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Q&A

Arnold Ventures Welcomes New Leader of Public Finance

New EVP George Callas brings to the organization long track record of tax and budget policy wins, including key roles in crafting some of the nation’s landmark tax reform legislative packages.

George Callas is Arnold Ventures' new executive vice president of Public Finance.

A nationally recognized expert in tax and budget policy, George Callas is as comfortable talking fiscal sustainability as he is playing fullback on the soccer pitch. As a senior tax counsel in the U.S. House of Representatives — first for the Ways and Means Committee and then to former House Speaker Paul Ryan — during the Obama administration, he learned to navigate divided government by identifying potential bipartisan policies and driving toward them. It’s not unlike how he plays soccer: Though fullback is a defensive position, he admits, “I make some runs forward.”

Callas’ next move is to Arnold Ventures as its executive vice president of Public Finance. His first day is Oct. 18. AV’s addition of the Capitol Hill veteran and high-profile advisor on some of the most well-known federal tax policies in recent years signals the organization’s commitment to identifying and pursuing sustainable fiscal policy on a broad scale. Callas joins AV at a pivotal moment in the national debate on public financing.

We sat down with him for a wide-ranging discussion about taxes, the imperfect nature of evidence — and the obscure world of #TaxTwitter.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

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Arnold Ventures

You spent 15 years on the Hill, beginning in 2003. Are there lessons from that time that you can use to make change happen from your new seat at AV?

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George Callas

The No. 1 thing is that you have got to respect the legislative process. It can be hard to understand, frustrating, head-scratching, but you have to check those boxes to get to the end game.

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Arnold Ventures

Elaborate on that.

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George Callas

If everybody has the power to kill your idea, you have to work with everybody. It’s very hard to get stuff done and very easy to stop stuff. For the vast majority of my time on the Hill, there was divided government, and my work on tax reform usually was within a framework of bipartisan tax reform. Even on the 2011 super-committee on deficit reduction, the work was always geared toward how do we do things to which both sides will agree. In the end, that’s the way to get things done.

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Arnold Ventures

So what’s the role of an outside entity like AV in getting things done? And personally, why take on this work from the outside now?

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George Callas

We have an amazing opportunity to try to advance an evidence-based public finance agenda. I’ve always preferred an empirical approach to developing good policy, and the chance to contribute to that in the public finance sphere is appealing. The reality is that the evidence is often imperfect — I often say that the global economy is not a controlled experiment — and can be interpreted in ways that fit opposite agendas. So can we do better at figuring that out, and try to separate the wheat from the chaff so that policymakers have a clearer understanding of what the real-world evidence actually says.

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Arnold Ventures

But how do you actually do that?

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George Callas

Look, there’s a market failure between the policymaking and academic worlds. We need a bridge from the classroom whiteboard to the sausage-making factory that is the legislative process. My hope is to be that bridge, to help facilitate. Ultimately it’s about taking really good ideas and commericalizing them so they can really happen.

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Arnold Ventures

Understanding that this is a new role and you haven’t had your first day or built a team yet, what do you see as the foundation for work AV will do in public finance?

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George Callas

My vision for the AV Public Finance team is to first identify agenda items related to good tax, fiscal, and budget policy, and develop evidence and analysis to inform the policy makers in Congress and the administration — in the hope of helping design policies that become law and actually work to address the problems they are trying to address. I see insufficient effort made to gather evidence that policies will actually fix the problems with which they are associated. There is a real opening for this work. We need to develop and promote policies that will provide an adequate, stable revenue base that without hindering to growth, higher wages, etc. — and policies that will provide an adequate safety net without burdening future generations with debt.

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Arnold Ventures

I want to talk about your Twitter feed, where you are not shy about sharing your opinion about what we’ve been discussing and plenty of other things. In Twitter years, you’re a late bloomer — you didn’t join until 2018. What made you take the plunge?

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George Callas

At first I joined because I wanted to keep tabs on what other people were saying. But then a friend encouraged me to add my voice to the mix. There is an institutional bias and lack of balance on #TaxTwitter. There are a lot of academics, nonprofits, and think tanks that are engaging in Twitter tax policy discussions. For the most part, they are thoughtful and intelligent commentators, but they often form an echo chamber. There are not many people in the #TaxTwitter conversation who compete in the private economy on a daily basis, because most of those people are in professional positions that do not allow them to engage. So I’ve seen my role as a bit of a #TaxTwitter contrarian.

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Arnold Ventures

You definitely get reactions!

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George Callas

Well, it’s intended to be somewhat humorous and tongue-in-cheek. But it’s a substantial amount of truth — and a little bit self-deprecating.

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Arnold Ventures

You said when you’re not tweeting or dreaming about tax policy that you coach youth soccer and play adult soccer. What’s your position?

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George Callas

I play mostly fullback, some midfielder.

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Arnold Ventures

So you’re a defensive player?

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George Callas

I am. Though I make some runs forward!

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Arnold Ventures

Is that in any way an analogy to how you approach your work?

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George Callas

As in ‘That I hate losing more than I like winning?’ [Laughs.] I hate giving up goals more than I like scoring? On Capitol Hill I spent 90% of my time trying to kill bad ideas and 10% advancing good ideas.

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