Peter G. Peterson and Joel Schumacher have been friends and conversational sparring partners for many years. Peterson is a former Commerce secretary and former CEO of the financial-management company The Blackstone Group; he now runs the Peter G. Peterson Foundation, which works on a number of public-policy issues. A bestselling author ( Running on Empty), Peterson has just published a memoir, The Education of an American Dreamer. Schumacher is a Hollywood director ( St. Elmo's Fire, the Lost Boys, Batman Forever, A Time to Kill, The Phantom of the Opera) who’s been in New York filming his latest movie, Twelve, with Chace Crawford, Emma Roberts, 50 Cent and Kiefer Sutherland. Last week the two men sat down with The Daily Beast to talk about what a film version of Peterson's new book might look like.
Joel Schumacher: With your new and ambitious foundation, your family obligations and, frankly, your octogenerial status, why did you feel you had to write this book and, in particular, your memoirs?
Peter G. Peterson: I suppose one important reason is that I am a confirmed workaholic or perhaps overachiever. Unless I am trying to do more than I should, I get restless. This is also rather like a well-known movie director I know very well.
Second, I am a grandfather of nine, and I fear for their generation’s economic future and I want to do what I can to educate and motivate them to do something to improve their economic future.
Finally, just in terms of family history, I thought I should make my contribution for the education, warts and all, of my kids and grandkids.
JS: Could I have the movie rights?
PGP: What would it cost me?
JS: I know how to begin the movie but I don’t know how I would end the movie.
PGP: You could show a happy me in Washington with a group of 100,000 young people and their parents marching in Washington and in pure Network movie style, shouting: “We are madder than hell and are not going to take it any more! We want you to reform Social Security, Medicare, and the unthinkable debts and taxes you are slipping to us for your free lunch.”
JS: What could be the tag line on ads for the movie?
PGP: How and why this little Greek immigrant kid became a billionaire and why he gave the billion dollars away.
JS: Do you refer to any of your mistakes?
PGP: Actually, I refer to quite a number of my professional and personal failures, whether in Washington, Wall Street or in business. And I also stress my dumb luck.
JS: If this were a movie, what would you like viewers to take away from it?
PGP: I’d like them to feel we have done tough problems before and we can do it again. The “greatest generation” had World War II and public debts far higher than today’s. They not only repaid them off, but launched and paid for major investment initiatives like the G.I. Bill, the Marshall Plan, the biggest infrastructure and highway program in history, the U.N., World Bank and International Monetary Fund.
They had learned from their wartime and Depression experience that shared sacrifice was a must—so were high personal savings. It is one thing to owe this debt to ourselves. It’s quite another to owe it to foreign lenders. Our projected foreign debt and lack of savings is unsustainable and dangerous. The loss of foreign lenders' confidence in America’s getting its fiscal house in order could certainly trigger a crisis—indeed, a super-subprime crisis!
JS: What is your dream of America?
PGP: I dream that America again stops denying the future and takes responsibility for it. I dream of an America that once again provides the next generation the same opportunity to realize the American dream that my generation had. On our current course, America’s young, and their parents, do not feel that the opportunity is there for them and, on the current path, they are right. If we were to permit this to happen, after my good fortune, that would be my American nightmare. And I am an American Dreamer, you know.
Peter G. Peterson is chairman emeritus and cofounder of The Blackstone Group, chairman emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations, founding chairman of the Peterson Institute for International Economics, founding president of The Concord Coalition, and retired chairman of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. He is also the founding chairman of the Peter G. Peterson Foundation. His most recent book, Running on Empty , was a national bestseller.