Tom Perkins & America’s Dragon-Like 1%


“Beowulf” (2007, Paramount)

After years of hearing Nazi analogies, first applied to George W. Bush and then to Barack Obama, I had hoped we were done with them. But here we are again with billionaire Tom Perkins, in a letter to The Wall Street Journal, comparing the liberals’ complaints about America’s 1% to Nazi persecution of the Jews. (“This is a very dangerous drift in our American thinking. Kristallnacht was unthinkable in 1930; is its descendant ‘progressive’ radicalism unthinkable now?”) And then the WSJ compounded the injury by labeling the inevitable liberal reaction as “Perkinsnacht” and asserting “liberal vituperation makes our letter writer’s point.”

But I don’t want to focus just on an upset billionaire and a rightwing editorial page. According to Kevin Drum of Mother Jones, there are many wealthy Americans presently who share Perkins’ sentiments. Beowulf helps us understand the phenomenon through its depiction of the dragon and dragon-like kings.

First, here’s Drum:

What is it that has the Davos set so freaked out these days? I’m not talking about Wall Street Journal editorials decrying the evils of class warfare. That’s pro forma stuff, not to be taken seriously. I’m talking about the fact that an awful lot of people claim that rich people are really and truly feeling besieged. It’s not an act and it’s not just paranoia—they’re even seeking therapy to deal with it. As Ben White puts it today, “Economists, advisers to the wealthy and the wealthy themselves describe a deep-seated anxiety that the national — and even global — mood is turning against the super-rich in ways that ultimately could prove dangerous and hard to control.

And then Drum voices his incredulity:

But why? The rich have done pretty well lately—certainly a helluva lot better than the working class. So what’s the problem? Do they genuinely believe that their wealth might be confiscated in the near future? That’s hard to credit. Eliminating the carried interest loophole or increasing top marginal rates by a few points just doesn’t have that big an effect, and even the most paranoid rich folks can’t believe there’s much more than that on the horizon.

In my book How Beowulf Can Save America (2012), I cite the account of how a good king becomes increasingly paranoid. The reason is one that we can relate to today: as income disparity grows, those with money become increasingly convinced that those without are out to get them. Or as liberal blogger Greg Sargent of The Washington Post puts it,

Economic inequality is creating an elite which, though it is the wealthiest that has ever existed, has ever less attachment to or understanding of the society in which they live. This doesn’t bode well for American democracy.

In Beowulf, the hoarding, fire-breathing dragon represents the failure of wealth to circulate through society, and there are a number of dragon-like kings. King Hrothgar describes one of them as as a cautionary tale for the newly victorious Beowulf. He starts his story by saying that such people are at first blessed to have attained “fulfillment and felicity on earth”:

                        It is a great wonder
how Almighty God in His magnificence
favors our race with rank and scope
and the gift of wisdom; His sway is wide.
Sometimes He allows the mind of a man
of distinguished birth to follow its bent,
grants him fulfillment and felicity on earth
and forts to command in his own country.
He permits him to lord it in many lands . . .

I now quote directly from my book:

The first sign of trouble is when the king starts to take all these gifts as his due. He thinks he is rich because “the whole world conforms to his will,” not because he is fortunate to have been born into a race (in our case, the United States) that has been graced “with rank and scope and the gift of wisdom”:

. . . until the man in his unthinkingness
forgets that it will ever end for him.
He indulges his desires; illness and old age
mean nothing to him; his mind is untroubled
by envy or malice or the thought of enemies
with their hate-honed swords. The whole world
conforms to his will, he is kept from the worst . . .

Arrogance, and with it discontent, continues to grow. The passage notes the imperceptible gradualness of the change.  Instead of seeing himself joined with the country in a common enterprise, the king gradually finds himself resenting others. The “devious promptings of the demon start” as he imagines them eyeing “his” possessions: 

. . . until an element of overweening
enters him and takes hold
while the soul’s guard, its sentry, drowses,
grown too distracted.  A killer stalks him,
an archer who draws a deadly bow.
And then the man is hit in the heart,
the arrow flies beneath his defenses,
the devious promptings of the demon start.
His old possessions seem paltry to him now.
He covets and resents; dishonors custom
and bestows no gold; and because of good things
he ignores the shape of things to come.

In the end, the poem predicts, the king will reap what he has sown:

Then finally the end arrives
when the body he was lent collapses and falls
prey to its death; ancestral possessions
and the goods he hoarded are inherited by another
who lets them go with a liberal hand
. . . .

I love the images of the sleeping sentry and the archer with a deadly bow. The more that wealthy Americans perceive their immense wealth as a right and not as a responsibility, the larger will loom the invisible barriers between them and the rest of the country. It’s no longer enough to be a millionaire—“old possessions seem paltry to him now”—as one now longs to be a billionaire.

So they end up with lots of money but lose a sense of national solidarity and don’t consider using their wealth in ways that will benefit others. It’s debatable, however, that their heirs will dispense their riches “with a liberal hand.” That may be just poetic wish fulfillment.

Looking back at my book, I see that it is outdated only in that I was dealing at the time with the 2012 election. If anything, the income disparity that I saw leading to modern versions of Beowulf’s monsters has only gotten worse. Obama was wrong when he predicted the fever would break with his election because dragons like Tom Perkins and The Wall Street Journal are still spewing fire and venom as they guard their gold. Here’s how the poem describes dragon attacks:

The dragon began to belch out flames
and burn bright homesteads; there was a hot glow
that scared everyone, for the vile sky-winger
would leave nothing alive in his wake.
Everywhere the havoc he wrought was in evidence.
Far and near, the Geat nation
bore the brunt of his brutal assaults
and virulent hate.

So who will save us from these vile sky-wingers? Perkins can rest assured: American progressives are not fielding troops of Hitlerian Brownshirts. If it occurs, dragon slaying will take the form of tax reform and enforcement of Dodd-Frank finance regulations and progressive taxation and successful implementation of the Affordable Care Act and infrastructure investment and a rise in the minimum wage.

And do you know what? If wealthy Americans were to find themselves closer to the rest of us, their paranoia would begin to dissipate. One can read the ending of Beowulf as an internal struggle, with Beowulf fighting his own tendency to become a dragon and defeating it. He goes out a king, not a monster, and as a result, he is honored and mourned by the whole country.

Think about that as a possibility, Mr. Perkins. Becoming generous with your money, you would find fulfillment and peace of mind and we would honor you.

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