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 wish I knew the answer to that. Every once in a while I give a commencement address, and I suggest to the presidents of the universities that this is a multi-dimensional issue as to what’s happened to this country with regard to its . . . to a certain extent its loss of a sense of the future and taking responsibility for the future. My parents’ generation, the greatest generation, for example, fought the most costly war in history – costly in every sense of that word. They built international institutions – Marshall Plan and so forth, which was central to the world getting restored. They had G.I. Bill of Rights for all the returning veterans . . . went to college. They rebuilt the infrastructure of this country. But they didn’t ask me to pay for it. They paid for it because they were willing to invest in the future. And that meant saving, and that meant consuming less because you can’t have it all. You can’t have it all now and have something for the future. I tell these university audiences I think a careful study of your sociologist, of your social psychologist, of your political science, of your economists, of your historians . . . and say, “What was it during those early times where more Americans than I’m afraid today had a clear sense of the future and a responsibility for it?” And what led us to this notion “I’m gonna grab what I can”? And “The government owes me this and the government owes me that.” And kind of, “To hell with other people. To hell with the future. And to tell with who and how we’re gonna pay for all of this.” Now why did that come about? What led to this boomer mentality, you know, about, “I want it all. I gotta enjoy it.” I have a dear friend who is in the ________ medical profession. He’s kind of complaining that he’s not a millionaire or a multi-millionaire, whatever. And I said, “Well you know, one way people become millionaires is they save and they invest.” But he’s got to have his small airplane that he flies on the weekends. He points out to me it’s not a jet. And I said, “Well I understand. I don’t have a jet either.” And “Oh, I need to have fun because I work so hard all week. And I need a Porsche car,” and so forth. And that is the boomer mentality that we’re kind of dealing with here. And I don’t really know what led from saving and investing into the future to consuming and borrowing now. Did America get disenchanted by the Vietnam War that tore this country apart? You’re much too young to remember it, but it truly tore us apart. Did we get torn apart by the assassinations of presidents, and presidents’ brothers, and Martin Luther King, and riots in the streets? As I said, I was working on this problem in Chicago. It was a terrifying sight to see, and that somehow the bonds that unite us and heal us lead to the current situation. I’m not sure. But I’ve never seen a time when there was so much bitterness and partisanship, and paralysis as we have today in our government. I mean nothing. We went through important areas where the Republican leadership and the Democratic leadership are united for a much larger cause, namely the nation’s interest. We’ve had very little of that recently. So I’m _______. I don’t know what all the reasons are. I just know there’s been a really major shift. I think if I may, just to insult your medium, it’s entirely possible that television has had its impact. For example, I used to watch my children. ________ wasn’t television. And they’d turn on the TV and pound it into their heads. Here’s this toy they had to have. This is the dress they gotta have. And we’ve developed a kind of indulgent, instant gratification, consumption largess that has become part of our culture. And I don’t know all the reasons for it, but certainly the presence of such an effective medium . . . and television is probably one of the reasons for it.
Recorded On: 7/26/07