Baltimore native David Rubenstein is a founding figure in private equity, a prolific philanthropist, and author. From leveraged buyouts to his patriotic philanthropy to his leadership roles within institutions like the Smithsonian, Kennedy Center, and the National Gallery of Art, David has spent much of his life evaluating what makes institutions — and people — succeed.
He joined Tyler to discuss what makes someone good at private equity, why 20 percent performance fees have withstood the test of time, why he passed on a young Mark Zuckerberg, why SPACs probably won’t transform the IPO process, gambling on cryptocurrency, whether the Brooklyn Nets are overrated, what Wall Street and Washington get wrong about each other, why he wasn’t a good lawyer, why the rise of China is the greatest threat to American prosperity, how he would invest in Baltimore, his advice to aging philanthropists, the four standards he uses to evaluate requests for money, why we still need art museums, the unusual habit he and Tyler share, why even now he wants more money, why he’s not worried about an imbalance of ideologies on college campuses, how he prepares to interview someone, what appealed to him about owning the Magna Carta, the change he’d make to the US Constitution, why you shouldn’t obsess about finding a mentor, and more.
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Recorded September 30th, 2021
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TYLER COWEN: Hello, everyone, and welcome back to Conversations with Tyler. I’m here today with David M. Rubenstein. David has a new book out, The American Experiment: Dialogues on a Dream. But David, of course, has done so much more. He is a founding figure in private equity, and he is co-chairman and co-founder of The Carlyle Group.
Also, in philanthropy, David’s ventures are almost too numerous to mention. He is chairman of the Kennedy Center, has been chairman of the Smithsonian, has contributed to the renovation of the Washington Monument, the Lincoln Memorial, the breeding of pandas. He purchased a copy of the Magna Carta for $21.3 million, then lent it out to the United States government. He’s from Baltimore. That is but the beginning. David has done much more, but let’s start talking.
DAVID M. RUBENSTEIN: Thank you for inviting me. Pleasure to be here.
COWEN: In private equity, for those who do it well, the returns that accrue — they’re being paid to what scarce factor? What is the thing that’s hard to have, that’s scarce, that makes you good at private equity?
RUBENSTEIN: Private equity is a business of adding value to a company. The theory of private equity — and I’m talking about buyouts as opposed to venture capital for the moment — in buyouts, you’re taking a company that isn’t performing that well, and you’re adding better management or incenting the current employees to do a better job.
Then ultimately, after three to five years, you tend to sell the company, and you typically make a return — if you’re good — at 20-some percent per annum. And 21 percent, or 20 percent, or 25 percent per annum is a pretty good rate of return when you compare it to other kinds of things you can do with your money.
Venture capital is a little different. You’re making bets on entrepreneurs, helping them but probably not quite the same way you would do in a buyout.
COWEN: If that boosts the value of the company, what is it the private equity firm has that the company doesn’t? What’s the differential capacity?
RUBENSTEIN: Well, you have expertise. You have people that have been doing, let’s say, buyouts for 10, 15, 20 years. They know what makes a buyout work. They know what doesn’t make it work, for example, and how to finance it, how to add value, how to make acquisitions, how to make certain that you sell things that are probably not really doing well, or you make acquisitions of things you think will help the company that you already own.
It’s a mystery to some people outside the industry, what private equity people do. Private equity is one of these industries where you can make jokes about the people in it. Very rarely in this environment can you make jokes about almost anybody anymore without getting in trouble. You can make jokes about members of Congress. You can make jokes about lawyers. And I and others make jokes about private equity people, but the truth is, they do add value, or they wouldn’t be as well compensated as they are.
COWEN: Private equity has been growing for quite a while now, more so than most kinds of finance have been growing. And the fee structure of 2 and 20 — where does the 20 come from? And why isn’t the 20 declining more rapidly?
RUBENSTEIN: Well, it is in some respects. Let me explain. First of all, the market — and you are a market economist — people are getting 2 and 20 because that’s what the market will say is appropriate. It’s not as if people are being pushed or forced into paying people 2 and 20. Nobody’s being forced to go into these funds.
Where does the 20 percent come from? I’ll give you two examples of where it may have come from. When Venetian ship owners would send their ships to Asia to get spices, the spices would be brought back in the ships, and those who brought them back, who carried them back, had an interest in the profitability of the spices when they were sold back in Venice. They had a carried interest, in effect, and that was roughly 20 percent. That may be where that came from.
But also, when the first hedge fund was set up in the late 1940s, the person who set it up actually said, “I’m going to add value. I’m going to do more than just manage it. I want a percentage of profits. I want 20 percent.” When the first venture firms were set up in the ’50s and ’60s in Silicon Valley, they also had professionals who said, “I’m going to add value. I want 20 percent of the profits.”
It’s amazing that, for all these 50, 60 years later, 20 percent has still stood the test of time. Obviously, some people have higher venture capital, sometimes will have 30 percent, and some people, to get in the business, may have 15 percent, but by and large, 20 percent is still more or less the rule. I would say 2 percent is probably not as common as it used to be, unless it’s a small fund. For a large fund, it would probably be 1 percent or 1.25 percent or maybe 1.5 percent and 20 percent.
COWEN: If we look, say, at mutual funds, there’s a lot of entry, and the cost of intermediation falls, through Vanguard, Fidelity — lower cost than what there used to be. What’s the barrier to entry in private equity that keeps that number at 20 percent?
RUBENSTEIN: Well, one, you have to raise money. You have to have some track record to be able to convince people to give you money. It’s a lot of money. Remember, you’re asking people to give you money not for a day or two or three, like in a mutual fund, but for 10 years. Theoretically, these are 10-year funds. You probably get most of your money back before 10 years, but they’re 10-year funds.
The barrier entry is not that significant. When I started Carlyle, there were maybe 250 private equity firms in the entire world. Now there are more than 10,000, so the barrier entry is there but not that significant to keep people from coming in if they want to. You just have to come in smaller and prove your track record before you get the big funds.
COWEN: Why did private equity take so long to globalize?
RUBENSTEIN: Well, why did anything take a long time to globalize? As globalizations move forward, most private equity today is still done in Western Europe and the United States. Probably two-thirds of all dollars invested in private equity are in Western Europe and the United States, the so-called developed markets.
It’s now moving into the so-called emerging markets, but it’s going to take awhile because the environment is not quite as susceptible to private equity as it is in the United States. There’s not — the infrastructure, the talent, the financing markets, the exit markets are not quite as developed as they are in the developed markets.
COWEN: How would you contrast the skills of someone in private equity with the skills of someone in venture capital?
RUBENSTEIN: Venture capital people are taking bets on entrepreneurs. You don’t really know. When Facebook showed up, everybody passed on it except Accel. It’s obvious now that Facebook was a great company, but why did everybody pass? Because they weren’t sure the concept worked. They weren’t sure that Mark Zuckerberg — dropped out of Harvard — was really appropriate to do this.
I think venture capital is more of a bet on a concept, more of a bet on an entrepreneur, whereas private equity, you have six months, typically, to do the due diligence. You can project cash flows pretty readily because you have previous cash flows from which you can base your future cash flow projections. I would say it’s a little bit more scientific, in some respects, less of a crapshoot than venture capital is.
COWEN: Why did you decide not to meet with Mark Zuckerberg way back when?
RUBENSTEIN: When my now son-in-law told me about his classmate from Phillips Exeter and his then classmate from Harvard starting a company, I remembered the dating services that had been prevalent in the 1960s, and they all went bankrupt. This was described to me as a dating service, more or less — a way for people at Harvard to get to know people at other colleges, and so forth, for dating purposes — and that’s actually what Facebook was. People forget it now, but it was only for college kids.
When they expanded to non–college kids, that was an epic change, but it wasn’t really part of the original plan, as far as I know. So, I didn’t meet with them because, in those days, I didn’t really think of somebody who was a Harvard student as somebody that was going to be the next Bill Gates. I just thought it was not likely to be successful. I was wrong.
COWEN: As you know, investment banks were once, quite often, limited partnerships, but now they’re not. Is private equity going to undergo the same kind of evolution? And why are they limited partnerships now?
RUBENSTEIN: You say limited partnerships. You mean the way people invest in the funds or —
COWEN: Well, there would be partners of a smaller investment bank, say, the way Goldman was a long time ago, but now it’s just a publicly traded company.
RUBENSTEIN: Okay. When you’re talking about that concept, yes, there were firms that were private, and they were all privately traded: Morgan Stanley, First Boston, Goldman Sachs. Now there are very few that are just privately owned. There’s Brown Brothers Harriman and a few others that are still private.
In the private equity world, most of the private equity firms are private partnerships. There are a few that are publicly traded: Carlyle, Blackstone, KKR, Apollo, maybe TPG will come public, and so forth. I think CBC is another one that’s public. But generally, they are privately owned because they’re too small to be publicly traded companies. If you manage a fund of $1 billion or $2 billion, that’s not likely to produce the cash flow that will make a public company seem really warranted for that status.
COWEN: Why are they partnerships? There’s a lot of smaller companies that are just privately owned. Law firms are often partnerships. What’s the transactions cost advantage of having a private equity company be a partnership?
RUBENSTEIN: With private equity firms, you tend to get people who are fairly hardworking, fairly smart, and they also have the ability to move quite quickly and go elsewhere. If they were going to be working for one very wealthy person, and that wealthy person wasn’t going to give them a piece of the profits, they might say, “I can take my skills and go elsewhere.” You tend to have partnerships because you want to share the wealth, and that’s how you attract very talented people.
If you had a very wealthy person — let’s say Jeff Bezos or Mark Zuckerberg — they want to set up a private equity firm to invest and they’re the only partner in it. You can probably get some good people, but in the end, the really good people who have the skill set will want to get a piece of the 20 percent, and usually, these large private family offices don’t give 20 percent of the profits to the people working there. That’s one of the reasons.
You don’t tend to get so highly talented people willing to work just for a salary and a bonus. Typically, family offices or an organization owned by one person — they don’t usually give a piece of the profits, a very large piece of the profits, to the professionals there.
COWEN: What do you think is the best criticism of leveraged buyouts?
RUBENSTEIN: Leverage always has its downsides because leverage implies that you’re borrowing money, and when you’re borrowing money, you have to pay it back. Sometimes, when the economy goes down, it’s difficult to pay these back. In the early days of private equity, they typically would borrow — this was hard to believe — 95 percent to 99 percent of the purchase price. The famous KKR deal is 95 percent debt and 5 percent equity, and some deals used to be 99 percent debt.
Now you have a capital structure of maybe 40 percent to 50 percent debt, and therefore, it’s not as likely you’ll have a default, so the risk is not as great, but there’s always risk in leverage. Whenever you have a meltdown in an economy, whenever there’s leverage, then there’s going to be a problem because when the economy slows down, the leverage typically works against you.
COWEN: If you take, in combined form, the tax advantage given to debt and what is sometimes considered to be a tax advantage given to carried interest, does that mean our tax system is encouraging too much private equity?
RUBENSTEIN: Well, some people would say you can’t have too much private equity. I guess somebody in the private equity world would say that. There’s no doubt that there’s been a favorable tax treatment on carried interest. Congress is debating that again, and it’s been debating it for some time.
The reason it probably hasn’t changed yet is that carried interest is applied to not just the buyout people in private equity, but it’s also applied to real estate. Real estate is probably where 55 percent to 60 percent of all the so-called carried-interest dollars are actually paid, and there’s a real estate developer and developers in every congressional district.
We’ll see whether it changes or not. If it does, it does. Congress has looked at it for a dozen years plus and hasn’t changed it yet, but it might well this time.
COWEN: Are private equity firms now using insurance companies as a way of getting very cheap financing? There’s a lot of float. It’s like with checking accounts — people just give them money. They don’t expect very high returns.
RUBENSTEIN: Well, a number of private equity firms have bought insurance businesses or are operating where they have, in effect, annuity contracts, where they are, in effect, managing the money to get a higher rate of return than the regular insurance company would get.
If an annuity is supposed to pay out 5 percent or 6 percent a year, but you can manage that money at 10 percent or 15 percent or 20 percent, you have a big spread. And therefore, a lot of the private equity firms are now trying to get some of this money so they can earn higher returns on it, and they don’t have to pay out as high a return as they would to somebody who’s in the regular funds.
Therefore, it can be an attractive business if you know what you’re doing, but also the insurance regulators have to be comfortable with making sure that you know what you’re doing.
COWEN: Now, if you’re with your friends or peers in private equity, and you’re debating the future of private equity, what’s the most interesting question where you might disagree with them? What is it you all debate and are not sure about?
RUBENSTEIN: Well, people are always debating what’s the future of private equity. Is it going to grow as exponentially as it has over the last 20 or 30 years? Secondly, the carried interest of 20 percent — will that survive or not? Or because of competition, as one of your earlier questions suggested, maybe that will go down. You don’t know. Will the rates of return that private equity people can achieve be as attractive as they have been?
Private equity didn’t grow to this large size because of the charming good looks of the founders, as you obviously can see. They grew to this large level because we’ve outperformed, as a whole, every other asset class over the last 5, 10, 15, 20, 25 years by anywhere from 300 to 500 basis points on average. The top-quartile funds outperformed by a larger amount.
As long as the returns are probably somewhere between 300 and 500 basis points on average — better than you can get in a public market index — probably, private equity will do pretty well. If private equity doesn’t outperform, then probably, private equity won’t survive.
COWEN: When you started Carlyle way back when, did you see that private equity would outperform the market for this long?
RUBENSTEIN: Well, at the time, no. In 1987, the phrase “private equity” didn’t even exist. They were called leveraged buyouts, and it was a different world. The biggest phenomenon in that time was junk bonds, and that was what was enabling a lot of people to buy companies. There was heavy use of the so-called junk bonds at the time, and equity was not really that big a factor. You didn’t have big equity funds the way you do today. At that time, I didn’t foresee anything like this.
Most business people — if you go back and look at their original business plan, you’ll find that it bears no relationship to what they actually became. If you go back and look at what Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg, Jeff Bezos were going to do at the beginning — what they ultimately turned out to do was completely different. For example, Jeff Bezos — and I knew him at the beginning — he was just going to sell books over the internet, and that was it, nothing else. And then later he evolved to doing everything over the internet.
Everybody changes their ideas, and I changed my ideas. Initially, I thought it would be a small firm focused on Washington, but then we ultimately became a global organization.
COWEN: Are SPACs a good way to bypass what is now an overregulated IPO process? Or is it a passing fancy?
RUBENSTEIN: I think SPACs have come down in terms of their inflated values over the last couple of weeks, and maybe the last couple of months. I think they won’t go away, but I don’t think they’re going to transform the IPO process to such an extent that IPOs will go away. IPOs are heavily regulated and very carefully reviewed by the SEC. Also, very expensive to get one done. It takes a lot of time.
SPACs have replaced that by making it easier to get things done much more cheaply. But in the end, like anything in life, when you take a shortcut, there are penalties for it sometimes. Right now, we’re seeing that people are nervous about the SPAC valuations, and therefore, I’d say some of the air has come out of the SPAC valuations.
COWEN: If we look at an IPO, it seems there’s very often a price pop, which might suggest there was money left on the table. There’s an underwriter taking a fairly large fee. Why don’t the companies just auction off the stock, say, the way Google did, or sometimes happens in Israel? What’s the value-added of the intermediary in an IPO?
RUBENSTEIN: Well, when you say, “Why do 95 percent of the people that go public or more do this process? Or are they all stupid?” You’ll have to say, “Well, there must be some reason.” The reason is that when you go through this process, by the time somebody gets to buy the stock, they know it’s been vetted by reasonably impressive organizations. It’s been reviewed by the SEC, and while there are a fair number of fees associated with it, the fees are not so high as to discourage people from going this way.
When you price an IPO, you typically want to have about a 15 percent bounce the first day because you want people who buy it the first day to feel that they made a good decision, and you want people to buy the stock at the opening. That’s not uncommon to have a 15 percent bounce, but they price them for that.
If you have a 50 percent bounce, that probably means the underwriter made a mistake and underpriced it. And if it goes down, then obviously the underwriter made a big mistake because you’re going to have a lot of unhappy investors who bought it, and stock went down the first day. That should never happen, but it does.
COWEN: But is the future simply more direct offerings? Because when Google went on the market, we had all heard of Google. Google was as credible as anyone who might have been underwriting the stock of a Google IPO, so they just sold the stock. Captured whatever price pop there might be for themselves.
RUBENSTEIN: Right. Well, Google went public through a direct process, I think at $85 a share, and now it’s trading at $2,000 or $3,000 a share. Obviously, it’s been a great stock, but from the beginning, there was great demand, and people knew that Google had a search process that was better than any of the other search processes out there.
Remember, when Google started, people said, “Who wants to give Google money as a venture capitalist? Because there are already a lot of search engines out there.” Google actually had so much trouble with their venture capitalists at the beginning. Their venture capitalists talked about taking their money back because Google wasn’t actually performing what they said they were going to do.
When Google was ready to go public, people knew there was so much demand for this that you didn’t need an underwriter, probably, to take off the fees that they would probably take off because their underwriting fees might be anywhere from 4 percent to 6 percent. I think the Google founders said, “There’s so much demand. We don’t really need to have the underwriter and take that spread.”
But there are very few Googles that are out there. The average company that goes public does not have the demand that Google had when it was going public.
COWEN: Does the financial sector draw too much talent away from the rest of the real economy?
RUBENSTEIN: Well, I’d say the financial sector is part of the real economy. It’s a large part of the United States economy, so there’s nothing wrong with the financial sector getting very talented people.
But there are plenty of talented people in lots of places. The academic world has talented people. The sports world has talented people. Lots of talented people in many different areas, so I don’t think the financial service world is getting too many talented people.
I think that most talented people right now — probably a lot of those people are going into entrepreneurial startups, which you could argue that’s financial, but basically, they’re entrepreneurs. It used to be, people wanted to go to Goldman Sachs or Blackstone or Carlyle or McKinsey. Now a lot of people coming out of the best colleges — they want to do a startup.
COWEN: What fraction of the financial sector do you think is zero-sum?
RUBENSTEIN: You mean doesn’t produce any value?
COWEN: Right, but it’s just a race to get there first. Like some people would say high-frequency trading — that’s zero-sum. May or may not be true, but what do you think is zero-sum?
RUBENSTEIN: I’m not sure I would know exactly what is zero-sum in terms of the way you’re phrasing the question. Do you mean that —
COWEN: No value added, but you get profit. Someone else takes a loss. You have talent diverted into seeking of rents, not producing anything that a consumer ever uses.
RUBENSTEIN: Well, of course, those people that don’t like private equity would say, “Well, private equity people are a zero-sum. They’re not adding any value.” I don’t agree with that. I think they do add value.
COWEN: But you lower costs, and you boost share prices, at least on average.
RUBENSTEIN: Right. Well, I don’t think anything that’s zero-sum will survive very long. You could argue that cryptocurrencies — are they a zero-sum or not? Some people think that they’re complete zeros, and they’re worth nothing, and people are buying these things at their great peril.
Other people think that they actually provide a service where people don’t want to have US currency or other foreign currencies. They have something on the side that’s a different kind of currency. You can argue that for some time. Right now, we don’t know whether it’s a zero-sum game or not.
COWEN: What do you think of crypto? What’s your best guess?
RUBENSTEIN: My view is that the genie is out the bottle, and it’s too late for the US government to say, “Don’t do this anymore.” Remember we went through Prohibition, and we said, “People, don’t drink alcohol. It’s bad for you.” It didn’t really work out. If we were to ban cryptocurrencies, people will find a way to create cryptocurrencies offshore or some illegal way to do it. People don’t trust the government as much as they used to.
And secondly, I think that there is money to be made in the cryptocurrency world if you’re careful and you know what you’re doing. But I’ve not bought any cryptocurrencies. I have invested in some companies that service the industry. What I say to people is that I analogize it to gambling. If you are a gambler, and you go to Las Vegas, you know you’re going to lose money if you spend a lot of time there. You don’t care because you’re having fun. You really like the setting, and it’s your pleasure.
The same thing is true with crypto. A lot of people like to be seeing the oscillation of the cryptocurrencies. They like to hear about it. They think they’re the new wave of what’s going on, so they buy it. I’d say if, you want to do that, just make it like you do if you go to Las Vegas. Put 1 percent or 2 percent or 3 percent of your net worth in, have fun watching the stocks go up or the currencies go up and down, but don’t put in 50 percent of your money because I think that’s — it’s likely to be a fool’s errand.
COWEN: If you look at the payroll of the New Jersey Nets in the NBA as a private equity guy —
RUBENSTEIN: The Brooklyn Nets.
COWEN: Sorry. Now it’s the Brooklyn Nets. Apologies.
RUBENSTEIN: I see you have a New Jersey bias.
COWEN: Correct, I do, I still do. But what do you think? Do you think the team’s overrated? Their costs are too high? They need a leveraged buyout? Or do you think it’s fine?
RUBENSTEIN: I’m about to go interview Joe Tsai soon, so I don’t know if I will ask him whether his team is overrated. In that business, unlike many other businesses, it only takes one or two or three players to make a championship team. In baseball or football, you probably can’t win a championship with just one or two really great players. In basketball, you can, and so you probably can’t pay these people too much. As you know, there’s caps on how much you’re allowed to pay people in basketball, and they have these maximum contracts.
I would say very few people I have known — and I know a lot of people who have bought sports teams — very few people who have bought sports teams have lost money owning those teams. You typically make the money when you sell them.
Now, are the players overrated or overpaid? Man, it’s hard for me to say that anybody’s overpaid if they’re filling the arenas and so forth and they have unique talents. In Kevin Durant’s case, he’s a unique talent, a very unique talent, one of the best basketball players in the last 20 or 30 years. I don’t know if you can overpay him. Kyrie Irving — he went to Duke, so you can never overpay anybody that went to Duke, is my view.
COWEN: If he gets vaccinated.
RUBENSTEIN: Well, we’ll see whether he gets vaccinated or not. James Harden is obviously an incredible triple threat. So I don’t know that they’re overpaid, but right now, I think the owner is pretty happy with the team that he has. He wishes he’d won a championship last year, but he thinks he will win this year.
COWEN: How has learning to be a great interviewer made you a better investor?
RUBENSTEIN: I’m not saying that it has. It may not have. If you want to be great at something, you’ve got to spend a lot of time at it. I’m spending a lot of time doing interviewing, so probably not a great investor so much.
Now, what I’ve done in the investing world — I was never the investor at Carlyle. I was always the fundraiser, the strategist, the face of the firm, and the recruiter. Other people actually knew how to invest better, so I would sit on the investment committees and give my points of view, but they weren’t really relying on me.
I’ve set up a family office, and I’ve hired some pretty good people to invest my money outside of Carlyle without being in conflict with Carlyle. I look at what they’re doing, and they tell me about what they’re doing, but I’m not the day-to-day investor. I’m not sure interviewing has made me a better investor, but you’re doing a lot of interviewing, it might make you a better investor, I don’t know.
COWEN: What is it you think you know about recruiting of talent that is not obvious and other people might not know?
RUBENSTEIN: When I recruit people — and now I’ve been doing this for many years — I generally have certain biases, and my biases are ones that have generally proven to be right, but sometimes I’m wrong. I’ve made a mistake in hiring some people, and I made a mistake in not hiring some people.
Generally, I look for people who are hardworking, reasonably intelligent, have some vision of what they want to do with their life. They’re not difficult to deal with. They have some humility about themselves. They know how to get along with other people, and they know how to share the credit. There’s always going to be an outlier, a genius who can’t work with other people who might be a good investor, or a person who is not all that smart but just very, very hardworking. You just can’t really know who’s going to be a great investor.
I’m doing a book now on great investors, and it’ll come out next year, and I have a TV show now on investing. Basically, I found that the great investors all have in common a pretty high degree of IQ, but it’s focus. It’s a desire to prove that they’re right about something as opposed to making money.
In the end, once they’ve become a great investor, they’ve got enough money for their real purposes. They just like the game of investing the way you might like the game of betting or some other game. There are many different qualities that great investors have. I wouldn’t say that I have them, but I observed other people having them.
COWEN: What does Wall Street least understand about Washington?
RUBENSTEIN: Washington is relying on Wall Street and Wall Street is relying on Washington. It’s a bizarre symbiotic relationship. People on Wall Street say, “Well, the debt’s not so bad because people in Washington keep passing these bills, and they must know what they’re doing down there, or the Fed wouldn’t allow this to happen, or the Treasury wouldn’t allow this happen.”
People down here are saying, “Well, the Wall Street markets — these people are good investors. If we were borrowing too much money, the markets would collapse.” And they’re each relying on the other.
At this point, I think what Wall Street doesn’t really understand about Washington is that Washington basically isn’t all that sensitive to what’s going on in the markets unless there’s a gigantic collapse. Then they pay a lot of attention, but generally, day to day, people on Capitol Hill and the White House are not focused on the markets the way that a professional investor might be. The ups and downs and oscillations don’t bother them as much, unless there’s a gigantic collapse, of course.
COWEN: What does Silicon Valley understand least about Washington?
RUBENSTEIN: Silicon Valley historically didn’t pay much attention to Washington, and therefore, they had very few lobbyists here. They had very few people to tell their story. Now I think the biggest lobbyists here are the technology companies. Google, Facebook, Microsoft have gigantic lobbying operations now because they realize that the government of the United States can impact their businesses in a way that they didn’t probably realize when they first started these companies.
COWEN: But what is it they don’t understand now, still? It’s not in their cultural blood, so to speak, so they throw resources at the problem. Do they understand how DC works?
RUBENSTEIN: I think they don’t understand that, in technology, whoever has the better technology might ultimately prevail. Therefore, merit is ultimately thought to be the ultimate important factor. Who has the best software? Who has the best hardware? Who has the best process for getting something done? In Washington, DC, the merits are not necessarily the most important thing. It’s the politics that are much more important.
Sometimes if somebody from Silicon Valley comes to Washington and says, “I have the best software. Look what it’s doing for America. It’s great. We’re selling a lot of services, and people are living better because of it,” that may not mean much to people in Washington if some people are complaining all the time because the prices are too high or something like that over the product.
COWEN: Should we let members of Congress, or for that matter, regional Fed bank presidents, trade equities and securities?
RUBENSTEIN: There were two Fed bank presidents — one in Boston, one in Dallas — who managed to do that, and they’ve now resigned.
COWEN: But it wasn’t illegal. They were allowed to do it.
RUBENSTEIN: It was not illegal, and it’s not illegal, as far as I know, for the chairman of the Fed to do that. It’s not illegal for the president of the United States to do that. It’s not illegal for members of Congress to do it either. You have to disclose it, but it’s not illegal.
COWEN: But should it be illegal?
RUBENSTEIN: I’m not sure that in all cases it should be illegal. Remember, we are asking people to work for very, very modest incomes. Are they supposed to put all of their trust into complete Treasury bills, and that’s all they have? You might get fewer people coming to government service if they could only get Treasury-bill rates of return, and that’s all they can do.
COWEN: Say S&P 500 — they can get a blindly managed mutual fund.
RUBENSTEIN: I think that would be better rather than doing the stock trading yourself. I do think it’s better if you were to go into a mutual fund or things like that. The chairmen of the Feds — typically they have somebody like a mutual fund, or they might have T-bills or things like that, but I think it’s better to not be trading when you’re in those positions. Yes, I do think that’s true.
COWEN: Here’s a reader question, and I quote, “Another impolite question. Why is it that so many politicians and their aides and their wives, children, cousins become wealthy in the private sector?”
RUBENSTEIN: The private sector is designed, among other things — if you want to go into that area — to make money. It’s not that difficult to be wealthy by the standards of government compensation. If you are a member of Congress, your compensation’s roughly $180,000 a year — hasn’t changed much for about 20 years. If you go into the private sector, it’s difficult to make less than that if you’re really doing something in the private sector that adds some value.
Also, obviously, some people who do lobbying and other things are using their contacts and so forth that they got in government service. If you were to say nobody who’s ever served in government can ever lobby anybody again, you’ll probably get fewer talented people to come into government service.
I think a lot of people won’t go into government service now because you have to sell all your assets if you go into government service, and that’s a barrier to some people. You can have constraints on getting people into the government service, and therefore, you won’t get the best people.
For example, when we only had 3 million people in this country, who did we have in government service? We had George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, James Madison, James Monroe, John Jay. Now we have 330 million people, and where are the Thomas Jeffersons? Where are the George Washingtons? They may not be in government service. They may be doing other things. I think we often have more barriers to getting good people into government than we should have.
COWEN: I’m under the anecdotal impression that in the 1960s, the 1970s, the smartest young people were more interested in joining the DC elite than is currently the case. Do you agree?
RUBENSTEIN: When John Kennedy became president, he had a clarion call to young people to come in and do government service. He was a young man who was 43 years old, and his cabinet was relatively young. And yes, it was a time where it was pre-Vietnam and pre-Watergate, so there was much greater belief that what government could do was good, and there was much less cynicism.
The government of the United States didn’t have the credibility gap that it developed in Vietnam and Watergate and so forth. So I think, yes, it was a time where there was a lot of interest in young people coming to government service. Today, a lot of the best young people — they want to go be entrepreneurs, or they want to create things in Silicon Valley or be a venture capitalist, and so forth.
There’s still a lot of talented people going to government. But I do think that government does make it more difficult than it used to be to go into government service because of the various constraints you might have when you go in, in terms of what you can do with your existing money, or what you can do after you leave government. But it’s not lacking that in some good people going into government, but I think the most talented people in the country probably don’t want to go into government as much as they did in the 1960s.
COWEN: You once mentioned that you were not a good lawyer. Why weren’t you a good lawyer?
RUBENSTEIN: To be a good lawyer, I think you have to have attention to detail as opposed to the big picture sometimes. Secondly, you have to obsess over the merits of your client’s causes in some cases. Third, you can’t be distracted by something you think is more interesting. I thought government service was more interesting than being a lawyer, and I also thought that what lawyers do and corporate lawyers do was not the best use of my gray matter. I probably didn’t enjoy it, and I didn’t think it was all that attractive a way to spend my life.
COWEN: Why do so many wealthy people have legal backgrounds, but the very wealthiest people typically do not?
RUBENSTEIN: Lawyers tend to be very process-oriented and very systematic, and as a result, they tend not to take big leaps of faith because you’re taught in law school to worry about precedent. Precedent is not what makes entrepreneurs successful. You have to ignore precedent, and you’ll break through walls and say you can’t be worried about what the precedent was.
If you’re worried about precedent, you’ll never make a leap of faith to create a company like Apple or a company like Amazon. Lawyers tend to be more, I would say, tradition-oriented, more process-oriented, and more precedent-oriented than great entrepreneurs are.
COWEN: Within, say, a 25-year time horizon, what do you think is the greatest risk to American prosperity?
RUBENSTEIN: Probably the rise of China. China is a bigger population than we have by three times. Given the fact that they have a different type of capitalist system than we do — but they have a capitalist system, I would say — given their population base and their technology strengths, I think that we will have to recognize at 25 years from now, it’s unlikely we’ll be the biggest economy in the world. If we’re not the biggest economy in the world, it’s unlikely we can support the biggest military in the world and unlikely we’ll be the biggest geopolitical power in the world.
COWEN: But how would that harm our prosperity? I can see it might be bad for smaller Asian nations, bad for Taiwan, obviously, but many others. But why would we be worse off as economic entities?
RUBENSTEIN: Generally, the most prosperous countries tend to be ones that are leaders in, let’s say, their given area. If we’re not the leader in technology and we’re not the leader in financial services because those worlds have shifted to China, we probably won’t get the profits and the most talented people coming here, and a lot of other things that you need to be a prosperous country.
We’ve been the biggest economy in the world since 1870, and probably, in about 10 years or so, as measured by GDP, we won’t be. By purchase price parity, we’re already not the biggest.
I do think that more and more people want to deal with the biggest economy in the world, and the biggest economy in the world will have more money to develop new companies and send to entrepreneurs, and so forth. I’m still very bullish in America. Twenty-five years down the road is hard to predict, but I’d say 25 years from now, given our population, we probably won’t be as prosperous as we are now, relatively speaking.
COWEN: Before the pandemic, you were visiting China six to seven times a year. What’s your favorite part of China?
RUBENSTEIN: Well, I think the most exciting city in the world today, or at least, let’s say, before COVID, was probably Shanghai because Shanghai was the center of the Chinese business world, and China was doing so many exciting things pre-COVID.
I’ve often said that before Shanghai and China came along, I thought Hong Kong was among the most attractive place for businesspeople to go in terms of pure excitement outside of the United States. Now, I think that shifted to Shanghai. I haven’t been to China now in about two years because of COVID, but I think Shanghai is probably an extremely attractive place as a business center.
COWEN: Let’s consider your role as donor and philanthropist. Let’s say — and maybe you’ve even done this — you had $200 million to allocate to Baltimore to make it a better city. It’s not enough money to be transformative, but it’s not a tiny sum. How would you spend it?
RUBENSTEIN: Baltimore has serious problems. When I was growing up, it was the eighth-largest city in the United States with a population of 939,000. Now it’s about half that size, so you’ve had a white flight. The business headquarters have largely moved out of Baltimore. There aren’t that many headquarters there compared to what it used to be.
What would I do with $200 million? Well, $200 million, as you suggest, is not $2 billion or $20 billion. With $200 million, I guess I would put some of it into education because Baltimore has a very high dropout rate in high school and also has a very high, I would say, illiteracy rate. It has a high syphilis rate. It has a high STD rate. It has a high murder rate.
I don’t know that $200 million would solve all those problems, but if I could do anything to help Baltimore, it would probably be to use some of that money to incent businesses to come back into Baltimore, give them some incentives to come back in because if you get businesses to come back in, they’ll hire people, and ultimately that will help out.
But you’ve got to deal with the education system. If you have a large percentage of your population that’s functionally illiterate, that’s going to produce a lot of crime, and it’s also going to produce a lot of poverty.
COWEN: There was a time, I think in the 1990s, when the word was, well, Baltimore has come back — there’s the aquarium, the waterfront has been refurbished — and somehow that all didn’t materialize. The moment looked good for at least five years. What actually do you think went wrong?
RUBENSTEIN: Baltimore renamed itself Charm City under Mayor Schaefer. Mayor Schaefer was a very dynamic mayor, but he couldn’t control white flight. And therefore, the city’s wealthiest people moved out, and the biggest companies in Baltimore moved out.
In the end, I think crime just took over, and the poverty rate just accelerated, and just so many endemic problems. Baltimore did not have entrepreneurs coming there, starting new companies, and it didn’t have the revitalization of the entrepreneurial spirit that you saw in some cities which had gone through difficult times.
Take Pittsburgh as an example. Pittsburgh used to be a steel center. Now people see it as an artificial intelligence center or as a computer center, or as a city that’s remade itself in many ways. Now, it didn’t have quite the minority population that Baltimore did, but it, in many ways, has revitalized itself.
Some other cities have not been able to revitalize themselves. Take Detroit. Detroit is also like Baltimore — enormous social-economic problems, and despite the best efforts of some pretty talented businesspeople there — like Mr. Gilbert — they just haven’t really been able to revitalize themselves to the point where they were in the 1950s, let’s say, as a leader.
COWEN: Where do you think your marginal dollar does the most social good? Being paid to government in the form of tax, being invested through private equity at a reasonably high return, or in philanthropy?
RUBENSTEIN: Philanthropy because when I pay taxes — and I do pay a fair amount of taxes — when I pay taxes, it goes for good purpose, I guess. But it’s hard to know whether I’m paying enough taxes to change the world, and nobody knows exactly what I’m paying. When I do private equity, lots of people are doing private equity, so I’m not sure I’m changing the world that much there. When I make a philanthropic gift that gets attention, it might inspire people to do something.
If I fix the Washington Monument, it might encourage other people to do something with the same kind of dollars or the same motive in mind, which is to say, “I’m going to give back to the country in that way,” and it gets more attention than maybe it deserves. The bulk of my money goes to medical research and education and scholarships, but 10 percent goes to what I call patriotic philanthropy. And so fixing the Washington Monument gets a disproportionate amount of attention, but it might incent a large number of people to really do the same things, and that would probably be good.
COWEN: You seem to be in good health. What if someone makes the argument to you, “You would do the world more good by not giving away money now, but investing it through private equity, earning whatever percent you could earn, and when you’re a bit older, give much more away. You can always give more to philanthropy five years down the road.”
RUBENSTEIN: Of course, you never know when you’re going to die, and COVID — we lost 700,000 Americans in COVID. I could have been one of them. I’m 72 years old. If you wait too long to give away your money, you might find your executor giving it away. Secondly —
COWEN: But you could even write that into your will if you wanted. You’d have more to give away, maybe 15 percent a year.
RUBENSTEIN: Yes, but if you take the view that happy people live longer, and if giving away money while you’re alive and you’re seeing it being given away makes you happier, you might live longer. Grumpy people, my theory is, don’t live as long. Happy people live longer.
If giving away money and having people say to me, “You’re doing something good for the country,” makes me feel good, it might make me live longer. If I waited till the last moment to give away the money, it might be too late to have that feel-good experience.
COWEN: Do you think the foundations of other very wealthy people — after their deaths — have gone well or gone poorly?
RUBENSTEIN: Like anything in life, there are good cases and there are bad cases. Some people have done really good things with their foundations after they died, and some people’s foundations probably haven’t been as productive.
In the end, I encourage people to give away as much money as they can while they’re alive. I am amazed that probably 99.9 percent of the population gives away about 95 percent of its money upon their death. You say to yourself, “Why are you waiting so long?”
I remember — I won’t mention his name, but a very famous businessman said when he was 93 years old, “I’m going to give away $400 million to my college upon my death.” You say, “Well, what do you need that $400 million for between the age of 93 and 94 and 95? Why don’t you just give it away now?” I don’t understand why people wait until they’re dead before their money is given away. You presumably think you’re going to be in heaven to see where it’s going, but that’s a big risk.
COWEN: How do you handle or filter what must be a steady stream of solicitations and requests? Money, money, money, everyone wants money. How do you actually process the near-infinite demand?
RUBENSTEIN: I don’t have the money that Bill Gates has. I asked Bill the same question now. I said, “Bill, everybody’s coming for money all the time.” He says, “I have a lot of people that are hired to say no.” They don’t really get to him so easily.
I don’t have a foundation. I don’t have anybody doing my philanthropy, so everything comes directly to me. I have four standards I use, though. Number one is I want to see something with my money started that wouldn’t otherwise get started; or second, something that wouldn’t otherwise get finished; or third, I have an intellectual interest in it, so I think I will stay involved, and I just won’t write a check and ignore it; and fourth, I’m likely to see progress in my lifetime.
Those are my standards that I use. I’d like to be involved in the things I’m doing as well. But in the end, I’ve made some mistakes in philanthropy, and some things have worked out well.
COWEN: Would you agree with the judgment that today, art museums are less culturally central than they used to be, and they need to do something to remedy that?
RUBENSTEIN: Well, I was elected, earlier today, the new National Gallery of Art chairman.
RUBENSTEIN: So, it would be unlikely for me to say that art museums are not relevant anymore. No, I think art is an important part of society, and from time immemorial, people have been painting and doing other kinds of visual arts. And I think people’s brains get improved by seeing what people have done with their creative skills.
I think art museums and all museums are good, and this is the reason: The human brain has not yet evolved to the point where, if you see a picture of the Mona Lisa on a computer slide, it’s the same experience as going to the Louvre and seeing it in person because before you go to the Louvre, while you’re there, and afterwards, you’re more likely to read about it. You’re more likely to learn about it, and I think when you do that, you’re more likely to have a better human experience than just looking at a computer slide.
If you eliminate all museums and everything was on a computer slide, I’m not sure that’d be a good experience for people.
COWEN: Should the National Gallery have canceled its pending Genoese Baroque exhibit?
RUBENSTEIN: Well, we’ve had a lot of issues because of COVID and so forth, so we want to make certain that people can attend.
COWEN: But I’ve been going to the National Gallery. It more or less works. Other museums are putting on the exhibit. People worked for years on it, and then to —
RUBENSTEIN: You mean the Guston?
COWEN: Not the Philip Guston.
RUBENSTEIN: Not that one?
COWEN: That’s been postponed.
RUBENSTEIN: That’s what I thought.
COWEN: There was an exhibit planned — great Baroque works from Genoa — that was supposed to happen at National Gallery a month ago? I’m not sure, but basically just said, “No, we’re not going to do this.”
RUBENSTEIN: Well, there were some considerations for that, but I’d say we put on a lot of exhibitions. Everything can’t work out perfectly as originally planned, but we are increasing our exhibition schedule, and I hope that we can be a much bigger leader in exhibitions than we have been in, let’s say, recent decades.
COWEN: What is personally most important or closest to you in the visual arts?
RUBENSTEIN: Well, the most important thing is having people appreciate the arts.
COWEN: But what artists? What excites you to look at?
RUBENSTEIN: Well, there are so many different types of art, but increasingly, I’m collecting artwork done by minority artists. The National Gallery of Art historically has been a Western art museum, but it hasn’t really had very many artists who are women, very many artists who are minorities, very many artists who are African American, very many artists who are Latin American. So we are now trying to increase our ability to show people that great artists don’t have to be white men from Europe. That’s an important focus on what we’re trying to do.
COWEN: How would you reform or improve the American system of arts funding?
RUBENSTEIN: Well, right now arts funding is dependent, to a large extent, on philanthropy, and governments tend to be cutting back what they’re giving for arts funding. And I’m talking about performing arts as well as visual arts.
Right now, you have many different performing arts venues and many different visual arts venues that are really supplicants at the table of the government and begging for scraps, typically for money. And then, they’re very dependent on philanthropy, and I wish we would have more government funding of the arts — as they do in Europe — than we do have now. Right now, we’re very dependent on philanthropists for a large part of what makes it possible for museums and performing arts organizations to exist.
COWEN: How would you do that? Would it be federal? Would it be state? Would it be through the NEA? Would it be a direct congressional allocation to the National Gallery or Smithsonian?
RUBENSTEIN: Well, the National Gallery does get a great deal of money from the federal government, but other art museums around the country don’t get as much, obviously, from state governments, as much as they might want, or from local governments.
I don’t think there’s any one formula for doing it, but I think we have to convince legislators and other government administrators that the arts aren’t an afterthought that’s a nice little thing off to the side, and it’s not going to help little Johnny or little Janie be a better person by seeing good museums, and so forth.
We have to convince people that around the rest of the world, people recognize that if we want to stimulate the brain and create great people, very often stimulating them through the performing arts and the visual arts is a great way to make the brain work better. So we should see it as an education tool, not just as a museum.
COWEN: As you know, most art museums put out a pretty small percentage of their overall collection.
RUBENSTEIN: That’s correct.
COWEN: It could be as low as 5 percent. As an economist, this worries me. Is this an inefficiency? Should there be a more rapid circulation of artistic works? Should policy encourage this?
RUBENSTEIN: Well, every art museum and every gallery has more art than they can display. We don’t have an infinite amount of space, but if you kept everything and put everything on display all the time, you wouldn’t have enough space, probably, for it. And you might not attract new people because if people think the same things are going to be there all the time, they’re not going to come back a second time or third time. So you’ve got to rotate the collection so people will come back and see some things that are new, and that’s —
COWEN: But there’s plenty of empty space around: other buildings, community centers, the walk to the men’s room.
RUBENSTEIN: Well, there’s always cost. In addition, if you display art all the time, some of it could be degraded or fade because if you expose art to sunlight unduly and it’s not protected, sometimes it could damage the art. But I’m glad that the art museums have a lot of things so they can circulate and get people to come back and back. Yes, there’s always space, but there’s always money to build that space out, so that’s not insignificant.
COWEN: In terms of your time management, obviously, you get a lot done. What is your most unusual time management habit?
RUBENSTEIN: Well, probably I’m the only person in United States who’s still going out and buying newspapers every day and reading all six of them every day.
COWEN: That makes two of us.
RUBENSTEIN: Okay, so I still go and buy the newspapers. I don’t read them online. I go drive to the place where I can find the newspapers. I buy them. I read them. I don’t like to read newspapers online, so that’s probably a use of my time that some people would say is not useful because I could read online, but I don’t enjoy the experience as much.
COWEN: Why don’t you have them delivered, which is what I do?
RUBENSTEIN: I travel a lot, and so I’ll be in different places. I’m not in my home that much.
COWEN: At what level of wealth do you think you were happiest?
RUBENSTEIN: Felix Rohatyn used to be a famous investment banker who later became an ambassador to France. He was asked once, “How much money does it take to make you feel financially secure?” He said, “It’s exactly twice whatever you actually have.” That’s probably true. No matter what wealth you have, you always think you need a bit more to be financially secure.
I have more money now than I ever thought I would have when I was younger, and more money than I probably need to get through the rest of my life. I am very fortunate, but I still think that I would like to have more money, so I can give away more money. I’m giving away all my money. I just want to give away more.
COWEN: It is my intuition that the billionaires I know are quite different from the multimillionaires. What do you think actually makes that difference in terms of temperament or character?
RUBENSTEIN: Well, of course, a billion isn’t what it used to be. Now it’s a term of derision. It used to be, if he’s a billionaire, you’d say, “Wow, you’re an accomplished businessperson.” Now it’s a term of derision everywhere because people say, “He’s a billionaire. These are terrible people. These billionaires are doing terrible things to society.”
The multimillionaires probably didn’t have as much luck as the billionaires did, I suspect, if making money is considered a matter of luck, and I guess some people would consider it that. But I don’t think that billionaires are any happier than multimillionaires or any happier than non-millionaires. Happiness is the most elusive thing in life. I know a lot of billionaires, and I can’t say they’re as happy as some of the people who don’t have any money.
COWEN: But isn’t there some difference in persistence between the billionaires and the multimillionaires that’s not just luck? Or no?
RUBENSTEIN: Well, persistence is necessary if you’re going to be successful on almost anything in life, and some of the billionaires had lucky ideas, and they persisted. But there are a lot of multimillionaires who said, “Look, I have a good idea, and I’ve made a company work. I’m now worth $100 million, but I want to spend my time doing other things.” It’s not always the case that people feel they have to make a billion dollars in order to feel successful with their life.
COWEN: You’ve been a major donor to a number of very well-known universities. If it were all up to you, how would you fix higher education? What would you change?
RUBENSTEIN: The higher education system in the United States is still the envy of the world. Our K-12 system is obviously not the envy of the world. Higher education systems — certainly, the private universities — are the envy of the world in terms of the way they work, but they can always be better. It’s not clear that we educate people in all the ways I would like.
For example, you can graduate from almost any college in the United States without having to take an American history course, and so, very few people know much about American history. In our country, I think that’s a sad situation. I wish people would learn a little bit more about our country’s background, and probably having more core courses that would get you to learn certain basic things to be a good citizen would probably be something I would recommend people doing.
COWEN: Well, Harvard and Princeton, Chicago and Duke — they’re all doing great, but if you look at completion rates for the system as a whole, it’s even hard to learn what that number is. I suspect it’s about 40 percent, from what I can tell.
RUBENSTEIN: I think the college dropout rate is about 25 percent, something like that.
COWEN: But those who finish — state schools, everything — it seems to be below half. What are we doing wrong? The returns to college on paper are pretty high. The socioeconomic returns, health returns may be higher yet, but so many Americans are not finishing. Where are we failing whom, and how?
RUBENSTEIN: Well, one, we are telling people that the value of a college education is how much money you make, as opposed to what you can learn as a human and actually have a better experience as a human, by getting an education. I think it’s unfortunate that we only worry about whether you can make a certain amount of money by going to college. And therefore, sometimes people say after one or two years, “I’ll drop out and get a job. I can make a fair amount of money now, or just as much as if I had a college degree.”
Whereas I think it’d be better if people actually got a degree and appreciate the value of learning and were learners throughout the rest of their life, but that’s a whole separate subject. I think people are dropping out in part because of economic pressures. COVID has probably increased the dropout rate, and obviously, there’re a lot of family pressures and other things to do to support families in the case of lower-income people. It’s unfortunate because I think higher education is really the pathway, in my view, to a happier life and a more successful life.
COWEN: If you look at data on college professors, or even incoming students at Harvard, it seems they’re very left-wing, and they’re much more left-wing than they were before. Now, one might even be a Democrat or have left-leaning sympathies, but it seems the system is somehow out of balance. What went wrong? And how do we fix that?
RUBENSTEIN: Your presupposition is that there’s left-wing. Left-wing is a pejorative term. You could use the term liberal.
COWEN: No, call it what you want, but I don’t know that they are liberal anymore.
RUBENSTEIN: Well, also, you have to remember the Ivy League schools often are the ones seen as being too liberal or left-wing. They are a tiny part of the country’s education system. If you go to Kansas State University or Oklahoma State University or the equivalent in the Midwest, I’m not sure the students are quite as left-leaning as you might think.
On the whole, remember, the country’s kind of split down the middle politically, left and right, and, I suspect, college populations. Throughout the course of history, college students have probably been slightly more liberal than they are when they’re in their 50s or 60s. This is the normal course of life. People tend to be a little bit more liberal when they’re younger than when they’re older.
COWEN: When you interview someone, how do you prepare for that? What do you do?
RUBENSTEIN: Well, if the person has written a book, I read the book. If a person hasn’t written a book, I will read everything that’s written about the person over the last year or two. I gather it up. Then what I do is write up some questions, and then I memorize them a bit and work my brain so that I can have a conversation with the person without referring to the notes so much. My style is not to do that. I try to listen to what the person says. Remember that being a good interviewer means being a good listener, not just a good questioner.
I also think you have to engage the person and get the person to loosen up, and make the person feel this is a good experience, and all those kinds of things. It takes some time to do that. I’ve now been doing it for a number of years, so I developed the skill a little bit, and I’ve been surprised at how many people think the way I do it is attractive and unusual, or fun to watch. It wasn’t something I was trained to do, but something I’ve evolved into.
COWEN: What’s your favorite book?
RUBENSTEIN: My favorite book of all, other than the ones I’ve written, I guess I would say is the Bible because if you’re going to be in any one place, and you can only have one book, the Bible is basically the story about humanity, more or less throughout all the book. If you’re on a deserted island, and you’re only going to have one book, you probably would get the most out of the Bible would be my guess.
COWEN: What is most appealing to you in the Magna Carta?
RUBENSTEIN: The Magna Carta that I own is the only one in private hands, and whenever you can have something that’s unique, that’s attractive. It was going to leave the country most likely, so I kept it in the country. But what’s most important about it — it was the inspiration for the Declaration of Independence. It had bigger influence in this country’s history than, honestly, it did in England.
In England, it was ignored for quite some time, but in this country, people — when they got charters from the King of England, the charter said in effect you have the rights of Englishmen, which meant the rights of Magna Carta. And so, when the Revolution started, people started citing this as the rights of the Magna Carta. This was often said to be the thing that inspired the Revolution. I think it’s the forerunner to the Declaration of Independence.
COWEN: Are there any changes you would make in our Constitution?
RUBENSTEIN: Yes. When you think about it, the Constitution was put together by, more or less, 55 white Christian men who were property owners. If you had a constitutional convention today that represented today’s population, and they had more gender diversity than they had then, it would obviously be a different kind of thing.
If I could do anything, make any one change, I would probably put the Equal Rights Amendment in. While I’m not sure it’s necessary at this point, given the way that law has evolved, I do think it would make many people feel better if they were included. It only came one state short of ratification. I think I would probably amend that.
COWEN: Should we have a larger House of Representatives?
RUBENSTEIN: I’ve never been asked that question before. I’d have a smaller one. As you know, the first amendment to the Constitution, as proposed in the Bill of Rights, would have actually had a House that would now be 10,000 members — if that first amendment had been passed. It wasn’t approved by the states; it wasn’t ratified. I think 435 is more than enough. You could argue for shrinking it a bit because, right now, it is very large, but I wouldn’t certainly enhance it. I think it’d be too big.
COWEN: Living or dead, whom would you most like to interview?
RUBENSTEIN: It’s an interesting question. The phenomenon that we’re engaged in now, which is an interview, is a phenomenon that didn’t really exist throughout most of organized history. So we don’t have any interviews of Cleopatra, Charlemagne, Alexander the Great, Napoleon, William Shakespeare, or George Washington, or even Abraham Lincoln.
If I could interview anybody that’s ever lived, it would be Abraham Lincoln. I think he was the greatest American, and I think he was the kind of person that would be an interesting interviewee. He had a good sense of humor. He had a pretty good perspective on himself, and he did some things that, I think, were pretty impressive.
COWEN: If I look at your books of interviews, all the different people you’ve interviewed and online, it’s striking to me, there are relatively few what you might call weirdos in the group. In your new book, there’s Ken Burns, there’s Madeleine Albright, there’s Wynton Marsalis. But someone just out there who’s radical or different or not well-known — why not interview more weirdos?
RUBENSTEIN: I interview people I usually know and I’ve had some relation with. I don’t probably know as many weirdos as maybe I know normal people.
COWEN: But they would accept the invite — a lot of weirdos. They will accept my invites if I ask a weirdo. We had a homeless guy on this program. That was a good episode.
RUBENSTEIN: Well, it’s a good idea for another book — maybe just weirdos, but I don’t know that book would sell as well. But you could argue a lot of people I’ve interviewed — they were considered weird by a lot of people when they were growing up. As they got more famous, they weren’t considered quite as weird.
COWEN: Who mentored you?
RUBENSTEIN: I don’t know that any one person mentored me. I worked for Ted Sorensen briefly when I was practicing law. I worked for Stuart Eizenstat when I worked at the White House, but since I left the White House, I haven’t had a boss. I’m now 72, and I left the White House when I was 31, so I haven’t had a boss for 41 years or so.
But I admired a lot of people, and I brought a lot of people in my firm that I thought were very impressive. Two of them that I thought were extremely impressive were Jim Baker, former secretary of state, and George Herbert Walker Bush, a president of the United States. Very impressive people. I got to know them, and I learned a lot from them.
COWEN: What do you think you understand about mentoring that might not be obvious?
RUBENSTEIN: It takes a lot of time. I’m not a good mentor myself because I realize that, to be a good mentor to people, you really have to put a lot of time into it. Now, a number of people have come to me later in their career and said, “You were a mentor to me.” But I think they’re being polite. I may have helped them a little bit or given them some advice, but being a mentor really takes a lot of time.
COWEN: Do you think a person should always have mentors, including much younger mentors?
RUBENSTEIN: A lot of people have been successful in life without having mentors. I think mentors can be helpful to you, for sure, but I wouldn’t obsess over having a mentor if you can’t find somebody that’s going to be helpful. Having a bad mentor can be not helpful.
COWEN: I know in your book, you have many different interviews with, of course, different people. Again, the book is The American Experiment: Dialogues on a Dream. The process of doing the book — just to close — if you had to sum up what you feel you learned from the entirety of the interviews, maybe at a very meta level. Maybe you just learned about your own learning. What’s the main thing you learned doing the book?
RUBENSTEIN: Well, the country has evolved, and it is not the country that was anticipated by the Founding Fathers. They came up with some wonderful rhetoric that all men are going to be equal, but the truth is that we have lived in a way where not all people have been treated equal.
The country’s history and the experiment is whether we can have a representative democracy survive and actually live up to the rhetoric of the Founding Fathers without destroying the country. We’ve had stress tests that have almost destroyed the country. The Civil War came close to it.
As I point out in the book, we had a couple of stress tests recently, most recently in the election and the January 6 events. We survived that, in part because of what I described in the book as certain genes of America that we have as part of our body politic. One of them is the rule of law, and the belief in civilian control of the military, and separation of powers, and so forth. Those kinds of genes prevailed on January the 6th and subsequently. I think that was a good thing.
COWEN: David Rubenstein, thank you very much.
RUBENSTEIN: My pleasure. Thank you for inviting me.