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?