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The Rich and the Poor

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My last piece began with the words, "Never let it be said that the rich are silent." That was too modest. Let's add that they're tone deaf too.

Tom Perkins got into trouble for comparing attempts to raise taxes on the wealthy to what the Nazis did to the Jews in Germany, posing the question, "Progressive Kristallnacht Coming?"

Given that the only other creature who would pose such an ignorant question is Rin Tin Tin, he was roundly criticized. Most of us would be embarrassed, and shamed into silence. Perkins publicly apologized.

But somehow I get the feeling the apology was pro forma, and not from the heart. And let's face it: if you are a Master of the Universe you have a God given right to speak your mind.

Several days later, Perkins made news again. Speaking at the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco, asked for an idea that would change the world, he replied if you don't pay a dollar of taxes you don't vote. Elaborating on this idea, he argued, "You pay a million dollars in taxes, you get a million votes. How's that?" The audience responded with laughter. Hey, why not? With lines like that, he'd be a smash in Vegas.

But just as claiming the rich are enhanced, the idea that the poor should be disenfranchised is an old one, yet alive and well in America today.

At the start of the twentieth century, with America facing a giant wave of immigration, the fear among conservatives was that those people were becoming citizens and voting. And they couldn't read English or write it, and they didn't know anything about the Constitution. Of course, that ignored the fact that these new Americans paid taxes of all sorts; that they worked hard, raised families here, invested in this country in so many ways; and that they followed news and politics in the great wealth of that era's foreign language newspapers.

Back then, the solution being posed to this terrible immigrant problem was a literacy test, to prove you could sign your name. That would catch all kinds of undesirables!

Al Smith, the great champion of the urban newcomer, was a member of the New York State Legislature when that idea was the rage. He commented that there were plenty of folks up at Sing Sing, because they could not only sign their names, but had shown talent at signing other persons' names as well.

But now we're back at it again. Many Red states recently passed id laws, requiring multiple forms of identification to vote, ostensibly to root out voter fraud. Which, just for the record, has rarely if ever occurred in these states.

Now, such documents are standard for middle class, middle age, middle income folks. But they are less common if you're poor. Or a student (in which case you're probably poor too). Mr. Perkins' ideas are no laughing matter today, and examples have been passed far too many times since Barack Obama started winning elections.

There are other variations in play right now. House Republicans tried to pass a rider to the farm bill that would have required anyone who gets food stamps to undergo mandatory drug testing. A poster on Paul Krugman's blog proposed instead "mandatory drug tests for employees of too-big-to-fail financial institutions, which receive large implicit subsidies." Krugman noted, "Now that would cause a panic." My own suggestion is that if they pass a bill requiring that the food stamp poor be drug tested, a rider must mandate that any member of Congress that voted for the bill must also take such tests, and their staffs. Seems only fair.

Perkins claims it's the rich who are being picked on. Evidence (never his strong suit) indicates it is just the reverse.