Steve Ballmer is no stranger to shareholder meetings, but this is not your typical investor gathering.
The former Microsoft CEO and current L.A. Clippers owner will facilitate the first-ever “shareholder meeting for American taxpayers” as a live online event Tuesday morning — focusing on the government’s latest annual results, and its progress against its mission statement, as stated in the preamble to the U.S. Constitution.
It’s the latest effort by Ballmer’s nonpartisan nonprofit, USAFacts, to give American citizens the tools and data to analyze the government’s performance in the way a savvy investor would assess a company. USAFacts will also be releasing its second annual report and Form 10K document about the U.S. government, in the style of the yearly filings that publicly traded companies make to the Securities and Exchange Commission.
The reports are timed to coincide with Tax Day, when the “investment” we make in the country as taxpayers is top of mind.
So to continue the analogy, as a shareholder in the United States, is Ballmer a buyer or a seller?
“Let me say it the way I would talk about a company: I am a buyer with a couple of clouds, a couple of threats, that I worry about,” Ballmer said in an interview with GeekWire on Monday afternoon at his office in Bellevue, Wash.
Ballmer cautioned that everyone should read the numbers and form their own opinions, but from his perspective, he said, “by and large, with a couple of exceptions, the two twin pillars of America — democracy and capitalism — are working.” He pointed to encouraging trends in areas including job creation and a reduction in the crime rate.
In the realm of upside surprises, he noted that U.S. military spending on R&D, software and electronics is now $85 billion, compared to $75 billion on ships, vehicles, ammunition, missiles and gas. That “blew my mind,” Ballmer said. “It says people get it. Just like any other business, automation is a very good thing.”
Areas of concern
But what about those clouds and threats?
“What would I watch in this company? Number one, I would watch its difficulty in making decisions in the long-term interests of the country vs. the short-term,” Ballmer said. “It’s a little bit like saying a company’s juicing short-term earnings by cutting costs in a way that might not give them a long-term future.”
He pointed to the annual budget deficit, which has shrunk from $2.6 trillion less than a decade ago but still tops $480 billion annually. “The short-term nature of democracy can cause us to invest in the present and leave problems for the future,” he said. “Our deficit is the example that I would most highlight.”
Ballmer’s second concern: ensuring that everyone has an equal shot at the American dream.
“Upward mobility for many parts of our country is statistically not very likely to happen,” he said. “You want everybody to feel like they have a chance to move up. Yet, some people get trapped, and don’t move up, and nobody’s quite sure what to do about that. That’s an issue.”
Another concern, he said, is “the degree to which people’s experience in this country, based on race and ethnicity, is quite different. You want a country that’s stable, where everybody feels like they’re participating. In that category, I worry about the American dream.”
Specific to the mission of USAFacts, Ballmer also said he’s concerned that “we don’t have very fact-based debate.” He called it “a fundamental part of democracy” to agree on a basic set of facts, to inform a debate.
That ability to access those facts would be improved with accurate, timely numbers from the government, he noted. USAFacts deals entirely in government data, not forecasts, and the experience of compiling the annual reports has highlighted the need for better numbers in many areas.
One piece of missing data that Ballmer would like to have is the total number of guns in the country. “It doesn’t matter, actually, whether you have a stronger view of regulating guns or a less-strong view,” he said. “It seems to be a number that would be important to the debate.”
Facts and Facebook
Meanwhile, data privacy has become a big topic in Washington, D.C., as Facebook faces tough questions about its collection and handling of user data. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s Congressional appearance last week has been contrasted with then-Microsoft CEO Bill Gates’ performance at a 1998 Congressional hearing, as government antitrust scrutiny of the Redmond software giant escalated.
“The question is, will somebody really write a law that governs privacy and Facebook?” Ballmer said when asked about Facebook on Monday. “I think it is less likely that that happens versus, at some point, some regulatory agency steps in,” such as the Federal Trade Commission.
In the same way, he noted, there was a Congressional hearing involving Microsoft, but ultimately it was the Justice Department that took action.
Ballmer said he does see a connection between the challenges facing social media, and USAFacts’ quest to ground the country’s discussions in actual numbers and facts.
“When I talk about my concerns about the American dream, one of them is fact-based dialogue about what’s going on in the country,” he said. He cited polling by USAFacts in which people said “they get the largest amount of information on these topics on social media and have the least faith in the accuracy.”
“It is an issue,” he said. “It’s a big issue.”