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Q&A

‘Long Slog of Nerd-dom’ Brought New Leader of Public Finance to Arnold Ventures

A belief in government solving problems for people has fueled Patrick Murphy’s career. He talks about his passion for the minutiae, why retirement security is the right conversation, and moving a cycling habit to Houston.

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Public finance policy may be the specialty of self-professed nerds and Eeyores, but it’s fundamentally about ensuring government solves problems for people. When Patrick Murphy isn’t training for triathlons or listening to indie music, it’s public finance that is his passion. Murphy is a true thought leader in this space. And he is joining Arnold Ventures next week as Vice President of Public Finance. Most recently he served as the Policy Director of Fiscal and Governance Reform and a Senior Fellow at the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC). Previous roles included PPIC’s Director of Research and positions at RAND and the Office of Management and Budget in Washington, D.C.

While Murphy has a Ph.D. from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, he has a master’s of public affairs from the University of Texas — so when he joins Arnold Ventures’ Houston office, it won’t be his first Texas rodeo. We sat down with Murphy to talk about the power of the minutiae, why Americans deserve retirement security, and the value of joining an organization that isn’t afraid to have uncomfortable conversations.

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Arnold Ventures

Why did you choose to focus on public finance?

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Patrick Murphy

I’ve always been interested in applied public policy, the notion that government can solve problems for people and ultimately help them. The essential question is, therefore, how to get that done. I realized early on that resources were the key. No matter what, you have to pay for it, and how you provide those resources matters. An important piece of the picture that cannot be ignored is an understanding of the details of budget and tax policy. You have to be willing to invest in the minutiae. When you realize that, it’s both powerful and important.

Ultimately, there really wasn’t an ah-ha moment. Just a long slog of nerd-dom.

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Arnold Ventures

Talk about why you’re moving from government and nonprofit roles to Arnold Ventures.

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Patrick Murphy

PPIC is a 501c3, an independent think tank focused on California. As such, we didn’t take positions on legislation or ballot proposals. We produced a lot of good research, shared it with policy makers, but then we had to stop there. Coming to Arnold I see a chance to pursue issues further — a chance to move from the talking about what “is” and focusing more on how things “should” be.

I also can’t tell you how appealing it is to come to an organization where a board member can give a talk about the need for research to drive policy and also go further to point out how not all research is of equal value. Pretty appealing for a nerd like me —right?! That isn’t always the case in policy organizations. I’m looking forward to coming to a place where they share how I look at the world.

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Arnold Ventures

You have experience in a wide variety of finance issues. How do you think about the big picture of public finance?

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Patrick Murphy

My general critique of the current state of public financing is that it lacks a long-term focus. It should not be just, “How do we get to the end of the next fiscal year?” I find increasing federal deficits quite disturbing. We shouldn’t be sitting at this point in the recovery with deficits going up. With the economy growing we should be saving and investing. Pensions are part of it, but it’s really long-term liabilities in general.

In the end, someone has to pay attention. Someone has to do the numbers. I admit I’m not the life of the party when it comes to this. Eeyore comes to mind. A lot of people don’t want to talk about long-term consequences. But we don’t have unlimited resources, and we have to be conscious of the next generation.

But here’s where I see Arnold Ventures as unique. Talking about money nearly always makes people uncomfortable, but I’m pleased to be going to an organization that is not afraid to have these types of conversations.

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Arnold Ventures

Pension debt policy can be polarizing. What will be your approach leading this work at Arnold Ventures?

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Patrick Murphy

I see public pensions as part of a larger discussion about retirement security. That’s a great starting point, and it’s important to look at the whole picture. That includes public pensions, private pensions, individual savings, and even Social Security.

How do we work to ensure that going forward all Americans have retirement security — full stop?

Ultimately, addressing those long-term liabilities is a big part of that. Agreeing that sustainability has to be part of the equation. Sustainability to me means taking into consideration both current and future stakeholders. How you achieve sustainability probably is going to vary — I don’t have a magic bullet. There are a lot of smart people who have been working these questions, and I’m looking forward to working with them to find the right solutions.

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Arnold Ventures

Top priority on Day One?

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Patrick Murphy

Two things. Get up to speed and get to know the folks in the Arnold Ventures orbit better. That means both the grantees and the stakeholders — those directly within the Arnold orbit and that next layer of people who interact with Arnold — or have potential to interact with Arnold. I’m looking forward to going out, meeting people, and listening. I have a lot to learn.

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Arnold Ventures

You’ve been a grantee, and now you’ll be a funder. What lessons do you bring from that experience?

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Patrick Murphy

Having been on the grantee side, you often find yourself in the position of trying to guess where your work might intersect with a potential grant or funder. I’m looking forward to instead being able to say, “I want to know this — it’s needed and important,” and then going out and finding who can do that work.

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Arnold Ventures

Describe your management style.

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Patrick Murphy

When it comes to working with people, I’m always focused on finding what it is they both do well and have a passion for. When it comes to the organization, it’s about understanding what needs to get done. Then my job as a leader is to find the intersection of the people’s passion and skill and what the organization needs. If things are working well, my job is to facilitate that intersection of passion and getting the work done.

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Arnold Ventures

Did you have a mentor?

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Patrick Murphy

My first supervisor at RAND was Paul Hill, who is now at the University of Washington. He has been a huge source of reason for over 30 years.

Also, I had the privilege and honor of having an ethics seminar at the University of Texas led by Barbara Jordan. You’re simply not complete in public policy without an ethical foundation. We’re reminded of that daily. It was a tremendous opportunity to have Barbara Jordan as an adviser and huge influence at such an early point in my career.

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Arnold Ventures

How are you thinking about relocating to Houston?

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Patrick Murphy

I’m super interested and curious to understand a place that can produce both a Barbara Jordan or a Mickey Leland as well as the Bushes. It’s easy to make a quick assessment of the city — but it’s also a mistake. I’m excited to explore it and start to figure it out. And then there’s barbecue! We just don’t have great barbecue in the Bay Area.

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Arnold Ventures

Cycling is a passion of yours. Any other hobbies?

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Patrick Murphy

Well, I run and swim of course.

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Arnold Ventures

Oh no, are you a triathlete?

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Patrick Murphy

Yes, I did a half-Ironman, but now I’ve backed off and do Olympic-length races. Triathlons are great for old guys. If you’re mediocre at three things you can be successful! I’ve been doing it for seven or eight years, and do a lot of the training with my daughter. A parent who gets to do sports with his child? That’s pretty cool.

My wife and I also watch sports. We are Golden State Warriors fans, but we probably won’t talk about that much in Houston. We recently watched the Rugby World Cup, which South Africa won. My wife is South African, so we are very happy. And, if you marry a South African, you had better be ready to travel.

We also are into live music. I wouldn’t say social media has made many things better, but now we can come across a band on NPR's "Tiny Desk Concerts" and find them on social media and go see them live.

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Arnold Ventures

Anything we haven’t addressed that you would like to mention?

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Patrick Murphy

OK, something surprising about me, though you didn’t ask, but I was afraid you would, so I’ll offer up my prepared answer. This may seem incongruent, but I have a 2004 Dodge Ram diesel pickup. Her name is Marsha. She won’t be coming to Texas.

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Arnold Ventures

Finally, I hear you do deep thinking while bicycling. What’s the best idea you’ve come up with on a bike ride?

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Patrick Murphy

It had to do with the state of Washington’s property taxes. It was a grand bargain kind of thing. I actually stopped riding to straighten it out in my head.

Most of the time I use my cycling time to organize things. It’s a chance to get away from the flipping screen, where thinking doesn’t necessarily happen, and think through strategy about how to approach something. It’s like putting all the pieces on a table and standing on a chair to see the bigger picture.

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Arnold Ventures

Mountain bike or road bike?

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Patrick Murphy

I live in the town with the Mountain Biking Hall of Fame, in the town next to the reigning mountain-biking champion —and I have ridden a mountain bike once. You have to think too much doing it.

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Arnold Ventures

Uphill or downhill?

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Patrick Murphy

Always climbing. Always uphill.