America likes the idea of the self-made man, the man who starts his own business, pulls himself out of obscurity, and becomes a success.
Over time, some Americans have started to believe that a self-made man should also be a selfish man. That a millionaire shouldn’t pay taxes because they’ll only be “squandered,” that a smart businessman roots for the economy to collapse so he can buy real estate cheaply, that taxes on business should be lowered so the wealthy can do better. In much of America, that attitude is regarded as an important component of how a self-made man succeeds—applauded, because it’s thought to be a sign of the vigor of America.
But plenty of millionaires feel differently. Some contest the notion of a self-made man altogether, arguing that anyone successful has relied on government spending—infrastructure, an educated workforce, enforceable contracts—to make their mark. Some of them even believe that paying more taxes and investing in public services is the way to more prosperity—for everyone. “What I’m talking about is what policies will not just help me personally, but that I think will be good for our country and my kids' generation,” Morris Pearl, a former managing director at the investment fund BlackRock, told me. He added, “I don’t want to live in a country where a few people do amazingly well and everyone else does poorly, because anyone, including me and my kids, may end up not being one of the winners.”
Pearl is the chair of a group called the Patriotic Millionaires, a coalition of some 200 rich people that is advocating for the end of trickle-down economic thinking. They want rich people to pay higher taxes, they want a higher minimum wage, and they want less money in politics. Their platform may sound altruistic, but much of it is a matter of business. “Businesspeople, investors, want to make money—that’s how they got to be at the top,” Pearl told me. “If we live in a nation with a lot of people that can’t participate, we can’t make money from these people.” In other words, how can developers make money off of real estate if there’s no one with enough money to buy it?
Patriotic Millionaires was founded in 2010 when Ben Cohen of Ben & Jerry’s, the trial lawyer Guy Saperstein, and a few dozen other wealthy Americans signed a letter to President Obama asking the president to let the Bush-era tax cuts on the wealthy expire. “We have done very well over the last several years. Now, during our nation’s moment of need, we are eager to do our fair share,” they wrote. Cohen is no longer an official member, but the group now includes the Harvard Law School professor Lawrence Lessig, the television writer Norman Lear, the Men’s Wearhouse founder George Zimmer, and Abigail Disney, the granddaughter of Roy O. Disney.
One of the group’s central tenets is that paying taxes is part of one’s patriotic duty. Members of the Patriotic Millionaires believe that they have been able to succeed in part because their taxes supported infrastructure and other services that helped them along the way. “You only become rich by living in a nation that gives you all the things you need to become rich, like infrastructure, education, and a workforce, and mostly, a population of people who can afford to buy things,” Pearl said. “Those are the things you need to have to become a wealthy businessperson.”
I asked Pearl what he thought of Donald Trump’s plan to lower taxes on corporate revenues from 35 percent to 15 percent. He told me he and his fellow Patriotic Millionaires don’t believe that making the rich richer helps make everyone else less poor. When wealthy people get more income, they save it, he told me. When poorer people get more income, they spend it, which helps the overall economy. Instead of reduced corporate taxes, he wants to see a higher estate tax, changes to the tax code so that income from investments is taxed at the same rate as income from salary, and the closure of the carried-interest tax loophole, through which investment-fund partners are allowed to pay lower taxes on their income.
With 200-odd members, Patriotic Millionaires only represents a small percentage of the rich in America. According to the Tax Foundation, a nonprofit, there were about 268,000 tax returns reporting more than $1 million in adjusted gross income in 2010, and there are likely even more people who have more than $1 million in total assets. But Pearl thinks more people will come around. A small group of rich people has convinced America that to be rich, one also has to be selfish. Now, Pearl and his colleagues are trying to tell the country otherwise.