Thomas Perkins went from legend to pariah among Silicon Valley venture capitalists quite literally overnight this weekend, when he wrote a short, but bizarre letter published in the Wall Street Journal that brought him immediate condemnation not only from political scribes and online commenters, but from his own colleagues.
In the letter, Perkins made the dizzying claim that rich people in America suffer the same persecution as Jews under Germany's Nazi regime.
Given a chance to clarify his comments Monday, Perkins not only failed to retract or soften his comparison between America's "top one percent" of wealthy people and Jews who were slaughtered and tortured en masse during the Holocaust — he repeated the claim.
Thomas Perkins, as The New York Times noted, gained his iconic status in Silicon Valley by betting big money on early ventures such as the pioneering web browser Netscape and biotechnology firm Genentech.
On Monday, he e-mailed the Bloomberg news service to emphasize that he meant what he said, an especially badly timed correspondence because in many countries including most of Europe an the United Kingdom, January 27 is Holocaust Remembrance Day.
"In the Nazi area it was racial demonization, now it is class demonization," Perkins said in the missive. He added that he was shocked by the "Occupy" movement, members of which allegedly once broke a window at luxury car dealership in San Francisco.
Former colleagues of Thomas Perkins at the venture capital firm he founded, Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, quickly moved to put as much daylight as possible between themselves and the man whose name is second on their masthead.
Tom Perkins has not been involved in KPCB in years. We were shocked by his views expressed today in the WSJ and do not agree.
— Kleiner Perkins (@kpcb) January 25, 2014
Marc Andreesen, founder of Netscape who then became a venture capitalist himself, also blasted Thomas Perkins and his Nazi analogy.
I wish to express my extreme displeasure with Tom Perkins. His positions just go to prove that he is the leading asshole in the state.Will Porteous, a new York-based venture capitalist, told Bloomberg he was "deeply offended" by the Thomas Perkins comments and that, "there's no one in our industry who would agree with him."
— Marc Andreessen (@pmarca) January 26, 2014
Maybe there isn't. Or maybe there is. At least one venture capitalist, Tim Draper, leaped to Thomas Perkins' defense, telling Business Insider that Perkins put his finger on an important issue, "schadenfreude, something that continues to be a thorn in humanity's side."
Calling Perkins "a brilliant man," Draper said, "The bitter taste of envy brings us all down."
The world's 85 richest people own as much wealth as the bottom 3.5 billion people, according to a recent report cited by The Los Angeles Times, and the top one percent of American income earners take in almost 25 percent of the country's income, compared to just 10 percent for most of the post-World War II years, as the Associated Press wrote today.
Nonetheless, attributing concern about this rapidly widening income gap to "envy" is not unusual among members of the so-called "one percent." In the 2012 presidential campaign, Republican candidate Mitt Romney when asked whether he was also concerned abut income inequality said, "I think it's about envy. I think it's about class warfare."
Thomas Perkins is far from the first member of America's financial elite and their advocates to compare themselves to members of a persecuted minority, or to draw the Nazi analogy.
A few examples compiled by author David Sirota, who coined the phrase, "The myth of the persecuted billionaire," include financier Steven A. Schwarzman who in 2010 compared the Barack Obama administration's plan to raise the tax rate on carried interest to "when Hitler invaded Poland in 1939."
Supermarket and real-estate tycoon John Castamatidis has compared proposals to raise tax rates on upper-income earners to when "Hitler punished the Jews." And Republican U,S, Senator Jim DeMint once said that the debate of increasing top tax rates pit America, "where Germany was before World War II."
Writing in his New York Times column,economist Paul Krugman noted that "(Thomas) Perkins isn't that much of an outlier. He isn't even the first finance titan to compare advocates of progressive taxation to Nazis."