Clippers owner Steve Ballmer is one of the richest men in the United States, with an estimated net worth north of $27 billion. He was one of the very first Microsoft employees, and he worked as the company’s CEO for 14 years before stepping down and buying the Clippers in 2014. As an ultra-rich, recently retired guy with plenty of time on his hands (he’ll have more once the Clips inevitably flame out of the playoffs), he’s in a phase of his life where he’s taking up projects. One of those projects is a $10 million website dedicated to documenting what the government does.
As Ballmer tells it in a recent interview with New York Times billionaire whisperer Andrew Ross Sorkin, he was confused about where all that money he forks over to Uncle Sam goes. His wife Connie encouraged him to get into philanthropy, which he pooh-poohed because, as he saw it, “doesn’t the government take care of the poor, the sick, the old?” Thinking that a big pile of taxes must be funding some sort of generous, Scandinavian-style social security net for the underclass is a lovely nugget of rich person myopia, and after Ballmer found out that people were still not all taken care of, he did what only he could do, which was to launch the aforementioned $10 million website.
That conversation led Mr. Ballmer to pursue what may be one of the most ambitious private projects undertaken to answer a question that has long vexed the public and politicians alike. He sought to “figure out what the government really does with the money,” Mr. Ballmer said. “What really happens?”
USAFacts launched today, and it aims to chronicle the precise financial flux of the United States government. He paid a group of researchers in Seattle and the University of Pennsylvania $10 million in direct aid and grants to collate and organize mounds of publicly available government data into a snazzy series of interactive infographics. Ballmer’s aim is to dispel commonly squawked myths about the government’s supposed excesses, and show what it actually does.
“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.”
What happens when a very rich man who has apparently not spent any amount of time thinking about ideology or politics purchases and studies a lot of research about government income, expenditures, and outcomes?
Ballmer reveals that learning about how the tax code works has made him understand that the game is, to a certain extent, rigged:
At one point, as he showed me the value of certain tax deductions and blurted out, “If you look at these tax deductions for employer-provided health or for state and local taxes or mortgage-interest deductions, they’re really subsidies to the affluent, which I guess I hadn’t thought about them.”
“Take the mortgage deduction,” he continued. “This is to stimulate homeownership amongst people who are already going to own homes. That is worth, to a middle-income family, a hundred bucks a year. I was a little surprised by that. You can have your own reaction; I was a little surprised by that.”
Ballmer also wanted to show data on gun ownership, but he ran into the powerful NRA and learned about lobbying.
There is data for the number of firearms manufactured, licenses, inspections, “along with other data, but not a total,” he said. “I can’t show it! I’m shocked! But the N.R.A. apparently has lobbied in such a way government can’t report the data.”
I give Ballmer three years and an additional $20 million before a team of academics explain Gramsci to him and he advocates for Full Communism.