New York Times announces how one of America’s wealthiest computer scientists makes it possible to track where your tax money *really*, really goes:
In an age of fake news and questions about how politicians and others manipulate data to fit their biases, Mr. Ballmer’s project may serve as a powerful antidote. Using his website, USAFacts.org, a person could look up just about anything: How much revenue do airports take in and spend? What percentage of overall tax revenue is paid by corporations? At the very least, it could settle a lot of bets made during public policy debates at the dinner table.
“I would like citizens to be able to use this to form intelligent opinions,” Mr. Ballmer said. “People can disagree about what to do — I’m not going to tell people what to do.” But, he said, people ought to base their opinions “on common data sets that are believable.”
So how exactly does one go about collecting and ordering the nation’s data?
Before he started, Mr. Ballmer was convinced someone must have already done this.
For Mr. Ballmer, the experience has been worth every cent simply for the surprises that he has discovered looking at the data.
“I love this one!” he said, showing me a slide of information about government employees. “Don’t look, don’t look!” He instructed me to cover my eyes from the number at the bottom of the page.
“How many people work for government in the United States?” he asked, with the excitement of a child showing off a new toy, before displaying the answer. “Almost 24 million. Would you have guessed that?”
“Then people say, ‘Those damn bureaucrats!’” Mr. Ballmer exclaimed, channeling the criticism that government is bloated and filled with waste, fraud and abuse. “Well, let’s look at that. People who work in schools, higher ed, public institutions of education — they are government employees.” And they represent almost half of the 24 million, his data shows.
“And you say, O.K., what are the other big blocks?” Mr. Ballmer continued. “Well, active-duty military, war fighters. Government hospitals. Really? I didn’t know that.”
Suddenly, he explained, the faceless bureaucrats who are often pilloried as symbols of government waste start to look like the people in our neighborhood whom we’re very glad to have.
His other big surprises?
“Most of the not-for-profits we work with would be 50 to 90 percent government funded,” Mr. Ballmer said, referring to various efforts to fight poverty that he has supported. “I mean it’s funny, but I didn’t realize all these not-for-profits were in a sense almost like government contractors.”
Mr. Ballmer said he wanted the project to be completely apolitical. He has given money to candidates on both sides of the aisle. But as he speaks, you can tell that some of his preconceived notions could change his own politics.
At one point, as he showed me the value of certain tax deductions and blurted out, “If you look at these tax deductions for employer-provided health or for state and local taxes or mortgage-interest deductions, they’re really subsidies to the affluent, which I guess I hadn’t thought about them.”
“Take the mortgage deduction,” he continued. “This is to stimulate homeownership amongst people who are already going to own homes. That is worth, to a middle-income family, a hundred bucks a year. I was a little surprised by that. You can have your own reaction; I was a little surprised by that.”