Peter Peterson: Hello, this is Peter G. Peterson, Senior Chairman and Co-Founder of The Blackstone Group and founder of the Peter G. Peterson Charitable Foundation.
Charlottesville, Virginia: Why is it that only a few like yourself seem to have any social responsibility, while most CEO/billionaire types are the complete opposite....selfish, greedy and absolutely careless? Will the American people demand more corporate social responsibility??
Peter Peterson: I don't think there is any question that the middle class is in a state of serious populist revolt. They see their own income stagnating, exploding healthcare and energy costs, fears of globalization and job security and now even fears of their most precious and valuable asset, the ownership of their homes. Against this background, we see the upper one percent or less enjoying extraordinary increases in income and net worth. That is one reason that I am very willing to consider higher marginal rates on upper income groups tied to major reforms in our Social Security and Medicare programs, which, if we leave them in their current state, will mean very high taxes on everyone, including the middle class. As for the business community, I think it is a fair criticism that, quite apart from the inequality of incomes, we have been MIAs (Missing In Action) on some of these long term challenges that could have such a devastating effect on our children and grandchildren. That is why my foundation is going to make a major effort to reach not only the young, but to also try to figure out how we can energize the business community, in particular, CEOs, to confront some of these daunting long term challenges.
New Brunswick, NJ: What is this "American Dream" you speak of? Are you talking about '50s-style prosperity for middle-class white Americans, or do you have something deeper and wider in mind? And what does the American Dream mean for people living outside of America?
Peter Peterson: I'm using the old-fashioned definition of the "American Dream;" namely, an American future in which our children and grandchildren do better than we do. Nearly sixty percent of Americans say they do not believe that their children and grandchildren will do better. As for the rest of the world, in a global economy they have an enormous interest in seeing an America that grows and grows, since it provides a market for their products.
Astoria, NY: First off, I was very impressed by the article. I would like to know what message exactly you are trying to get out to the youth. That Social Security and Medicare are gonna evaporate before we reach the age of qualifying for it? Or that the state of current economic affairs in this country are set-up in a way that it's giving even more privilege to the privileged class? (Through deregulation in the financial industry and tax codes.) I got a hint of both from the article, but I'm not sure exactly what your foundation is meant to drive home.
Peter Peterson: While it is certainly true that, absent reform, Social Security and Medicare benefits could be sharply reduced for the young when they retire. But, more than that, these benefits, in the meantime, would be going to 78 million baby boomers, twice the number of elderly that we have now. So, the young now kind of have the worst of both worlds. Not only are their benefits likely to be reduced when they retire, but, in the meantime, they will be stuck with the huge bills that are involved in meeting the benefits of the 78 million baby boomers. It is also true that inequality of income is much higher than I can remember it being. That is why I could be for a program that not only involves benefit reform and reduction for everyone but the poor tied to increased marginal rates on teh well off.
Milwaukee, Wisconsin: If corporations are acting in their own interest, are we at a tipping point where it is in their interest to help preserve the planet, the economy and the American way of life? Or do you think there is a perception that we can continue blindly on the current path?
Peter Peterson: Too many people in business and elsewhere have an aggravated case of "short-termitis" and a denial of these long term challenges that most of us who study these things beleive are undeniable, unsustainable and, yet, politically untouchable. It is overwhelmingly in the interest of the business community to have long term economic growth because what tends to be good for the economy tends to be good for business. Trying to energize the business community to confront these long term challenges is one of the key objectives of my new foundation.
Santa Monica, Ca: My grandfather immigrated to this country with a 2nd grade education. He became a successful entrepreneur and my father was the first to earn a college degree. I am the first to earn a graduate degree. I work as a free lance tv producer and want to work on meaningful projects - like the ones it seems your new foundation is aiming for. How do I get involved? Thanks for your time today.
Peter Peterson: Please contact David Walker, President & CEO of the Peter G. Peterson Foundation. His number is (212) 542-9200. Thanks for your interest.
NY, NY: Please forgive this somewhat personal question, Mr. Peterson. Do you have children/heirs and were they upset by your giving so much of your money away?
Peter Peterson: I have five children and nine grandchildren. As I see it, they have enough. I only know what they say to me, which is that they are proud of my efforts.
NY, NY: With business leaders so consumed with the worsening economy and the credit crunch, have you found them less willing to commit to philanthropic donations and endeavors?
Peter Peterson: I don't know the actual numbers, but it is my impression that, until recently, personal contributions to philanthropy remained high, partly because those at the top have done so very well economically. Given the current rather melancholy outlook, I would think that you would find corporations less likely to give as much to philanthropy.
Kihei, Hawaii: Aloha, Mr. Peterson. Would you please share your thoughts on the current state of education in America?
Peter Peterson: One of the missions of my foundation is to try to do something about the sad state of education in America. More than half of the high school students in major cities don't even graduate. This sad fact of life exists side by side with a much more competitive world economy where other countries are doing much better than we in such critical fields as math and science.
NY, NY: In your article you talked about wanting to help fund movies and documentaries with a social message. Are you considering any movies currently?
Peter Peterson: Yes. We are close to buying one such movie and I am financing a proposal that Rory Kennedy and Liz Garbus are working on. I am very impressed with what Al Gore has been able to achieve with "An Inconvenient Truth."
Lincoln Park, MI: I see a disconnect between those that want to support from above with financial resources and those from the grass roots (like me) who are working with individuals trying to make a difference.
How do you plan to drill down to the grass roots and sell your value statement to the people that can use your experience, wisdom, and talents the most?
Peter Peterson: An important part of our focus to going to be to communicate with young people whose future, after all, it is. We are not only going to use "their" media, but we are hiring experts in grass roots organizations as we try to figure out how to educate and activate young people.
New York, NY: A lot of different proposals have been put out there about how to reform Social Security. Could you go into a little more detail on what kind of reform you would push for?
Peter Peterson: I suggest you take a look at my book, "Running on Emply," which lays out some proposals that protect the poor and keeps us from slipping the huge, hidden check to our children and grandchildren for our free lunch.
Peter Peterson: Thank you all for your kind interest. If you want to learn more about my foundation, feel free to look at our website: www.petergpetersonfoundation.org.
Arlyn Tobias Gajilan: Thanks to Mr. Peterson and to all of you for joining us today. This concludes NEWSWEEK's live chat.