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USAFacts founder and former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer on the State of the Union in numbers

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Former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer is founder of USAFacts. (GeekWire File Photo / Kevin Lisota)

Understanding any subject requires knowing the numbers, and that includes looking at the long-term trends. That was one of Steve Ballmer’s guiding principles as Microsoft’s CEO, and it remains his mantra as founder of USAFacts, a non-profit, non-partisan organization that compiles and reports U.S. government data.

One example from the State of the Union address this week: President Joe Biden pointed out that the U.S. Gross Domestic Product grew by 5.7% in 2021. What he didn’t mention was the fact that GDP shrunk by 3.4% in 2020. Positive or negative, that’s important context to fully understand what happened in 2021.

“We did have a V [shaped] recovery, a quick down and a quick up. That’s great. We should be proud of that,” Ballmer says. “But if you look at the lifestyles of people, they look more like the two-year number than the one-year number.”

Another example: Biden’s statement that the country “used to invest almost 2% of our GDP in research and development.” In fact, depending on how you calculate R&D, USAFacts research shows that it has been since the 1960s since spending has equaled 2% of GDP. The number has been below 1% since the mid-1990s.

Different people will generate different conclusions and assertions from the data, but as a starting point, it’s important to see and understand the long-term trend.

Ballmer is quick to point out that the tendency to look at numbers out of context is bipartisan: both Republican and Democratic politicians know how to use numbers selectively to sell their plans to the American public. USAFacts aims to put those number in context, and ground the national conversation in a common understanding of facts.

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“There was a number discussion,” Ballmer said of the State of the Union address. “But the numbers were so incomplete. It was really hard to put together what was going on, what was really being proposed, and what it would really buy us.”

Ballmer, the chairman of the L.A. Clippers and former Microsoft CEO, joins us on the GeekWire Podcast to discuss the USAFacts State of the Union in Numbers report. The numbers are increasingly important to watch as the country emerges from the pandemic and confronts the global economic impact of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

We also discuss trends he’s watching in tech, the future of the in-person sports experience, and his philanthropic initiatives with his wife Connie through their Ballmer Group in areas including homelessness and education.

Ballmer and USAFacts partnered with GeekWire on the podcast Numbers Geek in 2018 and 2019, exploring the data behind many of the country’s key issues. Many of those issues have changed dramatically in the time since then, such as government spending, the labor market, health care, immigration and the economy.

Listen above, or subscribe to GeekWire in Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify or wherever you listen.

Podcast edited and produced by Curt Milton. Theme music by Daniel L.K. Caldwell.

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