Business

Tom Perkins was right: We do hate the rich. And for good reason

Above: Kleiner Perkins founder Tom Perkins, onstage at TechCrunch Disrupt in September, 2013.

Image Credit: photo credit: TechCrunch via photopin
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When Kleiner Perkins cofounder Tom Perkins wrote on Friday that a “progressive Kristallnacht” is coming, reaction was swift and severe.

Rightly so: The 82-year-old billionaire compared himself — and other members of the wealthiest “1 percent” — to Jews in 1930s Germany.

“I would call attention to the parallels of fascist Nazi Germany to its war on its ’1 percent,’ namely its Jews, to the progressive war on the American 1 percent, namely the ‘rich,’” Perkins wrote.

That comparison is both offensive and wrong. It’s offensive because it trivializes the plight of German Jews, who were systematically oppressed during the years leading up to World War II: Their businesses were shut down, their opportunities limited, their homes destroyed. They were forced to wear yellow stars and were systematically hounded, harassed, and beat up by armed thugs while law enforcement turned a blind eye. Eventually, they were forced into ghettos and shipped off to concentration camps, where they were murdered by the millions. By appropriating that historical calamity to help illustrate his own feelings of discomfort in modern society, Perkins shows that he has no sense of propriety or shame.

It’s also wrong, because the rich are not in any significant way being oppressed. Even in San Francisco, where the protests against corporate buses (aka the “Google bus”) have occasionally turned violent — and creepily personal, going so far as to picket individual tech employees’ homes — these represent mere ripples on the surface of a rich person’s otherwise smooth, unruffled life. Perkins is free to come and go as he pleases from his 5,500-square foot penthouse atop San Francisco’s Millennium Tower, or to purchase and sell a 289-foot yacht, or to marry a famous novelist and divorce her, all without any significant interruption. The firm he founded (which was quick to disavow his words, by the way) continues to collect vast funds from investors and make investments in startups without restriction. And, no doubt, Perkins’ wealth continues to grow unfettered by anything more serious than capital gains taxes.

If that’s oppression, sign me up.

But Perkins was right about one thing: People don’t like the rich. “I perceive a rising tide of hatred of the successful 1 percent,” Perkins wrote.

I wonder why that might be? Could it have something to do with the way America’s economy has grown out of recession for the past seven years, but the vast majority of that growth has gone to the wealthy instead of working people? Could it have to do with the fact that the stock market has increased vastly since 2007, but wages have not only stagnated, they’ve declined substantially relative to 1970 levels?

Could it have to do with the alleged collusion between the chief executives of Silicon Valley’s largest companies — Google, Apple, Intel, and Adobe — to keep salaries down by not “poaching” employees from one another, as you’d ordinarily be able to do in a free market?

Could it have to do with the fact that a spate of young, venture-funded entrepreneurs have taken to publishing openly their disgust and distaste for those less fortunate than they are? Or that wealthy tech company founders and VCs have chosen to spend their money on massive, ego-massaging projects with little public benefit, like yachts and America’s Cup races, while complaining about every attempt to put some reasonable reinvestment into the government-funded infrastructures from which they have benefited since day one?

Perkins is right: People don’t like him and his fellow “one percenters.” Perhaps that is a flaw in the American psyche, a refusal to celebrate our most successful entrepreneurs and wealth creators. But I don’t think so: The wealthy have never wanted for people to celebrate them. I think it is because the wealthy have forgotten how to say “enough.” They have forgotten how to give back. And they have increasingly refused to participate in the common welfare.

No wonder people hate them.

It’s probably too late for Tom Perkins. He’ll never change his mind. But for younger Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, investors, and techies, it’s not too late. Many of you talk of “changing the world” as being a stronger motivation than getting rich. Now’s the time to do it. Take a look around you. Are people pissed off at your presence? Are people protesting the bus that takes you to work?

Maybe it’s time to think about why that might be, and what you can do about it.

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Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers (KPCB) is a world-leading venture capital firm located on Sand Hill Road in Menlo Park in Silicon Valley. The Wall Street Journal has called it one of the "largest and most established" venture capital ... read more »

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