"I've gotten so much out of this country. ... And as I get older, I think, how much have I given back? I've taken out a hell of a lot more than I've given back, so I'm trying to make up for that."
To do that, Peterson has put a billion dollars of his own money into his new venture, the Peter G. Peterson Foundation. The foundation's stated mission is to increase public awareness of the nature and urgency of key economic challenges facing the country, and to accelerate action to meet those challenges. Peterson warns that the United States is in much deeper debt than the $10 trillion it carries in public debt. His foundation also seeks sustainable solutions to runaway spending in government.
"The dirty, big secret we are keeping from the American public," Peterson told McFadden, "is we don't tell people that there is another $45 trillion that are promises that we have made for Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid."
The entitlement programs have no money allocated to fund them, he said, and there is no end in sight for the swelling national debt. He is fearful, he said, that the American dream, which he has lived, may not be available to future generations. His foundation is working to turn that tide.
One of the first issues Peterson's foundation is tackling is Social Security. While labeled by some as the man who wants to kill Social Security, he says he has a plan to reform it so that it works for those who need it.
"The Social Security trust fund is one of the ultimate oxymorons. It shouldn't be trusted and it's not funded," he said. "What I want is for Social Security to be there for the people that need it. I have advocated reducing benefits for the well off for 25 years."
By reforming Social Security and other programs, Peterson believes he can make the programs solvent for the people who depend on them.
When asked whether his billion-dollar plan may not be enough to achieve his lofty goals, Peterson said he's considered the possibility.
"But then you have to confront the alternative," he said. "Suppose I were on my death bed 10 years from now, and bad things had happened, which I think they will if we don't reform our ways. This great country has been marvelous to me. And I did nothing. How would I feel if I didn't try?"
And there's no debate that he's trying. He knows that his father would be proud of all he is doing to maintain the ideals of the American dream passed down to him.
"My story couldn't happen in most countries, in most families. It wouldn't have been possible," Peterson said. "[I] decided to give back to his country that has given [me] this much, and to remember [my] father's lesson, which is, 'I want you kids to do better than I do.'"