It’s not often that a corporate billionaire seeks to provide a public service in the name of Constitutional duty. But that’s what former Microsoft CEO and current L.A. Clippers owner Steve Ballmer, known for his raucous speaking appearances and boisterous onstage behavior (see video above), intends with the launch of USAFacts.org.
Tuesday, the site went live. On it, users can explore a database of public information gleaned from more than 70 government sources.
Benefits for the site’s visitors include centralizing public data from disparate entities as well as big-picture concepts plainly presented. For example, clicking a menu link called The Big Picture will take the user to a page that clearly lays out America’s revenue ($5.2 trillion) and spending ($5.4 trillion) for 2014 (latest data available).
On the site’s About page, Ballmer credits a conversation with his wife as the impetus for USAFacts. She had encouraged him to increase his philanthropic efforts, but Ballmer first wanted to get an idea about the federal government’s overall financial machinations. He spent $10 million to build the site, according to Business Insider.
How it works
To examine something as vast and complicated as the U.S. government requires a framework for organizing all its various moving parts. Luckily, the Constitution already provides such a framework, and Ballmer’s site uses four principles from the preamble as categories for everything that happens as a dollar makes its way from taxpayer pockets to bureaucratic desks.
Those categories include:
- The establishment of justice and ensuring of domestic tranquility (crime, safety and social services, among others)
- Provisions for the common defense (national defense, foreign affairs and border security, among others)
- Promoting general welfare (infrastructure, health and standard of living, among others)
- Securing the blessings of liberty (education, wealth and the American Dream, among others)
Using these classifications, the site seeks to make government spending more transparent.
Although USAFacts centralizes a vast amount of data and presents it with well-designed charts and tables, a conspicuous lack of textual analysis potentially limits users’ understanding.
For example, while an interactive overview graph of federal revenue, spending and the resultant budget surplus/deficit since 1980 will illustrate the fact that a federal surplus at the turn of the 21st century became a deficit of more than $2 billion during the following decade, the site’s creators fail to offer any explanation as to why.
Part of this ambiguity may stem from the creator’s vision to present data in an impartial, unbiased, nonpartisan manner, and, for some, even the mere causal mention of economic and geopolitical forces in play at a given time can smack of propaganda.
Another limitation of the site reveals itself in the extensive set of footnotes, endnotes and asterisks tacked to various data points. As one might expect, amalgamating and presenting information from government agencies that may differ in calculations from state to federal levels poses serious obstacles with regard to comparing apples to apples. The creators, kindly, note the subjective nature of some of their accounting principles in the site’s methodology page.
Last, USAFact’s data should be viewed a bit skeptically until it has been audited, a process reportedly in the works, according to the site’s about page. While $10 million would seem like enough to ensure that contributors from such auspicious groups as the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research, the Penn Wharton Budget Model and Lynchburg College had all their ducks in a row, even economists (especially economists?) remain fallible.
Poking around the data
Despite the site’s limitations, it still holds an incredible amount of appeal for those in the journalism world as well as those seeking to advance policy issues for public and private sectors. With the stated mission to “spur serious, reasoned, and informed debate on the purpose and functions of government,” USAFact should be a go-to source for anyone looking to research government spending for a presentation to simply winning an argument on social media.
After just about five minutes of poking around the site’s 10-K report (which manages to shoehorn the site’s universe of data into the corporate-reporting structure that the SEC requires of publicly traded companies), certain realities plainly stick out.
With regard to poverty between 1980 and 2014, for example, page 39 of the 10-K puts total American poverty between 13 and 15 percent during the period. Of that percentage, blacks and hispanics consistently account for about half of all U.S. poverty.
Just below, data for criminal sentencing reveals further race discrepancies. While whites have accounted for two-thirds or more of total arrests since 1980, blacks and Hispanics consistently account for more than half of all sentenced prisoners.
Here’s one last tidbit from the 10-K: Page 151 lists annual salaries for all 50 governors. While the national average for 2016 was $137,353, Oklahoma’s governor made $147,000. Footnotes at the bottom of the table reveal that Michigan’s governor accepted only one dollar of his salary; New York’s governor “voluntarily reduced his salary by 5 percent”; the governor of Tennessee hands his salary right back to the state; and Alabama’s governor was refusing his salary until his state’s unemployment rate drops (though he resigned last week amid scandal).
Given Oklahoma’s current budget hole and our dismal rankings near the bottom in terms of positive things like education and near the top in terms of negative things like female incarceration, perhaps Gov. Mary Fallin could follow the leaders of those four states.