This article was orginally posted in OpEdNews.com on 2/10/2016
Interview with Patriotic Millionaires Chair, Morris Pearl
My guest today is Patriotic Millionaires chair, Morris Pearl. Welcome to OpEdNews, Morris.
JB: When greed is taken for granted and the gap between the very wealthy and the rest of us continues to grow to an unprecedented degree, the term Patriotic Millionaires sounds a bit like an oxymoron. Please fill us in about your organization.
MP: The organization was created in late 2010, to try to tell President Obama that he should let the Bush tax cuts expire for the top bracket (the highest income taxpayers). He decided to compromise with the Republicans and he thought (or at least Valerie Jarrett said he thought) that we were kind of being dorks, attacking him from the left. Over the next couple of years, though, he came to understand that we were actually helping him — giving him the political space to do what he actually wanted to do anyway. In 2012, he had us come to the White House for his famous Buffett rule* speech. Since then, we have expanded our purview a bit to include a few other issues: raising the minimum wage, more disclosure of political spending, and generally trying to help regular Americans have the same kind of political influence as do the wealthiest Americans, in addition to making the tax system more fair.
JB: How did we get into this economic situation where a group of millionaires has to come along and tell us that the current tax structure is broken and that they want to actually pay more?
MP: We did have a relatively progressive tax system for many years. It was in the 1970s and 1980s that the Republicans (and some Democrats) with a lot of support from a small number of wealthy people started a campaign to convince Americans that government is bad, and taxes are bad. For a lot of the history of our nation, people recognized that government is really just Americans acting together. A bunch of the original states are called commonwealths in recognition of that. And most Americans depended on others, whether the others were employers or customers, or whatever.
In the 1970s, a small number of wealthy people started to reframe our political philosophy and say that the prototypical American is an individual, doing everything all by himself, going out west into the wilderness and creating a ranch or an oil drilling or mining business out of nothing, and that the government was just a bunch of guys in suits thousands of miles away in Washington who were interfering with his God-given right to use the land and the water and whatever he could find to make money. We (the progressives) fell behind but we are finally waking up and realizing that we have to explain to the American people that we really are all in this together, and that the Marlboro man, or the wildcat oil explorer, does not represent the typical American.
JB: Old myths die hard. How did Reagan, affectionately known as the Great Communicator, so misconstrue economic reality and sell all of us a bill of goods with his massive tax cuts for the wealthy? Doesn’t trickle-down economics work?
MP: I don’t think Reagan misconstrued anything. I think that he (and his supporters) truly wanted to live in a country with less government. It’s not a question of “works” or “does not work”. It is a question of what our objective is. If your goal is smaller government, then Ronald Reagan and his political force was pretty successful. And the massive tax cuts were good for some, and bad for others. He believed that things done by government workers should not be done. It’s not that the government workers did them poorly or ineffectively. They truly believe that a lot of things that the government does are just not proper roles of government. Like the arguments about health insurance, which are just people on both sides arguing past each other. Liberals (progressives) talk about how many lives were saved and people helped, and conservatives don’t care about that; they just think it is morally wrong for the government to be involved in health insurance.
And trickle down economics is fine if you believe that most Americans should just get a trickle of prosperity. Part of the problem (in my view) is that less wealthy American spend all of the money they get (more or less) and affluent Americans save much of their money. If you give less to the poor, and more to the rich, you end up with less spending overall, and that decrease in spending means that consumer businesses (in aggregate) have less income, and that decrease cycles through the economy. That is why trickle down economics does not work for most people.
JB: You’re right; it’s hard to have a conversation when the two sides hold such different views of the role of government and the individual’s responsibility to the larger good. I think that’s a more modern construct. In the generation that experienced the Depression and World War II, there was much more a sense that we’re all in this together. But it simply defies logic to count on an increasingly wealthy sliver of the population to somehow sustain the whole economy, especially as the rest of us have seen stagnating wages and little improvement, if at all, in our personal financial situation. It’s like expecting a pair of stiletto heels to prop up an elephant. Since there are members of both parties in Congress, how can even Patriotic Millionaires make a dent in a philosophy which seems hell-bent on more and more tax breaks for those at the very top?
MP: It depends what you mean by “sustain the whole economy”. Through much of history, there have been nations with inequality much worse than in the United States today that have survived for long periods of time. Our country operated pretty successfully (for some people) for centuries without black people having any rights to participate. This can continue as long as most people cooperate with it. The Patriotic Millionaires are trying to educate the public not just on how well or poorly the system is working for various people but on this very philosophical question: “Is helping the common people a proper role of government?”.
Most people say yes to that abstract question, but have been convinced that the answer is “no” when they are asked something more concrete about the government actually helping people. I think that we can make a dent because many members of Congress do want to do a good job and want to help their people (I believe that). The problem is that they only hear from or see a small segment of people: the rich and powerful people. I was once at a fundraising event for a senator where people paid over a thousand dollars to join him at a small cocktail party. He said that he thought it was good that he was not a wealthy self-funder because it was only by speaking at fundraising events that he got to meet people. I thought to myself (but did not feel like saying out loud) that he was meeting a very small and nonrepresentative group of people. That is part of the problem.
JB: How does your organization go about the task of educating the public?
MP: We do a variety of things. We have published a short book (available online at our website, no charge). We have been working with journalists, like you, to get our story out. Fortunately, in the mainstream media apparently everyone believes that all wealthy people are greedy, and only care about their short term pecuniary interests, so it’s newsworthy when we are a counterexample. We also do direct lobbying; we had a lobby day about three months ago in Washington DC during which we visited some of the staff of the United States Senate, and a few senators, and we did press events with some of the members of Congress.
JB: Good to know about your free book, Morris. I’d like to see it. Let’s make sure to include the link so people can easily access it. Does your education strategy include any forms of advertising? If so, how does that work?
MP: Here’s a link to the pdf file.
We do little or no actual paid advertising. Our strategy is to be provocative enough with our statements that people will see our statements in the press or on youtube. (Like we are doing now, working with you.)
JB: Thanks for the link. How does the upcoming election affect your message or strategy to get the word out? Does it make it easier to get a hearing?
MP: I don’t know. There are some things the candidates say that are on the same page we are. In terms of strategy I would say:
- The presidential campaign is the focus of some people. There are also people who are very afraid of disagreeing with Senator Clinton on anything because they are hoping to someday be part of a Clinton administration.
- It’s also creating more interest in politics in general. There are people listening to people like Donald Trump and thinking to themselves that we could be on the edge of a disaster (as a nation).
- All of the members of the House, and a bunch of the senators are running. They are, of course, focused on their own races and can tend to see everything through a lens of how it might affect their race.
The Patriotic Millionaires are generally talking about economic inequality and how that causes political inequality, but on the specifics, we are only focusing on a few things (the disclose act, ending the carried interest tax loophole, etc.). We are not endorsing candidates.
JB: Have you seen the 2013 Robert Reich documentary Inequality for All? If so, have you found it helpful in educating the public about income inequality and its causes?
MP: To tell you the truth … I haven’t actually seen the whole thing (although I have heard wonderful things about it, and I respect Secretary Reich very much) so I don’t think I can comment on the movie.
JB: Your sources were right on target: the film was very well done, practical but not at all preachy. And one of your members, Nick Hanauer, featured in it. He was terrific. I was so impressed with him, I looked him up and later watched his TED talk, too. Anything you’d like to add before we wrap this up?
MP: I like Nick a lot. I believe he was on target with his famous talk about pitchforks a year or two ago.
The overriding point of the Patriotic Millionaires is that gross inequality — gross unfairness — does not work for the rich people. The rich need a robust middle class in order to be rich whether it is people to buy stuff from their businesses or people to cooperate in civil society. People don’t become rich because God’s countenance shines upon them. They become rich, sometimes by having the good judgement to be born from rich parents (about one fourth of the billionaires) or by being fund managers, etc. (another one fourth) or by building businesses. Sometimes, those are businesses that involve finding valuable oil or minerals in the wilderness (like the business that the Koch brothers inherited from their father) but usually it’s a business that depends on millions or billions of people being able to buy their stuff.
As I am typing here, I am listening to Bernie Sanders speaking and the crowd in front of him screaming and cheering. People understand that so much of our system has been helping a small number of the rich, and I am afraid that they are not going to put up with it any more. If we want the United States to continue to be the country that it has been, we had better solve that from within the system, or, as Nick alluded to, people might rise up and solve it from without. I am afraid that the government might not address that issue, and therefore that our system of civil society might be threatened. People only cooperate with society if they think they have hope to do well. If people lose hope, they might start grabbing pitchforks, and if that happens, then one way or another, our nation will be very different.
JB: What you say is very true. Hope is the key. Thanks so much for talking with me tonight, Morris. It was a pleasure. I applaud your organization’s goals and look forward to following your progress.
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