Steve Ballmer has a big idea: to be a partisan for the facts

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Publication Type: 
Other Writing
Publication Date: 
August 4, 2017

Steve Ballmer is the former chief executive of Microsoft, and the current owner of the Los Angeles Clippers. This is the second part of an interview with him about his website, USAFacts, which organizes data to provide information about the U.S. population, government finance and government policy. The first part is here. Both parts of the interview have been lightly edited.

HF — You’ve said in the past that while you have pretty open views on politics, you do think that government budgets ought to balance like a business. Will better data and a more balance-sheet-focused approach help push toward this?

SB — Let me separate the chicken from the egg. The number one thing I advocate for is the data. I am a pro-facts partisan. I will push for more accurate, better reconciled, more timely and consistently kept data. That agenda supersedes all others, because there is no integrity if that’s not there. Below that, I have many opinions as most people do on many things. But there are two things I am explicitly partisan on. Number one, I think that every kid born in America ought to have a shot at the American Dream. Many kids don’t, and my wife, Connie, and I will advocate for those things. We’ll use the same data, and be very careful about keeping the data accurate and not in any way influencing it from our perspective.

The second thing is that I do believe that over time budgets have to balance. There are reasonable people who disagree on that. Some people think it’s okay to run a deficit every year, but I don’t understand that. It’s counterintuitive — I’ve studied enough economics to know there’s a case and I am open about that being a bias I have. Are there many ways to get there? Sure. You can raise taxes, you can reform spending, or reform savings plans such as Social Security and Medicare. And on that, I am silent. People have to figure that out.

HF — If you’re a partisan for facts and data, you must be aware of the current political disputes over which data to use for which purposes. Do you think that your approach can help limit some of the fallout from these disputes?

SB — Some of this is about what has happened, but most of it is about forecasting. We’re not in the forecast business. Lots of people can make different forecasts based on the history and the policy. The CBO [Congressional Budget Office] does it — they’ve been a respected source for a number of years. Early in my retirement, I visited the CBO and sat down with Doug Elmendorf and his staff and was impressed by them and what they do. Obviously, the OMB [the president’s Office of Management and Budget] has staff to do these things, and there are various others such as the JCT [Joint Committee on Taxation]. But they’re forecasters. Forecasters have an easy time disagreeing with each other. When it comes to the past, the biggest issue is reconciling the data that exists, making it more timely, and getting into a position where we’re not revising it continuously. There is a significant amount of data that changes after the fact — which is published and then changed. We change it on our site — that probably disturbs many people and makes them worry about the integrity of the data that is continually being revised. Some of these things are done with statistical sampling, obviously. They’re not all spit out of a computer system. I think that requires more care and attention.

Read the full piece at The Washington Post