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posted by Fnord666 on Thursday April 20, @06:04AM   Printer-friendly
from the just-the-facts-maam dept.

Former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer has a lot of money and nothing to prove. Post-Microsoft, his biggest achievement so far has been paying $2 billion to buy the LA Clippers, but on Monday The New York Times dropped an extensive report about his next venture: a project called "USAFacts," which aggregates publicly available government data to tell you how your city, state, and federal tax dollars are spent.

Ballmer has already spent $10 million on the project and is "happy to fund the damn thing" (his personal net worth is estimated at over $22 billion, so he's good for it). He describes it as "a [Form] 10-K for government," a big searchable database that shows where tax revenue goes in and where it comes out. If you want to find out how many police officers or public school teachers the government employs in your area, you can do that; if you want to know what percentage of their salaries come from taxes paid by businesses instead of individuals, you can do that, too.

[...] USAFacts is definitely one of his good ideas. The site itself is slick and responsive and instantly informative, though it's still a beta and has rough edges. It shows real promise, and it has the potential to better inform discussion of where tax money comes from, vital to alleviating the feeling among some citizens that they pay taxes and receive nothing of worth in return. And if journalists and citizens can more easily get ahold of and interpret this data, it could itself lead to greater accountability and smarter spending, things that every politician on the face of the earth pays lip service to on the campaign trail.

But good, easily accessible data is only part of the solution to our problems. What's really in short supply now is not data, but trust—in experts, in government, in the press, and in our fellow citizens—and as good an idea as USAFacts seems to be, that's not a problem it can solve.

An imperfect solution is better than no attempt at all?

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  • (Score: 5, Insightful) by bradley13 on Thursday April 20, @06:20AM (6 children)

    by bradley13 (3053) Subscriber Badge on Thursday April 20, @06:20AM (#496718) Homepage Journal

    This is a good idea, but...I really don't believe that he will get all the information he needs. Why? Bear with me...

    First, the government should be doing this. The government as a whole, and each individual agency and department, should follow precisely the same accounting standards that they require from businesses. They say this is too much work, but it's what every business in the entire country has to do. Those accounting standards are designed to ensure clarity, not least so that the government can be sure it gets all the taxes that are due. And if it really is too much work, then consider the economic load on businesses, and simplify things.

    The real point is: the government really, really doesn't want that kind of clarity in its own accounts. Clarity makes it hard to hide pork, and general inefficiencies. What are the administrative overheads of various government departments, and how does this compare to private businesses (*) performing much the same functions? If those numbers were easily visible, if taxpayers could really see how badly their money is being spent...nope, can't have that.

    So just how is Ballmer going to get access to the detailed figures that he needs to produce really informative reports? Answer: he isn't going to get this data, because the government doesn't want him to have it.

    (*) Just one example: I read a blog written by a guy who privately manages public camping grounds []. His business is allowed to take over public camping grounds that the government finds too expensive to run. He makes a profit charging the same fees where the government made a loss. The explanation is entirely in the overheads: he has one full-time person in the administration (himself), where the government has an army of paper shufflers.

    Everyone is somebody else's weirdo.
    • (Score: 0) by Anonymous Coward on Thursday April 20, @07:02AM

      by Anonymous Coward on Thursday April 20, @07:02AM (#496723) []

      The United States Army’s finances are so jumbled it had to make trillions of dollars of improper accounting adjustments to create an illusion that its books are balanced.

      The Defense Department’s Inspector General, in a June report, said the Army made $2.8 trillion in wrongful adjustments to accounting entries in one quarter alone in 2015, and $6.5 trillion for the year. Yet the Army lacked receipts and invoices to support those numbers or simply made them up.

    • (Score: 1) by shrewdsheep on Thursday April 20, @11:37AM (3 children)

      by shrewdsheep (5215) on Thursday April 20, @11:37AM (#496800)

      I more or less agree with you. However, I believe that there is some chance of government inefficiencies to be tackled without too much cooperation of the latter. The ins are known: taxes and fees. The outs are much more difficult to measure but some can be measured well: number of individuals in public services, infrastructure cost, etc. and efficiency can be calculated based on those. Bad performers can be called out based on those which will lead to those people pointing out their special situation. In a positive scenario new data will become available for the modeling of these factors (e.g. social/ethnic composition, geography) and will not allow the same excuse next time.

      • (Score: 4, Interesting) by bradley13 on Thursday April 20, @12:31PM (2 children)

        by bradley13 (3053) Subscriber Badge on Thursday April 20, @12:31PM (#496812) Homepage Journal

        In principle, you're right: the government could chase down and eliminate inefficiencies. But...why should it? If you've ever worked in government, you know that it is entirely under the control of Pournelle's Iron Law. The most important priority of anyone above GS-14 or so is empire building: increasing head count and budget. Eliminating inefficiency? If you show that your department or group can get by on less, someone else will get your budget. Horror! So, sadly, there is absolutely no incentive at all to become more efficient...

        Everyone is somebody else's weirdo.
        • (Score: 0) by Anonymous Coward on Thursday April 20, @01:51PM

          by Anonymous Coward on Thursday April 20, @01:51PM (#496852)

          "The bureaucracy is expanding to meet the needs of the expanding bureaucracy."

        • (Score: 5, Informative) by bzipitidoo on Thursday April 20, @01:57PM

          by bzipitidoo (4388) Subscriber Badge on Thursday April 20, @01:57PM (#496855) Journal

          Government has no monopoly on organizational failure. I've encountered empire building in medium sized corporations. Extremely unnecessary and wasteful empire building eventually gets noticed, usually when a few deadlines pass and the empire builder has nothing to show for all those hires of incompetent relatives and friends and yes-men, and money and time. Often the entire department is eliminated.

          In one case I know of, after wasting a lot of resources recreating something the company already had, the empire builder was demoted to a low level engineer with of course a large cut in pay. He wasn't happy, but he took it. In another case, the empire builder was one of those guys who charges in without bothering to inform himself of even the most rudimentary information of who does what, just assumes everyone else is an idiot and he's going to crack down on all those lazy underlings and make them produce more, or at least that was the show he put on, even as he hired some dead wood of his own to kiss up to him. What he did then was misjudge what the underlings did, describing some of their duties in ways that made it sound like they were underworked or overpaid, you know, like saying a senior software engineer is just a low level code monkey, that kind of thing, which of course is perfect justification to lean on them to produce more, and maybe threaten to cut their pay or just fire them. When his empire was busted in under a year, he quit and stormed out, saying the company didn't appreciate him, etc.

          An empire that does a few useful things and isn't stupidly obnoxious can last much longer while hiding and sheltering a lot of useless people.

          If Ballmer's efforts bring more transparency to organizations, whether government or corporate, it's a good thing. Makes it harder to hide waste and incompetence.

    • (Score: 2, Interesting) by khallow on Thursday April 20, @12:34PM

      by khallow (3766) Subscriber Badge on Thursday April 20, @12:34PM (#496813) Journal

      Clarity makes it hard to hide pork, and general inefficiencies.

      The worst by far of these are unsupported future obligations. I believe the US would have been very different from about 1920 on, if the various pension (and later, health care) schemes of the federal government and of the US states had been subject to current GAAP [] ("Generally Accepted Accounting Principles") and money actually set aside in budgets for the future costs of these programs as a result.

      I believe several states (for example, California, Illinois, and New York) are close to austerity measures because of many decades of irresponsible actions on their part to create enormous future costs. The next economic downturn might radically change the fiscal health of these states.

  • (Score: -1, Troll) by Anonymous Coward on Thursday April 20, @06:28AM (10 children)

    by Anonymous Coward on Thursday April 20, @06:28AM (#496720)

    It's cold here under the bridge where I live. Government buy me a space heater. I want to plug my new space heater into an extension cord running to the train yard for free stolen electricity. This bridge is in a terrible state of disrepair so don't be surprised when I burn down the bridge. Government buy me a new bridge.

    • (Score: 0) by Anonymous Coward on Thursday April 20, @07:15AM (9 children)

      by Anonymous Coward on Thursday April 20, @07:15AM (#496729)

      Libertarians are so weak and need so much from the state that they can't even live under a bridge without some sort of subsidy, Going Gault but only if the state pays for it.

      • (Score: 0) by Anonymous Coward on Thursday April 20, @07:25AM (8 children)

        by Anonymous Coward on Thursday April 20, @07:25AM (#496731)

        I'm a communist. I believe in the ideal of from each according to ability and to each according to need. Society has decided my abilities are worthless, but I still have needs.

        While you're paying taxes so I can live because your society affords me absolutely no economic opportunity, let me check the status of my coding projects. Still worthless. Oh well. It's such a shame, I do such innovative work in software, but software is worthless.

        I'll take that money now, thanks.

        • (Score: 1, Funny) by Anonymous Coward on Thursday April 20, @07:31AM (2 children)

          by Anonymous Coward on Thursday April 20, @07:31AM (#496735)

          so you work for facebook?

          It's cold outside there's no kind of atmosphere...

          • (Score: 0) by Anonymous Coward on Thursday April 20, @07:36AM (1 child)

            by Anonymous Coward on Thursday April 20, @07:36AM (#496738)

            No I'm morally opposed to Facebook because I don't believe in advertising.

            • (Score: 0) by Anonymous Coward on Thursday April 20, @07:44AM

              by Anonymous Coward on Thursday April 20, @07:44AM (#496745)

              Typical socialist, Opposed to innovation and letting people know you've "Done IT" but is fine with mass surveillance and publicly broadcasted murder

        • (Score: 0) by Anonymous Coward on Thursday April 20, @10:12AM (2 children)

          by Anonymous Coward on Thursday April 20, @10:12AM (#496775)

          Society has decided my abilities are worthless, but I still have needs.

          Society? Hmm ... perhaps you would like to learn a (new?) skill so that "society" will no longer be your excuse? If you have no ability to learn or do anything that can be of value to anyone then you can always become a medical test subject. You have choices, comrade. Many exciting choices.

          • (Score: 0) by Anonymous Coward on Thursday April 20, @10:19AM (1 child)

            by Anonymous Coward on Thursday April 20, @10:19AM (#496778)

            To be fair most "skills" like "programing" will not be needed and neither will most of the people currently doing these "useful" things like facefark or yourtub these people will be the first against the wall and into the soylent vats when the revolution comes

            • (Score: 0) by Anonymous Coward on Thursday April 20, @08:40PM

              by Anonymous Coward on Thursday April 20, @08:40PM (#497049)

              I'm already a dinosaur. By the time this shit happens I will be ashes in a poor-man's viking funeral. Good luck with the world, kids. It's going to turn into a cesspool of a shithole of a memory. Don't forget to check out Disney World while you still can!

        • (Score: 1) by khallow on Thursday April 20, @12:43PM (1 child)

          by khallow (3766) Subscriber Badge on Thursday April 20, @12:43PM (#496814) Journal

          Society has decided my abilities are worthless, but I still have needs.

          Let's suppose hypothetically you were trying to be sincere here. If your needs aren't important enough to you that you would at least try to improve yourself and make yourself useful to society, then why should your needs be important to the rest of us?

          I've noticed that a lot of basic income rationalization is about how much the various parts of the world should pay me so that I don't have to do anything. I don't owe the world anything, but somehow the world owes me. My take is that basic income won't go anywhere until advocates can come up with compelling demonstrations of the benefits.

          • (Score: 4, Interesting) by Anonymous Coward on Thursday April 20, @04:13PM

            by Anonymous Coward on Thursday April 20, @04:13PM (#496910)

            I have never heard these arguments for UBI, sounds to me like you and the AC are just circle jerking with crappy arguments.

            Here are some points:

            1. UBI would remove food stamps and housing programs, reduce a massive bureaucratic system into a very simple one.
            2. Give people a minimum of financial security so they can safely pursue additional education without worrying about becoming homeless. Makes the labor market more fluid, people that lose their jobs can re-train themselves without fear of losing everything.
            3. Remove a massive amount of anxiety and fear from the general populace which will have likely side effects such as reducing crime and making more successful citizens. People will more easily escape the poverty trap, single mothers can spend more time with their kids, etc.
            4. Not a benefit but a rebuttal to the "how can it possibly be funded?" The tax brackets increase the more you earn, so at a certain level a person's UBI benefit is removed. This means that only those under a certain income level would actually receive the UBI. Lose your $150k job? UBI keeps you from starving, if you're an idiot that lost everything by over leveraging your assets or whatever.

            UBI is about making good on the concept of civilization. Lazy freeloaders won't really last more than they already do, and I dare say they will actually decrease in number. Right now a lot of people abuse welfare programs because they think they are being clever, outsmarting "the system", or whatever bullshit. Since the country is so corrupt, the politicians and lobbyists are stealing money from everyone, why not get in on the action? Blech. But UBI would strip all those programs away, sorry assholes.

            I'm not a fan of the possible dystopian future where people are given their crappy living space and crappy food, and only the elite "employables" get to have nice stuff. That is a problem with automation, when there simply aren't enough jobs to go around how do we keep society from devolving into even more massive inequality? That problem is coming regardless of UBI or any other attempts to push it back.

  • (Score: 1, Insightful) by Anonymous Coward on Thursday April 20, @06:55AM

    by Anonymous Coward on Thursday April 20, @06:55AM (#496722)

    Facts are what we say they are GIGO computers AI, Big Data are all written by humans that carry there madness into it, this is why "evidence" based decision making is such a joke because the "evidence" is frequently less reliable than UFO sightings, narrative based decision making is what it should be called and that goes for all these OMG Ycombiner nonsense.

  • (Score: 3, Insightful) by Geezer on Thursday April 20, @02:19PM

    by Geezer (511) Subscriber Badge on Thursday April 20, @02:19PM (#496863)

    No matter what breed of oxen you subscribe to, any sunlight revealed by this project is doomed to be ignored, except by indignant editorial staffs, and relegated to campaign talking points for politicians.

    In the Realpolitik of our entrenched burocracy and our Social Media Age penchant for media-driven ideological hysteria, any attempt to actually reduce waste or reallocate resources is bound to gore somebody's ox, with all the attendant outrage from someone or another. Cut some $500 lock washers on an Army office fan,and you're "soft on defense." Fire one burocrat at a welfare agency and you're a heartless oppressor of the poor. Inertia ensues.

    Of course, I'm part of the problem, because I see no solution, short of a 5MT air-burst above Washington.

    Scruting the inscrutable for over 50 years.
  • (Score: 2, Interesting) by jmorris on Thursday April 20, @02:43PM (1 child)

    by jmorris (4844) Subscriber Badge <{jmorris} {at} {}> on Thursday April 20, @02:43PM (#496868)

    The government is evil and doesn't like transparency. It reacts like Dracula to the Cross.

    Newt pushed through a transparency reform with Thomas, the website where anyone can read the current text of a bill the instant it is filed and see the changes as it moves through the system. Yippie! People did started using it and seeing the sausage as it was being made. What happened next? Remember Obamacare, the biggest (so far) piece of legislation in the 21st Century? Was it on Thomas? No, it was in Reid and Pelosi's office worked on by a never ending stream of Democrat politicians and lobbyists flowing in and out. Nobody else saw it until it went on the calendar for a vote. Hence the "you have to vote for it to see what is in it" line that will live on in infamy. Newt tried to bring transparency and now even the Congress itself can't see a bill before they vote for it.

    Note that Speaker Ryan recently did almost exactly the same thing with his 'repeal' attempt, working it in private, off the official grid so Thomas couldn't put a copy up for public inspection, until close to when he was ready to jam it down his members throats. He was 'better' in that people got to see the actual text a couple of days before the vote. He did sorta keep his word and allow the bill to go through 'Regular Order' through the Committees... and it died as people got a good look at it. So was Nancy correct?

    If this system Balmer is proposing goes fully functional we can expect the system to react. So think evil, if you were a lazy crooked son of a bitch who lived off of the ill gotten gains from working in the government, how would you short this scheme out? New privacy laws would do nicely to keep all of the payroll and pension records out of view. More public private partnerships to hide the flows of money and exactly what it is doing, much like private industry uses shell corporations. What else can we think up? Put on our thinking caps folks.

    • (Score: 2) by Zz9zZ on Thursday April 20, @04:19PM

      by Zz9zZ (1348) on Thursday April 20, @04:19PM (#496915)

      The day has come. I am modding jmorris interesting.

      Hmmm, still sunny out, no odd wildlife falling or flying around... I don't have an inter dimensional viewer so guess I'll have to wait a while to ask about the weather down below.

      ~Tilting at windmills~
  • (Score: 2) by DeathMonkey on Thursday April 20, @06:37PM (2 children)

    by DeathMonkey (1380) Subscriber Badge on Thursday April 20, @06:37PM (#496990) Journal

    No shit you cowards! (referring to all the up-modded comments in this thread, so far)

    Sometimes you have to actually fight for the truth to come out. Tools like this can help in that fight.

    But if all you're gonna do is sit on your ass and just accept the fake narrative that there no way to objectively measure the universe then they're just going to keep lying to us all.

    • (Score: 0) by Anonymous Coward on Thursday April 20, @09:38PM (1 child)

      by Anonymous Coward on Thursday April 20, @09:38PM (#497078)

      They will keep lying regardless of heroic monkeys.

      If lying doesn't work, the have lots and lots of prisons.

      The Man always wins. Always.

      • (Score: 2) by jmorris on Friday April 21, @01:46AM

        by jmorris (4844) Subscriber Badge <{jmorris} {at} {}> on Friday April 21, @01:46AM (#497170)

        That is what His Majesty Louis XVI, last King of France thought. The System crushes all who oppose it... right up to the moment it doesn't. Which is why it crushes so ruthlessly, knowing one slip will have undesirable results.

  • (Score: 1) by leftover on Thursday April 20, @07:22PM

    by leftover (2448) on Thursday April 20, @07:22PM (#497014)

    Seriously, with our current 'government of money' it will take a heavyweight to pry that information
    from the various types trying to hide it.

    I am pleased he is doing this and hope he maintains his bull-in-china-shop approach.

    Bent, folded, spindled, and mutilated.
  • (Score: 0) by Anonymous Coward on Friday April 21, @09:28AM

    by Anonymous Coward on Friday April 21, @09:28AM (#497315)
    I'm definitely no Ballmer fan but the article title's spin is rather negative.

    He's actually doing something useful with his money. Some may say it's pointless, but if there's nobody in the 300 million population of the USA that can achieve something useful and beneficial with this data then it's not Ballmer's failing and the USA deserves to go to shit.

    It's like a car with a muddy windscreen, and Ballmer is helping to clean the windscreen. Maybe the car will still crash, but if cleaning the windscreen is pointless, that's not because of Ballmer but more the driver and the passengers.