Tom Perkins Is Willing to Say What the Rest of the Ultrarich Are Secretly Thinking

He is also bad at math.

National Journal
Lucia Graves
Feb. 14, 2014, 9:03 a.m.

Tom Per­kins in­censed the In­ter­net (again), when he sug­ges­ted Thursday that only tax­pay­ers should get the right to vote and that the wealth­i­est Amer­ic­ans who pay the most in taxes should get more votes. Yep, you read that right.

The sen­ti­ment is es­pe­cially of­fens­ive when you con­sider the demo­graph­ics as­so­ci­ated with the state­ment (read: white and male), but it isn’t the most ab­surd thing he’s said. That would be a let­ter Per­kins wrote to The Wall Street Journ­al on Jan. 24, in which he com­pared “the pro­gress­ive war on the Amer­ic­an 1 per­cent, namely the ‘rich’ “Š” to the per­se­cu­tion of Jews in Nazi Ger­many, par­tic­u­larly that the 1 per­cent face a “rising tide of hatred” akin to Kristallnacht, a series of co­ordin­ated at­tacks against Jews in 1938.

The strangest thing about the let­ter isn’t that he thought that or even ad­mit­ted it in a pa­per of re­cord. What boggles the mind is the out­pour­ing of sup­port he re­ceived from like-minded ul­trarich Amer­ic­ans and con­ser­vat­ives.

Bil­lion­aire in­vestor Sam Zell, ap­pear­ing on Bloomberg TV re­cently, de­nounced what he termed “the polit­ics of envy,” ar­guing the 1 per­cent have earned their po­s­i­tion in so­ci­ety. “I guess my feel­ing is that [Per­kins] is right: The 1 per­cent are be­ing pummeled be­cause it’s polit­ic­ally con­veni­ent to do so,” he said in an ex­change with an­chor Betty Liu. “The prob­lem is that the world and this coun­try should not talk about envy of the 1 per­cent. It should talk about emu­lat­ing the 1 per­cent. The 1 per­cent work harder. The 1 per­cent are much big­ger factors in all forms of our so­ci­ety.”

And The Wall Street Journ­al, a pub­lic­a­tion most be­loved by the rich, sim­il­arly came to his de­fense. Any­one won­der­ing wheth­er the pa­per’s ed­it­ors had prin­ted Per­kins’s let­ter to em­bar­rass or ex­pose him had their an­swer: They pub­lished it be­cause they were sym­path­et­ic to the ar­gu­ment. Un­der the curi­ous head­line “Per­kin­snacht,” the ed­it­or­i­al board pub­lished an in­dict­ment of “lib­er­als in power,” wax­ing dra­mat­ic about how “lib­er­al vi­tu­per­a­tion makes our let­ter writer’s point.” The ed­it­ors con­cluded: “The lib­er­als aren’t en­cour­aging vi­ol­ence, but they are pro­mot­ing per­son­al vili­fic­a­tion and the ab­use of gov­ern­ment power to pun­ish polit­ic­al op­pon­ents.”

Sup­port for Per­kins’s ar­gu­ment was so wide­spread that The Wash­ing­ton Post‘s Eu­gene Robin­son wrote a piece ques­tion­ing what ex­actly was mak­ing “some con­ser­vat­ives take a leave of their senses” in com­ing to Per­kins’s de­fense. The best re­sponse to that ques­tion came (as usu­al) from New York Magazine‘s Jonath­an Chait. “Per­kins’s let­ter provided a peek in­to the fantasy world of the right-wing one per­cent, in which fantas­ies of an in­cip­i­ent Hitler-esque ter­ror are just slightly bey­ond the norm.”

It wasn’t just the wealthy who came to Per­kins’s side. One of the most co­gent con­ser­vat­ive ar­gu­ments I read came from Michelle Malkin, who ar­gued that it’s dan­ger­ous to mar­gin­al­ize a group, any group, even mil­lion­aires and bil­lion­aires. It was a good point, but it was something else in her piece that caught my at­ten­tion. She called Per­kins a “truth-tell­er” whose “mes­sage in de­fense of our na­tion’s achiev­ers will tran­scend, in­spire, em­bolden and pre­vail.” No mat­ter, she lamen­ted, “the mob is shoot­ing the mes­sen­ger any­way.”

That’s just it: Per­kins isn’t an ab­er­ra­tion, and his mes­sage is of­fens­ive pre­cisely be­cause it speaks to something a lot of rich people and con­ser­vat­ives ac­tu­ally be­lieve. Per­kins hadn’t gaffed. He hadn’t mis­s­poken. Al­though he would later qual­i­fy his re­marks, he was mak­ing a point that many of the uber-rich be­lieve in­stinct­ively. They’re just too prudent to say so.

Per­kins’s most re­cent state­ment — that people who pay more in taxes should get more votes — hasn’t had time to at­tract the kind of sup­port his first one garnered, but it has par­al­lels in Er­ick Er­ick­son’s 53 per­cent move­ment. The Red­ founder’s coun­ter­punch to Oc­cupy Wall Street’s “We are the 99 per­cent” slo­gan was meant to rep­res­ent the 53 per­cent of Amer­ic­ans who pay fed­er­al in­come taxes. The as­sump­tion is that Oc­cupy pro­test­ers are among the now fam­ous (thanks, Mitt Rom­ney!) 47 per­cent of the coun­try who don’t.

The sen­ti­ment would re­sur­face again on the pres­id­en­tial cam­paign trail when Rom­ney said the thing that doomed his can­dic­acy. A re­fresh­er: “There are 47 per­cent of the people who will vote for the pres­id­ent no mat­ter what. All right, there are 47 per­cent who are with him, who are de­pend­ent upon gov­ern­ment, who be­lieve they are vic­tims, who be­lieve the gov­ern­ment has a re­spons­ib­il­ity to take care for them, who be­lieve that they are en­titled to health care, to food, to hous­ing, to you-name-it.” 

An­oth­er thing Rom­ney left off but might as well have said? Those who be­lieve they are en­titled to vote. Rom­ney and Per­kins have good reas­on to want to keep the 47 per­cent from vot­ing. Namely, the 47 per­cent won’t make it a pri­or­ity to pro­tect the in­terests of the long-suf­fer­ing 1 per­cent. They have more press­ing con­cerns, like, say, gro­cer­ies.

And that gets to an­oth­er of Per­kins’s fears: that the 1 per­cent is some­how en­dangered and at risk of “eco­nom­ic ex­tinc­tion.” To wit: “The fear is wealth tax, high­er taxes, high­er death taxes — just more taxes un­til there is no more 1 per­cent. And that will creep down to the 5 per­cent and then the 10 per­cent,” he said. It’s the ir­ra­tion­al­ity of this fear that has garnered the bulk of me­dia at­ten­tion. But it’s also worth re­flect­ing for a mo­ment on just how poor Per­kins’s con­cep­tion of per­cent­ages is. (Pauses for dra­mat­ic ef­fect. Moves on.)

There are a few oth­er stat­ist­ics Rom­ney didn’t men­tion, such as that two-thirds of house­holds that don’t pay fed­er­al in­come tax do pay payroll taxes. Or that 18 per­cent of all tax filers paid neither payroll nor in­come taxes. Of those who paid neither, nearly all of them were eld­erly or had in­comes un­der $20,000.

Rom­ney thought he was speak­ing in con­fid­ence, but Per­kins isn’t wor­ried about that. Per­kins, as Malkin so deftly ob­served, is a truth-tell­er. He’s say­ing what the right-wing 1 per­cent truly be­lieve but are too scared to ad­mit pub­licly.