WASHINGTON — An ugly outbreak of whiny victimhood is ravaging some of America’s most exclusive ZIP codes. It’s as if some 1 percenters suddenly fear that old warning: “When the people shall have nothing more to eat, they will eat the rich.”
Not to worry. The hoi polloi would much rather have a Big Mac — and also a job that pays a living wage, with sick leave, health insurance, vacation time and retirement.
There was a time when even rich people agreed that these were laudable ambitions. Now, working to put these goals within the reach of more Americans amounts to persecution of the wealthy, according to besieged 1 percenters and their defenders.
Last week, in a now-infamous letter to The Wall Street Journal, legendary San Francisco venture capitalist Tom Perkins compared “the progressive war on the American one percent, namely the ’rich’” to the persecution of the Jews in Nazi Germany. He went so far as to warn that an anti-rich “Kristallnacht” may be coming, referring to the night in 1938 when Jewish-owned stores, homes, hospitals, schools and synagogues were smashed throughout Germany and Austria.
As evidence, Perkins cites the Occupy movement; the fact that some people resent how Silicon Valley tech workers have driven up real estate prices and how they ride to work in special buses; and the “demonization of the rich embedded in virtually every word of our local newspaper, the San Francisco Chronicle.” He cites the Chronicle’s having called novelist Danielle Steel a “snob” despite her charity work. He neglects to mention that Steel is his former wife.
Perkins later apologized for the Kristallnacht reference but stuck to the rest of his thesis. He told Bloomberg Television that the solution to inequality is lower taxes, said he understands his critics because “I have members of my own family in trailer parks, not immediate relatives but family,” and added, “the fact that everyone now hates me is part of the game.”
The whole episode could be easily dismissed. If I had a dollar for every crank letter to the editor that gets published, I’d be as rich as Perkins and maybe as delusional.
But on Thursday, The Wall Street Journal weighed in with an editorial headlined “Perkinsnacht.” The newspaper wholeheartedly endorsed Perkins’ thesis — that there is what he called “a rising tide of hatred of the successful one percent” — while expressing reservations only about his “unfortunate, albeit provocative” language.
Oh dear. I know several members of the Journal’s editorial board personally, and while we often disagree, it’s not as if they are raving lunatics. They are just believers in capitalism (which is great) and trickle-down economic policy (which by now should be thoroughly discredited).
So I began to wonder: Why does the national conversation we’re beginning to have about inequality make some conservatives take leave of their senses? Why does it make them spout nonsense about “personal vilification” and the “abuse of government power.”
The answer, I believe, is traction. I think the crazy, hair-on-fire rhetoric means that progressives are making progress in winning support for policies designed to lessen inequality.
Tax cuts and deregulation have dominated federal policy since the 1980s; during this time, inequality has spiraled out of control. If conservatives have nothing better to sell than more tax cuts and more deregulation, it’s no wonder that people are tuning in to what the other side has to say.
Income tax rates for the highest earners remain quite low, in historical terms, while earnings on capital gains — including some “gains” that look a lot like regular income — are taxed at a minuscule 15 percent. Advocating that taxes be raised for the wealthy is not a personal attack on anyone; that includes you, Mr. Perkins, and Ms. Steel as well. It is a policy proposal. No, it wouldn’t solve all the government’s fiscal problems. But yes, it would provide significant new revenue while making our tax scheme more progressive and, in the eyes of most people, more fair. And yes, fairness counts.
The fabulously wealthy need love too. But they’ll get more of it if they stop congratulating themselves for all their hard work and realize that poor people work hard, too, sometimes at two or three jobs, and struggle to put food on the table.
Relax, Mr. Perkins, they’re not coming for you. They’re waiting for non-special buses to take them to the grocery store.Eugene Robinson is a Pulitzer Prize-winning Washington Post columnist. Email him at eugenerobinson@ washpost.com.