A t any given moment, there are millions of people and businesses “on the margin,” as economists say. In plain terms, they’re barely getting by. Here’s how President Barack Obama’s speech last week might have been viewed by one of them.
By E. THOMAS McCLANAHAN
The Kansas City Star
Reginald Busby, owner and sole proprietor of Reamurpipe Plumbing, arrived at his cluttered office in Anytown, U.S.A. in a foul mood. After the president’s speech, he and his wife, Florence, had argued again over the leaking dishwasher. Days later, she was still sore.
“It’s just a little leak,” he told her. “Something with the gasket in the front. I’ll fix it when I have time.”
“That’s what you always say.”
Busby picked up a piece of pipe he used as a paperweight and tossed it in his hand. He knew the problem wasn’t the dishwasher. Business hadn’t been good for a long time. The bills were piling up. Florence had to take a part-time job.
Busby was beginning to think it was time to sell out and work for someone else — be a plumber again, not a businessman on top of being a plumber. He was fed up with the paperwork and the long hours.
The president’s speech didn’t help his mood. Obama talked about higher taxes, closing loopholes, tax reform, fixing bridges — infrastructure stuff. Good ol’ infrastructure. What would a presidential speechwriter do without it? This president also has a thing for “climate change” … yep, there it was again. Windmills and solar panels.
But when Busby heard the president mention raising the minimum wage, he sat up in his chair and said, “Whoa.”
Florence looked up from her needlepoint. “What?”
“He just said he wanted to raise the minimum wage to nine bucks. That’s a pretty big jump.”
Busby didn’t have any minimum-wage employees, but his friend Harmon ran a watch-repair shop and employed two teenagers for the counter up front. A couple of days after Obama’s speech, Busby went by Harmon’s to have the battery changed in his watch. He got a big dose of Histrionic Harmon, as he was known in town.
“They’re idiots!” Harmon said, bending over Busby’s now-open watch. “Where do they think the money comes from? I can’t raise prices. I’d lose business. What does he think this is, a big corporation? No. It comes right out of what I take home.”
“What about those economists who think it will boost demand?” Busby enjoyed baiting Harmon.
Harmon stood up and began waving his arms. He still held Busby’s watch, which Busby followed with his eyes as it moved up and down and back and forth.
“They’re triple idiots!” cried Harmon. “Oh sure. Why not raise the minimum wage to $50 an hour? Think how rich we’d all be!”
Busby was relieved to have his watch returned in one piece. He went back to his office and stared at the shelves against the far wall, full of dusty pipe couplings. A old toilet was parked on its side in one corner.
A lot of what the president had said struck Busby as boilerplate, the kind of stuff that’s always in these speeches. Whatever. The country’s stuck in a bad patch right now, and it’s going to take time. Busby wasn’t sure who to blame. He didn’t bother trying to sort it out.
But he hadn’t heard anything from Obama that made him optimistic. He didn’t see things changing and he was tired of worrying about whether he’d have enough work for his employees and having to put up with all the paperwork and government garbage on top of it.
He put the piece of pipe down on a stack of pink invoices. Why not sell out?
Busby, you’re a master plumber. No problem finding work. Maybe you could work for the new owner. Then there’d be time to fix that dishwasher and more time at home with Florence. Because the way things stand, it doesn’t look as if business is going to get much better.
To reach E. Thomas McClanahan, call 816-234-4480 or send email to firstname.lastname@example.org.