David Rubenstein talks about giving away his fortune and worrying about economic inequality.
WASHINGTON – Growing economic inequality in the United States may have favored David Rubenstein's bottom line, but the billionaire philanthropist warns it is a dangerous development for the United States and its future.
Rubenstein – interviewed in a new gallery at the National Archives that bears his name and displays his copy of the Magna Carta – said he shares the concern that President Obama on Wednesday called "the defining issue of our times."
"Society can only survive if people feel the benefits of society are good for everybody," Rubenstein said in an interview with USA TODAY's Capital Download. "So if you have people at the top who are very wealthy and they're getting all the great financial benefits and people at the bottom don't feel they have any way to get to the top, you're going to have a fissure in the country and you're going to have the kind of disequilibrium that you don't really want in society. We don't want to have a country broken apart because of inequality."
In the weekly video newsmaker series, he expressed dismay that the 400 richest people in the United States now hold more wealth than the 150 million poorest ones. "That's not a good thing," he said.
The son of a postal worker, Rubenstein attended Duke and the University of Chicago Law School on scholarships, worked as a junior aide in the Carter White House and eventually co-founded the Carlyle Group, a global private equity investment firm where he made his fortune.
These days, he suspects it has gotten more difficult for a kid from a blue-collar family to achieve that sort of rise. "It's getting harder and harder to get into good colleges," he said. "It's getting harder and harder to get jobs. Right now many people who graduate from college cannot find jobs, and now many people are getting to know their parents better by moving back to their parent's home after they graduate because they can't get jobs."
At 64, he says he tries to be a "patriotic philanthropist," joining Bill Gates, Warren Buffett and other billionaires in pledging to give away at least half of his fortune.
In Washington, he has made major contributions for everything from repairing the Washington Monument to financing the pandas at the National Zoo. He chairs the Kennedy Center and serves on the board of the Smithsonian.
The David M. Rubenstein Gallery at the National Archives, which opens to the public next week, is designed to provide context and history for the battle for rights in the United States. At the center is the Magna Carta he has loaned the Archives. Interactive displays trace the fight for rights for African Americans, women and immigrants.
Rubenstein recalled his spur-of-the-moment decision to bid on the 1297 Magna Carta when it came up for auction in 2007. It is one of 17 surviving copies of the document recognizing basic political rights, the wax seal of King Edward I still visible on the page.
"I heard about it, I went to see it and I just resolved in my mind that the next day I was going to buy it because I thought it was important it not leave this country," he said. "I thought because it was the inspiration for the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, it deserved to be here." He didn't discuss the idea with anyone else "because they would have probably talked me out of it."
The final price: Almost $22 million.
"Best money I ever spent," he said.