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Steve Ballmer Thinks U.S. Citizens Should Know More About Government Spending

Thirteen months ago I interviewed former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer in San Francisco for the annual walk-up dinner to the summertime Brainstorm Tech conference in Aspen. In his inimitable animated way, Ballmer talked excitedly about basketball, passionately about his former company, and even poignantly about his strained friendship with former bestie Bill Gates.

He also divulged that he’d been funding a personal project to create a kind of “10-K for government,” a way to express in clear numbers how governments in the U.S. spend their citizens’ money. Companies file 10-K annual reports, reasoned Ballmer, shouldn’t someone produce one on behalf of the government?

Now he has done it exceedingly well. His group, USAFacts, not only has followed through on Ballmer’s promise, it has done so in a really clever way. Its starkly readable website is so clear it could have been designed by Apple. (Sorry, Steve. I couldn’t resist.)

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Its organizing principle, smartly, is the U.S. Constitution. “The Constitution gives us four missions,” the site declares, proceeding to explain how it has organized the voluminous data it has collected and analyzed. “We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union …:” 1) “establish justice and ensure domestic tranquility” (followed by links to justice-related spending); 2) “provide for the common defense” (military and immigration spending, among other things); 3) “promote general welfare”; and 4) “secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and posterity.”

The site is quite user-friendly and includes detailed reports on its findings. It is designed to be explored. And its aim is nonpartisan. Ballmer gave a typically entertaining interview about his project to Andrew Ross Sorkin of The New York Times. It’s worth the read to hear the retired executive’s thinking behind his effort.