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Ballmer Aims To Quantify How Well The Government Does Its Job

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Since retiring as CEO of Microsoft three years ago, Steve Ballmer has moved on to some new projects. He bought an NBA basketball team here in California, the LA Clippers. And he is known for getting very animated during games, I mean, screaming, his face turning beet red.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED SPORTSCASTER: Hey everybody, if you own the team, you can get that excited.

GREENE: Well, sadly for Ballmer, his Clippers were eliminated from the playoffs yesterday. But it does mean that he has more time to focus on his other project, which is a website he's funded called USAFacts. Ballmer created it to satisfy his curiosity about government and how well governments at all levels do their jobs.

Ballmer and a team of researchers created this site. It compiles data, showing where local, federal and state governments get their revenue, where they spend it, what outcomes they get. He told us that he hopes there's real value here.

STEVE BALLMER: I find that when people are building off a common set of facts, they get closer together than they think they might otherwise be.

GREENE: So the site, usafacts.org, has this enormous volume of publicly-available government data. Ballmer and his team wanted the design to be user friendly. And I asked him for an example of how this works.

BALLMER: One of the things that we will show is how much is the mortgage interest deduction worth to people at various income levels? At the same time, you might be interested in saying, I wonder how that looks and correlates with homeownership. We'll also show you the percentage of people who own their home by income quintile.

GREENE: Well, did you learn something about who's benefiting from the mortgage interest deduction?

BALLMER: Yeah. I'll give you a piece of data. So about 4 percent of the total value of the mortgage interest deduction goes to people in the bottom 60 percent by income.

GREENE: So people at the bottom, homeowners are actually not benefiting all that much from being able to deduct their mortgage interest?

BALLMER: Or they're not owning homes, some combination of not owning homes and not getting that much value. And, you know, some people say we're just trying to support homeownership. That's a good thing. We need to provide that incentive. And some people will say hey, look, this should do more to encourage people at the bottom of the income spectrum to buy homes.

So I would say it's interesting context for both sides to form a point of view or all sides, let me say, 'cause this is not just a liberal or conservative issue or a Democrat or Republican issue.

GREENE: Would you indulge me for a second? Because I was playing around with the site. And as a journalist, there was this question on my mind. I had interviewed Stephen Moore, who was an economic adviser to President Trump. He liked that Donald Trump was cutting foreign aid or at least wanted to. And Moore told me this.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

STEPHEN MOORE: Foreign aid has been about the biggest waste of money in the federal budget for the last 50 years. There's just zero evidence that any of these foreign aid programs have had any effect on development, whether it's in the Middle East or Africa or South America. And there's just zero evidence that any of that development aid has had any effect on raising the living standards in these countries.

GREENE: At this moment, is there a way for me to find the answer and fact check what Stephen Moore just said on your website, or are we not there yet?

BALLMER: Well, in terms of impact, very hard to assess. You can find where the money gets spent. And then you can ask, what are the number of objectives that might be met? I'll be silent on the topic. The one thing I'll probably highlight is total foreign aid budget in the United States is about $40 billion. That is a non-trivial number, but government spends 5.4 trillion.

So we're talking, I guess, about less than a tenth of a percent of total government spend is in foreign aid. And a big chunk of that is going into stabilizing areas where we have been involved militarily.

GREENE: I know you're - this is going to be an evolving project. Would there be a time when it might help you go even further and understand impact like on these countries and whether it's raised living standards in these countries?

BALLMER: I would hope so. You know, in each of these areas what we'd really like to eventually get to is a real measurement of outcomes. On some of those areas, I think we do better. We can show you how many jobs there are. We can show you the living standards of people by income quintile and how they spend their money.

Those things look like more real outcomes. When it comes to a topic like providing for the common defense as called out in the preamble of the Constitution, it's a little bit more difficult to assess outcomes. Foreign aid, a little bit more difficult. But we'll keep pushing. That's part of what we need to do if this project's going to achieve maximum value.

GREENE: All right. Steve Ballmer, always a pleasure talking to you. Thanks so much.

BALLMER: Thanks a lot.

GREENE: Steve Ballmer is the former CEO of Microsoft. And he is behind a newly launched website called usafacts.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.