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The Constitution requires a census and State of the Union. Steve Ballmer wants to bring them up to date.

- May 23, 2018
Former Microsoft chief executive Steve Ballmer speaks to the Economic Club of New York on April 18. (Reuters)

Steve Ballmer is the former CEO of Microsoft and the creator of USAFacts, an organization dedicated to making government data sources more publicly accessible and easier to use. In an interview (which has been edited for length and style), I asked him about what USAFacts is doing and how it is trying to help people understand how the government spends its money.

Henry Farrell: The report that you are presenting provides a lot of data — some of it about subjects that are the topic of political debate. What data have you found that doesn’t feature in the political conversation as much as it should?

Steve Ballmer: The high-level point is that it is really difficult to have a high-level yet integrated view of government. I believe that if you are a legislator, either in Washington, D.C., or in a statehouse, you have to understand how the puzzle fits together. Why? Because your money decisions have to fit together, too, whether you like more taxes, more spending or reallocation. There are very few government actions that don’t actually involve money. Some are pure policy — should we have more gun control or not — but even those don’t live in a vacuum outside what is going on with homicides.

The numbers are important, but taking one number out of context doesn’t help. For example, my wife, Connie, and I care a lot about early-childhood education. It’s not cheap — but you should look at it in the context of overall government spending, or current K-12 spending, or Head Start spending. It’s important that legislators have at least enough peripheral vision to pressure test their wants against the greater whole. What we want to give everyone — not just legislators — is the ability to see broadly and be able to think about things.

People sometimes seem to think that if we cut foreign aid, we could solve the deficit problem. But it’s $49 billion out of 5.7 trillion, or 5,700 billion — and public records show that we spend about one-quarter of it on Israel, Iraq and Afghanistan. This is non-direct military assistance to support the regional security objectives of the United States. This isn’t saying that there is a right or wrong answer, but it is saying that context is crucial. Forty-nine billion sounds like a lot of money, but it isn’t a lot in terms of everything we spend.

HF: So the key question is about trade-offs rather than absolute amounts.

SB: There are always trade-offs between increasing taxes, leaving more debt to our children, moving money from one program to another. If this were a business and you wanted to fund a new program, you’d ask how you were going to do it. Would you ask the shareholders to fund it? What return can you promise? Are you going to prune other programs?

Members of Congress tend to get neck-down in what their committee is doing. If you ask them to step back and look at how the country is spending its tax dollars, they might be able to give some perspective on federal money, although they probably wouldn’t. They would have almost no perspective on how state money was spent, and yet Medicaid, infrastructure and Title I dollars are going to the states. I used to think that the federal government set the Medicaid budget, but every state legislature sets its own priorities. The feds are just matching whatever the states decide. I would never have understood that without looking at the numbers in aggregate.

HF: Given public ignorance about topics such as foreign aid, are you looking to inform policymakers, the public or both, and how do you finesse the differences between them?

SB: At this point in time, we are talking to the people who have a natural interest. You’ve got to start with the early adopters, like in tech, and build from that base. We launched the product a year ago, and we are adding state and local data over the next six months or so. Our next real move is to drive penetration. I wanted to make sure that the product was right first. Some adopters will look like Wall Street Journal or New York Times readers, some like legislators or their staff, some like wonks — we are building an API for further access to the data.

For example, in our new report, we use graphics to put foreign aid and border security in the context of overall spending. Border-security spending is so small as a percentage of the total that you basically cannot see it in our graphic. There are ways to give people enough visual context to see that it is not a very big number.

HF: So you are giving people the sense that the numbers are large in a multitrillion-dollar budget and that the trade-offs are not what you would think.

SB: Exactly. Here are a few examples. We focus on the issues of people who are trying to move out of poverty. This takes you to the question of incarceration and how it affects families. What is happening with incarceration? We hear about the war on drugs and decriminalization of drug possession. When we look at the numbers, the drug crime rate really did go up and then went way down. People can see the trend. Half the people who are in prison are there for a violent crime. They serve an average time of 4.2 years for a violent crime (if you don’t take account of people dying in prison, which is rare). That is a surprising number.

On another topic, the rate of growth in our economy has been pretty steady but slightly declining. GDP growth per person is about 1.1 percent. So how do you get from there to 4 percent overall growth? You could do it through inflation. You could in theory make the 1.1 percent per person higher. Or you could have more people through immigration. Population growth last year was about 2.3 million people, of which about half came through immigration. The current immigration debate may be inconsistent with the current economics discussion. You have to have the context to know how these policy discussions may be inconsistent.

HF: So how exactly do you use graphic presentation to make very large numbers comprehensible?

SB: If we’re in a nine-inning game, we are now in the second inning. How do you bring these things alive? We don’t argue that the things we show are causal relationships — instead, at most we just show correlations over time. Some people prefer the print version, but we are also doing this online.

The law of large numbers is a real pain in the butt. There is a team at Microsoft working on how best to present large numbers because people just can’t process them. As a country, we raise roughly $15,000 in taxes on average per person. People can sort of comprehend that number. They cannot comprehend $5.7 trillion. They need the context, and we are trying to provide it.

On Tax Day, you would like to be able to say, “Here’s what you paid in taxes last year, and here’s what you saw as benefits.” You got disability or benefited from a school system that cost this much and delivered these kinds of results. You helped subsidize this many other people through government as a charity. The challenge is making it more visual, and packaged in ways that people would understand.

In North Carolina a couple of days ago, the governor was talking about how the legislature is squeezing the income tax. North Carolina is number four or five in spending per student, but its student-teacher ratio is not that different from other states, which means that they are probably squeezing it from teacher pay. That may be okay for the citizens, but they should have the information.

HF: So you are proposing not just providing information but over the longer term creating the necessary politics for people to understand the incomings and outgoings of government on an individual basis.

SB: Yes. We have a lot of work to do before we get there. Can we get something done when an issue is really hot and blast it out to the early adopters, representing the trade-offs in ways that you can explain to your neighbor or write a letter to your congressperson? We are working with Countable, which can give you the ability to go direct from our data to making a difference. We also need to improve government data. It’s not bad, but it’s not timely enough or representative enough.

The Constitution calls for a census and a State of the Union. Probably this came from some idea that we should tell the citizens what’s up. Those concepts could be modernized, and they have not been modernized. The SEC regulates business and makes them confirm that they are making credible representations of the truth. Legislators aren’t called to do that. I can’t tell what my congressperson knows or doesn’t know, except about the areas they choose to talk to me about.

Government should have timely and good data to make decisions, legislators should be accountable for having read the data, and citizens should be able to go directly from data to action recommendations.

HF: How can existing government data be improved?

SB: One example is that the way that the federal government rolls up state data doesn’t exactly jibe with what the states report. If you want to report numbers in a consistent way, accountants would say that you need a standard charter of accounts. [The Office of Management and Budget] has a mandate to get such a charter for the government. It just never seems to get worked on. I’ve talked to the comptroller general about this. I love the comptroller general’s office. They are appointed when a bipartisan group from Congress picks a set of names, and the president picks one for a 10-year term. To remove the comptroller general, you have to impeach them. This helps to ensure that the numbers are good. You want someone who is not subject to political whim. This should apply to other people who do this kind of work, too.

Take the census. People question whether the census is being manipulated for political purposes. It is run by political appointees at the Department of Commerce. That is not the way it should be done. I am not saying that the process is being messed with. I am saying that people should be able to count on the same integrity that they can count on when the comptroller general is involved. This is true of a lot of numbers. People ask if the census is being appropriately funded and whether it will be run responsibly. I don’t know the inside story — I do believe in the professionalism of the people involved. You can reasonably ask whether the reasons for underfunding lie in the need to better use modern information technology or whether it just needs more money. I don’t know the answer to that question. The thing I do know is that there should be the same guarantee of integrity for the census as there is for the comptroller general’s office.

This article is one in a series supported by the MacArthur Foundation Research Network on Opening Governance that seeks to work collaboratively to increase our understanding of how to design more effective and legitimate democratic institutions using new technologies and new methods. Neither the MacArthur Foundation nor the Network is responsible for the article’s specific content. Other posts can be found here.