A.J. DiCintio
Lessons from my plumber
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By A.J. DiCintio
September 17, 2011

It must have been when Bohr, Planck, Heisenberg, Pauli, et al. made his quest to explain everything about the physical universe infinitely more maddening that Einstein made this observation about his choice of vocation:

"If I had my life to live over again, I'd be a plumber."

Well, being told we live in a universe in which particles behave like waves and waves like particles and that these entities appear randomly out of the whatever it is we call space will make you wish for a job in the tradition of the Roman plumber, so that the bath you install today will still be a bath two thousand years from now, sitting exactly in the same spot.

But certainty isn't the only perk of working in the job whose name comes from "plumbum," Latin for the metal we call lead.

In addition to performing honest work that elicits heartfelt praise from flooded homeowners who were absolutely sure they could fix a leaking fixture with a pair of pliers, the plumber deserves to be regarded as an economic guru.

Why? Because the always hands-on tradesman is confronted daily with issues concerning the quality and cost of the great variety of products involved in his trade, including the price of gas for his truck, resulting in a font of economic knowledge that is greatly enriched by learning acquired from discussions with his customers, who reflect the nation's entire socio-economic spectrum.

This reality comes to mind as a result of a conversation I recently had with my plumber, one that spurred me to think even more clearly about an economic problem plaguing our nation.

Specifically, he mentioned that having been called to install a water line for a home under construction, he made the mistake of purchasing a $50 Made in Totalitarian China brass fitting whose sound of stretching under stress caused his keen ear to tell him the alloy had been manufactured with lead and possibly other metals.

When he mentioned that a similar American made true-brass fitting costs $100, my mind immediately turned to thoughts of Donald Trump's warnings about the oxymoronic nature of the term "free" trade. (Irony demands the quotation marks.)

But my plumber's stream of consciousness was now fixed on brass. So, I put Trump aside to hear him relate information he acquired while speaking with a customer who had visited a Chinese foundry as part of his company's investigation into placing some of its brass manufacturing overseas.

Regarding that conversation, he told me the gentleman was stunned by the dangerous working conditions he witnessed and the low wages paid, both realities supported by a massive number of potential employees eager to replace any disposable workers who fear the risks or are injured on the job.

Both of us agreeing that "free" trade is far from free, he left for his next job; and I began to muse about Trump's alarms regarding the cheap, shoddily made, even dangerous goods being shipped to us from China that result in the loss of good jobs once held by American workers.

Of course, one can't think about Trump's position long without realizing that a very powerful segment of the American population holds the opposite view, telling us that if there's one thing the nation needs more of, it's "free" trade.

In fact, the members of this motley crew wax so emotionally certain about their beloved policy that its Chamber of Commerce/neo-con types praise it as the greatest thing since sliced bread while devotees of NYT Editorial Board style liberalism prefer to tout it as the most important human advancement since the Mesclun With Sauteed Tofu Salad was invented to answer the call of "What's for dinner?"

Now, psychologists long ago discovered that some people become so powerfully attached to strange, even weird, beliefs that a total collapse of the system invented by their hero only strengthens their devotion (as occurred regarding the utter implosion of Karl Marx's brainchild, for example).

Therefore, we shouldn't presume that any set of facts will move the previously mentioned crew to even question their ideas about the intellectual and moral beauty of "free" trade, which, by the way, ought always to be vigorously distinguished from fair trade.

The rest of us, however, will not shy from examining the notion that since it was shifted into high gear in the late eighties, the experiment has proved to be poisonous for the great majority of Americans.

For proof that this conclusion is true, here's what we find for the period 1988-2010 in the inflation adjusted household income chart just released by the Census Bureau:

. . . The bottom fifth of households, or those earning an average of $11,034 in 2010, have made zero gains in purchasing power over the past 22 years.

. . . The same is true for the next 20%, or households earning an average of $28,636 in 2010.

. . . And the next 20% (the middle quintile), or households earning $49,309 in 2010.

. . . The next 20%, or households earning $79,040 in 2010, have increased their purchasing power by 10.6%, virtually all of the gain made before 2000.

. . . The top 20%, or households earning $169,633 in 2010, have seen an increase in purchasing power of 18.7%, virtually all of the gain made before 2000.

. . . The top 5% of all households, or those earning $287,686 in 2010, have experienced an increase in purchasing power of 21%, though they are down 10% from a peak achieved in 2002 and again in 2007.

Finally, to its enormous detriment, the chart fails to provide statistics for the top 1% of households as well as the real American oligarchy, the top one-tenth of one percent, both of which, we may presume, have prospered very well in the age of "free" trade.

In another important failure, the Census Bureau does not offer information regarding how many more hours at least 60% of the American people are working to stay even with inflation, nor how their standard of living has been diminished by their increased debt over the past two or three decades as well as by higher-than-inflation increases in healthcare, higher education, and the cost of government including costs associated with the national debt.

However, the Bureau does tell us enough to know something is rotten in the state of the nation.

Like the wise plumbers who help us form our opinions, we're not going to blame the entirety of that rottenness on "free" trade.

But we will blame the policy for the lion's share, a conclusion, by the way, that rages among the citizens of the bellwether state of Ohio . . . a reality that doesn't bode well for the power structure of either of our two major political parties.

© A.J. DiCintio

 

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A.J. DiCintio

A.J. DiCintio posts regularly at RenewAmerica and YourNews.com. He first exercised his polemical skills arguing with friends on the street corners of the working class neighborhood where he grew up. Retired from teaching, he now applies those skills, somewhat honed and polished by experience, to social/political affairs.

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