Doerr, Rubenstein Among “Giving Pledgers”

Forty billionaires today agreed to donate at least half of their fortunes to charity, as part of “The Giving Pledge” program launched earlier this year by Bill Gates and Warren Buffet.

Among those to sign on are venture capitalist John Doerr (along with wife Ann) and buyout king David Rubenstein. It’s not a legal contract — described as a “moral” one — but each participant is expected to write a letter explaining their decision to pledge. A bunch of them already have been posted online, but neither Doerr’s nor Rubenstein’s are among them. While we wait, here is the letter from Blackstone Group co-founder Pete Peterson:

Dear Warren:

I am very pleased to pledge that I plan to contribute the substantial majority of my assets to philanthropy. As you know, I am well on my way.

I do so with great pleasure. And for several reasons.

My parents were Greek immigrants who came to America at age 17, with 3rd grade educations, not a word of English and hardly a penny in their pockets. Their dream was the American dream, not just for themselves but for their children as well.

My father took a job no one else would take – – washing dishes in a steamy caboose on the Union Pacific railroad. He ate and slept there and saved virtually every penny he made. He took those savings and started the inevitable Greek restaurant, open 24 hours a day for 365 days a year for 25 years. Throughout this period, he always sent money to his desperately poor family in Greece and fed countless numbers of hungry poor who came knocking on the back door of his restaurant. Above all else, he wanted to save so as to invest in his children’s education.

As I watched and learned from my father’s example, I noticed how much pleasure his giving to others gave him. Indeed, today, I get much more pleasure giving money to what I consider worthwhile causes than making the money in the first place. As I checked with other philanthropists, I found this was a very common experience.

For example, I have been particularly pleased to support causes and institutions for which I have a passion and for which I contribute myself, that is my personal capital, as well as my financial capital. For example, the Peterson Institute for International Economics, the Council on Foreign Relations and The Concord Coalition that I co-founded with Senators Warren Rudman and Paul Tsongas.

I was also informed by the great novelist, Kurt Vonnegut, who once told a story that seemed to capture my situation perfectly. He and Joseph Heller were at a party given by a wealthy hedge fund manager at his majestic beach house in the Hamptons, the summer playground on Long Island where the rich and famous congregate. Kurt and Joe both had made their marks by satirizing life’s absurdities – Kurt with best-selling novels like Slaughterhouse 5 and Breakfast of Champions, Joe with the incomparable Catch-22. During the course of the party, Kurt looked around at the surroundings and asked Heller: “Joe, doesn’t it bother you that this guy makes more in a day than you ever made from the worldwide sales of Cach-22?” Joe thought for a moment and then said, “No, not really. I have something that he doesn’t have.” “What could you possibly have that he doesn’t have?” Kurt asked. “I know the meaning of enough.” My father often said the same thing.

When I enjoyed a most surprising billion dollar plus windfall from the public offering of The Blackstone Group, a firm co-founded, I pondered, what should I do with all of this money?

In 2007, I decided I already had far more than enough and was delighted to commit a billion dollars to the Peter G. Peterson Foundation and to some causes that I care deeply about.

My foundation made its first major contribution to a transcendent global threat, the proliferation of nuclear weapons. I have known former Senator Sam Nunn, for whom I have enormous respect, who is devoting much of his life to this cause.

I am also much concerned about domestic threats that I also consider transcendent. I refer to several such threats as undeniable, unsustainable and yet, politically speaking, untouchable. For example, our unfunded entitlement promises that so many depend upon, our ballooning debts to foreign lenders, which combined with our very low savings, leaves us very vulnerable and even threaten our national sovereignty. Then, of course, there are our mushrooming healthcare costs that threaten to bankrupt our economy.

We, at the Foundation, are deeply involved in educating, motivating and, hopefully, activating the public to do something about these problems.

I am a very lucky American dreamer but I want to see that dream alive for my five children’s and nine grandchildren’s generations. On our current path, I fear we are imperiling their future by passing on massive, hidden debts and unthinkable taxes. At bottom, I consider this fiscal child abuse or mortgaging their future, or whatever one chooses to call it, it is not only an economic issue but a national security issue and, above all, a moral issue.

Given the serious political challenges and our country’s apparent reluctance to accept the required shared sacrifice, no doubt many are saying my Foundation is not only a presumptuous mission, but a foolhardy one. So, I quote my old University of Chicago professor George Stigler, “If you have no alternative, you have no problem.” I asked myself this melancholy question: How will I feel 10 to 20 years from now if I look back and ask why, oh why did we all leave such a legacy? How could we have done this, not simply to America, but to our own children and grandchildren? Could there be a worse feeling? Can not trying really be an acceptable alternative?

Finally, Warren, you and Bill Gates know better than anyone how distinctly American private philanthropy is.

I thank you warmly and congratulate you and Bill Gates both mightily for your leadership role in this most worthwhile cause.


Peter G. Peterson