When Steve Ballmer retired from Microsoft at age 57 he had a problem. Boredom.
“I don’t, quote, ‘have anything to do,’” Balmer said of the time immediately following his retirement.
Very publicly, Ballmer bought The LA Clippers. Privately, he embarked on a somewhat more ambitious project after his wife Connie asked for his help in some of her philanthropic work.
Not that the prospect initially interested him when his wife asked.
“But come on, doesn’t the government take care of the poor, the sick, the old?” Mr. Ballmer recalled telling her. After all, he pointed out, he happily paid a lot of taxes, so surely that money was going toward building out an adequate social safety net.
His wife was unimpressed and told him, “A, it won’t, because there are things government doesn’t get to, and B, you’re missing it.”
Mr. Ballmer replied, “No, I’m not.”
But he wanted to be sure he was right — so he set out to answer a seemingly simple question:
“What really happens” to the money paid to the government in taxes? Where does it actually all go?
Today (April 18), Mr. Ballmer plans to make public a database and a report that he has built with some help from his friends. Friends who happen to be economists, professors and other professionals who have been quietly building a stealth startup over the last three years called USAFacts.
The database is an attempt to offer the first nonpartisan fully integrated look at revenue and spending across federal, state and local governments.
What can one learn? How many police officers are employed in various localities — and what the attendant crime rates are; revenue from parking tickets vs the cost of collecting; government spending on diagnosed cases of depression — there is a lot of very granular data.
Mr. Ballmer calls it “the equivalent of a 10-K for government,” referring to the kind of annual filing that companies make.
“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,” he told me in a recent interview in New York. “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 the age of fake news, Ballmer is hoping to offer something like an antidote.
“I would like citizens to be able to use this to form intelligent opinions,” Mr. Ballmer said. “People can disagree about what to do — I’m not going to tell people what to do.” But, he said, people ought to base their opinions “on common data sets that are believable.”
And to build that set, all Balmer needed to throw at the project was an unlimited budget, a team of researchers and the University of Pennsylvania to help his staff put the information together.
Altogether, he has spent more than $10 million between direct funding and grants.
“Let’s say it costs three, four, five million a year,” he said. “I’m happy to fund the damn thing.”
Ballmer notes the investment is worth it for the surprises in the data alone.
“How many people work for government in the United States? Almost 24 million. Would you have guessed that? Then people say, ‘Those damn bureaucrats!’” Mr. Ballmer noted. “Well, let’s look at that. People who work in schools, higher ed, public institutions of education — they are government employees.” They represent almost half of the 24 million, his data shows.
“And you say, O.K., what are the other big blocks?” Mr. Ballmer continued. “Well, active-duty military, war fighters. Government hospitals. Really? I didn’t know that. 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.