically announces the date, time, and place of various exams. If you show up at the right place and the right time, you're disqualified. Showing up at the right place and the right time proves that you're not a real contractor." When he was a contractor his company's slogan was "We Actually Show Up" and they got more business than any of his competitors.

You can find plumbers. And some of them are very well-skilled and in fact a plumber who is good at his job and marketing himself can do quite well. The joke at the bar conventions is that the hotshot trial lawyer gets a stoppage in his toilet, so he calls the plumber. The plumber comes to the lawyer's house and drops a snake in the toilet, and ten minutes later the problem is fixed. Toilet works great. "That'll be $450," the plumber says. "You're kidding!" says the lawyer. "You were here ten minutes and you want $450 for it? I'm a lawyer and I only charge $300 an hour! Ten minutes of my time is only fifty bucks!" "Sure," the plumber says back. "When I still had my law practice, that's what I charged, too."

I digress. It seems that "Joe the Plumber" is a real guy, named Joe Wurzelbacher, who lives in Ohio. It doesn't matter how much you appeal to him; Joe the Plumber (like most Americans) has opted out of the franchise by his failure to register to vote. UPDATE: No, strike, that, apparently he is a registered voter (a Republican), but he's not a licensed plumber. He's discussed buying the plumbing company he works for, and is a single dad raising his 13-year-old son.

Even as figurative a stand-in for the "average American," it's difficult to see what, intellectually, is gained by such an appeal. The average American is hard to define as anything but an obviously nonexistent statistical abstraction -- no one really has 2.7 children. In fact, households like my own with a married couple and no children are the plurality, although the statistically average American has some children.

Now, consider plumbers. The average American is not a plumber. 62.8% of Americans work in an office or some other kind of white-collar capacity. If you add hotel maids, food-service workers and similar low-paying service jobs, that figure rises to an incredible 75.5%. Having hired plumbers in the past, I can assure you that the joke about a lawyer astonished at the fee is true and so it is hard to see how plumbers can be classified as "low-paying" service workers.

"Average" income is an almost useless concept in a country that has sizeable populations of both billionaire hedge fund managers and homeless people living under bridges. "Median" income is a much more interesting number. Now, Joe the Plumber has overhead and stuff, but doing what he does for a living, he's probably clearing fifty grand or more a year, which puts him ahead of the power curve for guys with little, if any, college. That's not to say he doesn't earn it. Plumbers often have to be on-call 24 hours a day and that can interfere with his life, his ability to get sleep or do things with his 2.7 kids.

Finally, what is "average" varies tremendously by location within the U.S. In Arizona, for instance, it would probably be more accurate to talk about Jose the Plumber than Joe the Plumber, and to note that he consumes rougly 15.25 pounds of salsa a year. In Kentucky, what makes Joe average would be his membership in a 200-member Baptist church located within three miles of his house. Boston Joe is defined as "average" by his advocacy for the Celtics and possession of a jealously-guarded street parking permit. Pretty much everywhere, Joe is probably overweight, has a year or so of some kind of school after high school, and it's pretty much up to him to solve his problems rather than his government.

So, Joe the Plumber may well be a typical American, but I don't think he's an "average" American. I'm not sure the "average" American exists. I'm not dense. I understand that by trying to appeal to "average" Americans, the candidates are trying to appeal to large numbers of Americans who identify themselves in one way or another with this concept of "average." But we are a pretty diverse group of people, we Americans, and governing us is a tricker problem than the one that confronted de Gaulle in 1962. Joe the Plumber is a colorful political device, but not a useful tool for figuring out what good policy is.

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