Now, at 70, he is a low-profile member of a movement to organize institutional investors in opposing what he and others say are exorbitant executive salaries.
Silberstein advocates a policy that would tie corporate tax rates to the difference in compensation between the CEO and an average worker. A company with a CEO-to-worker-compensation ratio at the 1980 level of 50-to-1 would pay tax at the current rate of 35 percent; companies with a larger pay gap would be taxed at a higher level, and those with a narrower gap would pay a lower rate.
Silberstein took a step into the spotlight when he produced the documentary "Inequality for All," featuring former U.S. Labor Secretary Robert Reich. It premiered last year at the Sundance Film Festival.
"He's one of the quiet leaders of the entire movement toward wider prosperity," Reich said. "An increasing number of wealthy businesspeople are becoming concerned that the economy can't function without a strong middle class to keep it going."
Silberstein told the AP his views are not so different from that original American industrialist, Henry Ford, who famously paid his factory workers enough to purchase one of the cars that came off his assembly line.
"As a result he became rich," Silberstein said. "If the economy goes well, everybody does well, including the wealthy."
Like many left-leaning executives troubled by the wealth gap, Silberstein insists that his ideological views play only a small part in his concerns.
"It's a problem, and everybody is losing as a result. It's self-interest and the interest in my country, too," he said.
HINDERY: THE TITAN WHO WANTS TO PAY MORE TAXES
Leo Hindery Jr., the New York City media and investing mogul, is one of hundreds of wealthy people directly asking Congress to raise their taxes as a member of Patriotic Millionaires. The group was formed in 2010 to advocate for the end of Bush-era tax cuts for people making more than $1 million a year. Hindery is also a member of Smart Capitalists for American Prosperity, and he was among a group of entrepreneurs who went door-to-door in the halls of Congress in early February asking for a higher minimum wage.
A managing partner of the media industry private equity fund InterMedia Partners, Hindery was previously chief executive of AT&T Broadband and of the YES Network, the cable channel of the Yankees. He says he's turned down raises to ensure that he never makes more than 20 times the salary of his employees. He is also one of the biggest Democratic fundraisers in the nation.
The 66-year-old argues that giving rich people tax breaks makes no economic sense because people like him don't put their extra dollars back into the economy.
"Do you think I don't own every piece of clothing, every automobile? I already have it. You spend money. Rich people just get richer," he told the AP.
Hindery credits his Jesuit upbringing with giving him the tools to look beyond his own economic advantages.
"How can we believe in the American dream when 10 percent of the people have half the nation's income? It's immoral, I think it's unethical, but I also think that it's bad economics," Hindery said. "The only people who can take exception to this argument are people who want to get super rich and don't care what happens to the nation as a whole."
AP Economics Writer Paul Wiseman in Washington, D.C., contributed to this report. Hannah Dreier can be reached at http://twitter.com/hannahdreier
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