Steve Ballmer, the former Microsoft CEO, has always been a numbers guy. In his post-Microsoft life, he’s deeply entrenched in the key numbers of the United States as the leader of a project called USAFacts.
He and his team produce a “10K for government,” breaking down the country’s revenue and spending in the style of the annual regulatory filings that public companies provide to investors, in addition to graphics and detailed reports.
So if Ballmer was able to show President Trump, House Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell one slide about the state of the country, what would it be? Interviewing Ballmer on stage today at a Rotary Club of Seattle luncheon, I asked him that question. This is the slide Ballmer chose.
The slide shows the chances that a child will ultimately move into a higher income bracket if born into a household at the lower end of the income range. For those born in the bottom 20 percent, Ballmer explained, the chances of moving into a higher bracket would be 80 percent in a perfectly equitable system. In reality, as the chart reflects, the chances are 66 percent for kids in the lowest 20 percent, and just 49 percent for black kids.
“To me, if you take a look at this, and you give me one shot, one slide, one thing to say, I say this just isn’t OK,” he said. “Not everybody gets to move up, but everybody should have a shot at moving up. … You can’t believe there’s an American dream if everybody in your neighborhood is essentially not moving up the economic ladder. I think that’s not OK. I think that’s something our leadership needs to focus in on and understand.”
USAFacts is non-partisan, and while Republicans currently control Congress and the White House, Ballmer was careful to point out that his choice of slide isn’t exclusively targeted to Republican leaders. He said he would show the same slide to the country’s Democratic leadership.
Businesses and the collective actions of individual communities also should play a role in reducing these inequities, he noted.
“The solutions to this will depend on government money, community focus and the role of capitalism,” he said. “It’s the thing that probably makes me a little bit different than a lot of people who focus on this problem. I think capitalism has to play a role. Capitalism has to create new jobs. Capitalism has to create new approaches to education. Capitalism has to drive down costs of goods so that less affluent people have better and cheaper access to goods.”
It will take “the big prongs of America — democracy, community and capitalism — if we’re really going to make any progress on this issue,” he said.
Ballmer and his wife, Connie, focus on this specific issue of economic mobility for kids born into poverty through their Ballmer Group philanthropy.
Steve Ballmer also owns the L.A. Clippers and remains one of Microsoft’s largest shareholders. I spoke with him about a range of issues on stage and afterward — including the economy, sports tech, and the challenges facing big tech companies trying to curb fake news — and we’ll have more highlights in the days ahead.
UPDATE: Watch the full video of the Rotary talk below, and read highlights from my subsequent one-on-one conversation with Ballmer in this post.