The nation’s broken infrastructure system is the next area of exploration for Arnold Ventures’ philanthropic work, AV Co-Founder and Co-Chair Laura Arnold said during a wide-ranging conversation with Texas Tribune CEO Evan Smith at the Texas Tribune Festival, a three-day gathering of the biggest names in policy and politics in Austin, Texas.
Arnold broke the news when responding to an audience member’s question about Texas’ transportation and urban planning systems being broken and heavily influenced by “government perversion of the marketplace,” and whether AV had any interest in this line of work.
“I love the fact that you are introducing our line of work in infrastructure, which is one of our next large areas of exploration at Arnold Ventures,” Arnold said. “Not just in Texas, but in general, I think there is a lot to explore in terms of efficiency, infrastructure investments, housing.”
In the coming years, local, state, and federal governments are projected to spend trillions of dollars on the infrastructure needed to decarbonize our economy, address the lack of housing supply, and replace aging bridges and highways. But there are obstacles, including the government’s diminished capacity to build infrastructure cost-effectively, as well as onerous policies and regulations that hamper progress rather than solve problems.
For this generation and the next, Arnold said, there is a need for the policy landscape to become “more favorable for innovation” and “a catalyst for smart design of solutions that we will need given population growth and given mobility.”
Arnold Ventures will address the nation’s infrastructure challenge by first studying the root causes, then developing a thesis and evaluating the evidence to identify solutions that can be translated into meaningful policy with bipartisan support. The philanthropy is seeking a vice president of infrastructure to lead this work.
Infrastructure joins a long list of issues where Arnold Ventures works to bring forward evidence-based solutions, including criminal justice, health care, higher education, and democracy.
Arnold’s one-hour discussion with Smith touched on many of those topics, including threats to democracy, journalism giving, and the challenges Arnold and AV Co-Founder and Co-Chair John Arnold have encountered in using philanthropy to solve the nation’s most intractable problems.
Arnold told Smith that our nation’s two-party primary system, where more than 90% of races are uncompetitive, creates perverse incentives for politicians to respond to the needs of only a small sliver of the electorate. Partisan primaries in Texas comprise just 6% of voters, Arnold said — a tiny sliver of voters determine who gets into government. Policy solutions like ranked-choice voting, which AV supports, can change the incentive structure and reward politicians who appeal to all voters, not just their partisan base.
Smith, referring to primary voters as the “burnt ends of the brisket,” asked Arnold how to change a status quo that currently serves incumbents. Arnold noted that states are tackling the issue through ballot initiatives.
‘We Thought It Would Be Much Easier’
Arnold traced the origin of her and John’s philanthropic efforts, noting the challenges and lessons learned. “When we started this journey, we were younger… we thought it would be much easier, we thought there would be established organizations we could write large checks to, and sort of be passive,” Arnold told Smith. “We should have known if some of these entrenched, systemic failures were easy to solve, somebody else would have solved them.”
They decided to take on the issues with a long time horizon, identifying systemic dysfunction, following the data, and, critically, finding a window for bipartisan agreement, “whether it exists today or whether it is likely to exist in the future.”
“We want to create consensus around issues even if the compromise solution isn’t necessarily exactly what we would want. We believe bipartisan collaboration is important,” Arnold said.
Arnold also noted AV’s ability to be bold in giving and take risks, something many philanthropists cannot do because they have a brand or commercial interest to protect.
“We want to be known as people who are trying things that we think are smart, so I do believe we have a higher tolerance for failure,” Arnold said.
She cited Chuck Feeney of Atlantic Philanthropies, who committed to giving away a substantial fortune in his lifetime, as a source of inspiration for her and John’s “giving-while-living” strategy: “We very deeply believe that philanthropists today should address today’s problems,” Arnold said.
“I admire people who are more aggressive with their philanthropy — that is a very hard thing to do.”
‘Information Should Not Be Your Challenge’
Arnold also spoke about AV’s journalism giving, which supports nonprofit newsrooms around the country in the face of declining coverage from commercial ventures, noting the importance of robust local news for civic engagement. “Information should not be your challenge.”
To address this issue in its hometown, AV is among several local donors supporting a local nonprofit newsroom in Houston, which will cover Harris County, the fourth-largest in the country, with a clear firewall between donors and editorial control, Arnold said. “The bedrock values are to serve the community,” Arnold said.
Watch the full conversation in the video above or here.