The Peter G. Peterson Foundation was created by Peter G. Peterson, who served as secretary of commerce in the Nixon administration and co-founded Blackstone, a mergers-and-acquisitions firm. The Peterson Foundation supports center-left, center, and center-right organizations that support reducing the national debt and curtailing the growth of Social Security and Medicare. The foundation is now headed by Peterson’s son, Michael A. Peterson.
Peter G. Peterson
Peter G. Peterson earned a bachelor’s degree from Northwestern and an M.B.A. from the University of Chicago., where he studied with Milton Friedman. He began his career in marketing and in 1953 became a vice-president of the advertising firm McCann-Erickson. In 1962 he became president of Bell and Howell. 1
In 1971, he joined the Nixon administration as an assistant to the president on economic affairs, later being appointed Secretary of Commerce. The New York Times noted that Peterson “was an outspoken liberal Republican who enjoyed socializing with journalists and Democrats” and that, prior to entering government, Peterson had been a trustee of the Brookings Institution. Shortly after Nixon’s re-election, Peterson left the administration; Peterson would claim that he had been fired. 2
In 1973, Peterson became vice chairman of Lehman Brothers, but left the firm in 1983. Two years later, Peterson and Stephen Schwartzman founded Blackstone, which assisted companies in mergers and acquisitions, including Sony’s purchase of CBS Records and the Columbia Pictures movie studio and Bridgestone’s purchase of Firestone Tire and Rubber. In 2007 Blackstone went through an IPO that earned Peterson $1.85 billion. 3
Peterson married three times, with his third marriage to Joan Ganz Cooney, founder of the Children’s Television Workshop (now Sesame Workshop). In 2019 Cooney donated $40 million to the Peterson Foundation. 4
In 1969, Peterson chaired a commission convened by John D. Rockefeller 3d on reforming philanthropy. The commission called for implementing an excise tax on foundation endowments and establishing a minimum annual payout for foundations, and increasing the personal charitable deduction. 5
Peterson Institute for International Economics
In 1981, Peterson helped found the Institute for International Economics, a think tank focused on economic issues including international trade. Peterson served as chairman of the board of the institute from 1981 to 2005 and led a capital campaign to build its endowment. In 2006, the institute was renamed the Peter G. Peterson Institute for International Economics in his honor. 6
Council on Foreign Relations
Peterson was chairman of the board of trustees of the Council on Foreign Relations from 1985 through 2007 and a trustee between 1985 until 2018. In 1997, Peterson endowed a chair at the council for the editor of Foreign Affairs, the council’s magazine. In 2022, the holder of the Peter G. Peterson Chair was Daniel Kurtz-Phelan. 7
According to Bloomberg, Peterson called himself a Rockefeller Republican, “conservative on fiscal matters and moderate to liberal on social issues.” 8
Peterson’s primary concerns were increases in the national debt fueled by rising costs of Social Security and Medicare. In a 1984 interview in the Harvard Business Review, Peterson said, “we need to bring down the federal deficit” and “the added costs of our aging society and the entitlement programs that go to the aged are staggering…our aging society is a fiscal and economic time bomb. The tax revenues necessary to pay for these entitlement programs for the elderly and our deficit largesse will be economically, politically, and I think morally unsustainable.” 9
Peterson started the Peterson Foundation in 2008 with $1 billion he earned from the Blackstone IPO. He told the Chronicle of Philanthropy that instead of giving to “large charities and universities,” the Peterson Foundation would “find advocacy groups that are going to reach people, particularly young people, and tell them about what we’ll be facing if we don’t change course” on reducing America’s debts. 10
Peterson told the New York Times he personally donated the money he received from Social Security to the foundation instead of returning it to the government because “I wouldn’t know that they [the government] would know how to spend it.” 11
The Peterson Foundation regularly issues reports and conducts polls warning of the problems of riding deficits. In 2020 foundation CEO Michael A. Peterson warned that the Congressional Budget Office showed “30 straight years of trillion-dollar deficits that grow and grow, leaving no doubt that we’re on a dangerous and unsustainable fiscal path.” 12 A 2021 poll produced by the foundation showed that 84 percent of people polled wanted the IRS to crack down on tax evaders, 80 percent wanted taxes to increase on people who earned more than $5 million, and 70 percent wanted a carbon tax. 13
In 2019, the Peterson Foundation made eight grants of over $500,000. They were directed to the Peterson Institute for International Economics ($6.5 million), the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget ($1.9 million), Net Impact ($1.7 million), Concord Coalition ($1 million), Nuclear Threat Initiative ($975,000), Catalyst for Payment Reform ($840,000), Harvard University ($630,000), Yale University ($600,000) and Brown University ($519,000). 14
- Robert O. Hershey, Jr., “Peter G. Peterson, 91, A Power from Wall Street to Washington, Dies,” New York Times, March 21, 2018.
- Robert O. Hershey, Jr., “Peter G. Peterson, 91, A Power from Wall Street to Washington, Dies,” New York Times, March 25, 2018. Peterson wrote in his autobiography that Nixon once complained about his “friends in the Georgetown cocktail set.” David Stout, “financial Warned of The Rising National Debt,” Washington Post, March 21, 2018.
- Lawrence Arnold, “Peter G. Peterson, Blackstone’s co-founder, Dies at 91,” Bloomberg, March 21, 2018.
- 2019 Peter G. Peterson Foundation Form 990.
- Rob Kaufold, “The Commission on Foundations and Private Philanthropy,” Learning to Give, https://www.learningtogive.org/resources/commission-foundations-and-private-philanthropy (accessed June 13, 2022)
- “Institute for International Economics Renamed in Honor of Founding Chairman Peter G. Peterson,” press release from Peterson Institute, October 24, 2006.
- “The Peter G. Peterson Chair, Editor of Foreign Affairs,” https://www.cfr.org/peter-g-peterson-chair-editor-foreign-affairs (accessed June 13, 2022)
- Lawrence Arnold, “Peter G. Peterson, Blackstone’s Co-founder, Dies at 91,” Bloomberg, March 21, 2019.
- “The Peterson Prescription,” Harvard Business Review, May/June 1984.
- Michael Anft, A $1 Billion Call for Change,” Chronicle of Philanthropy, June 26, 2008.
- David Stout, “Financier Warned of the Rising National Debt,” Washington Post, March 21, 2018.
- “Peterson Statement on CBO Report,” press release from Peter G. Peterson foundation, September 22, 2020.
- “New Poll—9 in 10 Democrats and Republicans Want Budget Reconciliation Package fully Paid for,” press release from Peter G. Peterson Foundation, September 29, 2021.
- 2019 Peter G. Peterson Foundation Form 990.