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Editor: Paul L. Caron
Pepperdine University School of Law

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Steve Ballmer Launches USAFacts To Track Government Spending And Taxing

USAFactsWashington Post, Tax Transparency in the Age of Trump:

Steve Ballmer, former CEO of Microsoft and current owner of the Los Angeles Clippers, is doing a significant public service. According to an article in the New York Times, Ballmer has funded a project to compile where every cent of government money is raised and spent at the federal, state and local levels. By clicking on USAFacts.org, anyone will be able to discover how much is raised in corporate versus sales or income taxes; how much money goes to their school district and what percentage is spent on teacher versus administrative salaries; how much the government spends on treating some specific categories of disease, such as depression; how much goes to diplomatic services versus the military. And so on. One hopes that Ballmer’s old friends at Xbox could turn all this data into an entertaining and instructive video game called “Taxes Versus Spending.”

Ballmer hopes that public debate will be strengthened by the availability of a common set of accurate data, perhaps echoing Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s saying that one is “entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts.”

New York Times Deal Book: Steve Ballmer Serves Up a Fascinating Data Trove, by Aaron Ross Sorkin:

 

When Mr. Ballmer retired as chief executive of Microsoft in 2014, he was only 57 and quickly realized “I don’t, quote, ‘have anything to do.’”

As he looked for a new endeavor — before he decided to buy the Clippers — his wife, Connie, encouraged him to help with some of her philanthropic efforts, an idea he initially rejected.

“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, and he figured that all that tax money should create a sufficient social safety net.

Her answer: “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.”

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?”

On Tuesday, Mr. Ballmer plans to make public a database and a report that he and a small army of economists, professors and other professionals have been assembling as part of a stealth start-up over the last three years called USAFacts. The database is perhaps the first nonpartisan effort to create a fully integrated look at revenue and spending across federal, state and local governments.

Want to know how many police officers are employed in various parts of the country and compare that against crime rates? Want to know how much revenue is brought in from parking tickets and the cost to collect? Want to know what percentage of Americans suffer from diagnosed depression and how much the government spends on it? That’s in there. You can slice the numbers in all sorts of ways.

Mr. Ballmer calls it “the equivalent of a 10-K for government,” referring to the kind of annual filing that companies make. ...

With an unlimited budget, he went about hiring a team of researchers in Seattle and made a grant to 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. ...

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.”

One rule Mr. Ballmer said his team made early on was to use only government data — no outside providers — to avoid accusations of bias. ...

Mr. Ballmer is hoping that the website is just the beginning. He hopes to open it up so that individuals and companies can build on top of it and pull out customized reports.

“We’re making philanthropic donations elsewhere — I think of this as another,” he said, referring to himself and his wife. “I don’t even deduct this for my taxes. I pay this with after-tax money, no pretax money, because I don’t want anybody being able to think that factors in. But I feel like it’s a civic contribution more than anything else.”

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