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Why Are the Rich Fearing for Their Lives?

January 31, 2014, 12:03 AM
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“A spectre is haunting Europe,” Marx wrote semi-ironically in 1848, “the spectre of communism.” Almost 170 years after the publication of the Communist Manifesto, the apparition of class warfare is making some wealthy people bug out in outlandishly ridiculous ways. The most alarming and unexpectedly offensive episode of rich-guy paranoia came a couple of days ago, when Tom Perkins, an octogenarian venture capitalist, wrote a letter to the Wall Street Journal equating Nazi persecution of Europe’s Jews with “the progressive war on the American one percent, namely the ‘rich.’ ” The second paragraph of Mr. Perkins’ letter is worth swallowing whole:

From the Occupy movement to the demonization of the rich embedded in virtually every word of our local newspaper, the San Francisco Chronicle, I perceive a rising tide of hatred of the successful one percent. There is outraged public reaction to the Google buses carrying technology workers from the city to the peninsula high-tech companies which employ them. We have outrage over the rising real-estate prices which these "techno geeks" can pay. We have, for example, libelous and cruel attacks in the Chronicle on our number-one celebrity, the author Danielle Steel, alleging that she is a "snob" despite the millions she has spent on our city's homeless and mentally ill over the past decades.

Mr. Perkins saved the most inexplicable comparison for the final line: “Kristallnacht was unthinkable in 1930; is its descendant "progressive" radicalism unthinkable now?”

Ah, the rhetorical question. A time-worn strategy for making a point without supplying any reasoning or evidence. What should we make of the suggestion that an event on the scale of the two-day murderous assault on Jews in Germany and Austria, coupled with the destruction of synagogues and Jewish businesses, is pending in 2014 against America’s 1-percenters? Well, to be fair, I suppose we need to revise that date to 2022, since Mr. Perkins used 1930 as a reference point, and Kristallnacht (“night of the broken glass”) did not arrive until 1938. While it is true that violent riots against Jews did not seem on the horizon in 1930, antisemitism in Europe was alive and well and had been brewing for decades; there is today no similar antipathy toward or political disenfranchisement of the rich in the United States. To the contrary, the wealthy have, to put it very mildly, outsize and growing influence on American public affairs.

So what evidence is out there to justify Mr. Perkins’ worry? Everyone from New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio to President Barack Obama to Pope Francis is talking about the evils of inequality these days. Coming on the heels of the Occupy movement from 2011, this rhetoric, say Mr. Perkins and others, contains the seeds of hatred toward those who have ascended to the top of the increasingly tall economic ladder. Politico writer Ben White reports on how some New Yorkers atop the heap see ominous signs of discriminatory treatment from their new egalitarian mayor:

More recently, the New York Post dedicated considerable ink to complaints from residents of the Upper East Side that newly elected progressive mayor Bill de Blasio directed plows to avoid the neighborhood as some kind of revenge for their wealth and support of de Blasio’s opponent.

“He is trying to get us back. He is very divisive and political,” Upper East Side resident Molly Jong Fast told the Post. “By not plowing the Upper East Side, he is saying, ‘I’m not one of them.’”

The mayor dutifully trundled up to the neighborhood to admit mistakes in plowing but strongly denied any ulterior motive.

Silly, yes. The rich can sleep quite secure in their $20,000 beds. No revolution is in the offing just yet. (Last week, I discussed a few reasons for this at The Economist.)

That said, longer-term trends should give not only the wealthy but all of us pause, as Thomas Edsall highlights at the New York Times.

 

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