Steve Ballmer’s Bid for an Educated Citizenry



Steve Ballmer has always been an Excel guy. So when the former

Microsoft

chief executive’s wife, Connie, pressed him to be more philanthropic, he decided to do what he knew best: wade into vast repositories of government data to figure out where he could have the greatest impact.

Mr. Ballmer sought the government equivalent of a 10-K corporate report, the comprehensive business and financial document publicly held companies are required to file annually with the Securities and Exchange Commission. He realized no such singular trove of government data existed to his liking, and made creating one an important piece of his philanthropy. “There’s a lot of data out there,” he says, but it’s hard to put it into a framework that gives people a clear overview of where help is needed and what needs to be done.

To build that framework, in April 2017 Mr. Ballmer launched USAFacts.org, a massive database of government-compiled information—everything from the amount of spending on defense to the number of prison inmates to the average public-school teacher’s salary.

He spoke with The Wall Street Journal about USAFacts, as well as the scrutiny social networks are facing and the passing of Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen. Edited excerpts follow:

Focus on mobility

WSJ: You’re known to wallow in spreadsheets of various businesses to find opportunities and detect challenges. It seems like USAFacts speaks to the way you think.

MR. BALLMER: I’d absolutely say that. It helped me understand in a sense the role of government, in particular how it’s related to the things that my wife and I focus on, from a philanthropic perspective, which really has to do with economical mobility for kids who are born into the poorest families. In order to really understand what’s going on, I started rummaging around in government data. It was very hard to parse.

WSJ: What are some of the more pressing opportunities or challenges you’ve found?

MR. BALLMER: Beauty’s in the eye of the beholder. In my own case there are two things which are of interest. Number one, I have a fundamental belief in a balanced budget. We’re obviously far from that. The more important thing that’s of interest to me and Connie is what government funds are really available to bring opportunity to kids who are born into the poorest of circumstances. People are poor and that’s a very sad thing, and government can focus on that. What’s even sadder to us is the notion that kids who are born into those lower economic brackets have no shot to move up. That just seems as unfair as unfair could be.

The educational system is part of that, the criminal-justice system is part of that. The foster-care system is part of that. The affordable-housing system is part of that. Understanding that whole picture is very important.

WSJ: The facts you see shine a light on the problems. Do they guide you to solutions?

MR. BALLMER: In part they can, and in part they cannot. Take the balanced budget. You can easily see the general shape of that and take a point of view on how you could get there. I won’t give you my point of view because we’re trying to be nonpartisan at USAFacts. Some people agree we should have a balanced budget; some will disagree. Some could say, “Hey, we need to do it with this type of tax or that type of tax.” The numbers will highlight what really is possible and what is just rhetoric.

WSJ: Are you finding people have the patience to dive deep into USAFacts and find answers and draw conclusions?

MR. BALLMER: At this stage, we are still exploring the best ways to draw people in. We think of our target user as somebody who desires to be an educated part of the citizenry.

The question is, how do we get an honest, complete look at a problem without overwhelming people? That’s part of the next phase of what we need to do.

WSJ: These days, facts themselves are under attack. Some people are partisan and ignore facts. How does that affect what you are trying to accomplish?

MR. BALLMER: The truth is a little different than that. We run something we call our state-of-the-fact polls. If you ask people what is important to them in terms of forming their opinions on policies, 61% of Americans will say the data, 54% of people will say values. People do have values, but they are more than willing to look at data before they just, in an ad hoc way, go to their values. We think it’s important to feed that. While we say we’re in an environment where facts don’t matter at all, the polling we do on that topic would say otherwise.

A plea for cooperation

WSJ: Forbes estimates your worth at about $38 billion. How much of your wealth do you anticipate giving away in your lifetime?

MR. BALLMER: Probably less than I’d like to. The area in which we focus is not like giving a bunch of money to a university endowment, where they can suck billions in one fell swoop. Most of the not-for-profits that we support have very small budgets. We’re working through ideas. There may be some things that we could do that would scale a little bit better that still make sense, consistent to our mission.

You asked during my lifetime. We’ll do our best. And then there’s my deathtime, where we’ll do better because at the end of the day, much of our wealth will certainly go to philanthropic causes whether we manage to accomplish that in our lifetimes or not.

WSJ: You were a large investor in

Twitter

at one point. Twitter and other social networks are facing tough scrutiny from lawmakers and regulators. You faced some tough scrutiny from lawmakers and regulators at Microsoft. Do you see any parallels?

MR. BALLMER: The issues are obviously different. I, to this day, will tell you I didn’t think there was any real merit to what was going on [between Microsoft and regulators]. As I have said, I wish we had settled earlier, because the issues wound up a distraction. In this case, I think the issues are actually bigger because they affect society as a whole. It’s very hard to do innovative work without understanding the priorities and ground rules from government. It’s really important that the tech industry listen and heed the importance of this issue to society and what the regulators have to say about it.

WSJ: How would you guide those companies in this period, knowing what you know now?

MR. BALLMER: What I would hope is the regulators—not the legislative branch, but the regulators—are willing to dive in and work with the tech companies, and the tech companies with the regulators, to focus on the real priorities. As opposed to the tech company either not working on these things or picking their own random things to work on. Or as opposed to the legislative branches passing laws that don’t really get at the core issues.

WSJ: Paul Allen passed away recently. What are your recollections of his time at Microsoft and his work after he left?

MR. BALLMER: My number one recollection of Paul is as a good friend and a mentor in many, many ways. Paul conceived what became Microsoft, and it took a brilliant partnership between Bill [Gates] and Paul to get it there. Like the title of his book, Paul was an idea man. He has done some things that just sort of blow me away. [The Allen Institute for Brain Science] is an example. It’s remarkable. Both the creativity to come up with the ideas, the energy and insight to find the right people to do these things. I was certainly inspired and a little in awe of what Paul did on that front.

I could never have done what I did without Paul’s mentorship there. Let alone the fact that Paul [who owned the Portland Trail Blazers of the National Basketball Association] was the guy who, for years, pushed me to buy a basketball team [the Los Angeles Clippers] and that’s been a real joy for me. I appreciate Paul’s role just kind of broadly in my life.

Mr. Greene is a Wall Street Journal reporter in Seattle. Email him at jay.greene@wsj.com.



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