Debate about Joe the Plumber could not get any dumber


Of Plumbers and Presidents

The inane stupidity of the “Joe the Plumber” discussion tells us a lot about how out of touch the campaigns and media are with America, and frankly how little most Americans seem to understand about small business taxes. After listening to CNN’s Lou Dobbs’ take on the situation and hearing McCain say he’s out to help the Joe the Plumbers (implying his tax plan would do more to help plumbers than Obama’s, which is false and almost certainly a campaign lie) I had to challenge the economically senile statements of these two rich guys and chime in with the truth.

My take is that neither left nor right wing seems to be making sense about all this. Joe the Plumber is relevant to the current debate because he is representative of some middle income Americans who make ballpark of 40-80k per year, would actually benefit in the short term from Obama’s tax plans, but don’t share Obama’s sensibilities about how to run country or the idea that even greater levels of deficit spending than McCain is proposing are a good idea.  It’s OK for Joe to be for McCain, but if he thinks that is to his tax advantage he is mistaken.

Here’s a better authority than me – Nobel economist Paul Krugman in NYT writing about the plumbing income issues.

So, with average plumbers making about 47k clearly he’s *currently* better off under Obama’s plan if taxes are what we are talking about. But what if he buys the business?

Details are not all that clear but it appears the business Joe wants to buy has 2 plumbers. Let’s assume they also employ one office person and one helper. Even assuming they can bill those plumbers at $100 per hour, the helpers at $50 and everybody works a full 2000 hours per year (this is very unrealistically high work hours for this type of biz – half this would be closer to normal). But even optimistically the biz probably pulls in about 500k per year.

Assuming that employee benefits and payroll taxes are about *half* the billed rate to the two plumbers employees we have 250k labor expense for workers. Add 30k for the office staff and another 50k for advertising, building, insurance, and more (it’s probably twice that, but I’m being very generous to McCain supporters here).

Revenues 500k – Expenses 330k = Taxable income 170k

So even if he buys the joint Joe the Plumber won’t be making 250k. Sure a few plumbing businesses with several workers might be making that, but the small business guys McCain claims he represents would likely be better off under Obama’s tax plans. Most are are mom and pops making far less than 250k.

Lou Dobbs and some McCain folks have *idiotically* asserted that a lot of *plumbers* make 250k. If you believe this there is only one word for you: Stupid. Plumbers rarely bill at over 100 per hour and there are 2000 hours in a year – do the math because even if they have zero expenses they don’t make 250k and those who think they do are really math and business savvy challenged (e.g. Lou Dobbs who has NO business talking business).

Average plumbing salaries in Ohio are under 50k per year – similar to what teachers, police, fireman make.

To me it is sort of pitiful how folks who will pay *more* under McCain are defending his tax plan because they just don’t understand business taxes. It’s fine for a plumber to support McCain but it’s misinformed to think Obama’s the big bad tax man for the middle class.

Joe is not a small business – in fact he’s not even a plumber. He was (probably wrongly) thinking that if he bought the plumbing place he worked for he’d have trouble paying Obama’s taxes, and Obama foolishly just assumed that was true.

Joe may want to vote for McCain if if NON TAX issues like abortion and gun rights are paramount to him and there are many other reasons Joe the Plumber might want to vote for McCain.

Taxes, however, are NOT one of those reasons.

Caveat: There are some capital gains tax issues that complicate a really good analysis of all the details here since they’d come into play much later and it’s not clear to me how either plan would treat sale of small businesses even assuming the plan was still in effect when they were sold.

Caveat 2: Taxes and prosperity are tricky. Some think that taxing the rich inhibits economic development to the degree it reduces *everybody’s* prosperity. e.g. if his job is lost Joe the Plumber makes nothing.