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Morris Pearl and Erica Payne: Renegotiating Money and Power in America

October 28, 2018
The Patriotic Millionaires are a group of 200+ high-net-worth individuals who focus on promoting public policy solutions that encourage political equality, guarantee a sustaining wage for working Americans, and ensure that the wealthiest individuals and corporations pay their fair share of taxes. On October 23rd, Tuesday, Penn Wharton Public Policy Initiative hosted Morris Pearl, Chair of the Patriotic Millionaires, and Erica Payne, Democratic strategist and President of the Patriotic Millionaires.

Anita Henderson, senior fellow at the Wharton School, introduced the talk by providing context on the Patriotic Millionaires and the work they engage in as an organization. Citing Philadelphia as having the third highest income disparity in the U.S., Henderson leans into the country’s growing income inequalities as the backdrop for the mission and efforts of the Patriotic Millionaires.

It is often couched as being about opportunity, but the number one driver of poverty is not opportunity, nor education, nor family structure, nor race — it is the growth of income inequality.

A Millionaire’s Perspective

After a short introduction about Morris Pearl’s beginnings growing up in upstate New York and then pursuing an undergraduate degree at Penn, Pearl recalled a defining moment in his career shift towards “full-time” public policy. Specifically, Pearl recalled a lunch break during a due diligence meeting while in Greece at his position in BlackRock.

I looked around behind me and there are all these bankers trying to figure out how to get more money from the IMF and how much they needed to recapitalize their bank. And it occurred to me that it wasn’t clear that I was doing anything for anyone in Greece except for these 20 people standing behind me eating chocolate pudding.

Upon retiring from BlackRock, Morris Pearl joined Erica Payne in the mission behind the Patriotic Millionaires. As it turns out, Pearl relays that the wealthy, successful job creators of the country don’t actively want gross inequality. Thus, Pearl has made it his mission to help Erica and the 14 Washington staffers run the Patriotic Millionaires.

Cultivating the Mission

Erica Payne grew up in North Carolina, with politics forming the early part of her career. Working as Deputy Finance Director and being at the DNC during Bill Clinton’s first term during his reelection campaign, Payne later realized she wanted to get out of politics and into business school. As a Wharton MBA student, Payne began to apply business theories to what she had seen in politics. Specifically, she saw politics as having a value chain much in the same way that business has one.

Payne provided an overview of the historical underpinnings since the conservative movement after the 1964 Goldwater defeat during which a concentrated group of self-interested billionaires were injecting their money into think tanks, legal advocacy groups, and other influential political entities. She cited the Lewis Powell memo that defended free enterprise as characterizing the blueprint for future conservative think tanks.

Payne emphasized that much of politics is out of public view, with hundreds of millions of dollars funneling through the political arena. According to Payne, it was business school that made this connection more visible to her. Staying in the private sector, Payne went back to what she was truly passionate for: social and economic justice in a way that centered policy over specific politicians. She embarked on a project to create a leftist counterweight to the post-Powell memo conservative institutions.

In the midst of the financial crisis, Payne led a project called “Make Markets Be Markets” with the Roosevelt Institute, a leftist think tank. Her team wrote a letter regarding the financial crisis, denouncing the ineffective regulatory considerations at the time. After gaining the signatures of leading academics, former financial and administrative officials, and other esteemed personnel, the letter soon gained public traction. This helped Payne realize that the key to politics was in distribution and communications when it came to implementing legislation. Essentially, getting the right people to say the right things was political power in itself.

In 2010, President Obama was contemplating an extension of the Bush tax cuts for wealthy incomes. In consulting her colleagues and preparing another powerful letter, Payne and 45 other Patriotic Millionaires at the time sent out a press release that exploded in the media. “The idea that a bunch of millionaires would demand higher taxes on themselves,” she explains, “just blew people’s minds away.”

The White House began to recognize the untapped value in millionaires speaking out for higher taxes on their incomes. In 2012, on the President’s Tax Day address, the Patriotic Millionaires were invited to the address and were given the platform to discuss economic disparities in a highly visible space.

And then we really looked around and said, “Okay, what is the biggest problem facing America that a group of a couple hundred millionaires could do some good at?” And we really decided to focus on this concentration of wealth and power in America.

The Core Ideas

Payne and the Patriotic Millionaires decided to take on this mission by uplifting three core ideas that would come to guide much of the work that the organization now puts a spotlight on.

1. Regular people deserve as much political power as millionaires.

2. Anyone working full time should have access to basic needs.

3. Whatever the tab is at the end of the year, millionaires and corporations should pick up more of it.

The core ideas encompass a framework that captures the consensus of about 70% of U.S. Americans across party lines, cites Payne.

Where We Are Now

Payne strongly criticized the recent tax cut bill that transferred wealth from working class folks to the upper class as absurd. In recognizing the fact that millionaires, corporations, and lobbyists have more political influence than the average U.S. American, the Patriotic Millionaires aim to channel the common sense needs of the country and carry this message to the legislators that look to the where the money is.

We are taking the words of business people and investors and making the business and investment case for a more stable and prosperous country brought about by a greater sense of political equality, a livable minimum wage, and a tax system that reinvests and asks for reinvestment from the people who make so much off [of] the country in the first place.

Morris Pearl closed out the talk by calling for a time when there was “the idea that people can go to college without going hugely into debt, the idea that people can afford to get mortgages on houses based on a normal middle-class income.” Pearl reiterated the fact that although these foundational concepts are now skewed towards a leftist platform, the aims are largely shared by reasonable people across the divided political sphere.

About the Speakers

Morris Pearl gained experience in consulting at large banks early on in his career. After retiring from his position as managing director at BlackRock, one of the largest investment firms in the world, the Penn Wharton and Engineering alumnus turned his attention to the public sphere. He currently serves as Chair of the Patriotic Millionaires.

Erica Payne is a longtime Democratic strategist and President of the Patriotic Millionaires. Earlier in her career, she served as Deputy National Finance Director for the Democratic National Committee during Bill Clinton’s 1996 presidential re-election campaign, and after completing her MBA at Wharton, co-founded the Democracy Alliance, a donor collaborative whose partners have invested over $100 million in progressive organizations. Erica also founded the Tesseract Group, a consulting firm that provides strategic counsel and communications expertise to public policy organizations. She currently serves as a Senior Advisor to the Roosevelt Institute, in addition to heading the Agenda Project, which focuses on progressive policy advocacy.


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