clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Steve Ballmer thinks you don’t have enough data about your government

The former Microsoft CEO debuts USAFacts to make it easier to understand how tax dollars are spent.

Microsoft Holds Annual Meeting Stephen Brashear/Getty Images

Let’s presume that the United States is a company.

Unlike a lot of Silicon Valley in 2017, the entity we might hypothetically call America Inc. has already gone public. For better or worse, its founders still loom large over the aging place, but they actually don’t run it anymore. (Instead, it’s some new guy whom many folks find trenchant.) Nevertheless, this upstart operation regularly has to convince its shareholders that it can deliver on long-hyped promises of prosperity.

That’s some of the mentality, at least, behind USAFacts, a new effort by former Microsoft chief executive Steve Ballmer to bring a business-minded eye to the U.S. government, its multi-trillion dollar budget and its effects on voters’ lives. For months, the numbers-obsessed Ballmer has toiled to harness a trove of publicly available — yet oft-ignored — state and federal government data stores. The result, debuting on Tuesday in time for Tax Day, stems from a belief that voters and regulators alike could make better decisions if only they had unbiased, unpolluted information at their fingertips.

“I think a lot of information is put out to make a point,” Ballmer told Recode in an interview. “People take a point of view, but then they pick the data that makes their point of view.”

To escape all the noise, Ballmer and his crew instead have sought to break down the government’s balance sheet with the help of the U.S. Constitution. They’ve diced up roughly $5.4 trillion in U.S. spending into four categories, all derived from the historical document’s preamble. Expenses for the military, for example, are computed under the well-known verse that the U.S. “provide for the common defense.” And each section comes with a tableau of “key metrics,” like statistics on the number of U.S. veterans and the cost of providing them care.

Of course, journalists already gather such facts about federal spending and the other areas that Ballmer’s new initiative explores. From simple Google and Wikipedia searches to deeper number-crunching work published by nonprofits like the Sunlight Foundation, there’s an existing wealth of scannable data about U.S. tax dollars and how, and on whom, they’re spent.

Ballmer, though, argues the data out there is mostly insufficient — that the statistics undergirding major political debates are hard to track, and sometimes tainted by bias.

“There’s no — at least, I couldn’t find an — integrated source of data, because to me integrated is important. If everything is integrated, everything has to add to 100 percent, no numbers can be taken out of context,” Ballmer said. That includes journalism. “I don’t think journalists do a bad job,” he explained, “but I think journalists do take a topic, and it makes it harder to look at things holistically and in context.”

For Ballmer, USAFacts originated in a debate with his wife as to whether he should commit more fully to philanthropy. Speaking to Bloomberg in November, when he first revealed the project, he recalled feeling as if his tax dollars did the greatest work to aid those in need.

As he tried to figure out the reach of his taxes, however, Ballmer found that even the Microsoft-created Bing search engine wasn’t a great help. “The truth of the matter is, it’s kinda a mess,” he recounted during a later TED talk, delivered in March.

Instead, Ballmer said he turned to a world he knew well: The boardroom. “I was hoping I could find something like a 10-K document ... that the Securities and Exchange Commission makes companies create,” he said during his talk.

Fast-forward to Tuesday, when Ballmer will debut his new initiative — compiled with the help of academics at places like Stanford University — during an event at the Economic Club of New York. His team has produced a searchable website and multiple PowerPoint presentations, along with that 10-K Ballmer initially promised. It’s a 316-page, chart-heavy filing that he acknowledges is geared toward the business set.

Like any corporate leader, USAFacts devotes a section of its report to the “risk factors” that could threaten the growth potential of the U.S. It highlights inadequate upgrades to the country’s transportation system as a threat to government spending, not to mention the rising costs of programs like Social Security as more Americans reach retirement. Even “human behavior” finds its way into the report: “[People] may choose wisely or poorly,” the report contends, in opting to drive cars that hurt the environment, eschew full-time employment or “engage in unhealthful behavior such as smoking.”

But Ballmer doesn’t peg government — or its hyper-partisanship — as a risk to itself. The 10-K doesn’t highlight the quirks of the U.S. Congress that render it difficult to pass legislation, the slow-moving nature of the rest of Washington, or the role of corporate executives — Ballmer included — to fund political candidates for those very offices. And, most obviously, it doesn’t mention Trump or his administration, which is often faulted for deviations from fact.

“I’m sort of nonjudgmental, if you will, on any administration, including the current administration,” Ballmer said when pressed for his thoughts about Trump. “But I do believe one of the missions of government is to correctly assemble this data in a way that is timely and informed ... and I will be partisan [on that].”

Which raises the question: Is our semi-fictional America Inc. a buy or a sell? Much like his new data, Ballmer won’t say. “A lot of things in the U.S. government are working well by the numbers ... on the other hand, there are things that are certainly not getting better.”

This article originally appeared on

Sign up for the newsletter Sign up for Vox Recommends

Get curated picks of the best Vox journalism to read, watch, and listen to every week, from our editors.