USAFacts Gives Us Reliable Data To Use While Talking Over Each Other

Steve Ballmer, former CEO of Microsoft and current owner of the LA Clippers, probably making a Dad joke about supposed facts. Photo Credit: Tiffany Kaiser.

We all know that you do not get your own facts, we have also all experienced people bringing their own facts to a discussion before telling you the first piece of wisdom. A retired Microsoft CEO worth $32.8 billion wanted to give everybody discussing US government financial operations a set of shared facts. Steve Ballmer invested $10 million in the development of an interactive database, populated with publicly available data, that illustrates the American government’s revenue and spending.

The primary page behind USAFacts.org presents you with a search bar. The prompt inside the search bar reads, ‘Search for things like “Arrests in 2012” or “Crime rates”’. Navigate to The Big Picture and you will see the graphical user interface that illustrates the data. The first point of focus shows the total revenue, $5.2 trillion, and expenditure, $5.4 trillion, for 2014. Beneath it is a circle reading, “In service of 321 million people”. To the left of total revenue is an arrow with the text, “See where the money comes from”. To the right of total spending the text reads, “See where it goes”. Click on either one and the focus slides over to the relevant data-set. There you can investigate the broad strokes and small details of the government’s financial transactions. Within three clicks you can learn that 15.45% of American revenue, $806 billion, comes from non-tax revenue. One click further and you learn that the largest source of non-tax revenue is $539 billion from the investments of State and local governments.

Maybe it is not the most interesting stuff but I can understand why Ballmer thinks his tool could solve discussions. He is quoted in their inaugural press release saying, “Our hope is that by arming interested citizens with credible facts, we can improve America’s political discourse. If we’re going to stem the alarming rise in polarization, if we’re going to forge a consensus, a good place to start is with a common set of facts on which people with opposing viewpoints can agree. We’re hoping it fuels more reasoned debate on the merits of government actions and potential changes to policy.” The website, which remains in Beta, took three years for Ballmer’s team to develop with data from over 130 government databases and reports.

Earlier this month USAFacts released the results of their “State Of The Facts” poll. The results, for Ballmer, are proof of concept. For the purposes of this article I will quote three of the facts. The poll showed that 88% of respondents preferred facts and figures to anecdotes, but that 76% thought the information they see is biased. Also, 89% thought most people only use facts that fit their beliefs and 88% thought that a tool like USAFacts would make a more informed debate possible.

“Americans need more trusted, transparent, and understandable information about their government and its expenditures,” said Ballmer. “We have been amazed by the level of interest we’ve seen in USAFacts in its first few months, and we wondered whether that interest in better understanding government’s finances, outcomes, and information about our population was more widespread. This survey suggests the answer is a resounding ‘yes.’ We hope projects like USAFacts spark more reasoned debate about the big issues and questions facing our nation.”

Ballmer intends to keep his data up-to-date and make it more robust as the web tool grows. So next time you have a discussion hinging on American spending on Law Enforcement and Corrections, $195.8 billion in 2014, you can navigate to USAFacts.org and have the information with a quick search or three clicks to the right on The Big Picture. Or if you want to compare Corporate Income Taxes, $375.3 billion, to Payroll Taxes, $1 trillion, you can get there with a few clicks to the left. Use the tool, get informed, and make sure that next time you debate American hegemony that you and your sparring partner trust the data.

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