Skip to content
Steve Ballmer builds a “moneyball” for the government


When Steve Ballmer retired from Microsoft in 2014, his wife, Connie Snyder, informed him that his next job would be to help manage family philanthropy, which promotes upward economic mobility for children from low-income families.

“My first reaction to my wife was, ‘That’s the government’s job. We have to pay our taxes and the government does the rest,” Ballmer recalled in an interview with Yardbird, a fried chicken restaurant near Capitol Hill. “She said, ‘We’re working on it together.’ I said, ‘Very well.’

The more Ballmer thought about it, the more he realized that not only did government have an important role to play in making Americans more prosperous, but he didn’t feel like he had a good understanding of what government as a whole was trying to do. to do with his taxes — where he was succeeding and where he was failing. He asked himself: 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 corporate executive, he could 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 doing. But there was nothing like it for the US government, from the federal level down. This, he discovered, was partly the result of our uniquely fragmented system, and partly because of sheer disorganization and bureaucratic dysfunction.

Ballmer found this frustrating. So he set out, as he put it, “to create a product that I would like to use.”

In 2014, Ballmer created an early version of USAFacts, a website that aimed to answer his own questions about how the US government works — and doesn’t.

Eight years later, USAFacts is a nonprofit group that now produces an annual report on the state of the country, jam-packed with expertly produced numbers and charts on trends in living standards, gun deaths, the effect of inflation on wage growth, which states are deteriorating the pandemic the best and much more.

Ballmer can rattle many stats from memory, and he apologizes when he briefly forgets a number. He also likes to ask his audience about the data, asking me at one point: do you know how many veterans there are in the United States?

When I hesitated, he was proud to note that the Department of Veterans Affairs puts the number at 20 million, while the Census Bureau will say 18 million – a discrepancy he called “crazy.”

“You have to put pressure on the agencies,” he said. “They are good, very professional statisticians. But no one has asked the Census Bureau and the Department of Veterans Affairs to agree on the number of veterans in the country.

Building on his days at the helm of the world’s largest software company, Ballmer also released a fictional 10-K report for the fiscal year that ended September 2019 – some 250 pages detailing revenue, spending and other “key indicators” intended to help Americans get educated. their own conclusions about whether their tax dollars are well spent.

Ballmer, a serial entrepreneur who also owns the Los Angeles Clippers, recently hired Poppy McDonald, the former president of Politico, and Amanda Cox, former editor of The Upshot at the New York Times, to help build his crew.

When we spoke, Ballmer had just returned from a whirlwind day of briefings on Capitol Hill, where he met with the House Select Committee on Modernization and the Problem Solvers Caucus, as well as Representative Steny Hoyer, the No. 2 Democrat at the House, and Rep. Kevin McCarthy, the top Republican in the House. He also spoke with Denice Ross, 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 best efforts to muster 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 came away impressed by the Georgia Democrat’s probing questions about America’s labor shortage, which Ballmer attributes it in part to falling birth rates and falling immigration rates.

Ballmer likes to quote James Madison, a founding father and one of the main architects of the American Constitution. Madison urged the fledgling federal government to develop robust systems to collect and maintain data on the state of the nation.

In a private letter to a colleague, Madison once wrote: “Popular government, without popular information, or the means to acquire it, is but a prologue to a farce or tragedy; or, perhaps, both.

If Ballmer ruled 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 have to read a summary and sign and say, ‘Yeah, that’s the basis I believe on. “”

Ballmer’s eyes also light up when I bring up the subject of basketball, another of his passions.

He sees many parallels between sports and government, though he’s a little balky at the connection between basketball and Sabermetrics, a system based on baseball player rating data that was developed by the manager of ‘Oakland Athletics, Billy Beane. The system became the basis of “Moneyball”, the 2003 book and the 2011 film.

But Ballmer loves numbers, and one of the reasons he loves pitting the NBA against Congress is because he thinks performance in both should be measurable in some way.

“There’s a liability,” he said of the NBA “Every 24 seconds you get a scorecard. Either you scored that basket or you didn’t score that basket.

He tells how the NBA hired a software company that placed cameras in every arena in the league. The system monitors every game and analyzes things like which defensive plays or which tactics work best against which players, categorizes the data and reports back to coaches on what it finds.

“If only our own government had a similar learning mechanism,” he says, a little wistfully, before adding, “There is no real customer for data. There’s no one who says, ‘I’m going to use numbers to make a decision.’


We want to hear from you.
Tell us about your experience with this newsletter by answering this short survey.

On Wednesday, Attorney General Josh Shapiro’s campaign, a Democrat tied for governor of Pennsylvania with Doug Mastriano, the Republican nominee, unveiled a preliminary list of GOP backers. You read that right: A Pennsylvania Democrat promotes his Republican supporters.

So far, the list contains only one name that might be familiar to a national audience: Charlie Dent, a former congressman who was an early critic of Donald Trump. Seeking to capitalize on the unease that many college-educated Republicans are expressing about Trump and his influence in the 2022 midterm elections, Democrats plan to unveil similar groups in other states.

Shapiro’s local mentions are more interesting for students of political geography in Pennsylvania. They include Morgan Boyd, the chairman of the Lawrence County Board of Commissioners, which sits along the Ohio border halfway between Erie and Pittsburgh.

This is hostile territory for Democrats. The county — the self-proclaimed “hot dog capital of the world” that is also home to two of the biggest 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 politics. Shapiro has proposed expanding broadband and using apprenticeship programs to create high-tech jobs in rural areas – ideas that have a lot of appeal in struggling small towns like New Castle, the headquarters of the county, which has lost about half of its population since 1950.

“Everyone has the same issues,” Boyd said, referring to Pennsylvania’s T-shaped area outside of its major cities. “Our young people are moving to places like Pittsburgh or Dallas, and we need to reverse that decline.”

Investing in infrastructure is a big part of introducing Shapiro to rural communities. Boyd noted that recent storms in Lawrence County had sent sewage back into people’s homes and left the streets of New Castle – which sits in a bowl-shaped valley where two rivers converge – flooded with runoff.

The backlash for supporting a Democrat “didn’t cross my mind,” said Boyd, who noted he was “still very Republican.”

As for Mastriano, Shapiro’s Republican opponent who appeared with QAnon conspiracy theorists, Boyd said, “He’s too extreme for me.”

Is there anything you think we’re missing? Something you want to see more? We would love to hear from you. Email us at onpolitics@nytimes.com.

nytimes

Not all news on the site expresses the point of view of the site, but we transmit this news automatically and translate it through programmatic technology on the site and not from a human editor.