Most Politically Influential Billionaire Isn’t a Koch or Soros

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October 2, 2012; Source: Los Angeles Times

Give Los Angeles Times columnist Michael Hiltzik plaudits for an excellent column on the outsized influence of billionaire philanthropist Peter G. Peterson in public policy and politics. Peterson has steered clear of the shoals of right and left wings that have turned the Koch brothers and George Soros into all-purpose blame-the-enemy philanthropic and political funders.

Peterson, who was Richard Nixon’s Commerce Secretary and later chairman and CEO of Lehman Brothers and the Blackstone Group, uses his money to fund think tanks that focus on the national deficit and federal spending programs. Politicians of both parties give him credit for his deficit reduction studies, including a curriculum to teach high school kids about the federal deficit, even though when you dig into his solutions for the deficit, a lot of the focus falls on reforming Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid with cuts that people who think of these programs in terms of universal coverage might not accept.

Not only is Peterson generally well-liked on both sides of the aisle, he is a primary funder of the Comeback America Initiative, the anti-deficit campaign founded and run by the reasonable-sounding David Walker. Hiltzik reports that Walker, a former comptroller general, used to head the Peter G. Peterson Foundation, which put $3.1 million into Comeback’s budget. The foundation maintains Peterson’s bipartisan or nonpartisan image with an advisory board including former New York Gov. Mario Cuomo, former Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin, former Secretary of State George Schultz, and former Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker.

The foundation’s grantmaking is multi-ideological as well, with grants going to the Heritage Foundation and the American Enterprise Institute on the conservative side of the ledger and the Center for American Progress and the Economic Policy Institute on the liberal side. While anything associated with Koch or Soros gets a kneejerk rejection from one side or the other, that’s not so with the programs of Pete Peterson.

There may be two morals of the story. One is to look askance at the media’s obsession with the Koch brothers and Soros to see the many other actors in the supporting wings of the two major political parties. The other is to wonder just what is going on between the ears of some politicians who rail on and on about specific budget and deficit issues but then seek and accept Peterson’s money without recognizing that Peterson has his own budget/deficit agenda that may actually conflict with their own.—Rick Cohen

  • Peter Hudson

    I think that Rick is being a bit naive on this one. From the sound of Peterson’s political and economic background, as well as where his “philanthropy” is directed, his “multi-ideology” is a dubious descriptor. Being a member of the disgraced Nixon administration, followed by a leading stint in the corrupt financial sector of the economy is hardly the resume of a supporter of social democratic ideals. His preoccupation with deficit reduction is usually code for the ideology of small government, especially one which has no time or money for any kind of social safety net. This is because it is preoccupied solely with the expenditure side of the public ledger. It concerns itself not at all with what might constitute a fair system of revenue generation, as an efficient way of us all meeting our obligations towards one another. I doubt that such items as an ability to pay system, treating all sources of income equally, a Tobin tax on financial transactions, tapping into the trillions of dollars of corporate and individual untaxed wealth offshore, appears on Peterson’s agenda. Rather than place Peterson in some mythical ideologically neutral pidgeon hole, I would place him perilously close to the Koch Brothers. The only difference I can discern is that he doesn’t overtly support the Tweedledee Republicans over the Tweedledum Democrats.

  • rick cohen

    Dear Peter: I don’t think I’m quite that naive. I see through Peterson’s agenda and have written about it elsewhere. But it is seen and accepted by many people as so much less ideologically biased than I–and you–think it is. My newswire was simply presenting some of the LA Times article analysis. However, I don’t think that the Democrats are much more supportive than the Republicans of some of the policy suggestions you made. For example, the Tobin Tax was dismissed by the Obama Administration and its Treasury Secretary as soon as the European utterances of it drifted across the Atlantic. Many Democrats have been very weak on many issues of taxation when it comes to hedge fund billionaires, etc. We do have Tweedledum and Tweedledee parties on many of these issues. The LA TImes article suggests that Peterson is able to navigate an identity that doesn’t get him pegged with the Koch brothers. Maybe nonprofits should be less accepting of Peterson Foundation money because of the political agenda that comes with it? Thanks for the comment.