Tom Perkins and Other Efforts to Shut Down Discussion of Income Inequality

The recent letter to the editor in the Wall Street Journal by Tom Perkins, the billionaire venture capitalist, comparing the treatment of the ultra-wealthy in the US today with Jews in Nazi Germany, is both outrageous and surreal. It is only one brief letter, but it reflects a broader trend among the wealthiest Americans who are beginning to see themselves as victims of a populist revolt and thus should not be dismissed entirely.

Perkins' Kristallnacht comparison seems to be based on two ideas. First, in recent weeks wealthy tech workers in San Francisco have faced both rhetorical attacks and physical harassment, notably on their way to work on special buses operated by Google, Apple and other technology companies. Workers being harassed by angry, if largely unarmed and entirely non-lethal groups of protesters and Jews being stuffed into cattle cars by a heavily armed state apparatus and being sent to death camps appears to be a nuance lost on Perkins. Equally significantly, while state sponsored anti-Semitic demonstrations preceded actual genocide under the Nazis, harassment by fellow citizens, without support or encouragement from the state, does not lead inexorably, and rarely at all, to genocide or anything like it. To ignore that crucial reality is Reducto ad Hitlerum that is both offensive and ignorant.

Perkins second concern is that the one percent are being scapegoated and blamed for all of society's problems in a way that is comparable to what Jews experienced in Nazi Germany. He refers to, for example, "demonization of the rich embedded in virtually every word of our local newspaper." While it is true that many blame the one percent for the economic and other problems facing the US, there is a difference between this placing blame and scapegoating. The question of whether or not the one percent themselves should be blamed for these problems as opposed to, for example, broader structural problems and global developments, is a legitimate one, but it is not the question directly raised by Perkins. Instead, Perkins suggests that the laying of the blame is in of itself comparable to Naziism.

The problem with this approach, which is now relatively common in conservative media, is that it is essential to be able to blame people if they are responsible for problems in society. Moreover, in political life many people are blamed for problems all the time. Teachers unions have long borne the brunt of the blame from many quarters for problems of education, but it is extremely rare to hear a teacher or union representative compare themselves to Jews in Hitler's Germany. Similarly, lobbyists in general have been blamed for a broad range of political ills, but the Nazi comparison is rarely raised. People receiving public support have often been demonized by political conservatives, yet that is not comparable to the Holocaust.

Perkins' statements, in many respects, are not very important. He is one man making an extreme claim that was made either as an effort to draw attention to himself and a perceived problem, a bizarre sense of victimhood or an an extraordinary misreading of history. Moreover, on some level he is right that there is a growing awareness in the US about the extreme wealth of the richest Americans, and a similarly increasing belief that highly concentrated extreme wealth is part of the problem. This economic analysis may or may not be true, but it legitimately part of the debate; and efforts to stifle that criticism by comparisons to Naziism, should be recognized for what they are.

Perkins letter is, in many respects, little more than a more dramatic and ill-advised riff on the standard Republican and conservative talking points that the wealthy are successful job creators and those who criticize their obscene accumulation of wealth are lazy, ne'er-do-wells or un-American. The conservative response to the expanding discussion of the wealthiest one percent and economic inequality has been to say, as Perkins did, that the subject itself is not a fit one for the American political dialog. However, dialog and discussion about income inequality, which must include issues regarding massive concentrations of wealth, are exactly what the US needs right now.

The subtext of Perkins' piece, and related arguments, is that the vitriol aimed at the wealthiest Americans is destructive and dangerous for the country generally. Again, this may be true, as in general it is better to discuss politics in calm and unemotional tones, but raising this concern now is nonetheless pretty rich, pardon the pun, given how much the wealthiest Americans have contributed to politicians and political parties have used divisive tactics, and in many cases made nasty attacks on poor Americans. Perkins appears to be upset not that people are being scapegoated, but that after decades of one sided class warfare, the rhetorical battle has now been fully joined.