Peter G. Peterson is an American entrepreneur, investment banker and politician. He served as United States Secretary of Commerce during the Nixon administration and was Chairman of the Council on Foreign Relations Council on Foreign Relations until his retirement in 2007. Peter co-founded the Blackstone Group, a private equity firm, in 1985 and retired in 2008 as its Senior Chairman. He is the author of the book Running On Empty: How The Democratic and Republican Parties Are Bankrupting Our Future and What Americans Can Do About It. Peterson was Chairman of the Federal Reserve Bank Federal Reserve Bank of New York from 2000 to 2004 and is founding Chairman of the Peter G. Peterson Institute for International Economics.
I am planning to take my bounty from Blackstone going public, a lot of it – and it’s quite a windfall – and set up what would turn out to be a very large foundation. And because I’ve been boring people relentlessly for the last 20, 30 years about some of these problems, I’m going to take a number of these problems that are what I call undeniable and unsustainable, and yet politically untouchable because of the political culture we now live in where it’s considered almost politically terminal to ever ask anybody to give up anything, or to pay for anything. And you know, “I want more, and more, and more, and I want it now.” And to take these issues which I think are a serious threat to America’s future, and take those issues where there’s a huge gap between what we should be doing, and what we could be doing, and what are or are not doing, and figure out how at the margin, a major foundation might be able to make a difference. To my knowledge, I had very little to do with where I was born and who my parents were. So that gives me a sense of profound gratitude for my good luck, and the fact that I was born and brought up here in the way I was brought up. And it’s very important for us private citizens to give back not only of our money and our philanthropic, but of ourselves. And my own theory about giving back – at least it’s the model that I somehow came to – is it’s great if you can make your giving back of your human capital, and your passions, and the things you care about, and tie that with your philanthropic financial capital so there’s a fusion between you as a person and your passions in what you want to change or do and your money. I have faith that one has been brought into this world for a reason. None of us would claim to understand that we don’t. And we have faith about various theories about how we came here. But then somehow, we’re lucky to be here for however long we are. And while we’re here, it makes eminent good sense to try in your infinitely small way to make this world a somewhat difference place, and a somewhat different better place than it would have been without you. And that involves helping society. It involves helping people. It involves a lot of things that’s involved with making the world a little bit better in your own small way. Now some people might call that faith. Why do you believe that? Is it because you’re gonna go to heaven? Or is it because . . . It just makes very good sense to be a good, productive, empathetic, sympathetic human being – a helpful human being. It can be very easy to arrive at the comfortable conclusion that the reason I got here is that I am brilliant, and I am innovative, and I am a terrific builder and I’m this, that and the other thing. It’s a little harder to say, “You know, it’s some damn good luck I had somewhere along the line.” If some other people had had it, they may have done a lot better than they had done. So I think a good life has a lot to do with sharing what you have with the society at large. I’ve chosen to do it more in the public policy, foreign policy way. Others do it perhaps more admirably, I don’t know, by spending a great deal of their time and money helping poor children. And with my wife’s influence, we do give certainly a fair amount to them. And I’m happy to finance a research institute at Sesame Workshop named after her. And what I think is a very important project, which is the world of new devices is just changing almost hourly with cell phones, and iPhones, and iPods. Keep in mind I was brought up in a world where Dick Tracy, the detective, had a wrist radio. That was considered space-aged stuff. And now look at the world we have. And there is nothing more important, in my opinion, than getting our high school graduation levels up and making American young people competitive, and getting at them when they’re very young. And every study has demonstrated that. Why I’m very proud to . . . what my wife does what she does and has done. But we’re supporting, for example, in a rather major way how do you use these little devices? Cell phones, iPods, Playstation portable . . . this, that and the other thing to help educate these kids? Because the idea that they’re gonna spend their entire time on these devices playing entertainment games . . . when if we were really imaginative, we could figure out how to use that preoccupation with these gadgets to educate them. It’s a very worthy cause, and I’m devoting a lot of money, and she’s devoting a lot of time to that. Recorded On: 7/26/07