Media Blog

Fat-Cat Plutocratic Longshoremen

All this Joe the Plumber business brings up something that’s always worth remembering: You don’t have to be a doctor or lawyer to make a real living in America.

Check out the figures in this ten-year-old story from the New York Times. Remember, we’re talking 1998 dollars here:

Ms. Hummel, now 43, made $81,000 last year operating the oversized forklifts that stack the big steel containers and instructing casuals to maneuver trailer trucks through the maze of dockside obstacles. Teaching — especially teaching the women trying to break into the union — is obviously a labor of love as well as money. ”You have to remember where you came from,” she said.

Most longshoremen make considerably more than Ms. Hummel: last year, full-time workers at West Coast ports averaged $97,000. Unionized clerks working comparable hours averaged $114,000, while foremen averaged $148,000.

Not too shabby — lots of college professors wish they made $148,000 a year in 2008 dollars. Wages for New York City carpenters currently start at $70 an hour plus benefits. And it’s not just union jobs in big cities. (I went on and on about this subject last Labor Day here.)
And that perspective is what the media is missing when it comes to Barack Obama’s “95 percent” tax cut. (Other than the fact that you can’t cut taxes for 95 percent of the people when so many Americans pay no federal income tax at all. You can’t cut a tax rate of zero.) It’s true that there aren’t a lot of households with total income in excess of $250,000. But the ones who do have that kind of income aren’t necessarily hedge-fund managers and Fortune 500 CEOs. There’s a big difference between an individual income of $250,000 and a household income of $250,000. Two married high-school principals, or two married longshoremen (that’s a California story, note) can take home $250,000 a year. These aren’t exactly mustache-twirling gazillionaires in silk top-hats. We should be honest about whose income Barack Obama wants to seize. The “rich,” as it turns out, aren’t so different from us after all: They’re electricians and optometrists and guys who own successful auto-body shops.
The other thing that gets ignored in media coverage of incomes and taxes is that pay changes, often radically, over the course of the typical career. A family running a small business may work 40 years to make a go of it and have one high-income year at the end, when they retire and sell the business — but they’ll get taxed as though they had made that much money year in and year out. Many under-30 workers earn relatively small paychecks — they’re just getting started in their careers — and lots of people who are still working after 65 earn pretty good bucks. People in their middle 40s are generally making more than they were in their 20s, but they’re also much more likely to have kids in college, and they’re in the prime years of funding their retirement savings. The more money you take from them in their 40s, the more they’re going to have to rely on Social Security in their 70s. That’s how government programs help create their own clientele.

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