The Parable Of The Plumber

 Parables are short stories intended to illustrate general principles or moral truths. Although the term is generally used in a biblical context, it occurred to me that a recent, extremely annoying, definitely not apocryphal experience I had with a plumber might be a parable for our time.

I won’t use the name of the company, not because it deserves such consideration, but because the problem it represents is anything but unique.

We had used this plumbing company without incident previously, and its name was well-known, so when our 16-year old toilet needed a new flush valve,  my husband called them.   The young woman who answered the phone was intent upon enrolling us in a yearly “maintenance contract,” and kept him on the phone for a considerable time selling him on its benefits. She finally scheduled the repair during a 4 hour window on the following day. He rescheduled some errands  (I was at work) and waited, but the plumber never showed.

When he called to inquire what had happened, he got another young woman on the phone, who checked to see what had happened. It appeared that person he’d spoken with previously had been so focused on trying to sell him the yearly contract that she’d neglected to schedule the plumber. Young woman number two apologized, during what also became an unnecessarily lengthy conversation.

In order to expedite the repair, my husband gave her the make of the toilet (Kohler–a pretty standard brand) and the part number of the flush valve we needed. She had clearly never heard of Kohler–she asked whether that was a brand and could he spell it, which was disconcerting coming from someone who worked at a plumbing company. She did repeat the part number twice, to be sure she’d heard accurately.

This time, the plumber did show up (the following day), but without the part. According to him, she hadn’t passed on the information. He said he’d have to locate the part and come back, but that we really should consider buying a new toilet.

This was a Friday. The plumber left (without selling us a new toilet) saying he would secure the proper part and be back Monday. He did return on Monday, as promised, but with the wrong part. He left again, promising to find the right one and to call when he did.

At that point, I called our daughter who had mentioned that she had a plumber she liked. When I called that company, the phone was answered by a knowledgable person who immediately dispatched a plumber, and texted me to let me know he was on the way. (They even included a photo of the man they sent, so I’d know it was him.) That plumber was at my home within an hour of my call, and proceeded to install the new flush valve–properly and without trying to sell us a new toilet.

Guess which company I will use in the future?

Why do I say this mundane story is a parable?

The first company markets itself constantly. It runs lots of television spots and internet ads, and periodically mass mails “special offers.” It’s pretty obvious that the owners place more importance on image than on competence.

We live in an age that promotes celebrity over substance. We prefer pundits who tell us what we want to hear to “elitists” who actually know what they are talking about–politicians who give us slick sales patters over less-assured candidates who recognize the complexities of issues. But name-recognition and celebrity will only take you so far. At some point, you have to be able to do the job.

The Trump Administration has a lot in common with that first plumbing company we called.


  1. OK, could you please give us the name of the good plumber? (I already know a bad one.)

  2. “celebrity over substance” That phrase nails it. Unfortunately, it does not just apply to Trump but also to his die hard supporters… all flash and no bang.

  3. The bad plumber’s business model was about securing profits from selling service contracts.

    Americans love their “celebrities”…we actually believe knowledge is knowing all about the actors and actresses who act in our favorite TV shows. 😉

  4. Well Sheila; I believe your situation is a totally appropriate “parable for our time”. Both your personal situation and the governmental situation we are now living with deal with the need to rid our lives of shit! I won’t apologize for the term I used; after watching this weeks (and today is only Tuesday) inability to “flush excrement” from our government, your parable fits my mood!

    Unbelievable that the millions of Americans asking themselves and others, “What next?”, that Trump and his minions manage to come up with something new to “dump” on us. Pun definitely intended.

  5. The solution to any problem comes to a point where someone has to actually know something relevant and act on it to resolve the problem. You can understand see why our elected officials are able to accomplish nothing significant.

  6. If apologies were dollars, I would be a rich man now as a result of my way to numerous conversations with cable companies.

  7. The fee for the plumber that actually showed up and took care of the problem was most likely a lot less than what you would have been charged by the first plumbing company. That marketing costs a lot of money.

    While I am glad that your problem was finally fixed I was actually wondering why your husband didn’t take care of the problem himself. I have replaced that part myself a couple times. It is an easy repair and the part does not cost much.

  8. And the moral of this story? Everybody wants the name of the good plumber.
    Email us privately?
    Then send him/her to Washington DC to fix that mess.

  9. Cheryl,

    Unfortunately, the mess in Washington is somewhat more difficult than replacing a flush valve. Sheila and her husband knew that the problem was with the valve. Those in Washington haven’t even begun to examine what the problem is. They don’t want to. They don’t have what the author Nassim Taleb describes as “skin in the game.”

  10. This parable is also about the down-side of capitalism: Do anything to sell more and deliver less so that profits can be increased. Is it any wonder that the significant majority of young adults no longer favor capitalism as their chosen system?

    Comparing this plumber experience to our Congress and state governments controlled by Republicans is inadequate. With Republicans, if you didn’t want to buy a new toilet over the phone, they wouldn’t even pretend to be interested in your business.

  11. Why does the phrase “flush twice… It’s a long way to Washington…” seem to fit?!?!?

  12. To instill a little discipline in the bad plumbing company, I hope you call the manager and get a refund as well as an apology for the ignorant and faulty service.

  13. The Trump (aka Agent Orange) Regime is one big overflowing toilet. Among the floaters is his entire cabinet and his National Security Advisor John Bolton. It is amusing to see and hear the The Trumpet raging now about Michael Cohen his personal lawyer’s, office being raided by the FBI. Even though the raid was legal in the eyes of the law, for the Trumpet it was, “an attack on our country in a true sense. It’s an attack on what we all stand for.”

    You know the Trumpet’s followers will now have to double down. This support is not surprising, Nixon’s silent majority even when they heard and read about his obstruction of justice, continued to line up behind him.

    By the way Vernon – I agree with your comment > This parable is also about the down-side of capitalism: Do anything to sell more and deliver less so that profits can be increased. Is it any wonder that the significant majority of young adults no longer favor capitalism as their chosen system? <<<

    Steroid Capitalism – Crony Capitalism has taken the toxic philosophical path – That anything, workers rights, civil rights, human rights, clean air or water is subservient to profits.

    Just a side-bar as I watched a rabid, frothing Trumpet blabber about the FBI Raid, I noticed the Trumpet does not wear a wedding ring.

  14. After reading several of these comments today, the “bathroom humor” analogy, with regard to the Trump administration and Republican-controlled legislatures around the country, extends not only to the type of refuse seen in bathrooms, but the action required to dispose of the odors … preferably forever.

  15. I remember a few years ago when I bristled at the idea that capitalists here wanted an increase in work visas for Chinese plumbers and other skilled labor to come here due to our shortage of welders, plumbers et al. I thought at the time that it was bad enough that our jobs were going to China, but now the Chinese were to be imported here to take American jobs on American soil! Your story gives me pause.

    We were then and are yet suffering from a lack of emphasis on vocational education. We used to have union apprentice programs which fulfilled such need very well, but I don’t hear much about their activities in the skilled trades anymore. Perhaps in view of right to work laws and wage inequality they have given up such programs, thus exacerbating the shortgages. Sheila and her husband have company > We all pay for lack of education both vocational and academic.

  16. Here’s a comparison that you won’t see posted everywhere.

    Capitalism is like anthropogenic global warming caused by fossil fuel energy sourcing. Both capitalism and fossil fuels were exactly right for their times. It is been discovered and proven beyond any shadow of doubt that both are not sustainable. Capitalism concentrates wealth among the very few, fossil fuels concentrate carbon dioxide in the one atmosphere all life has in common. Both concentrations have costly to the point of unaffordable consequences less today but certain for the future.

    We have the ability to solve both problems and avoid mortgaging human future but we apparently have lost the great generation who did everything humanly possible to insure our future.

    Way too many of us feel entitled to everything and responsible for nothing.

  17. Pete, et. al.,

    Yes, capitalism has sold self-indulgence at its own peril. Karl Marx knew this and warned the world. Instead, capitalists attacked Marx and kept attacking the concept of responsible economics all through the 20th and into the 21st centuries.

    The single-mindedness of capitalists seeking profit at the expense of everything else is the end game for our current economic model. Burning fossil fuels is merely the engine of ease and the roller bearings for humans to exploit their laziness and go with what makes them feel good in the short term. These reasons are why I titled my last book “Racing to the Brink: The End Game for Race and Capitalism.”

    Humans evolved as wasteful and generally nomadic. When the ancients used up the local resources, they discarded the waste and moved on. Well, now we’re out of “move on”. We haven’t evolved past those ancient mind-sets, thus making today’s wasteful capitalism a definitive outcome of the invention of economics and its stepchild, economics.

  18. So many companies are requiring their front line staff to spin narratives for sales. Customers usually know when this is happening and do not appreciate it. It’s like telemarketing, only it’s done in person or in the phone once the customer is a captive audience (needing a service or standing in front of the employee wanting to conduct business.) I experience the customer end of it frequently. I quit my last job (and for other reasons – short staffing, error-tracking, boredom, low pay – I was going to quit anyway but not as soon!) because we were going to have to have a “conversation” with every customer. Unproductive, and you can bet the people who decide these “conversations” should take place are NOT the ones who are jabbering at you. Sad Parable for our Times!

  19. What surprises me is how many people ascribe almost magical powers to make more money regardless of the impact on others.

  20. Your competent plumber was not an “elitist”, he was an “elite”. Elitists, although they may be competent, think they know better than anyone else, and try to sell you stuff you don’t need. The elite plumber simply fixes the toilet, and takes pride in doing it correctly each and every time.

  21. I’m thinking that “elite” are “elitists” and do know more in their specialty than others. As technology has skyrocketed they are the fastest growing “class” of wealth creators. Of course that also implies that specialties are much narrower now which certainly seems true to me.

    A cultural problem that has created is from people who just don’t want to accept good advice from others in a position to offer it – authoritarians who see the world as power structures rather than collaborating specialists.

    Both the specialization trend and power culture seem both growing and conflicting over the short term resulting I fear not in a solution but a collapse.

  22. Rabbi, what is the meaning of this parable? Ans. Free market capitalism works ever so much better than any other systems. Basically, Sheila told the first company, “You’re fired”. Very Trump-like. The Rabbi was quite silent as to how a mere urban planner would know squat about a toilet…but stranger things have happened, for instance, how’s about these apples?

  23. Leon,

    Your idiotic reference to Breitbart shows how off the beam you are about most everything. You understand NOTHING of capitalism, how it should be controlled and what capitalists think. Stop pretending to “know”. You don’t.

    Rabbi? So, you’re anti-semitic too?

  24. Vernon; thank you for saving me the trouble of responding to leon’s usual skewed view of reality and his too often insulting remarks about Sheila and others. And you used much cleaner language to state the case than I had in mind.

  25. Two things that I know;

    Virtually all of the countries in the world today have mixed economies.

    Oligarchs have trained people to credit capitalism and blame socialism despite any and all facts and evidence.

  26. The first company is very much like America wrt Afghanistan and Iraq. We listened to the elitists,they lied to get us into such an imbriglio. Here we are 16+ years later. The quagmire transcends political organizations and administrations.

    Yet, we’re upset over tweets.

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