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Musician Peter Buffett, Son of Famed Investor, Confronts Gross Injustices of American Capitalism

Economist Gar Alperovitz talks to Buffett about how to create a new system from the ground up.

Peter Buffett and his wife, Jennifer, head up the NoVo Foundation, whose $1 billion endowment was made possible by Peter's father, famed investor Warren Buffett. Last year, Peter wrote a scathing opinion piece in the New York Times that called out traditional philanthropy for treating symptoms while ignoring the underlying systemic issues. Now that the dust has settled, Peter Buffett sat down with Gar Alperovitz, longtime advocate for a transition to a more just, equitable, and sustainable economic system, for a conversation about hope, change, personal commitment, and community roots.

GA: I want to make it a dialogue. I’m not a reporter, but I do want to start with the obvious questions, with the piece you did in the New York Times on the "charitable industrial complex” and the reaction that you received.

PB: Well, it’s been fantastic. I was utterly surprised that it mattered that much, what I had to say. And that it mattered that much that I said it. I got a lot of responses like, “Thank god somebody said this, and thank god you said it!”

So then I wrote the op-ed thinking, oh, it’ll just be a blog, and when I finished I thought, well, maybe somebody might be interested in this. So when the NYT said yes, I was certainly flattered and excited, but still I had no idea how far it would go. It’s like writing a hit song—you’re just writing a song; you don’t know that it’s going to resonate the way it does. In fact, I say to my musician friends, here I’ve been spending my whole life trying to write a hit song, and it ended up being an op-ed in the NYT!

GA: I know you also got a lot of criticism.

PB: This is the interesting part. Within the first three to four days, maybe even longer, I received an absolute tsunami, beyond a flood, of support and positive responses—crashed the NoVo website for a couple of days, came in through my address, hundreds of hundreds of responses, all positive, 100 percent.

And then the people who actually had their own megaphone, inside the system that I was talking about, started responding, and that’s when the negativity began. It came from, essentially, the institutionalized way of thinking. Immediately what I saw was that the people who got the feeling of it, the systemic nature or the overarching sense of what I was trying to put out there as an observation, totally got it. The people who wanted to reduce it—this sentence is wrong, that sentence is shows how nuts he is—were the ones who criticized it. Well, isn’t that the problem? I thought it was interesting seeing the issue once again show itself in who supported and who criticized the piece.

GA: That’s really interesting because I thought you were going to answer—but I’m glad you didn’t—that you were mostly attacked. That’s the part I saw.

PB: The positive responses are what people didn’t see, because it was email after email personally.

GA: Even more important, is the recognition in other’s eyes that one has a voice. A lot of people don’t know that they have a voice.

PB: We really feel like that at the foundation as one of the key components for us is to either give people the agency to have a voice, or if they don’t feel like their voice is valid for some reason, to have other voices speak for them to show them that it is. One way or another, we want to create this awareness around your own agency that your voice matters.