Bill Clinton and the Economic Crisis: A Blogger’s Chat

The question for philanthropy says former President Bill Clinton, is whether “people give more or less” during the unfolding American financial crisis.

“I think there’s at least a 50-percent chance they’ll give more,” he told a small group of bloggers Monday night during a meeting in his suite at the Sheraton New York, site this week of the fourth annual Clinton Global Initiative conference.

President Clinton covered a wide range of topics – from economics and banking to environmental technology and politics in the hemisphere – during an informal and freewheeling discussion that featured few questions but expansive answers on the world situation. Overall, Clinton maintained an optimistic view on the eve of his annual CGI confab, which is timed to the opening of the United Nations General Assembly and brings together heads of state, top business leaders, philanthropic executives and a slew of celebrities.
The ideas is to create an environment for philanthropic deal-making on a broad scale, and CGI has been responsible for leveraging billions in private funds and investments for global causes over its first four years through “commitments,” essentially term sheets for doing good, that are signed by governments, companies, NGOs, individuals, and foundations at the gathering.

There are, of course, political notes to CGI – some subtle, and others right out on the awning in block letters. For example, both candidates for president, Senators Barack Obama and John McCain, will speak about energy at CGI – McCain in person, Obama via satellite. And Senator Hillary Clinton, the runner-up in the race for the Democratic nomination, will be a presence just as she was last year as her campaign got underway. Yet CGI is also relentlessly non-partisan: Laura Bush opened the conference two years ago, Al Gore is a regular, and conservative oilman T. Boone Pickens is in the spotlight this year for his energy proposals. Throw in British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, Queen Rania of Jordan, and UN Secretary-General Ban ki Moon, along with business titans and philanthropists like Bill Gates and Muhammad Yunus, and household names like Bono, Barbra Streisand and Muhammad Ali, and it’s quite a mix.

The impact on philanthropy was very much on Bill Clinton’s mind Monday night. “The current economic crisis will make the work of putting philanthropists and organizations together more significant over the next couple of years.”

He talked about humanitarian assistance for Haiti in the wake of devastating storms. “I’m very interested in the response here at CGI to the situation in Haiti because of what we do here, which is get business, wealthy individuals and foundations to five more money to the developing nations of the world.”
But his thoughts were also on the domestic crisis, the economic disaster that threatens the U.S. financial system. “Two-thirds of the American people cannot pay their bills any more,” he said. “They do not believe they will be able to stabilize their lives any longer.” The massive bail-out plans aimed at protecting wide swaths of the insurance, credit and banking sectors should not just protect business, said Clinton.
“It will only work if there’s a mainstream component as well as a Wall Street component…“I’m for the idea that the taxpayers ought to be paid back.”

Predicting that foreclosures on American homes would reach two million this year, Clinton called for a moratorium on home mortgage foreclosures, along with a Federally-run homeowners loan fund similar to Depression-Era programs to allow homeowners to stay in their homes while reducing payments to affordable levels and blocking foreclosures.

President Clinton said that the economic crisis was playing differently in other parts of the United States. “Hillary called [from the campaign trail in Kentucky] and said it’s really interesting how this is going .You know as a New Yorker, she sees Lehman Brothers as tens of thousands of people who worked there and may not have jobs any more, not as a few powerful people. But out here, they don’t see it yet as a big crisis requiring an urgent response, because they’ve been in trouble for years.”

And the world is also paying close attention, he said. Speaking to heads to state at CGI, President Clinton said there was good deal of worry around world about the state of the U.S. economy. “They’re more or less in shock too.”

Note: the team at onPhilanthropy will be covering the Clinton Global Initiative all week. Check back for future updates. I’ll also be Twittering away as the spirit moves me.

Update: Some of the other bloggers who graced the Clinton suite: Lance Mannion, Dana Goldstein, Deanna Zandt, Josh Orton, Josh Levy, and Jack Aponte.


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