Steve Ballmer, former CEO of Microsoft and current owner of the Los Angeles Clippers, is doing a significant public service. According to an article in the New York Times, Ballmer has funded a project to compile where every cent of government money is raised and spent at the federal, state and local levels. By clicking on USAFacts.org (as of this morning, the link was not live), anyone will be able to discover how much is raised in corporate versus sales or income taxes; how much money goes to their school district and what percentage is spent on teacher versus administrative salaries; how much the government spends on treating some specific categories of disease, such as depression; how much goes to diplomatic services versus the military. And so on. One hopes that Ballmer’s old friends at Xbox could turn all this data into an entertaining and instructive video game called “Taxes Versus Spending.”
Ballmer hopes that public debate will be strengthened by the availability of a common set of accurate data, perhaps echoing Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s saying that one is “entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts.” Perhaps in this age of fake news and strident certainty, such optimism is naive. I hope not. An economics professor I had in college once said it would be very good for democracy if at the end of your 1040 tax return, you were given a list of government programs to select as worthy of your tax payments. In his mind, such an exercise would have brought one of the basic decisions of a democracy, what it chooses to spend money on, much closer to the people.
One can also dismiss Ballmer’s project as simply another tool for reinforcing hardened partisan views. Perhaps conservatives will be appalled once again by how high taxes are, and liberals will be confirmed in their suspicion that government doesn’t spend enough on priorities like education. But my guess is that there will be some surprises for both sides. And, at least, we will have a common set of facts, if we are honest enough to consider them.