But the larger issue here is simply that the letter is extraordinarily stupid. Its author, successful as he was in business, was still perfectly capable of writing an extremely stupid letter to the editor. The political and historical analysis contained in the letter is stupid. But beyond that, the idea of publishing it was stupid. Anyone with the slightest sense of public opinion would recognize that the analogy is offensive and counterproductive. There is simply no viewpoint on economics or American politics from which writing this letter was anything other than stupid. And yet Tom Perkins, a very successful businessman and co-founder of one of the most important VC firms in the world, went and wrote it anyway.
Concurrently with the publication of the Perkins letter, a fair swathe of the world’s elite was gathered in Davos, Switzerland, for a conference based on the presumption that a Tom Perkins would never write a stupid letter. The presumption of the annual World Economic Forum meeting is that leading policymakers and scholars ought to mingle with very, very, very rich businessmen (and, yes, it’s overwhelmingly men) to talk about the leading issues of the day. The idea, in other words, is that CEOs and major investors have unique and important insights on pressing public policy issues. After all, they’re so rich! How could they not be smart?
Matt Yglesias, “Stop Listening to Rich People,” Slate, January 28, 2014
The letter in question is one that compares criticism of America’s wealthiest to Kristallnacht. Continues Yglesias:
Of course, if there were just one somewhat obnoxious conference like Davos, it wouldn’t be a big deal. But the Davos mentality—the assumption that managing a for-profit enterprise gives you special insight into social ills—is all around us, from the Aspen Ideas Festival on down. It has also infested more formalized policymaking settings. Rich businesspeople wield disproportionate interest in the political system simply through their ability to make campaign contributions and hire lobbyists. But over and beyond that, they are regularly invited to enter policymaking circles.
I mean, yes. Right? Even in a US in which public opinion is turning against the one per cent, it’s hard to shake the idea that the rich are, at some level, worth listening to. Part of this is that, even when they say dumb things — which they have just as much of a propensity to do as the rest of the population — they know how to use the language of public debate. But it’s also that the notion of meritocracy is so ingrained in society that its logic now flows in the opposite direction; not she can be successful because she is smart, but he must be smart because he is successful. Successful means rich, natch.
That ain’t make no sense. Rich people are morons, mostly. They’re talented at making money, but apart from that, they don’t know shit. You wouldn’t believe the idiocy I’ve heard come from the mouths of the wealthy, and I don’t mean clueless idiocy of the privileged, but just your regular run-of-the-mill type ignorance. And yet we still think rich folks are worth listening to because they’ve piled some commas together.
A particular, related bugbear of mine is how we’re supposed to all be so persuaded that when it comes to disreputable prejudices, the wealthy are somehow inured. Like we’re supposed to imagine that the real unreconstructed racists in the Republican Party are the working class, the hicks, but never the money-men. Naw, money doesn’t stop you being racist. It might buy you the nous to not say certain words in certain public settings, but just like smarts, the well-off don’t have any special claim to morals either.
Stop listening to rich people!