In recent months, I have endured a number of intensely personal public attacks on my philanthropy—including lies (that I hid a donation to PBS when the writer found the information on our website), selective reporting (listing political contributions to Republicans as evidence that I aspire to be a “Koch brother,” without noting that I am a Democrat and hosted a fundraiser for President Obama), and juvenile insults (that I have a “jug-eared face of a Division III women’s basketball coach”).
Further, opponents seek to discredit me by mentioning the ironic but irrelevant fact that I was once a mid-level manager at a company that filed one of the most devastating corporate bankruptcies of all time. One blogger even went as far as accusing me of “fleecing” Enron investors, a vicious allegation for which she summarily issued a public apology.
In light of the level of vitriol and misinformation displayed by criticisms such as these, I feel compelled to more clearly shed light on what I do and why I do it.
My wife, Laura, and I recently retired from our careers at an early age because we wanted to dedicate our time and significant financial resources to improving our society. We decided that the best way to achieve this goal was to abandon the conventional, but nonetheless necessary and admirable, path of traditional philanthropy—namely, large donations to hospitals, universities or cultural organizations.
We founded the Laura and John Arnold Foundation with the goal of pursuing sustainable reforms to address our country’s most pressing crises. This is a far different approach from passively donating to a bricks-and-mortar project. It involves analyzing extremely complicated and endemic societal problems, collaborating with experts in the field to understand the issues in depth, rigorously testing hypotheses to arrive at the best solutions, and, finally, seeking to implement those alternatives at scale through systemic policy reforms. In short, it requires a long-term commitment to solving nuanced and complex problems—problems whose origins sometimes lie in the power of entrenched interests.
We work in a wide range of policy areas on issues of varying levels of complexity, from pension reform to education. Sometimes these areas are perceived to fall to the left of the political center. This is often the case, for example, with some of our criminal justice initiatives.
Other parts of our work, including education reform and pensions, are generally perceived to fall to the right of the political center.
But in fact, each of our initiatives originates from, and is propelled by, bipartisan support.
In criminal justice, conservatives are realizing that a simplistic “tough on crime” approach has significant financial cost and often does not yield better safety outcomes.
We work with both conservatives and liberals across the country in designing data-driven criminal justice solutions that are cost effective and fair. In education policy, liberals are embracing accountability and competition to dramatically improve results in the most at-risk geographies. We have seen enormous success in this regard in the bipartisan efforts currently underway in New Orleans. And in pensions, states and municipalities representing the full political spectrum—from deeply red Utah and Phoenix to traditionally blue Rhode Island and San Jose—have endeavored to definitively address their pension crises through fair and sustainable policy reform.
We pursue our policy objectives not because we have a financial stake in the outcome (we do not) or because we have any personal agenda other than improving outcomes for society as a whole. But policy work makes you no friends.
Pursuing a more efficient allocation of resources that benefits society as a whole often means that specific groups may perceive themselves as worse off. These special-interest groups have become experts in the world of lobbying, influence-peddling, and ad hominem attacks against those who stand for reform.
Personal attacks such as those that I have experienced have the clear objective of intimidating me into standing down.
In fact, for Laura and me—and we hope for any donor interested in public policy—they confirm the need for disinterested voices to be heard more loudly, and they convince us that we are on the right track.
The organized and very well-funded apparatus that exists to protect the financial and political stakes of entrenched interest groups is what leads to public policy that is skewed in favor of special interests and bad for America. According to documents publicly filed by labor unions, organized labor spent $4.4-billion from 2005 to 2011 in political donations and activities. Combined, our foundation, advocacy organization and we personally have spent less than $10-million in 2013 on pension education and reform efforts, and we are among the largest grant makers in this area. The political pressure these special interest groups can and do place on politicians is extraordinary. If you faced an election every few years, which would draw your attention—the billions spent by organized labor in political campaigns or the thousands spent by reformers?
One might ask why Laura and I should be able to influence policy decisions just because we have money. Were government immune from lobbyists and money, I would agree on the premise of the question. However, government is deeply influenced by special interests. Government policies typically are not crafted by “policy wonks” with the goal of maximizing social welfare. They are enacted in a terribly messy process involving elected politicians, their donors, and powerful interest groups. Huge sums spent by corporations, organized labor and the business lobby skew debate and often dictate public policy. We strongly believe that the best use of our resources is to counterbalance these entrenched forces, on the right and the left, by providing policy solutions rooted in objectivity and solid analysis—from people who have zero financial interests in the outcome.
People may not agree with every issue or policy proposal we pursue. We expect reasonable minds to disagree, and we welcome constructive debate on the merits of every issue in which we are involved. And if presented with compelling evidence of a better approach, we will be the first to advocate for it. But we will not be deterred by personal attacks, blatant lies, or self-interested campaigns to keep in place systems and policies that do not work for anyone other than the few who continue to gain from them at the expense of the rest of society.
John Arnold is the co-chair of the Laura and John Arnold Foundation.