It’s a windy day on Wall Street, and Morris Pearl is competing with a deafening swoosh of air as he tries to explain, via cellphone, the mission of Patriotic Millionaires.
He’s chair of the group, which recently began actively recruiting members in Wisconsin.
PM’s mission is captured in the title of one of its publications — “Renegotiating Power and Money in America.”
The group’s primary goals are to raise the minimum wage; alter the tax code so that wealthy executives and their administrative assistants pay the same proportion of their incomes; and reduce the corrupting influence of money in politics.
“Growing inequality is not working for the poor, the middle class — or the rich,” Pearl says.
PM, which has a staff in Washington, D.C., works with several hundred members across the nation to develop op-eds, press appearances, photo ops and other activities that draw attention to the stacked political deck that’s produced historic income inequality in America.
“It’s not a partisan organization,” Pearl stresses. “We won’t endorse candidates. We (endorse) policy positions and initiatives.”
From Wall Street to public policy
Pearl — who became wealthy in the financial services industry — got involved in economic justice issues during the 2004 presidential campaign. His family had a business in Vermont, and that led him to do some fundraising for former Sen. Howard Dean’s campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination. Although then-Sen. John Kerry won the bid, Pearl’s wife suggested that the couple follow up on an invitation to the 2004 Democratic National Convention. Pearl says he was inspired by then-Sen. Barack Obama’s powerful keynote address.
That DNC experience sowed the seeds of Pearl’s activism, but it wasn’t until nearly a decade later that they bore fruit. He was lunching in a penthouse with a group of bankers he was advising on a bailout deal when he chanced to see a crowd of Occupy Wall Street activists swarming in the street below.
“I thought, ‘Are we really doing any good for anybody except for these bankers having lunch with us?’”
That moment of self-reflection ultimately led to his retirement as managing director of BlackRock, one of the world’s largest investment management firms. In 2014, Pearl turned to full-time public policy work.
A ‘progressive conspiracy’
Pearl teamed up with Erica Payne, who conceived Patriotic Millionaires in 2010. Pearl calls her a “communications wizard” who has created effective messaging campaigns, including “Granny Off the Cliff,” which called attention to conservatives’ plans to kill Medicare, and “Republican Cuts Kill,” which blamed the GOP’s austerity budgeting for “everything from Ebola to the lead poisoning crisis in Flint,” according to PM literature.
Payne is the author of the 2008 book The Practical Progressive: How to Build a 21st Century Political Movement, which then-Newsweek senior editor Jonathan Alter called “a blueprint for a progressive conspiracy to help save the country.”
So, what kinds of actions does Patriotic Millionaires undertake?
One group of Utah members generated local news coverage there when they delivered a letter to U.S. Sen. Orin Hatch’s office demanding a hearing and a vote on closing the “carried-interest” tax loophole for wealthy investment fund managers. That loophole allows fund managers to pay half the tax rate of middle-class Americans. A Republican, Hatch chairs the Senate Committee on Finance and has repeatedly refused to bring up the bill for a vote.
In May, U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin, D-Wis., reintroduced The Carried Interest Fairness Act, which would eliminate the loophole. PM continues to work with her to pass the bill.
PM decided to reach out to Wisconsin because the state is a prime example of what can happen when special-interest money engulfs a government, according to Pearl.
“In Wisconsin, like a lot of states, because of the influence of big money, the state Legislature and the governor’s office are not representing the will of the people,” he says.
Pearl points out the irony that political leaders like Gov. Scott Walker — who enjoys the support of the rich — are in fact working against wealthy individuals’ interests. He indicts the crusade of Walker and Wisconsin Republicans to lower workers’ wages.
“Higher wages mean more people to pay money for your products,” Pearl explains. He uses the example of a tavern owner. If more people can afford to go out for a beer, then the owner prospers. With the increased business, she can hire another bartender, who will then spend money at another business — and so on.
It’s when wages are depressed, as they are in Wisconsin, that businesses suffer, Pearl says. Under Walker and the Republicans, Wisconsin has had the greatest income-equality gap in the nation and the second-lowest rate of new business startups.
Meanwhile, Walker has given hundreds of millions of dollars in tax breaks to rich corporations with the stated hope that they’d hire more workers, but that hasn’t happened. He’s lowered corporate tax rates to entice new businesses into the state, which hasn’t occurred either.
“I think the other side has been making the point that you have to lower your wages in order to make yourselves more attractive to companies, and we’re trying to say ‘no — not true.’ People want to open businesses in high-wage places. That’s why there are so many businesses in states like California,” Pearl says.
Most of the wealthy people Patriotic Millionaires approaches “are on our side,” Pearl admits. Although they often “aren’t comfortable being called ‘millionaires’ or don’t want to be politically active,” he says, they agree with the fundamentals of PM’s economic growth model.
So, just in time for the Fourth of July, Wisconsin has another kind of patriotism to celebrate: economic patriotism. In the coming months, the state will learn more about Patriotic Millionaires — and citizens will gain insight into a progressive economic model, one very different from that under which Wisconsinites currently languish.
Editor’s Note: WiG President/CEO Leonard Sobczak was the first Wisconsinite to join Patriotic Millionaires.