Back in 2002, David Brooks reported that during the 2000 presidential election, “a Time magazine-CNN poll asked voters whether they were in the top 1 percent of income earners. Nineteen percent reported that they were, and another 20 percent said that they expected to be there one day.” Forty percent of people were all thinking that they were in that tiny, tiny space reserved for one percent of the population. When I talk about this with my introduction to sociology students, they get it. They can do the math.

But this bit of bad math is part of being American. It is essentially American to identify up the social ladder (over at the NYT, Jennifer Steinhauer has explained this wonderfully). We’ve had the lending policy and credit cards encourage us to do so. Just like we buy Gucci bags or cars we can’t afford, we have, for the past 25 years, voted for leaders that don’t line up with what we need or can afford.

Joe the Plumber is like the disoriented 39 percent from back in 2000. JTP identifies with the economic interests above his pay grade. Even though he doesn’t make 250K and doesn’t have prospects of doing so any time soon, he’s kind of “saving for a rainy day” by voting for the candidate who will have good tax policy for the life he wishes he had, instead of voting for the candidate who has tax policies that can help him now and can help him reach his goal.

JTP requires another twist of logic, much like the bad math of the 40% above: JTP doesn’t imagine that he could afford the extra taxes (perhaps $900 more under Obama than McCain) if he is making 250K per year (Dean Baker explains the numbers and the NYT offers a handy illustration). Still, he feels like he can forego the $$ from an an Obama tax cut that he will get now at his current income level. Not as good as a Gucci bag, but the same idea.

I know it is tasteless these days to mention socialism or anything like that. Obama used humor to remind us that sharing your peanut butter and jelly sandwich isn’t the same thing as socialism. Even so, this has been a great week for my social theory students to study Marxism. They are learning about how consciousness of your real position in the economy really can help you decide how to make your life better. And they think that Joe the Plumber’s class consciousness is out of order. Maybe he needs to call “Karl the Marxist” as Hendrik Hertzberg suggests in the New Yorker this week. (Thanks Ira.)

PS: What does this have to do with feminism? Economic justice and sound financial reasoning are feminist issues full stop. But over at the Joint Economic Committee, where GWP favorite Heather Boushey works, they have just put out a report about how bad things are in our economy–especially for the household sector, where women are especially hard hit.

Virginia Rutter