It was Tax Day, and Steve Ballmer was excited.
No surprise. Excitability is among the attributes most associated with the former Microsoft chief executive. This time, he was not trumpeting the virtues of software developers or screaming after an alley-oop for his Los Angeles Clippers, the basketball team he bought in 2014. Instead, Ballmer’s enthusiasm had a more arcane inspiration. He was on a tablet computer, pulling up a site he built with a team of economists and developers, to show me how the mortgage interest deduction breaks down by income and how fires in the U.S. have declined by 50 percent since 1980.
That site is USAFacts, a slick online database of all government information—at the federal, state, and local levels —rendered in plain English and with beautiful charts. In addition to tax facts, and fire facts, there are crime facts (e.g., gambling arrests since 1980), family facts (e.g., the share of young adults living at home since 1983), and job facts (e.g., share of single parents in the middle quintile working in manufacturing). The data trove is massive—the U.S.A. has lots of facts—but it’s intuitively organized and colorfully graphed.
What’s the point? “To give people the tools if they want them to do this stuff on their own,” Ballmer told me. “When people are grounded in the same facts, they find that the ground between them is smaller than they thought.”
It’s an honorable idea. But facts alone are feeble things. Given more information, most people don’t change their minds, even when the new data seems to support the opposite argument. They convince themselves that the information is misleading (“alternative”) or simply wrong (“fake). They tune out stuff that’s uncomfortable to hear and tune in to cable news programs like reliably tell them that their intuition about the world is even more right than they knew. When most apocalyptic cults face irrefutable proof that they miscalculated the end of days, they don’t call it quits and return to their normal pre-doomsday lives. They double down on their bad faith, lest they lose the most precious thing in the world—their identity and the portfolio of beliefs that upholds it. In this regard, we are all members of our own private cults. "As a way of avoiding dissonance and estrangement from valued groups, individuals subconsciously resist factual information that threatens their defining values," the Yale Law professor Dan Kahan told Vox.
Three years ago, when Ballmer embarked on the project of building an online clearinghouse for information about the U.S. government, he could not have possibly envisioned the epistemological climate into which it would launch. The neologism fake news, born as an post-election synonym for propaganda, has thrived as a catch-all for “anything I’d rather not believe.” The lamentable phrase “alternative facts” has its own dedicated Wikipedia page. The president of the United States is a longtime conspiracy theorist who has expressed fondness for the likes of Alex Jones, a right-wing tuba-throated radio jockey whose views are so dubious that his own lawyer now proclaims, in a court of law, that his client’s vocation is not even news-based at all, but instead a self-evident act of "performance art.” It is a hard time to be bullish on facts.
Yet there Ballmer stood, with his trademark ebullience, expanding on his vision in a presentation and interview with Charlie Rose at the Economic Club in New York, which I attended after our private interview. “I love numbers!” he shouted. He was shocked by many of the figures he collected throughout this project. What did the audience think had happened recently to average cost of hospital stays and average length-of-stay? It turns out that costs increased 30 percent this century even though average time at the hospital hasn’t grown—interesting! What did we think had happened to the student/teacher ratio since 1980? It had declined from 19.1 to 16.1—huh!
Rose asked a mischievous question. Now that Ballmer had learned so much about where his tax dollars go, where was the government money spending badly? Ballmer declined to answer. "I don't want to complicate this discussion with my values,” he said. “I'm just a guy with a bunch of numbers trying to make sense of the world." Rose asked again. "Everyone in this room is an expert,” Ballmer said, deflecting to the crowd. “I'll just give you the numbers to make your case.”
It was an appropriate answer, yet the honesty was revealing, too. Theoretically, facts stand on their own. But functionally, they need a moral argument to support them. Medicaid beneficiaries have tripled since 1980—is that a positive sign of benevolent government redistribution, or incontrovertible evidence of government bloat? Arrests for drug possession nearly tripled between 1980 and 2005—a sign of a pathetic and cruel war on drugs, or a key cause of the declining crime rate? I side with the former in both choices, but I’m not going to win any debates with one graph.
Moral values without facts are baseless, but facts without values are meaningless. Digits, commas, dollar signs—one can call them sacred, but as Ballmer himself acknowledged on Tuesday, facts are mercenaries serving time in the arguments of partisans: “Make your case!” I can easily envision how USAFacts might become a critical resource for me; how, for example, I might find root around the site and find a surprising swoosh—why are fires down 50 percent in 35 years, anyway?—and turn it into an article. But a gorgeous database alone is not going to change the tenor of democratic debate in America. Ballmer will have to settle for having built a beautiful site for nerds that won't save the republic.