Philanthropist George Soros

Tavis talks with billionaire financier and philanthropist George Soros, founder and chairman of Open Society Foundations, about his life, his career and the latest financial news.

George Soros proves that one can do well while doing good. The financier's philanthropy is shaped by his experience in surviving the Nazi occupation of his native Hungary during World War II and fleeing the post-war Communist-dominated country. He made his way to England and graduated from the London School of Economics. Soros worked as a financial analyst and trader in NY before setting up what became one of the first hedge funds. He chairs Soros Fund Management and supports human rights in over 70 countries with his Open Society Foundations.


Tavis: George Soros is, of course, a successful, very successful businessman, philanthropist and founder and chairman of Open Society Foundations. The influential organization helps foster democracy around the world.

Born in Hungary, George Soros survived the Nazi occupation under Hitler, thanks to the remarkable efforts of his father. The terrific text based on those experiences is called “Masquerade.” George Soros, it is an honor, sir, to have you on this program.

George Soros: It’s my pleasure.

Tavis: Delighted to have you. It seems to me that it’s impossible to have a conversation with you without talking first about your father, about “Masquerade,” the role that he played in your life, because it seems to inform so much of what you do today. So let me start by asking you just to tell me about your father.

Soros: Well, he was a lawyer, but a very unusual person, because in the First World War he was a volunteer in the Austro-Hungarian army. He was taken prisoner, taken to Siberia, and there he was elected the prisoners’ representative, because he was very outgoing and gregarious and so on.

Then he organized a breakout of prisoners, so they escaped and they sailed down the river; they wanted to go to the ocean on a barge. But they forgot that the old rivers of Siberia go to the North Sea, so it got colder and colder and they realized they made a mistake. (Laughter) So they had to fight their way back through the (speaks in foreign language) the forest.

Then he got caught up in the Russian revolution in Siberia, and that was his formative experience, where he learned that property is not much use, that life can be easily lost. So he came back, he lost his ambition and wanted to enjoy life, and he brought us up sort of not – being different from other middle class children.

Then came the German occupation of Hungary, and then he was more prepared for that than most other people because of that previous experience, where he learned that the normal rules don’t always apply. So he was mentally prepared and he managed to take care not only of his immediate family, but a lot of other people.

That was, I call it, his finest hour. That turned out to be my formative experience, because we were confronted by really an evil force, a real danger, but we prevailed. We managed to get by and also help other people. So adversity turned, for me, into a very positive experience and that was due to my father’s guidance. So I absorbed his values and I will say that he’s still with me at this age.

Tavis: Tell me more about – I hear loud and clear the impact that your father had on you and the values that you take now, have taken all these years, from your father. But since the Nazi occupation ends up being your, to quote you, your formative experience, tell me more about how that experience has shaped you and your life and your work.

Soros: Well, first of all, that, and then afterwards the communist experience, taught me how it is what kind of political regime prevails. Because here I was a middle class kid, 13 years old, and my life was in danger. If we hadn’t done what we did, I might have perished.

So it’s really a matter of life and death what kind of government you have. So that got me interested in we might call it politics, and also it taught me that adversity can actually be a positive force.

So for me, the Holocaust and that period was actually a positive experience because you could overcome the difficulties. So because of that I seem to gravitate towards difficult problems and the difficulty is a kind of a challenge to rise to the occasion.

Tavis: I’ve seen a lot of people over my career – and I haven’t been around as you have – but I’ve seen a lot of people who have survived difficult periods, adversity. Not like what you’ve experienced, but I’ve seen people come up against evil and on the other side of it, while on the one hand they endure it, they survive it, they come out bitter, not necessarily better.

I’m always humbled – this is my first time meeting you, of course – but I’ve always been humbled and taken aback by the fact that you endured such evil but your generosity, your kindness, your charitable work is the antithesis of that evil. Juxtapose those things for me.

Soros: Well, my father was my model, because he actually – it gave him pleasure to help other people. So he did it on a small scale and he got very involved with people. I have a more abstract turn of mind, so I sort of deal more on an abstract level with the problems.

Tavis: Speaking of how you deal with the problems, let me ask a few questions about that, since you raised it. Number one, when you suggested a few moments ago that governments do matter, and the kind of government that one lives under, works with, matters.

Describe for me in your own words what kind of government – not by name, but by description – what kind of government do you think works best for everyday people, average people?

Soros: Well, I call it open society, which is basically just another more general term for a democracy that is – you call it maybe a liberal democracy. It’s not only majority rule but also respect for minorities and minority opinions and the rule of law. So it’s really a sort of institutional democracy.

Tavis: What’s the danger, then, in a place – say, the United States of America – thinking that exporting democracy, exporting an open society way of government, is the best way to go? I can give a number of examples where we have stood on this bully pulpit and talked about democracy, democracy, democracy, and we try to impose that on other people. What’s the danger in that?

Soros: Well, democracy, by its very nature, can’t be imposed on people. Democracy has to be the people deciding for themselves. We in the United States are very often – since we are a democracy and we have national interests, we’ve often made the mistake that a democracy has to adopt America’s interests, and that is a contradiction because a democracy basically is people deciding what their interests are.

So advocating democracy has, by other people, often been taken as a form of imperialism, and not without some justification. So the important thing in a democracy is that it doesn’t necessarily have to agree with what America’s interests are, and it doesn’t necessarily have to be serving American interests.

Tavis: Since you went there, and since you are so regarded around the world, your own assessment of how much our decision-making on the global scale, how much our decision-making, based upon what’s in our best interest, how much has that harmed us around the world?

Soros: Well, look, I think it is natural that every country has to take care of its interests, but there are some interests that are common to all countries. There are some human interests, or we need also international cooperation. We’ve sometimes confused it with dictation. I was particularly critical of George W. Bush in that respect.

But at the same time, America has been a very leading light in the world. For instance, in the Second World War, where America fought Nazi Germany, America was a liberator. Also with the communist regimes in Eastern Europe, America has been a force for freedom, individual freedom, and very much admired.

Even Germany, after the collapse of Hitler’s regime, adopted democracy and America has been very supportive of Germany, rebuilding it, not making the mistakes of the First World War, of imposing rather harsh terms of punishment. As a result, Germany became America’s most faithful ally for 40, 50 years.

Tavis: Since we’re talking about being a liberator versus an occupier, and since you mentioned a moment ago that you were very outspoken and very critical of President George W. Bush, I wonder, where this so-called spread of democracy is concerned, how you would assess President Obama. In some ways, militarily, as you know, he has been more aggressive, sending more troops to Afghanistan, more drones into Pakistan, et cetera, et cetera.

He’s been more aggressive in some ways than President Bush was, who you were very critical of. Again, so I’m curious as to whether or not you could assess for me what you think about –

Soros: Well, let me leave Afghanistan out of it. But when you take the Arab Spring, the Arab revolutionary wave, I think that the way he handled it was absolutely the right way. Even with regards to Iran, which is, of course, a very oppressive, horrendous regime, he was, in my opinion, right in not pressing regime change from the outside, but saying this is for the Iranians to decide.

Because he removed America as the devil that the Iranian regime could sort of condemn, and because of that, the Iranian people started, in fact, demanding more democracy and less oppression, which the regime then, in a very ugly way, suppressed. Taking that stance was actually the right thing.

Then we had allies like Egypt, Tunisia and others who had pretty oppressive regimes, but they were on our side in the world and the Obama administration used its influence to really discourage the military to shoot unarmed people and was successful in that.

That allowed the revolution to succeed, and I think that was also a very good way of handling it. So I give him very high – I’m actually quite critical of Obama, even though I had supported him, but I’m a critical supporter – but in this respect, I give him high marks.

Tavis: I respected you, as I do anyway, and let you extract Afghanistan out of that answer. Now I’m going to ask you to put it back into the equation, because that’s a – talking about democracy and the way forward and all that, this is, you know.

Soros: Well, that’s a very, very big problem because in a way, he, in his election campaign, he said that we should have (unintelligible) Afghanistan, which he was right, but then that got him committed to continue the Bush administration’s policies, which is doomed to failure.

Because when we originally moved into Afghanistan after 9/11, we were in Afghanistan, again it greeted us liberators. But after 10 years, we are now regarded as occupiers and we are part of the problem as much as the solution. So we ought to clearly find a way to extricate ourselves from Afghanistan, which I think he is trying to do, but it’s not a success.

Tavis: When you said that you are – my dear friend, Dr. Cornel West, uses the same phrase, that he’s a “critical supporter” of President Obama, some find that term oxymoronic, that those two words can’t exist in –

Soros: On the contrary, I think that’s how it should be.

Tavis: Tell me more, yeah.

Soros: No, because I’m agreed with (unintelligible) critical thinking. This is what I learned from Karl Popper –

Tavis: Open Society.

Soros: – of Open Society, that nobody is in possession of the ultimate truth. We can never be sure that we are right. Therefore, we must grope towards it and in order to get there we have to have a critical discussion and recognize that we may be wrong, and be willing to review our views. So critical thinking is at the very heart of an open society.

Tavis: Critical thinking is really about, to my mind, challenging people to re-examine the assumptions they hold. It’s helping people to expand their inventory of ideas. To your point, that’s necessary in an open society.

I wonder whether or not you think that in this society – that is to say, the U.S. of A., that we’re still interested in that, or are we tone deaf to hearing other points of view? Is the screaming and yelling so loud, is the ideology so entrenched that we’re past really listening to each other?

Soros: Well, unfortunately, America has gone in the wrong direction. America is the most successful, in a way, oldest living democracy, and it has a constitution that was very actively debated – the “Federalist Papers -” a lot of thought and critical thinking went into creating the Constitution.

But now the level of political discourse has diminished, and people are much more interested in making their point and use whatever technique they can use to get their point across.

There ought to be a striving for the truth, which has really gotten kind of eliminated, almost, in this contest of wills. So I’m very, very concerned about America as an open society.

Tavis: You made some news of late, in case you hadn’t heard, when you made your comment about the debt. All this debate about the debt ceiling, whether it ought to be raised or not, and all the politics in Washington around that. Your point was that you think that the U.S. could take on some more debt at the moment. Tell me exactly what you said and what you meant by that.

Soros: Well, exactly how much debt is too much is a very big question, and there’s no real hard-and-fast rule. When you have a cyclical downturn, then it has been shown very effectively by basically John Maynard Keynes, that you need to run a budget deficit to offset the lack of demand from the private sector.

Then when the economy gets overheated, that’s when you’re supposed to put on the brakes and reduce the debt, so run a surplus to keep the economy on an even keel. Actually, under President Clinton we did have a surplus and then Bush came, built up the deficit and allowed a real estate boom to develop which then collapsed. We had the financial crisis.

To get out of that crisis we should now stimulate the economy and we are not yet at that point where we should be going for a balanced budget. It is a matter of concern because the accumulation of debt makes the economy sort of a less flexible and the burden of paying the interest weighs on the economy.

But it’s been pushed for a political purpose, because I think the Republicans and particularly the far right is using it to reduce the role of government, to eliminate as far as possible the government, government services, reduce taxes and reduce services. Even further, to destroy one of the financial supporters of the Democratic Party. So it’s a party political objective, and I think it does potentially endanger the recovery.

Tavis: I could do this for hours; I’ve just got 45 seconds left. The time goes so fast. Let me ask you right quick, though, with your time and with your treasure, given all that we’ve discussed tonight, what are your one or two top priorities at this point?

Soros: Well, improving the democratic discourse is one. There are many others, particularly than a broad – curing the resource (unintelligible) is one of the major threats that we are now following, and that’s very rewarding. There are so many things to do, I can’t tell you in 45 seconds.

Tavis: Well, you’re doing many of them well. Can I just tell you, I love this little text. “The Soros Lectures at the Central European University,” a good treatise on what you really believe about our world, and how it can be made better. An honor to have you on this program. Thank you so much for your time.

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Last modified: May 25, 2011 at 4:30 pm