When poor, persecuted Tom Perkins, mega-millionaire financier and member in excellent standing of the nation’s Richie Rich club, went off in a letter to the Wall Street Journal about how his enemies were trying to bring him down, he didn’t know how right he was.
As the satirical “Pogo” comic strip famously observed, “We have met the enemy, and he is us.”
Perkins made himself into the caricature of an arrogant, out-of-touch plutocrat beyond his critics’ ability to do so. Perkins’ and his fellows’ “paranoid rage,” as Businessweek called it, gave the country the spectacle of an immensely privileged man comparing criticism of himself and his fellow rich to the “racial demonization” of Jews, and his critics to Nazis.
Since then, he has evidently listened to what must be his very expensive and very frustrated PR team and sort of/kind of apologized; comparing Occupy protesters’ window breaking to “Kristallnacht” — the coordinated 1938 attacks against Jews across Germany — was, he agreed, a poor choice of words.
But he still insists the 1% are under siege. His tirade has served to reveal to everyone, including people who had never heard of him, the extent of his privilege, like the 289-foot racing yacht he built, with maritime flags gleefully spelling out “Rarely does one have the privilege to witness vulgar ostentation on such a grand scale.” The yacht, which he’s since sold, ran into a smaller boat in France in 1996 and killed a doctor aboard. He was convicted of involuntary manslaughter there; he paid a $10,000 fine, and jail time was suspended.
Politicians know very well that accusing the opposition of being Hitlerian is the third rail, the nuclear option in public rhetoric. Throw that switch and you may find yourself sidelined even by your friends. But for a man like Perkins to compare himself and his confreres to Hitler’s victims is so astonishingly over the top that it’s hard to imagine any scenario where this will not be the second paragraph of every story ever written about him, including his obituary.
Let’s review, shall we?
Jews of every class and standing in Nazi Germany were arrested, dispossessed and exiled from the worlds of commerce and civic life. The United States’ super-rich, whose lobbyists and political money mean they can put their hands on the tiller of government itself, are cruelly forced to pay one of the lowest personal income tax rates in a century.
Europe’s Jews were murdered by the millions; the California Legislature is about to outlaw the “affluenza” defense, so rich defendants’ lawyers can’t argue (as one did successfully in a Texas case) that their fortunes can prevent them from knowing the difference between right and wrong.
By now there’s usually a backlash against the first story, but it’s been very muted in Perkins’ case. His own former company distanced itself, as did some of Silicon Valley’s elite.
One venture capitalist, Tim Draper, did defend him, saying, “The bitter taste of envy brings us all down.”
It’s not envy that’s creating this class gulf. We like to think this country is classless, and we like to think we can all get rich, or at least prosper by our labors. Yet something’s changed; there’s a kind of lifeboat mentality appearing among some of the rich: that not only have we got ours, but it serves our interests to keep you lot off the boat.
Politicians are beginning to see the dangers this might pose to the nation’s overall prosperity and stability, this plutocratic gulf wider than at any time since the Gilded Age, which was before income taxes.
The aspirational America — the chipper, upwardly mobile belief in hard work that is our national shared faith — is getting undercut, and not by some parody of envy. Assessments by Pew and other studies show that Americans feel that obstacles are appearing before them that weren’t there before.
A new Harvard analysis shows that income inequality is worse here than in Nigeria. College costs have begun to put a degree out of reach for children of the middle class (which Perkins was himself, before his own college education). Housing costs and flat incomes are a knife in the heart to the one article of faith that keeps many Americans going: that their children will be better off than they were. Children of single parents, Harvard found, don’t fare as well as those with two parents, but where are the public policy instruments to help them succeed — not a safety net but a ladder?
So many hurdles are put up in the path of these hopeful Americans. Big forces are ranging against healthcare, against affordable higher education, against decent wages, against all the earned — not given but earned — tools of social mobility.
That social mobility has only flattened, not yet declined, is a testament to Americans striving against all of these obstacles, but it’s a warning for a future where the line that “anyone can become president” — or CEO — becomes a joke, not a promise.
Why does this matter? Because, despite what Perkins may think, people who own homes, whose kids go to college, do not want to holler for the tumbrils, nor do they want to throw stones at Rolls-Royces — they hope to drive one themselves, these days.
But when we are reduced to hoping for a winning lottery ticket as our shot at improving our lot in a calcified system, all of us are in trouble.
Andrew Carnegie, one of the country’s richest men 100 years ago, was one of its most generous. By the time he died, he’d practiced his own “Gospel of Wealth,” having given away the modern equivalent of almost $5 billion, to universities and libraries — those ladders of upward mobility — and to science. “Surplus wealth,” he said, “is a sacred trust which its possessor is bound to administer in his lifetime for the good of the community.”
I’m sure Perkins could buy a copy of Carnegie’s article. Better yet, he could ask for it at his local public library.
Follow Patt Morrison on Twitter @pattmlatimes