Tom Perkins: The billionaire predicting a ‘Kristallnacht’ against the rich

Tom Perkins © Getty images
Tom Perkins: defending America’s 1%

You may have thought the “entitlement culture” among the wealthy elite was already out of hand, says The Los Angeles Times, but it will be “a long time before anything tops the ghastly outburst” from Silicon Valley venture capitalist Tom Perkins.

In a letter to The Wall Street Journal last week the billionaire co-founder of Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers likened “the progressive war on the American 1%” to the persecution of Jews in Nazi Germany.

He went on to highlight the threat of a “Kristallnacht” – the November 1938 night of coordinated attacks on the Jews in Germany and Austria – against the rich.

In the ensuing furore, Perkins’s comments were condemned by just about everyone (see below), including his old firm. But he repeated his claims in an email to Bloomberg, adding in a later TV interview that his only regret was using the word “Kristallnacht”. “My point was that when you start to use hatred against a minority, it can get out of control,” he said. “At least read that message.”

If that appeal raised Perkins’s sympathy vote a smidgen, it didn’t last long, says The New Yorker. He rather spoiled his philosophical spiel by boasting that his watch was worth “a six-pack of Rolexes” and that he owns “an airplane that flies underwater”.

It’s easy to make fun of Perkins, 82, a former News Corp and Hewlett-Packard director formerly married to the novelist Danielle Steel, says The Huffington Post. He once wrote a bodice-ripper called Sex and the Single Zillionaire, which was hailed by Rupert Murdoch as “fun, fast – a great read!” (and by another reviewer as “an argument in favour of book-burning”).

Probably the best of Perkins’s literary efforts is his memoir, Valley Boy – described as “a heady mix of picaresque adventure and high finance” – which charts his rise from growing up as “one of the 99%” to becoming “one of American venture capitalism’s founding fathers”.

There’s no denying his contribution to the technology industry. Championed by tech gods Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard in the 1960s, he was the first general manager of Hewlett-Packard’s (HP) computer divisions, before co-founding Kleiner Perkins in 1973. The roster of young companies he backed (Compaq, Sun, Symantec, AOL, Amazon, Google) reads like a Who’s Who of the industry’s evolution.

In later life, notes, Perkins gained renown as “a boardroom schemer”. As a director at HP in 2005, he led the controversial firing of CEO Carly Fiorina, and was heavily embroiled in the subsequent boardroom spying scandal – he claimed his residential phone records had been hacked.

Ironically, he sounded rather a different tone in 2011, when, as an independent director of News Corp, he backed Rupert Murdoch to the hilt during the ‘Hackgate’ disaster. Has Murdoch returned the favour by speaking out for Perkins in his hour of need? Not as yet…

Is the class war really so serious?

How does Tom Perkins back his talk of “class demonisation” and the threat of a “progressive war”? The evidence seems a little thin, says Vauhini Vara in The New Yorker. He writes that people are outraged about property prices in San Francisco; and that someone called Danielle Steel a “snob” (apparently triggered by a dispute over her hedge).

Yet, he is right on one score: there is “serious class tension” in Silicon Valley, and it’s “especially palpable” in San Francisco, where Twitter and other newly public companies have turned thousands of staff into millionaires.

The flashpoint, as Perkins notes, is the private buses taking tech employees to work while clogging the streets for others. Demonstrators have smashed a bus-shaped piñata and attempted to block the shuttles.

None of this has stopped past associates queuing up to disown Perkins. His views “prove he is the leading asshole in the state”, tweeted Netscape co-founder and venture capitalist Marc Andreessen. Another said that “Perkins’s greatest gift” has been “uniting the 1% and 99% in outrage”.

Still, he has at least one defender, says Mark Gongloff in The Huffington Post. Fellow venture capitalist Tim Draper credits him with “identifying schadenfreude… a thorn in humanity’s side”.

“Comparing your problem to the Holocaust is always a bad idea,” says Bloomberg. Perkins has taken it to a new level of crassness: “a shame”, because there’s “a critical debate to be had” about the gap between rich and poor.

Perkins’s argument is that wealth creators like him are threatened by the encroaching state, to the deprivation of society. But he’s really just another “paranoid plutocrat”, says Paul Krugman in The New York Times. “Rising inequality has obvious economic costs”, including making us more vulnerable to financial crisis. All Perkins shows is that it also “creates a class of people who are alarmingly detached from reality”.