When challenged to say, in 60 seconds, how he would change the world, Perkins made a playfully controversial response. He suggested that, in the tradition of Thomas Jefferson's voting land owners and Margaret Thatcher's idea of only allowing taxpayers to vote, "The Tom Perkins system is: You don't get the vote if you don't pay a dollar in taxes. But what I really think is it should be like a corporation. You pay a million dollars, you get a million votes. How's that?" To which the audience responded with laughter. Perkins later said offstage that what he meant was that, with 50% of registered U.S. voters not paying taxes, "we got ourselves into a mess."
It was just three weeks ago that Perkins raised the prospect of a "Progressive Kristallnacht," arguing that American liberals are targeting the wealthy the way Nazis targeted the Jews. He soon after apologized for his word-choice, but defended his message and boasted he "could buy a six pack of Rolexes" while arguing the rich feel put upon.
Unwilling to quit while he was behind, Perkins decided to press his luck, speaking at San Francisco's Commonwealth Club last night, and insisting that the wealthy are persecuted, all evidence to the contrary notwithstanding.
The appearance included this jaw-dropper:
The fact that Perkins drew laughs suggests he was probably being overly provocative on purpose, exaggerating his bizarre message for effect.
But his clarified message is nevertheless illustrative of a broader confusion.
For one thing, Perkins seems concerned that the wealthy lack sufficient political power, while in our reality, it's the poor who lack real political capital.
For another, note that Perkins is convinced that half the country doesn't "pay a dollar in taxes." This comes up from time to time, and it's important to appreciate the extent to which the claim is plainly, demonstrably wrong.
As we've discussed before, millions of Americans may be exempt from income taxes, but they still pay sales taxes, state taxes, local taxes, Social Security taxes, Medicare/Medicaid taxes, and in many instances, property taxes. It's not as if these folks are getting away with something -- the existing tax structure leaves them out of the income tax system because they don't make enough money to qualify. Indeed, many are retirees who can't earn an income because they're no longer in the workforce.
For Tom Perkins, these people should arguably lose the ability to participate in the American democratic process. At a minimum, he argues, they should have less political influence than the wealthy.
Or more to the point, Perkins believes a system that allows these people to avoid income taxes is "a mess" in need of a remedy. In other words, while arguing that the rich are facing too great a burden, this multi-millionaire also believes the poor deserve to pay higher taxes.
There are, to be sure, a surprising number of Republicans echoing this message -- they're against tax hikes, unless they're imposed on low-income families -- but we don't usually hear the disjointed class message made as explicitly as Perkins presented it last night. We may be living in a new Gilded Age, but for this venture capitalist, it's time to go even easier on the rich, while asking more from the poor.
I'm no expert in public relations, but if Perkins is eager for millionaires to be held in higher public regard, he may want to consider a new pitch.