What do you do when you’ve got billions of dollars and nothing to do? Apparently if you’re Steve Ballmer, former head of Microsoft, you try to untangle the Gordian Knot that is government data. He invested $10 million of his own money to create www.USAFacts.org, an apparently free website that collects data on federal, state, and local government spending and presents it in a single place.
In concept, this site is desperately needed – it’s almost impossible to compile reliable data across state and federal lines on either revenue or spending. But in practice, this is nothing more than the status quo justifying what the government does.
Here’s what the site says it’s doing:
USAFacts was inspired by a conversation Steve Ballmer had with his wife. She wanted him to get more involved in philanthropic work. He thought it made sense to first find out what government does with the money it raises. Where does the money come from and where is it spent? Whom does it serve? And most importantly, what are the outcomes?
With his business background, Steve searched for solid, reliable, impartial numbers to tell the story… but eventually realized he wasn’t going to find them. He put together a small team of people – economists, writers, researchers – and got to work.
We soon discovered that dealing with something as big and complex as government – with its more than 90,000 jurisdictions and 23 million employees – required an organizing framework. What better place to look than the Constitution, and, more specifically, the preamble to the Constitution? It lays out four missions: “Establish justice, ensure domestic tranquility; provide for the common defense; promote the general welfare; and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity.” While we don’t make judgments about policy, we all agree on the broad purposes of government as laid out in the preamble to the Constitution.
The trick is that Ballmer is couching all government spending within the functions of the Constitution, making it sound as if it’s all justified. So for example, interest on the federal debt is listed under “Secure the Blessings of Liberty to Ourselves and Our Posterity.” You’re kidding, right? “Securing the blessings of liberty” also covers our obligations to government employee retirement programs, while “Promoting the General Welfare” is a catchall to justify spending in a whole range of categories.
This would have been a welcome resource if it was credible; there’s a real need for a resource that shares hard-to-find compiled data without making any interpretations or advocate for any position. But that’s not this site. And while I had my hopes up, I should have known that someone who ran Microsoft wasn’t going to finally “get religion” a la Alan Greenspan’s newfound love of gold. I’ll be avoiding this resource in the future.