The gregarious former CEO of Microsoft may direct American political debate away from hyper-partisanship and “fake news” by creating an unprecedented database – a set of facts – that just might change our politics forever.
Steve Ballmer’s story is compelling as it reveals a former corporate titan who chose, without political cheerleaders or partisan funding, to engage in a $10 million effort to produce a down-in-the-weeds report about what American taxpayers receive in relative value for their payments to the federal, state and local governments.
According to news reports, Ballmer, 57, owner of the NBA’s Los Angeles Clippers, decided to improve political discourse by making government financial data easier to access. Here’s the catch: He’s doing it by analyzing data within the same formula that high-level corporate execs use to scrutinize their competitors.
Ballmer’s approach to the project, which was released last week at USAFacts.org, was to engage in the corporate analysis provided by the “10-K” filings companies issue each year – revealing expenses, revenues, efficiencies and effectiveness.
What’s more fascinating is that the USA Facts approach applies the solutions-based “10-K” approach toward the four missions mandated by the preamble to the Constitution.
The gradual creation of USAFacts over three years, a “stealth start-up,” was undertaken by a large group of economists, professors and other professionals. The result may be a dream come true for policy wonks.
According to the New York Times, “The database is perhaps the first nonpartisan effort to create a fully integrated look at revenue and spending across federal, state and local governments.”
Here’s more from the Times:
Want to know how many police officers are employed in various parts of the country and compare that against crime rates? Want to know how much revenue is brought in from parking tickets and the cost to collect? Want to know what percentage of Americans suffer from diagnosed depression and how much the government spends on it? That’s in there. You can slice the numbers in all sorts of ways.
“You know, when I really wanted to understand in depth what a company was doing, Amazon or Apple, I’d get their 10-K and read it. It’s wonky, it’s this, it’s that, but it’s the greatest depth you’re going to get, and it’s accurate.”
In an age of fake news and questions about how politicians and others manipulate data to fit their biases, Mr. Ballmer’s project may serve as a powerful antidote. Using his website, USAFacts.org, a person could look up just about anything.
CNBC reported that Ballmer’s report contains definitions and data but no policy recommendations.
That lack of analysis is by design — the group’s mission is to provide a “common set of facts on which even people with opposing points of view can agree” while avoiding financial or political agendas. So USAFacts can provide data on immigration apprehensions, small business loans, union membership, poverty rates and countless other measurements of government activity, but it won’t tell you what those data mean — Ballmer expects citizens to figure that out for themselves.
“I just think it’s important if you are going to make your case, for you to make your case in the context of numbers,” Ballmer told Bloomberg when he first made the project public last year. “Here are the numbers. You don’t have to be a rocket scientist. You don’t have to be an economist. You decide what you believe. And when things come up that you need to vote on, you need to opine on, you’ll have the view of a citizen that’s informed by facts.”