Former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer has a lot of money and nothing to prove. Post-Microsoft, his biggest achievement so far has been paying $2 billion to buy the LA Clippers, but on Monday The New York Times dropped an extensive report about his next venture: a project called “USAFacts,” which aggregates publicly available government data to tell you how your city, state, and federal tax dollars are spent.
Ballmer has already spent $10 million on the project and is “happy to fund the damn thing” (his personal net worth is estimated at over $22 billion, so he’s good for it). He describes it as “a [Form] 10-K for government,” a big searchable database that shows where tax revenue goes in and where it comes out. If you want to find out how many police officers or public school teachers the government employs in your area, you can do that; if you want to know what percentage of their salaries come from taxes paid by businesses instead of individuals, you can do that, too.
Ballmer’s enthusiasm for the project is infectious, according to the Times:
“I love this one!” he said, showing me a slide of information about government employees. “Don’t look, don’t look!” He instructed me to cover my eyes from the number at the bottom of the page.
“How many people work for government in the United States?” he asked, with the excitement of a child showing off a new toy, before displaying the answer. “Almost 24 million. Would you have guessed that?”
“Then people say, ‘Those damn bureaucrats!’” Mr. Ballmer exclaimed, channeling the criticism that government is bloated and filled with waste, fraud and abuse. “Well, let’s look at that. People who work in schools, higher ed, public institutions of education — they are government employees.” And they represent almost half of the 24 million, his data shows.
“Now people might not think they’re government employees, but your tax dollars are helping somehow to pay 24 million people—and most of these people you like,” Mr. Ballmer said.
Ballmer says that he wanted the USAFacts data to be as objective and non-partisan as possible, using only raw data directly available from the government—this leads to some holes in the project’s data where numbers can’t legally be reported, as with data about gun manufacturing and licenses. But he hopes that otherwise it will help people from all sides of the aisle to trust it as an objective source.
He himself is also obviously taking away fresh insights from his own examination of the data, as when he realizes that tax breaks on things like houses only really benefit people who are already in a position to own homes. But in this and other places, he displays a political naïveté that suggests why this tool may not be as useful as Ballmer wants it to be.
“But come on, doesn’t the government take care of the poor, the sick, the old?” Ballmer asked of his wife Connie Snyder when she suggested he get involved in philanthropy. I can understand how a man with $22 billion might not know exactly how people can fall through the gaps in our social safety net, but it shows that Ballmer may not be fully aware of the realities of US politics.
Having data is half the battle
The two main intertwined problems are that facts and data by themselves aren’t always capable of changing people’s minds and that the USAFacts project requires trusting the government data itself to be unbiased and accurate. This is something not everyone is willing to do.
Distrust of the government, of data, and of “experts” isn’t universal, but it’s amazingly, depressingly common. It’s why accepted science like evolution and climate change continue to be questioned in the face of overwhelming scientific consensus; it’s why people refuse vaccines and turn to homemade remedies instead of trusting modern medicine; it’s why flat-Earthers still exist, it’s why people believe the moon landing was faked, it’s why people believe Hillary Clinton was running a nonexistent child trafficking ring out of a pizza place. Even when well-meaning people actively seek facts and evidence, confirmation bias dictates that we tend to gravitate toward that which confirms our existing expectations even when we consciously know better.
These problems have become worse and more noticeable in the age of President Donald Trump, who rails against nominally respected media outlets like the (“failing“) New York Times as “fake news,” calls the free press “the enemy of the American people,” and only seems open to accepting data when it portrays him and his initiatives in a positive light.
And even if USAFacts manages to become an accepted, trusted nonpartisan resource for people on both sides of the aisle, data is still open to interpretation, and data can still be cherry-picked. Take, for instance, the Congressional Budget Office, the nonpartisan group that attempts to estimate the financial impact of bills being debated in Congress.
When the CBO released numbers for the American Health Care Act, the since-shelved Republican plan to replace 2010’s Affordable Care Act, it estimated that 24 million people would lose insurance coverage by 2026 (relative to the ACA) and that it would reduce deficits by about $337 billion over the next 10 years. Though Trump and other Republicans did not directly impugn the CBO in their responses to these numbers, they did point out that its numbers are only estimates (admittedly true) and also that non-specific future healthcare reform efforts would invalidate the CBO’s numbers (possibly true but certainly disingenuous).
Within the context of his long career at Microsoft, Ballmer may always be remembered as the guy who underestimated the iPhone and missed out on the smartphone revolution, but he doesn’t get enough credit for the good stuff he did—Vista was a painful but necessary step in Windows’ evolution and Microsoft’s current “Windows Everywhere” and “Office Everywhere” strategies began life toward the end of his watch, just to name a couple big ones.
USAFacts is definitely one of his good ideas. The site itself is slick and responsive and instantly informative, though it’s still a beta and has rough edges. It shows real promise, and it has the potential to better inform discussion of where tax money comes from, vital to alleviating the feeling among some citizens that they pay taxes and receive nothing of worth in return. And if journalists and citizens can more easily get ahold of and interpret this data, it could itself lead to greater accountability and smarter spending, things that every politician on the face of the earth pays lip service to on the campaign trail.
But good, easily accessible data is only part of the solution to our problems. What’s really in short supply now is not data, but trust—in experts, in government, in the press, and in our fellow citizens—and as good an idea as USAFacts seems to be, that’s not a problem it can solve.