Steve Ballmer is the former CEO of Microsoft and the creator of USAFacts, an organization dedicated to making government data sources more publicly accessible and easier to use. In an interview (which has been edited for length and style), I asked him about what USAFacts is doing and how it is trying to help people understand how the government spends its money.
Henry Farrell: The report that you are presenting provides a lot of data — some of it about subjects that are the topic of political debate. What data have you found that doesn’t feature in the political conversation as much as it should?
Steve Ballmer: The high-level point is that it is really difficult to have a high-level yet integrated view of government. I believe that if you are a legislator, either in Washington, D.C., or in a statehouse, you have to understand how the puzzle fits together. Why? Because your money decisions have to fit together, too, whether you like more taxes, more spending or reallocation. There are very few government actions that don’t actually involve money. Some are pure policy — should we have more gun control or not — but even those don’t live in a vacuum outside what is going on with homicides.
The numbers are important, but taking one number out of context doesn’t help. For example, my wife, Connie, and I care a lot about early-childhood education. It’s not cheap — but you should look at it in the context of overall government spending, or current K-12 spending, or Head Start spending. It’s important that legislators have at least enough peripheral vision to pressure test their wants against the greater whole. What we want to give everyone — not just legislators — is the ability to see broadly and be able to think about things.
People sometimes seem to think that if we cut foreign aid, we could solve the deficit problem. But it’s $49 billion out of 5.7 trillion, or 5,700 billion — and public records show that we spend about one-quarter of it on Israel, Iraq and Afghanistan. This is non-direct military assistance to support the regional security objectives of the United States. This isn’t saying that there is a right or wrong answer, but it is saying that context is crucial. Forty-nine billion sounds like a lot of money, but it isn’t a lot in terms of everything we spend.
Read the full piece at The Washington Post.