When Steve Ballmer retired from Microsoft in 2014, his wife, Connie Snyder, told him his next job would be to help run family philanthropy, which promotes the upward economic mobility of children from lower-income families.
“My first reaction to my wife was: ‘That is the role of the government. We have to pay our taxes, and the government does the rest,” Ballmer recalled in an interview at Yardbird, a fried chicken restaurant near Capitol Hill. ‘She said, ‘We’re working on this together.’ I said, ‘Fine.’”
The more Ballmer thought about it, the more he realized that not only did government have a big role to play in making Americans more prosperous, but he didn’t feel he understood what the government as a whole was trying to do with its tax dollars. – where it succeeded and where it failed. He wondered: what kind of educational results are we seeing? What kind of crime results?
“I wanted to understand where we could make a difference,” said Ballmer, who was known at Microsoft as a voracious consumer of data and information. “I wanted to see the numbers.”
As a businessman, he was able to study the annual 10-K reports that all publicly traded companies must file with the Securities and Exchange Commission to find out what his competitors were up to. But there was nothing like it for the US government, from the federal level down. That, he found, was partly the result of our uniquely fragmented system, and partly of sheer disorganization and bureaucratic dysfunction.
Ballmer found this frustrating. So he started, as he put it, “to make a product that I would like to use.”
Nothing but the facts
In 2014, Ballmer created an early version of USAFacts, a website that sought to answer its own questions about how the US government works — and doesn’t work.
Eight years later, USAFacts is a non-profit organization that now produces an annual report on the state of the country, crammed with cleverly crafted numbers and charts on trends in living standards, gun-related deaths, the effect of inflation on wage growth, states defending the pandemic and best and much, much more.
Ballmer can memorize a lot of statistics and he apologizes if he forgets a number for a moment. He also likes to question his audience about the data, and at one point he asked me, do you know how many veterans there are in the United States?
When I objected, he noted with pride that the Department of Veterans Affairs estimates the number at 20 million, while the Census Bureau will say 18 million — a gap he called “crazy.”
Read more about the US Census
“You have to put pressure on the agencies,” he said. “They are very professional, good statistical people. But no one has asked the Census Bureau and the Veterans Department to agree on the number of veterans in the country.”
Building on his days leading the world’s largest software company, Ballmer also published a bogus 10-K report for the fiscal year ending September 2019 — 250 pages detailing the revenue, spending, and other “key metrics” it referred to. are to help Americans form their own conclusions about whether their tax dollars are being spent wisely.
Ballmer, a serial entrepreneur who also owns the Los Angeles Clippers, recently hired Poppy McDonald, the former president of Politico, and Amanda Cox, a former editor of The Upshot at DailyExpertNews, to build his team. .
When we spoke, Ballmer had just returned from a whirlwind day of briefings on Capitol Hill, where he met the House Select Committee on Modernization and the Problem Solvers Caucus, as well as Representative Steny Hoyer, the No. 2 Democrat in the House, and Representative Kevin McCarthy, the top Republican in the room. He also sat down with Denice Ross, the chief data scientist in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.
On the Senate side, he briefed about 25 senators — all Democrats, despite his efforts to rally a bipartisan audience. He held a separate, one-on-one Zoom session with Senator Jon Ossoff, who had contracted a mild case of Covid-19, and was impressed by the Georgian Democrat’s probing questions about the labor shortage in America, which Ballmer partially attributes to declining birth rates and lower immigration rates.
The NBA and Congress
Ballmer likes to quote James Madison, one of the founders and one of the foremost architects of the United States Constitution. Madison urged the emerging federal government to develop robust systems for collecting and tracking data about the state of the country.
In a private letter to a colleague, Madison once wrote: “A popular government, without popular information or the means to obtain it, is but a prologue to a farce or a tragedy; or, perhaps, both.”
If Ballmer were to rule the world, he would require politicians to document their agreement on a common set of facts. That alone, he thinks, would do wonders.
“Every elected official should read and sign a summary and say, ‘Yes, this is the foundation I believe in.’”
Ballmer’s eyes also light up when I bring up the subject of basketball, one of his other passions.
He sees many parallels between sports and government, although he has some objections to the link between basketball and Sabermetrics, a data-driven system for evaluating baseball players developed by Oakland Athletics manager Billy Beane. The system became the basis of ‘Moneyball’, the 2003 book and the 2011 film.
But Ballmer is a man of numbers, and one of the reasons he likes to compare the NBA to Congress is that he believes that performance in either case should be measurable in some way.
“There is responsibility,” he said of the NBA. “Every 24 seconds you get a scorecard. You either scored that basket or you didn’t score that basket.”
He tells the story of how the NBA hired a software company to place cameras in every arena in the league. The system watches every match and analyzes things such as which defensive moves or tactics work best against which players, categorizes the data and reports to the coaches on what it finds.
“If only our own government had a similar learning mechanism,” he says, somewhat wistfully, before adding, “There’s no real customer for the data. There’s no one to say, ‘I’m going to use numbers to make a decision. ‘”
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Republicans for Josho
On Wednesday, the campaign of Attorney General Josh Shapiro, a Democrat at a standstill for Pennsylvania governor with Republican candidate Doug Mastriano, rolled out a tentative list of GOP approvals. You read that right: a Democrat from Pennsylvania promotes his Republican constituency.
So far, the roster includes only one name that may seem familiar to a national audience: Charlie Dent, a former congressman who was a prominent early critic of Donald Trump. To capitalize on the unease many highly educated Republicans express about Trump and his influence over the 2022 midterm elections, Democrats plan to unveil similar groups in other states.
More interesting for political geography students in Pennsylvania are Shapiro’s local recommendations. Among them Morgan Boyd, the chairman of the board of commissioners for Lawrence County, which lies along the Ohio border about halfway between Erie and Pittsburgh.
That is unfriendly territory for Democrats. The province — the self-proclaimed “hot dog capital of the world” that is also home to two of the largest fireworks companies, Pyrotecnico and Zambelli Fireworks — went for Trump in the 2020 presidential election by a margin of nearly 30 percentage points.
In an interview, Boyd said he supported Shapiro not for any partisan reason, but because of his policies. Shapiro has proposed expanding broadband and using apprenticeship programs to bring high-tech jobs to rural areas — ideas commonly bought in struggling small towns like New Castle, the county seat, which has lost about half its population since the 1950s.
“Everyone has the same problems,” Boyd said, referring to Pennsylvania’s T-shaped area outside the major cities. “Our young people are moving to cities like Pittsburgh or Dallas, and we need to reverse that decline.”
Investing in infrastructure is a big part of Shapiro’s pitch to rural communities. Boyd noted that recent storms in Lawrence County had poured sewage into people’s homes and that the streets of New Castle — which sits in a bowl-shaped valley where two rivers converge — were inundated with runoff.
Blowback for endorsing a Democrat “didn’t occur to me,” Boyd said, noting that he was “still very much a Republican.”
As for Mastriano, Shapiro’s Republican opponent who has appeared with proponents of the QAnon conspiracy theory, Boyd said, “He’s too extreme for me.”
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