What do you do if you’re a retired billionaire with nothing better to do than watch the basketball team you own? If you’re former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer, you assemble a team of “25 data geeks” to “[pore] over more than three decades of government documents to create a comprehensive accounting of U.S. spending.”
The goal is to treat the nation like a company and create what Ballmer describes as a "10-K for the government," like the one publicly traded businesses are required to file with regulators each year.
Incredibly, no one else beat Ballmer to this tedious and thankless task, but really, his wife deserves at least some of the credit for the idea:
Ballmer’s obsession with government data originated from a disagreement with his wife. Almost three years ago, Connie Ballmer told her newly retired husband that he should focus more on philanthropy. His wife has dedicated herself to child welfare and other causes, and there's plenty left to give: Ballmer's estimated net worth is $25.1 billion, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index. "I said, 'Eh, why do you worry about it so much?'" Ballmer said. "At the end of the day, the biggest philanthropy in the U.S. is the government. So as long as we pay our taxes, we're doing our part."
It was an unusual argument to make, and as with many Ballmer debates, it turned into a research exercise. He scoured the web for a summary of government spending at all levels. He started with Bing and then tried Google. Neither had what he was looking for. So he decided to build it.
He used Google? Gosh, he really tried, you guys.
Now, I’m no relationship expert, but at this point in the argument, I imagine Connie Ballmer rolling her eyes and going back to doing something worthwhile as Steve starts on this passion/proving the Mrs. wrong project. Eventually, what Ballmer and his merry band of spreadsheet wizards built is called “USAFacts” and it consists of “hundreds of Excel files and 385 PowerPoint slides, many of which require a magnifying glass to read.”
The Bloomberg report doesn’t have a rough word count on USA 10-K, but it’s safe to say that it’ll probably bypass GE’s breezy 109,894. I’d take on the assignment of writing it for a small stake in the Clippers.
Meanwhile, it sounds like a peace has been reached in the Ballmer household:
The project has helped settle Ballmer's dispute with his wife. Government funding accounts for a larger share of many social-services organizations’ budgets for aiding children than private donations, he said.
But economic mobility remains largely unachievable for America’s poorest families. The data helped convince the Ballmers to focus their philanthropy on impoverished kids in U.S. cities with the lowest chances of improving their situations. Ballmer will continue making political contributions as well. He still believes influencing public policy is one of the most effective ways to effect change, he said. "We were both right."
I think I speak for Connie when I say, “Sure, Steve.”
Image: Wikimedia Commons