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Nazi talk obscures a needed discussion

Let’s stipulate one thing upfront: Comparing your problem to the Holocaust is always a bad idea.

Tom Perkins, a founder of the venture-capital company Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, has managed to intensify the illogic of this category error in a way that almost defies belief.

In a three-paragraph letter published Saturday in the Wall Street Journal, Perkins lamented that progressive anger toward the rich was analogous to Nazi persecution of Jews.

“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,’ ” he wrote.

He stood by his view in an email to Bloomberg News but later said on Bloomberg Television that he apologizes to anyone who took his comments “as a sign of overt or latent anti-Semitism.”

Perkins’ letter is an illustration of the depths to which the debate over inequality in the U.S. has sunk. Godwin’s law – which holds that any sufficiently long online debate will eventually mention Adolf Hitler or Nazis – apparently holds true offline as well. Which is a shame, because it’s a critical debate to have.

Wages for the middle class have stagnated. The gap between rich and poor is widening, generational mobility has stalled, and a larger share of income is accruing to owners of capital rather than labor.

There is an ascendant strain of Democratic politics that generally blames all this on acquisitive rich people and ruthless corporations. But this is too simplistic: Many of these trends are driven more by globalization and technological change.

And when social transfers such as health care and unemployment benefits are included in the calculation, the picture looks less unbalanced. Which isn’t to say inequality shouldn’t be addressed. It’s just that the old partisan responses to it – Republicans want more tax cuts, Democrats more redistribution – are meant to address the inequalities of a different era.

And overheated rhetoric has forestalled any meaningful progress on an urgent, but still solvable, social problem.

The debate to have now is about how to create opportunities for the poor in an age of technological upheaval. That could mean expanding proven policies such as the earned income tax credit and considering innovative new ones such as education savings accounts or equity-based components to social welfare. It could also mean overhauling the U.S. tax code in a way that substantially scales back preferences for the better-off.

To the long list of things inhibiting intelligent discussion on the topic, however, add an unhinged rant about Nazis.