The Power of Unusual Allies in Winning the Argument on Inequality

By Ben Phillips (Center on International Cooperation) and Kelsea-Marie Pym (Patriotic Millionaires)

Tackling inequality is not only about getting the policies right, but about getting the politics right so we can put those policies into action. Often the biggest challenge is not that we do not know what to do, but rather that we face powerful lobbies, and powerful myths, that make it hard to pursue effective solutions. The road to tackling inequality is obstructed by two related obstacles: first, concerted pushback from members of the economic elite, and second, the pervasive myth that the economic elite know best what is best for the economy.

Members of the Patriotic Millionaires arrive in Albany to lobby against tax loopholes for the rich. (Citizen Action of NY)

The Pathfinders' Grand Challenge on Inequality and Exclusion is exploring practical and politically viable solutions to this and related challenges. One striking example we’ve identified of how to push back against these roadblocks involves the help of unusual allies—as shown by the case of the Patriotic Millionaires in the United States.

The Patriotic Millionaires are an organised group of very wealthy people who advocate for transformative political and economic policies to solve growing inequality. They include people like The Men’s Wearhouse founder George Zimmer, the Disney family’s Abigail Disney, and tech entrepreneur Rich Boberg.  They recognise the need for a progressive tax system, in which the very wealthy would pay more; a higher minimum wage to lift up the earnings of ordinary people, even if it means wealthy business owners face increased labor costs; and reforms to ensure more equal influence on policymaking, which would mean the very wealthy would have less political influence so that ordinary people have more. When the Patriotic Millionaires join the public debate in support of these policies, it greatly strengthens the case for tackling inequality. It is shocking to hear rich people advocate for redistributive policies, and so immediately catches people’s attention. In 2010, when the Patriotic Millionaires first came together to speak out against tax cuts they were an instant media sensation, and have remained so. Moreover, rich people represent status and success, and are often unfairly treated as visionaries who know what is best for the economy, so they are instantly validated as credible messengers. Finally, since opponents of redistributive policies often mislabel advocates of them as being motivated by envy, hatred, or a lack of financial insight, the voices of rich people calling for redistribution undercuts that attack. The Patriotic Millionaires build on these strengths by harnessing the power of the label “millionaire” and by reclaiming the language of patriotism by pointing out that “there is nothing less patriotic than refusing to contribute to your country.”

The Patriotic Millionaires were initially founded to oppose a specific tax proposal, but as the group expanded, its members realized they had a host of similar concerns about inequality, which led to the current expanded portfolio. While they are supported by a small staff with a relatively lean budget, the members themselves take on the tasks of speaking to the media, representing the values of the group at legislative hearings, finding additional wealthy supporters, and providing visible public leadership. This is their unique selling point. As the Patriotic Millionaires put it, with characteristic frankness, “given that most politicians only listen to people with money and power, those of us with money and power must leverage our position to fight for the common good.”

Another key feature of the Patriotic Millionaires is that the principal argument that they make is not altruistic. Instead, their argument is one of intelligent self-interest: highly unequal societies cease to function well economically, politically and socially. As Patriotic Millionaires Chair Morris Pearl puts it, “I am not any more altruistic than the next rich guy. I am just greedy for a different kind of country.” They point out that inequality is ultimately bad for businesses—depriving them of customers—and dangerous: when has out-of-control inequality ever ended well? By making arguments beyond the moral ones, they help to expand the constituency for action on inequality.

The Patriotic Millionaires have secured substantial media coverage. In 2019 alone, they have appeared in more than 600 media stories and published 140 op-eds, as well as produced pamphlets and viral videos, held roadshows, and published a book. Media and other stakeholders devote a lot of attention to the group because the conversation around inequality is robust, and their stance is often seen as surprising since they are advocating against what is assumed to be their own self-interest. But their work is not limited to shaping the conversation—they have also helped advance key laws, such as the For The People Act to reduce the political influence of wealthy people and corporations, and the Raise The Wage Act for a $15 federal minimum wage, both of which have passed the House and are pending in the Senate. The group works to advance legislation through two avenues: public education and awareness campaigns, and direct advocacy with elected officials. The Patriotic Millionaires helped enable the Obama administration to let the Bush-era tax cuts expire. At the state and local level, they have helped enact laws that push back against the concentration of wealth and power. They are shaping the mainstream political conversation by pointing out that recent tax cuts failed to benefit most citizens and by making it palatable to explicitly discuss higher taxes on the wealthy.

The Patriotic Millionaires are deeply rooted in American culture, and that is part of what makes them effective. But they are also providing advice to advocates in other countries who are excited by their success and are hoping to build on their model. The group is exploring how to engage internationally, both through helping individual countries find the policy models that best fit their unique cultures and political systems, and by build a unified global call from the wealthy to their peers and to governments worldwide to tackle inequality. Along with the Danish entrepreneur and philanthropist Djaffar Shalchi, and in collaboration with Oxfam and other strategic partners, they have started initial conversations about how to develop an international group of wealthy advocates for redistribution. They are preparing a public statement in favor of a wealth tax for possible use at forums like Davos and the UN General Assembly in 2020. For governments and organizations seeking to tackle inequality, unusual allies such as the Patriotic Millionaires or their local equivalents could be very helpful in making these kinds of transformative policies politically achievable.