It’s that this column, which wants us to regard Perkins as a pathetic irrelevant old man who says stupid things, rather than as an important national voice saying something worth noticing, overlooks a fundamental fact about the Perkins story. As Paul Krugman writes:

You may say that this is just one crazy guy and wonder why The [Wall Street] Journal would publish such a thing. But Mr. Perkins isn’t that much of an outlier. He isn’t even the first finance titan to compare advocates of progressive taxation to Nazis. Back in 2010 Stephen Schwarzman, the chairman and chief executive of the Blackstone Group, declared that proposals to eliminate tax loopholes for hedge fund and private-equity managers were “like when Hitler invaded Poland in 1939.”

And there are a number of other plutocrats who manage to keep Hitler out of their remarks but who nonetheless hold, and loudly express, political and economic views that combine paranoia and megalomania in equal measure.


Eric Cantor:

There are politicians and others who want to demonize people that have earned success in certain sectors of our society. They claim that these people have now made enough, and haven’t paid their fair share. But, pitting Americans against one another tends to deflate the aspirational spirit of our people and fade the American dream.

Lawrence Kudlow, mocking the opposition:

“How dare they be successful earners and investors… Should we go out and shoot [the super-rich] for their success?”

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21 Responses to “It’s not that this column “defend[s] Tom Perkins or his views…””

  1. Colin Says:

    Are not Krugman’s references to “plutocrats” and “paranoia and meglomania” rather inflammatory? Even bordering on incitement? Is there not much careless and emotive rhetoric about bankers and the 1% in progressive circles? Here in the UK, there have been loud calls to bank “bankers’ bonuses”, but not those of any other category of citizen. The modern progressive seeks to confiscate ever greater portions of the property of others, usually to pay for their own livliehoods or to transfer to their political clients. They justify this by demonizing a whole class of people, some of whom are no doubt demons, many of whom are not. Worse, it’s not even accurate: as this week’s Economist notes, the top 1% in Mr Perkins’ California already pay the vast majority of the taxes in that state.

  2. Margaret Soltan Says:

    Colin: Good point about the rhetoric getting ugly on both sides.

    But the use of the word plutocrat strikes me as simply accurate in Krugman’s context; and I think calling people like Perkins paranoid and megalomaniac is accurate, not inflammatory. Just look at what he says and how he lives.

    But yes – there ARE unsettling and very nutty enemies of the superrich out there.

    Still – the tradition of incendiary language (and action) is MUCH more European than American. Keep in mind that the vast majority of Americans worship great wealth, and the greater the better. We’re hardly like the French here, which makes Perkinsonian paranoia about persecution all the more striking.

    If you believe that any increase of taxes on people making multiple millions and in many cases billions of dollars is confiscatory, we can only disagree on that one.

  3. Colin Says:

    I don’t so much disagree about raising taxes, I just dislike the notion of “fair share”. What is fair? The rich already pay more in absolute dollars than anybody else. (Again, see California.) They clearly consume far less than anybody else in terms of schools (private) or health care (private) or menas-tested benefits (none). They pay a great deal, take little or nothing in return, and get abused into the bargain by people who want to take yet more (often for themselves) on the grounds of fairness. Or, worse, that they have “too much” – who gets to decide that? It grates.

  4. Margaret Soltan Says:

    Colin: I’d say that just the recession from the public realm that you rightly describe – the very rich opting out of the commonwealth, out of public life – schools, health care, public parks and other public settings, and so much else – is the real problem. What you see among many people who live in gated communities with their own security, who drive in Hummers with tinted windows, etc., etc., is the next obvious and logical step in civic thinking: Why should I pay taxes to a world with which I have nothing to do? It’s already happening in states like Florida, where the schools at every level are wretched in part because so many of the people who live there don’t have anything to do with that public world and see no reason to pay anything for it. So your point of the very rich taking “little or nothing in return” is actually to my mind a very toxic point, one that Christopher Lasch in The Revolt of the Elites and the Betrayal of Democracy very eloquently made quite awhile back.

  5. Colin Says:

    Quite true. But are the elites more or less likely to continue this self-separation given the general rhetoric of the times? As odd as it sounds, I can understand why the very rich often do not feel wanted in their own country, and consequently lose any attachment to it. Dare I say, it is because they feel they are being treated unfairly? No one with a tax bill that runs into the millions (and often charitable giving in the tens or even hundreds of millions) must enjoy being told that they are devils, demons, plutocrats, or betrayers. Progressives should try gratitude. It might not work, but it can hardly hurt.

  6. Margaret Soltan Says:

    Colin: (I’m enjoying this conversation, by the way.) But here we run into the enormous public relations problem the very rich have – a problem helped along by the likes of Perkins. We run into the fact that the very rich are at the moment firmly associated in the public mind, for excellent reasons, with their ilk having recently almost brought down the capitalist system itself. We’ve all been bailing out the banks, and we’re not happy about it, and it happened because the very rich and their money advisors decided that personal greed trumped rule following. None of the people who did this catastrophic thing – not one – has spent a day in jail for this crime; and indeed because we bailed them out they’re all doing fine (except for the very worst Ponzi schemers like Madoff – but his partner in crime, Ezra Merkin, has so far evaded any reckoning with what they did). Do you want to argue that films like Wolf of Wall Street or Cronenberg’s Cosmopolis are mere mad imaginings of mad artists? We’re really not in a grateful mood at all. We’re pissed with the … with what Krugman calls the plutocracy. And we have every right to be.

    I agree that name-calling isn’t helpful either.

  7. Alan Allport Says:

    So let’s review, Colin. Tom Perkins, someone with enormous wealth, power and influence, says that he believes that it is quite possible that he will be stripped of his citizenship, disenfranchised, banned from public employment, beaten up in the street by government-backed thugs, burned out of his home and property, deported to a ghetto, transported to a specially designed extermination camp, and there gassed to death. And the main evidence he cites for this is because some journalist once called his ex-wife a snob. And to call this paranoid thinking is to provoke a round of pearl-clutching and oh, the civility?

  8. charlie Says:

    @Colin, you should consider what the rich pay in CA taxes as a % of total. The amount of corporate taxes as a % of total revenue collected has fallen to less than 20%, and the idea that the ultra wealthy have some greater tax burden than the middle class is ridiculous. Simply in terms of subsidies and property tax exemptions, the ultra rich have taken far more of their share than the most rapacious welfare mother. Two of the worst are oil producers, which pay almost no CA taxes on profits, and big corporate farmers, which get massive water subsidies. The notion that the rich aren’t don’t create a burden on the rest of us is exploded when anyone bothers to look at what took place in Orange County in the mid 90’s.

    OC is among the wealthiest, most conservative, counties in the US. It went bankrupt back in 1995, because the rich ARE a burden on the commonwealth. Despite all the anti government bleating, the OC denizens demanded high levels of public services, e.g, massive infrastructure build outs, high quality public schools, very low LEO/fire response times, on and on. But they didn’t want to pay for it, no new taxes, even though the most efficient method to pay for all that was “pay as you go,” i.e., if there is some public service requested, then increases taxes to directly fund that service. But the wealthy didn’t want to pay, instead they took the county investment fund, which had been publicly administered, and turned it over to Wall Street investment houses, who proceeded to lard up the fund with high yield, but far more risky, private debt, which supposedly required far more oversight by those same WS institutions. The result was that the returns began to dwindle, while the demands for public services continued to increase. That mechanism meant riskier investments, which eventually led to bankruptcy. All of that could have been avoided if the rich had either curbed their public service demands, or had paid their fair share of taxes.

  9. dmf Says:

  10. Dr_Doctorstein Says:

    Colin reveals a very limited understanding of wealth-creation, consumption, and much else when he writes, “The rich already pay more in absolute dollars than anybody else…. They clearly consume far less than anybody else in terms of schools (private) or health care (private) or means-tested benefits (none). They pay a great deal, take little or nothing in return, and get abused into the bargain.”

    This is the social vision of the petulant teenager.

    We don’t simply pay taxes for services on the kind of quid pro quo basis indicated here. When we pay taxes, we’re also paying for the creation and maintenance of the kind of world that enables people to get ahead and enjoy a great life in the first place. Among other things, this means living in a world where the entrepreneur can staff a new enterprise by dipping into a deep pool of educated employees. It means living in a world of customers who can afford to buy your products. It means living in a world where employees can commute to their offices and customers can get to the mall. It means creating and maintaining a world whose streets are not clogged with beggars, whose water is fit to drink, and whose air is fit to breathe. It means living in a modern liberal democracy, taxes and all, rather than some Fourth World libertarian paradise where few benefits are public and most are contracted privately.

    It’s really not too much to ask the wealthy to keep this larger picture in mind.

  11. Margaret Soltan Says:

    Dr_Doctorstein: Why should the super-rich pay for roads they don’t use?

  12. Dr_Doctorstein Says:

    The people have no roads?

    Let ’em ride helicopters!

  13. Colin Says:


    But, a few remarks: I’m not opposed to the rich paying more, and getting less, only to demonizing them whilst demanding yet more. Is a bit of gratitude too much? Or, if that is beyond the progressive ken, at least a bit less ingratitude? Don’t forget that Perkins was enraged by people throwing rocks at buses carrying commuters. Perkins is, to use the technical term, a twat, but the national gnashing of teeth over his letter sits rather oddly against the national silence at progressive thuggery. Aged idiocy is really worthy of greater comment than actual violence against a group of people singled out solely because they are rich, or at least very well off? As for California, The Economist (25.1.14) notes that the richest 1% contribute around a third of the state’s general fund: “More than perhaps any other state, California relies on a small number of very wealthy people to pay for its public services.” As for the Orange County red herring, the bankruptcy resulted from dodgy investments by inept and corrupt public servants, one of whom consulted the spirt world to help in his investment decisions. Not quite a profile of Wealth Gone Wild. As for my petulance, perhaps, but I would only remark that Dr_Doctorstein is expressing a political preference for the sort of society he or she would prefer. That is absolutely fine. But it is only a preference – especially when you wish others to pay for it. It also rather mis-understands what I’m saying: not that one should only pay tax in exchange for equal or greater returns; not that everything should be contracted privately; but, that there comes a point where “the rich” pay so much of the bill, and get so much abuse while doing so, that it is not unreasonable for them to ask “What for?”.
    Margaret: You make an excellent point, although we often overlook that it took two to tango in the financial crisis: who was it that was buying all those overpriced houses in south Florida, Stockton, and greater Las Vegas? That’s the point about sub-prime mortgages: they were for people who should never have been given a mortgage. There are very few cases of which I am aware in which a Wall Street banker forced a Floridian janitor to buy a $300,000 house with no income checks or with patently false documents. The issue of prosecutions is again a red herring: what crime was committed by, say, the leadership of Lehman Brothers? Cupidity is not a crime, and neither is stupidity, although in this exam marking season I sometimes wish it was. Anyway, I have no interest in either the very rich or the titans of Wall Street. I just accept that it’s their money, not mine, and if I (or society) wants more of it the least we can do is say thank you.

  14. Alan Allport Says:

    Is a bit of gratitude too much?

    See, this is the thing, Colin. Much as Tony Perkins would like to think otherwise, his yacht and his 5000-pound coffee table and the other hideous appurtenances of his vastly over privileged lifestyle didn’t just come out of nowhere. And they weren’t just the products of his own genius and the sweat of his over tanned brow. He was able to accrue obscenely large piles of cash because of the institutions of public life that make peaceful and profitable commercial activity possible in the first place – the roads and bridges and water and sewer and electrical systems, the secure frontiers, the orderly streets, the schools that educate his workforce, the hospitals that keep them healthy enough to show up for work. All manned by construction workers and soldiers and police officers and teachers and doctors and nurses, without whom Tony Perkins wouldn’t have a pot to piss in, let alone the time and luxury to issue petulant Godwinesque screeds from one of his many mansions. So, yes, I take your point: is a bit of gratitude really too much?

  15. Colin Says:

    “Hideous appurtenances”; “vastly over privileged lifestyle”; “obscenely large piles of cash”; “pot to piss in”; “Godwinesque screeds from one of his many mansions”.

    He wrote a letter to the editor.

    With this level of vitriol, perhaps Mr. Perkins is not as foolish in his fears as we all think he is.

  16. Alan Allport Says:

    Hell, I’m just warming up, Colin. Might be time to retire to your fainting couch.

  17. Margaret Soltan Says:

    Colin: Here’s one specific problem in terms of expressing gratitude:

    I have no problem expressing gratitude to the many responsible wealthy people who give tons of money to good causes – who take a generally responsible attitude toward their enormous personal assets. The problem is that many do not, and as their personal wealth, acquisitiveness, and (in the case of people like Perkins) outrageous moral philosophy take center stage – as enough of them are like Perkins as to constitute a class – they can indeed expect some vitriol mixed in with the general admiration they of course continue to get, at least in the United States.

  18. Colin Says:

    Read it right to the end, Margaret: “The report’s analysis, based on data from many sources including the Bank of International Settlements and the International Monetary Fund, indicates that enough money has left some developing countries since the 1970s to pay off all their debts to the rest of the world.” It goes on to quote figures from Russia, Nigeria, and Saudi Arabia. These are kleptocrats – many in positions of political power – moving their ill gotten gains. Not aged venture capitalists who live in San Francisco. No doubt tax evasion and tax avoidance (two very different things, at least in law) do go on, but that’s like tarring all poor people with the observation that the vast majority of crimes committed in the United States are committed by poor people.

  19. Colin Says:

    I suppose the real philosophical gap is that I just don’t think things belong to “society”. I think things belong to people. Society can only function when people give some of their things up (under threat of sanction) for the common good. But society has no right to “let” people “keep” some or all of their wealth. It does not belong to “us”. Put another way, I think that the way many progressives use the word society is simply a code for imposing their own personal preferences and, in many cases, their own personal financial interests on others via the mechanism of state power.

  20. Margaret Soltan Says:

    Colin: I’d say that enough all-American tax avoidance — both corporate and personal — goes on for it to be a significant problem, and a reasonable source of some of the animus against the super-rich. Note, for instance, Mitt Romney’s multiple super-rich problems throughout his campaign — including the fact that he himself stashes wealth in the Caymans.

  21. Margaret Soltan Says:

    Colin: That is indeed the core gap. Everything depends on one’s deep-lying attitude toward “the commonwealth,” and when a growing, powerful group of people use their power to opt out of common life, governments do in fact need more and more “threat of sanction” to get them to pay/do their share.

    But of course a functioning reasonably healthy democracy shouldn’t need to be very dependent on threat when it comes to taxation and other forms of sharing for the common good. Democratic people are supposed to have it in their “common good” DNA that they are part of a valued collective enterprise, that they don’t live in an airtight “other” world, indifferent to the public realm, that they’ve rigged up for themselves and people like them.

    There’s nothing wrong with writers like Matt Taibbi describing Goldman Sachs in this way:

    The bank is a huge, highly sophisticated engine for converting the useful, deployed wealth of society into the least useful, most wasteful and insoluble substance on Earth — pure profit for rich individuals.

    Because it’s quite true, and no number of nice tv commercials (a panicked response to bad publicity about some of the recent implications of this destructive greed) about what good works the bank does is going to help matters very much.

    Very little can stop the clearly discernible tendency of some of this country’s super-rich to take it all and say fuck you to the rest of the country.

    I, like you, have no problem with people keeping a huge amount of the wealth they generate; I have serious problems with what Christopher Lasch calls the recession of the elites from the life of this country.

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