You can be a dick and be right

Venture Capital legend Tom Perkins stirred up quite a bit of outrage with his letter to the editor in the Wall Street Journal:

In this editorial (which Perkins presumably dashed off without showing it to any competent public relations professional), he criticizes what he perceives as a rise in unfair criticism of the wealthy.  While few Americans feel sympathy for a man who spent over $150 million on a yacht with its own Wikipedia entry (, Perkins really ran off the rails (and straight into Godwin’s Law) when he compared progressive criticism of “the 1%” to the persecution of Jews in Nazi Germany:

“Writing from the epicenter of progressive thought, San Francisco, I
would call attention to the parallels of fascist Nazi Germany to its war
on its “one percent,” namely its Jews, to the progressive war on the
American one percent, namely the “rich.”

Perkins apologized for this tasteless analogy in a follow-up interview, in which he seemed genuinely apologetic, but fell prey to a variety of “Mitt Romney” moments:

a) Carefully correcting the Bloomberg reporter, who had said that he had owned a submarine, by saying, “Underwater airplane.”

b) Discussing how the New York Times had made a big point about the ostentatiousness of Rolexes by saying, “This isn’t a Rolex. I could buy a six pack of Rolexes for this, but so what?”  He did not help his cause later on by pointing out that he didn’t buy it, but received it as a present from the firm that built his $150 million yacht.

c) Mentioning that he is a knight of the kingdom of Norway.

None of these things makes Perkins a sympathetic figure (though I encourage you to read the entire interview, which makes it clear that Perkins isn’t some cartoonish Mr. Burns).

However, none of these things invalidates his criticism either.

There clearly is a rising sentiment that tech gazillionaires and their younger wannabes are arrogant and out of touch.  (It doesn’t help that Valleywag gleefully pounces on the bad behavior and careless words of a few people)

Yet what exactly is their crime?  Making money?  Wanting to live in San Francisco?  Last I heard, those weren’t illegal.

As for operating shuttle buses and accepting tax breaks from the city, those were also legal choices.

I’m reminded of NBA star LeBron James’ “Decision”.  James left his hometown Cleveland Cavaliers to join the Miami Heat.  I’ve always defended this choice, which he had every right to make, and which netted him two championships (while the Cavs have stunk since his departure).  But the way he did it–jilting his home town and his fans on live national TV–was certainly a dick move.

Sadly, by creating a circus with his word choice, Perkins has guaranteed that the legitimate issues he raises won’t be talked about.

5 thoughts on “You can be a dick and be right

  1. Anonymous

    The crime is being smug about it. Most wouldn't care otherwise.

  2. Anonymous:

    Exactly! The crime is attitude, not action.

  3. Great write up Chris. It's a shame to see Perkins add fuel to the fire. Things like this will make it more difficult to have a balanced, constructive public discussion.

    His tone-deaf response only validates the impression of a callous disregard for the downtrodden. He gave the SF backlash another villain.

  4. Andrew T

    The subtle assumption in this argument is that the law should remain as the final arbiter of moral and ethnical decision-making for corporate capitalists. Some may argue that its obviously the role of the law. In fact, we have it to guide our society to make better decisions, fuelled by principles of "thou shalt not harm".

    But in my view, the law does not always catch up to what is considered "right". Hence the creation of different industry lobbyists, and the rising role of corporate social responsibility that extends beyond lawful abidement.

    You are right in that Tom did nothing "illegal", but its possible that what's "legal" and what's "right" can be considered mutually exclusive, depending on your philosophy of the role of the law.

  5. Andrew T

    You are right in that Tom's approach wasn't necessarily the best. But to say that corporate capitalists have done nothing wrong solely on the base principle that they are operating within the legal realm takes quite alot in terms of loaded assumptions.

    Personally, my view is that the law is not always the final arbiter of the moral and ethical fabric of the land. It does not mean that a citizen that follows the law is simply "right" all the time. We can debate this further, but I'm sure the rise of corporate social responsibility and industrial lobbying efforts have caught your attention on the shortcomings of the legal system to determine what can be considered "right".

    Just my constructive 0.02.

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