‘Own the darn numbers’: Steve Ballmer releases new USAFacts annual report, with a challenge for elected officials

Steve Ballmer, former Microsoft CEO, is the founder of the non-profit nonpartisan civic data initiative, USAFacts. (GeekWire Photo / Kevin Lisota)

“I want our electeds to own the darn numbers. This is the state of our government. This is what’s going on. If you’re going to talk about something, you’d better talk about it in terms of reality. And if you’re not going to do that, you’re not a serious person.”

That is the message from former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer, as his non-partisan, not-for-profit civic data initiative, USAFacts, publishes its third annual report on U.S. local, state and federal government — compiling and analyzing the government’s own data to update Americans on the state of the country in much the same way as a business reports to its shareholders.

While it should probably be required reading for elected officials in the country, it’s also a way for everyday citizens to get a clearer understanding of what’s happening in the United States, with charts and graphs showing government revenues, spending, and results in areas including healthcare, immigration, the economy, education, trade, and the changing nature of the U.S. population.

In short, it’s a picture of America in numbers.

On this episode of our Numbers Geek podcast, a partnership between GeekWire and USAFacts, Steve Ballmer joins us to look at that picture, discussing highlights from the USAFacts 2019 Annual Report.

Listen below, or subscribe in your favorite podcast app. Continue reading for an edited transcript and video highlights from our conversation.

Todd Bishop: Steve, you and your team at USAFacts take a business mindset. You report on the government much as a business would report on itself. And so here we have the annual report for 2019, and the 10-K is out. If you were the CEO of an organization that had these inputs and outputs, what would you want the shareholders to know? Or the taxpayers, in this case?

Steve Ballmer: First, I think you really want to study what’s going on with median household income. It doesn’t matter whether you’re looking at singles living alone, which is a very rapidly growing part of our population, or you’re looking at people who are married with kids. Household income, earned income through jobs, etc., is down, which is alarming. Seniors are doing a little better than that, which is great. But when it comes to household income I think people say, hmm, gotta really think about that.

The dark green bar in this chart represents wages and other work-related income, showing a decline between 2000 and 2017 for every family type except Elderly (65+) in U.S. households in the middle 20% of median household income, adjusted for inflation. More: USAFacts 2019 Annual Report.

Steve Ballmer: I think as people take a look at some of the measures in health and in education, you could say there’s a little bit of progress. Probably not the kind of progress people would want or hope for. Everybody’s got to apply their own value judgments, that’s part of the way we think about it. But I’d highlight health, education.

Life expectancy is a statistical estimate of the average lifespan of people born in a specific year, while average age at death is a calculation of the average age at which people in a given year die. Life expectancy has increased more than average age of death since 1999, but dipped in the past few years. More: USAFacts 2019 Annual Report.
These percentages, showing overall increases in 8th grade reading and math proficiency between 1992 and 2017, are from the National Assessment of Education Progress. More: USAFacts 2019 Annual Report.

Steve Ballmer: On crime, I think most people would find the trend encouraging when it comes to violent crime and property crime, which is a big deal.

More: USAFacts 2019 Annual Report

The overall thing, though, you just have to take a look at is, do you believe that it is sustainable for government to run deficits. And if you believe it’s okay, and you have a theory of that, you’re probably okay. If you believe that over time government needs to do more to balance the budget, you would take a look at it. You would see a widening deficit. You would see a widening trade gap. You would wonder what could happen to address those things. And if you’re going to address them it’s quite clear with the magnitude of the numbers. And a lot of that’s coming from Social Security, Medicare, and to some extent Medicaid, we’d need to probably have some significant increase in tax revenue as well as some real control on costs. You’d have to put that to the voters.

More: USAFacts 2019 Annual Report.

Todd Bishop:  On that topic, this was the passage that jumped out at me from the 10-K, “Without a change in current laws and policies, federal spending, especially for Social Security and Medicare, is forecast to outstrip revenue over the next decade, widening the national debt to 96% of GDP in 2028 from 78% in 2018, according to the Congressional Budget Office. In 30 years, the Congressional Budget Office projects the debt will rise to 152% of GDP. That amount would be the highest in the nation’s history by far. As a result, there is a risk that interest payments on the debt could consume a growing portion of the budget, possibly limiting the federal government’s ability to provide other services unless taxes are raised or revenue is otherwise increased.”

As a taxpayer, as a shareholder in the country, effectively, that alarms me.

Steve Ballmer: The theory would be, the economy is going to grow so much that if we apply today’s tax rates at tomorrow’s growth, we will cover, essentially, these deficits to be. And if we don’t cover them in any one year, don’t worry about it because our earning power is going up.

Similar to companies that borrow early, and they say, hey look, eventually things will flip, we’ll be okay. Would I worry? Yeah, I’d worry. At some point we’re really going to have to take a look and say, hmm, paying interest on our debt is a bigger and bigger percentage of all the money we spend. And essentially today’s workers will be paying taxes to pay for yesterday’s benefits, or today’s benefits, particularly Social Security and Medicare. Should the hard work of today’s workers … What percentage should go to support today’s seniors and less advantaged people. The pressure to resolve that in a way that’s satisfactory for society, that pressure is going to go up.

Todd Bishop: We’ve talked throughout these episodes about these economics: GDP, debt, trade deficit. Do you think that those numbers, the finances of the government, are being taken into account in the discussions of policy on all the other issues we’ve talked about like healthcare, education, everything else?

Steve Ballmer:  I don’t. I think part of the problem is, perhaps at least in the public debate, we’re good at taking one issue at a time and saying, we need better healthcare. We need more education. We need X, we need Y, we need Z. And not taking a look at the benefits with the costs. The benefits with the costs.

If it’s a business, you say, hey we need more R&D, we need more sales and marketing. We need better products. At the end of the day, somebody’s got to tote up revenue and expenses and decide whether that’s acceptable. Companies have a way to do that.

What we do in our country is, we take a look, essentially, at taxes, which are revenue, separately from expenses, separately from outcomes. “Hey, we want more of this.” Fantastic, how much expense and where are the revenues going to come from? A business would consider those things holistically. Yet in our discussion … There’s a discussion in the news now about universal healthcare. Society can decide what to do about that, but I believe that discussion needs to occur in the context of, what does it cost and where is the revenue going to come from. Or, how much more into debt are we willing to go for that benefit.

Read the 2019 USAFacts Annual Report, and listen to more Numbers Geek episodes. Read more about the collaboration between USAFacts and GeekWire. We’ll be back soon with the Numbers Geek podcast finale.

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