Why doesn’t Joe The Plumber believe in the American spirit?

Posted by Rob Walker on October 31, 2008
Posted Under: America,Optimism

So if you’ll allow me one moment of shameless patriotism, I’d like take a moment to declare  that I am a proud American.

I’ve been thinking about this because  of Joe The Plumber. Forget all the foolishness about his book deal or potential endorsement contracts or whether he’ll run for congress. There’s an argument, or an idea, that always hovers around Joe and his ilk — and his ilk’s intellectual defenders in the intellectual and pundit classes — that’s always puzzled me:

Why are these people so cynical about Americans?

Let me explain what I mean.

First I’m going to say might sound jingoistic, or it might sound naively romantic, but: I actually believe in the American dream, and in the American spirit. That’s not meant to put down other countries; it’s meant to affirm that I believe that, whatever faults the U.S. has, our history is in fact full of amazing achievements, progress, inventions, breakthroughs, and innovation, in many fields. I actually believe there’s something truly special about America, and about Americans. It’s inspiring to think about.

So why doesn’t Joe believe in that spirit? Why don’t the people who defend and agree with his complaints believe in it?

I know they don’t believe there’s anything special about Americans, or the American spirit, because according to them, the most productive and creative citizens of our country will stop producing, stop creating, stop innovation, stop making progress, stop aspiring to live the American dream and change the world if their marginal tax rate rises a few points.

According to Joe and his allies, that’s all it takes to stop the American spirit in its tracks.

This gets expressed in various ways, like talking about how “the most productive members of our society” will be less productive they have to pay higher taxes. Or as this AP story summarized it recently: “In a country that believes in itself as a place where anybody who works hard enough can make it … there’s a certain wariness of taxes that might discourage hard work.” (Emphasis added.) That’s the root of what Joe-ologists claim: tax our country’s most productive people too much, and they simply won’t work as hard.

I don’t believe that at all.

Do you? Do you think that Bill Gates or Steve Jobs or Marc Andreeson or Mark Zukerberg, while dreaming up their various enterprises, stopped to figure out whether they thought the potential tax hit made it worthwhile? I don’t. I think they wanted to change the world.

I don’t exactly have posters of those guys on my wall; my point isn’t to say that they are heroes. They’re just easy examples because they’re widely lionized — often by the exact same people who claim that higher taxes make Americans work less hard, that they destroy the American spirit. So pick whatever example you want, from whatever period in American history you like. Sure the profit motive matters — and not just in the business world. But can you think of an example of a heroic American who simply wouldn’t have bothered to try and succeed, to make a mark, to change the world — if the tax code hadn’t been suitably generous?

What about the many immigrants who have come from all over the planet to chase the American dream, and have made innumerable contributions to the worlds of business, science, the arts, etc. — would their pursuit of greatness and success have withered in the face of an income-tax hike?

What about all the American innovators and creators and productive contributors to our society who made their mark when the tax rate was higher than it is today, or will be next year?

What, for that matter, about you? Do you aspire to some lofty achievement in whatever field you are in — to make a difference, to be remembered? And are you counter-balancing that against the tax implications? Are you saying, “Well I’d like to start my own company, or write a best-seller, or revolutionize my industry — but if income taxes are going up I just won’t bother?”

Personally, I’m trying as hard as I can to be as successful as I can, and I don’t envision a scenario where tax rates are going to stop me from that. And I don’t think I’m alone in feeling that way.

I just don’t believe that Americans, or the American dream, are as fragile as the Joe crowd suggests.

I think the American spirit has persevered against obstacles much more daunting than a few percentage points on the marginal tax rate. So I listen to and read Joe’s intellectual and pundit defenders who claim that American innovation can be squelched so easily, and I am optimistic: I am optimistic that they are wrong. Because unlike them, I really believe there’s something special about America, and the American spirit. Ultimately, their cynicism simply puzzles me.

What kind of Americans are they, anyway?

Further diversion may be found at MKTG Tumblr, and the Consumed Facebook page.

Reader Comments

“What kind of Americans are they, anyway?”

They are the kind of Americans that watched their former Democratic government deregulate America into sub prime mortages and bank failures – and, began to out-souce the Working class.

They are the kind of Americans that are being hustled by guys just like Obama who continually supported the war in Iraq. And who have continually supported the Lobbyest.

They are the kind of Americans who are simple plain hard working Individuals that have not created the latest greatest gaget.

Are you beginning to understand America?

And you’re completely lost on the American dream / American spirit. Which is very sad because you hold yourself out as an ‘American’ mouth piece.

The American dream is to have the RIGHT to become the best person you can as an INDIVIDUAL. Who, sorry to inform you, can disagree with another tax burden, or any other kind of burden for that matter. Learn your American history! Boston tea party? American revolution? Ever hear of it??

Americans are Individuals first and foremost. That is why America is such a great nation. Strong Individuals who have the right to choose. America’s spirit is NOT to be found in its creativity, nor in its moral authority, it is to be found in the RIGHT to become an INDIVIDUAL!

One person – with one voice. Can’t get better than that!

Please – stop romticizing the subject matter – ok?

Millions and millions of Americans just like Joe the ‘whatever’ – have been over pushed, over hustled, and over taxed – as an Individual. They do not want to create the next blog, the do not want to create the next gaget – all they want to do is work hard – move forward a little at a time – and be respected as our founding fathers intended – as an Individual!

What you babble about comes long after (if at all) having the right to be Free. Thanks to those hard working Americans who have laid down their lives one generation after another to give our children the Birthright of Freedom – we are, as a nation, respected as a nation of Free Individuals.

The posters you should have on your walls should be of the Immigrant – either that, or the American Revolution!

Perhaps then you might get sense of America.

Or would you just tax them a little – and then a little more?


Written By neil caldwell on October 31st, 2008 @ 10:55 pm

Amen, Rob. It’s such a small vision of this country and its people, and one that I have a really tough time believing is actually believed by those who promote it.

Written By jkd on November 1st, 2008 @ 4:07 pm

I love this; fantastic writing.

A distrust of government and hate for taxes is ingrained deeply in the American culture and political atmosphere. We’re the people who rebelled over a 3% (?) excise tax.

Written By Jonathan on November 1st, 2008 @ 8:04 pm


The colonists who incited the American Revolution were concerned with taxation without representation–meaning that, as residents of British colonies, they believed it unjust to pay taxes to Britain without representation in Parliament. They certainly weren’t claiming that any and all taxes to any entity whatsoever were so burdensome as to be inherently unjust .

From what you say, it sounds like you wish there were no taxes. What, then, would freedom mean? Freedom from what and to do what? Your individual freedom can only take you so far. You can’t individually build and maintain the roads and bridges that allow you to travel everywhere you need to go. You can homeschool your children, but if you’re only concerned with the individual, they’ll only learn what you as an individual know. If you have an emergency, will you be able to drive yourself to the hospital? Because without taxes, there’d be no 911 that you could call. I’m sure you see what I’m getting at here. My point is that, while some taxes are burdensome, in many cases the burdens are well worth it. The fact is, many of the freedoms you enjoy are paid for by taxes.

Written By Rebecca on November 1st, 2008 @ 10:41 pm

Rob, during holiday in Malta several months ago I had the pleasure of
sharing a week’s worth of lengthy conversations with a group of young men –
mid-20’s – from Sweden – who had moved to Malta to start their own business. Why?
Because – as they explained – Sweden’s governmental bureaucratic red tape, regulations and massive taxing structure prevented them from being, fast, flexible
and growable – absolute musts for survival in today’s new global economy.

Instead of being allowed to put their tiny profits back into their own business
to help it grow, 70% of it went to taxes. Their only solution was to leave and
go to another country. They explained that many others their age in Sweden are
also struggling with the idea of paying such a hefty tax. Thirty, 40, maybe even
50% were agreeable tax levies to these young men – but 70% placed them in a lose-lose situation.

As for wondering about the course taken by Jobs and Gates, etc., if what you are
questioning is true, where were the Microsofts and Apples of China, Russia and
Europe in the 70’s?

Could go on, but instead, recommend readers to check out Virginia Postrel’s book, “The Future and Its Enemies.”

Wishing you and everyone worldwide, health, peace and prosperity.


Written By BonnieL on November 2nd, 2008 @ 9:22 am

To your point, I don’t believe that an increase in the marginal tax rate will cause people to stop trying to change the world. But it is easy to compare tax rates between nations and I do beleive that they’ll go home to India, China, Mexico, Canada, UK – etc. In the world we’re living in, you’re deluding yourself if you think that people will accept a personally lower standard of living just so that strangers who didn’t plan for their retirement can get by. People come to America to get away from social systems that are based on keeping an individual in place for the benefit of someone else. Bill Gates and Steve Jobs were heros of the 80’s. Take a look at Sergey Brin, Jerry Yang or Rupert Murdoch and ask why they chose to do what they’re doing here versus anywhere else in the world. American’s are slowly waking up to what the world already knows: increasingly the “action” is happening outside of the U.S. That is what’s not getting discussed at the highest level of public debate – we’re talking about how wealth gets divided, not how to create more of it. In the future, perhaps the U.S. can provide the services that richer nations will need: plumbing, American car repair and quick service restaraunt management. We need to get back to the systems that make us leaders again.

Written By Stephen Quinn on November 2nd, 2008 @ 9:51 am

“As for wondering about the course taken by Jobs and Gates, etc., if what you are
questioning is true, where were the Microsofts and Apples of China, Russia and
Europe in the 70’s? ”

How can you ask this? My WHOLE POINT is that there is something special about America — and it isn’t the tax code. Seriously, that’s the ENTIRE POINT of what I wrote.

Written By Rob Walker on November 2nd, 2008 @ 5:51 pm

If the argument that ‘killing the American Dream’ doesn’t do it for you (and it doesn’t do it for me either), what argument would you accept against higher taxes?

Written By Dave W on November 3rd, 2008 @ 11:03 am

I really wasn’t making a pro or con argument about taxes, I was making a point about this particular line of argument.

In general, I will accept any argument, for anything, if it makes sense.

Written By Rob Walker on November 4th, 2008 @ 11:51 am

Rob, my apology for totally missing your point.
Feel much better now that I know we’re in total agreement : – )

ciao my friend,


Written By BonnieL on November 6th, 2008 @ 3:03 am