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Former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer Is On A Mission: Make Government Data More Transparent

Former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer has founded an organization called USAFacts to put U.S. government statistics all together in one place. (Stephanie Keith/Getty Images)
Former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer has founded an organization called USAFacts to put U.S. government statistics all together in one place. (Stephanie Keith/Getty Images)
This article is more than 4 years old.

The U.S. government collects a lot of statistics. So do state governments, city governments — and on and on.

The problem is, if you want to use those statistics to make a decision about some important policy, they're not all in one place. Former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer thinks he's found a solution: a new organization he's founded called USAFacts.

It provides one-stop shopping for government statistics, and it's just released its annual report.

"I wanted to understand, by the numbers — because numbers, to me, tell an accurate story — I wanted to understand what government was doing, where the money was coming from, what it was being spent on and what kind of outcomes government was getting," Ballmer tells Here & Now's Jeremy Hobson. "And there was no consolidated view."

In a political climate marked by claims of so-called "fake news" and efforts to mislead for partisan gain, Ballmer (@Steven_Ballmer) says access to government statistics has an important role to play in cutting through the noise.

"Numbers are nonpartisan — and we only use government numbers, so nobody can say we're cooking the books," he says. "People can have their own opinions about what to do about them. But it really troubles me when people say things that are just not true by the numbers, or where they take a number out of context to try to dramatize a point."

Interview Highlights

On why he decided to start USAFacts

"I decided it made sense to look at [federal, state and local government statistics] holistically, and I wanted a report like corporations put out, a 10-K report to the Securities and Exchange Commission — just factual, past numbers, no future forecast, no flowery-ness, that described the operation of government in its entirety, just like a corporation would have to put out. Obviously the goal is not profit. It's positive outcomes for the citizens. And there was just no way to find such a thing, and I said, 'OK, well I'm going to start this because I'm interested.' And then as we went along, we had the whole, you know, 'alternate facts,' 'fake news' thing."

On a finding in USAFacts' annual report about the number of first-generation Americans in the U.S.

"The percentage of our population that's foreign-born is between 13 and 14 percent — I don't remember down to the tenth of a percent — which is historically towards the top end, but it's not the highest it's been in history. The other thing I think that's interesting about that is if you look at growth in our population, which is about 2 million a year, half of it comes from immigration and half of it comes because current Americans are having more children than the number of people who are dying every year. But ... part of economic growth comes from population growth, and half of that comes through immigration."

"Numbers are nonpartisan — and we only use government numbers, so nobody can say we're cooking the books."

Steve Ballmer

On what else stands out from the annual report

"The notion that more people are living alone, and more people are getting older. The older point I think a lot of people have in their head, and you can see the numbers on that in ... our annual report. But the fact that more people are living single I think is also interesting. When people talk about, for example, household income coming down, one of the factors I don't think people put in their heads very well is if you have smaller households and more senior households, we will have lower ... median household income — even if wages were going up, and at least for the middle 20 percent ... wages are not going up. But government transfers and decreases in taxes are giving more effective buying power to that middle 20 percent — let's call that the middle class, if you will."

On whether the report points to bigger problems America might face in the future

"Obviously, the numbers are the numbers and everybody can assess them differently. Let me give you an example that I find troubling: The percentage of kids who are proficient in reading at the eighth-grade level is up, and some people can be heartened about that. The number's still I think 38 percent, and some people could be depressed about that. And so characterizing it as all good or all bad is a little tricky. I hope that number is much higher. Through our philanthropy, my wife and I, we would do all we can to help influence that. And yet at the end of the day, one can be optimistic about about the improvements. Greenhouse gas: Some people believe the science that it makes a big difference, some people don't. But if you look at greenhouse gas emissions per person, they're down. The problem is we have more people than we have before. It takes context to even decide really how you feel about many of these issues."

"The obsession with the screen can make me nervous, I will say that."

Steve Ballmer

On looking back at his Microsoft tenure

"I'd probably highlight three things: No. 1, we developed a great successor to me under my watch, Satya Nadella, who's doing a fantastic job. I try to take credit, but we really did have the right guy and we picked him. That's No. 1. No. 2, profits in the company of have risen from ... high $20 billions to $40 billion under Satya's watch. But there was a base of profitability that I think has been fundamental to the company's success. We had the cloud computing thing, along with gaming and a number of the other critical innovations up and underway, and yet the company has taken them to a whole new level. So I feel good about my legacy: Windows, the enterprise business, Office, some of the things we built in the past, but also the elements of the future. And yet, it's sort of a game of, 'What do you do now?' And Satya Nadella and the management team there I think has done an outstanding job."

On the amount of time people are spending in front of screens, and his role in developing some of the technology driving that trend

"The obsession with the screen can make me nervous, I will say that. Some people will say it decreases personal contact, some people will say, 'Hey look, a text is a form of personal contact, and you can reach out and touch many more people than you would.' Social media, some of the same things. And yet when people always have their heads down on their phones, I think that's an issue.

"I was in a meeting the other day, I was looking up something, and the lady who was presenting said, 'Well that's rude. You've got your head down, and you're on your phone.' And I said, 'Well I'm actually looking up something relevant to the meeting.' But it shows some of the issues we face."

Alex Ashlock produced this interview and edited it for broadcast with Kathleen McKenna. Jack Mitchell adapted it for the web.

This segment aired on May 1, 2019.

Jeremy Hobson Former Co-Host, Here & Now
Before coming to WBUR to co-host Here & Now, Jeremy Hobson hosted the Marketplace Morning Report, a daily business news program with an audience of more than six million.



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