I reached out to the website developer/maintainer/creator, Chris Chantrill, telling him I appreciated his work on the site and asking if he needed help (seems like a 1 man operation?) - here's how he responded:
Thanks! I started the site in 2007 when "I couldn't take it any more." Since then it has just growed.
Here's how you can help. Suggest a feature.
Chris' site provides unbiased commentary on the importance/relevance of certain measurements, and gives access to download data. It could use a bit of a UX/UI overhaul but it's an amazing feat for a one-man operation to track and present all these different sources of gov data.
I'll be interested to see how Balmer's site compares in functionality (and neutrality) especially given his vast resources and team of experts.
It only gives a very high level picture.
It would need to allow one to go a whole lot deeper for people to be able to work out what is value and what isn't.
How does the office of taoiseach spend €182 million per annum, for example?
It should be possible to see exactly where the money was spent all the way down to an invoice.
The data needed to be aggregated originally, presumably, to deliver what they do publish so what we want is access to the raw stuff.
With that level of visibility ("down to an invoice"), it's easy for people to take up pitch forks and begin lambasting teachers, for example, for their spending on computer software, materials for class, and so on. Perhaps a doctor's medical decisions would start being questioned left, right, and centre, yet the people doing the questioning have no medical experience or understanding of the patient's needs.
Let me put this another way: do you like being micro managed at your job? Would you like every decision you make regarding public spending, as an individual teacher, to be disputed, criticised and thrown up on Twitter by someone who, for example, doesn't agree with your purchasing of materials to teach a religious class, or a class on evolution, or perhaps a subject you don't think should be taught, like film & television?
I think having the data that's "down to an invoice" available to the state is valuable, but accessible to the public? No. I couldn't get behind that.
EDIT: "if" -> "is"; "ZERO" -> "no"
Being able to see who spent what, where and how is probably the greatest way to ensure tax money isn't wasted.
And maybe it's a good thing.
> do you like being micro managed at your job?
You are conflating micromanagement with financial control.
In democratic societies, public work is done under public scrutiny. Taxpayers have constitutional rights to review budgets and complain to elected politicians.
Private citizens and companies have privacy, instead, as the "public" and "private" word suggest.
In dictatorships it's the other way around.
I find this reasoning downright despicable. "Not publishing the data because someone might complain"? Seriously? That is the very reason it should be published, to enable constructive criticism.
I agree people might start nitpicking on minor stuff. But it seems the positive outcomes of being 100% transparent would far outweighs the negative ones.
budget breakdown mof.gov:
Private initiative comparing to the previous year:
The font color is non-contrasting, because gray on blue is a brilliant idea. I'd literally fire someone if they submitted this as graphics design.
I delve into the Treasury Portfolio wedge and I get a sinister "Outcome 1" looking as big as our welfare budget (I think from a quick squiz this says 120 billion for welfare but I thought it was closer to 180 billion).
What's all the stuff under the Treasury portfolio?
Considering how much tax money the government takes in it is astounding to me they run such a deficit. Plus you must also account for all the taxes and spending at State, City, and Local, levels. All this money and how much is slipping through the cracks from helping people and keeping the infrastructure going
Basically it comes down to determining if their activities are non essential, if they flunk a cost benefit test, do they violate federalism, and more.
Cato summary : https://www.cato.org/blog/mulvaneys-plan-reform-government
pdf from OMB : https://www.whitehouse.gov/sites/whitehouse.gov/files/omb/me...
It's astounding to you that a superpower spends a lot of money? When we spend more on our military than the next n countries combined?
> if they flunk a cost benefit test
I consider myself a conservative, especially in comparison to most folks on HN, but this is nonsense. Conservatives in Florida demanded drug testing welfare recipients, even when data shows that fails a cost benefit test pretty handily.
I think if we had a crystal-clear/omniscient view of the wastage that goes on in various governments, we'd be collectively appalled.
I think the opposite. Most people already believe the government is incredibly wasteful, there's a much greater opportunity in highlighting where it surprisingly efficient. This will serve to blow up many ideological truisms.
EconTalk: Vanessa Williamson on Taxes and Read My Lips
As the responsibility for spending money is removed from the individual, efficiency plummets. Government jobs are the ultimate in a lack of accountability. Voters don't have the visibility to see what politicians and other government workers spend money on. The one entity that should effectively provide oversight on how the government spends our money is the government itself - and they're loathe to limit their own power. Then on top of all that, even voters aren't spending their own money when they make voting decisions. They're mostly rationalizing that their voting decisions are affecting the other guy, like "the rich".
We seem to know very different people.
While it is true that the market has a tighter feedback loop, that does not ensure good individual decisions. It just means that individuals are punished for bad decisions and rewarded for good decisions quickly.
This is a nice feature of the market but that doesn't mean that it is the only system that can have tight feedback loops. Look at the military for a good example of a non-market structure that has a tight feedback loop and, generally, does very well outside of the market system.
The government may lack some features of the market that doesn't mean that it cannot be as accountable. Good data and analysis for the people is one nice step toward greater government accountability.
It's all relative.
> Look at the military for a good example of a non-market structure that has a tight feedback loop and, generally, does very well outside of the market system.
The military has some meritocratic elements, but then again it's hugely wasteful: http://fortune.com/2015/08/14/f-35-joint-strike-fighter/
> The government may lack some features of the market that doesn't mean that it cannot be as accountable
And how are the accountability mechanisms going to be implemented? Obviously the vote doesn't work. Data might be slightly helpful, but people don't vote based on data. Look at this Trump election. It was hardly a data driven result. Really the main problem is that voters aren't very accountable for their decisions. Voting is just a tribal team sport thing.
Except for some things like certain national security parts that are specifically protected by law from detailed disclosure, federal, state, and most local governments make and publish those, though they aren't in the form of spreadsheets, and they aren't consolidated into a single national combined publication.
for example, would they report on the purchase of Stingrays? License plate scanners that the municipalities 'require' private companies to install?
(don't forget the counties!)
The reason that cannot work is that when you get below the state level, you're dealing with governments that might or might not have enough money and motivation to do proper accounting, staffed by people who might or might not have actually gone to college.
Mandating they contribute to the "national spreadsheet" would represent an unprecedented imposition on local governments. Not that it's necessarily a bad idea, but I'm guessing it's unconstitutional if it comes from the federal government.
Because of state and federal funding rules, local governments are generally not only already providing detailed public accountings in documents that nobody bothers to read, but also providing detailed reports of their spending and revenue to state and federal authorities (who periodically audit parts of them) as a condition of basic funding. They absolutely can and do track income and expenses at very fine levels, and report them with very fine breakdowns (often different breakdowns of the same spending representing different control agencies demands.)
The smaller you are, the more "downhill" you are from the folks making the important regulations, and the more you're required to adhere to strict and closely monitored books. (Corruption still happens, of course, but at least there are numbers that add together and some form of reasonable audit trail for financial events. And don't get me started about whether or not good accounting principles have anything at all to do with good governance)
ADD: Here's a link for reference: http://www.cnn.com/2016/08/23/politics/us-army-audit-account...
(I could also tell personal stories from my time with the federal government, and there are plenty more links to find for those interested. The point is that more political power and money movement, at least in the states, usually is associated with fewer and less reliable financial controls, which is counter-intuitive)
I get the impression there are swaths of the HackerNews audience who have no idea how "the other half" lives in places outside of the major urban centres.
But they're still required to file everything properly, no matter how complex their personal/business taxes get.
That's one local government of tens of thousands. I'd be less optimistic about, say, a rural county in West Virginia, or something like that, having anything like proper financial records and the motivation to provide them.
The kind of governments I'm skeptical about aren't hugely important for a top-down analysis of the country's finances simply because they're financially the least wealthy. What I'm surprised about is how optimistic everyone is about the nation's recordkeeping and how everyone assumes that every government works roughly the same way. I've heard horror stories about counties that cannot even keep track of who owns what land/mineral rights, and sometimes have their own corrupt reasons for not trying very hard. The world will need to change before some of those places are motivated to improve.
I know that sounds like a cop-out but if you think about it, it makes sense that the government has to classify some things.
The question is where does the line get drawn. I agree it's too far to one side right now but the extreme you suggest is far far on the other extreme.
This is absolutely not the case. Sure there are some classified programs but the majority of government spending and money flows should be 100% transparent.
It's not because there is some degree of corruption and those involved wish to evade accountability.
Agreed. But that wasn't what the parent was suggesting and not what I was arguing against.
You can freely object to such changes. But the second people start spinning it into something much worse than what it is. I feel like they are playing politics and don't really care.
"White House officials said the Administration is ending the contract for Open.gov, the Obama-era site that hosted the visitor records along with staff financial disclosures, salaries, and appointments."
As to your extra claim that visitor logs will be submitted to the national archive, do you have some reference to back that up? Regardless there are a number of ways that could make access more difficult. For example, you have to physically go to the national archive to look the records up, national archive of the logs aren't made available until much later after the visits occurred, etc. I'm really not familiar enough with it to know the implications, but I highly doubt multiple organizations would be suing over this if it wasn't an important difference:
Especially if it was "selective" to begin with...
If you're interested in public spending data, take a look at OpenSpending (https://openspending.org/). It's a project that aims to make exploring, visualizing, and searching spending data easier. It's all free software (https://github.com/openspending) and you can upload your own datasets or explore others. It also provides you with an API, so you can use it to build finance-related projects (e.g. http://orcamento.inesc.org.br)
I feel this is the case more and more...
> Steve Ballmer. You open the door to his enormous grinning face, and before you know it he’s in the hall handing over a bottle of something cheap (but with such confidence you don’t notice) and he’s giving you the handshake of your life. Then he’s in. Loving it. Loving the music. Loving the food and drink. He’s going up to everyone, saying hello. And after a while you realize he’s started balling “thanks for coming, great to see you man!” to your guests. By the end of the evening it’s his party and everybody had a great time. That’s Steve Ballmer.
Right now Apple, Amazon, Google & HP are all bigger (in terms of revenue) than Microsoft:
It seems we are in agreement - being overtaken =/= stagnation. A more convincing argument would have been if their revenues had plateued under Ballmer (they didn't - revenue grew by 280% from $25B to $70B in 2014).
Or like Bill Gates for that matter. Let's not forget how truly despised Gates was in many circles the late 90's, whereas now he's almost universally respected.
Our startup is trying open the information on government spending to the masses:
And he confirms it.
“We’re making philanthropic donations elsewhere — I think of this as another,” he said, referring to himself and his wife. “I don’t even deduct this for my taxes. I pay this with after-tax money, no pretax money, because I don’t want anybody being able to think that factors in. But I feel like it’s a civic contribution more than anything else.”
Too bad he never had a mentor who was an expert in philanthropy...
$10 million spent so far just trying to figure out what the collective governments in the US is spending money on. Is this an argument for privatization or a failure of government to provide this information succinctly itself?
It's also reasonable to expect that a government that is elected by the public and funded by taxation provide an accounting to voters and taxpayers.
If it were privatized, it would suffer from economic pressure to suppress data that conflicts with its economic incentives.
And we don't pay government (i.e., tax ourselves to provide funds) to do this. No money, no results. That's not a failure of government, it's taxpayers deciding not to have the government provide this service.
This isn't a democracy, it's a representative republic. We vote for our representatives, and trust them to make decisions we'd agree with (or at least agree to go along with.) In turn, they appoint and hire people to make the more detailed decisions needed for day-to-day operations.
A failure to keep track of the government's books is absolutely a failure of the government, and not a result of taxpayers "deciding" that the government shouldn't do it. The representatives and their appointees/hires should have performed that task without being micro-managed to do so, because it's the responsible thing to do. (Not to mention that they require all of us to do it for our own finances.) They've failed to do it, and will probably avoid responsibility for it by using the complex structure of the government to point blame away from themselves.
Yes, we can make a big deal out of this and eventually vote to replace our representatives, who can then replace appointees/hires, and change the rules to make sure the accounting is done. My point is that we, the citizens, should not have to micromanage the government this way. That's the whole point of a representative republic; pure democracies don't scale.
Private sector: Shareholders elect Board of Directors, who hire management. Shareholders don't micromanage management decisions. If management doesn't direct staff to implement a company-wide spending database, the corrective chain traces back to management, then the Board, then the shareholders.
Government: Voters elect Congress and some of the Executive and (some state) Judiciary posts. These elected positions hire staff and tell them to do stuff. Voters don't micromanage government operations. If government doesn't implement a government-wide spending database, the corrective chain traces back to elected positions, then to the voters who elected them.
In both spheres, what gets assigned and measured, gets done. Tasks not assigned and measured don't get done. This is human behavior, pretty much the same in private or public sectors.
Not assigning a specific task may or may not be a failure. If it is a failure, it traces back to the empowered owners (shareholders and voters) in either sector. Ultimately, shareholders have to fix the corporation they own. Ultimately, voters have to fix their country's government. Who else can, in either case?
Regardless, I'm glad Balmer sees this database as a needed resource and is willing to fund its creation.
It appears that Mr. Ballmer could cut his search time in half by just skipping the first step here. I believe this is the optimization everyone else applies.
Soon he'll realize the slim margins that go to actual teachers, and see that most of it goes to boards, etc.
Although the real thing shows how much money you personally contributed to each sector - I removed for the screenshot.
>One rule Mr. Ballmer said his team made early on was to use only government data — no outside providers — to avoid accusations of bias. But this created its own challenges.
Its going to be interesting to see the site. I wonder if it will be free?
Directly, sure. Indirectly, a lot more. By indirectly, I mean companies that do government contract work.
what is the purpose of taxes?
to create unemployment:
1. Counter-terrorism spending, which wastes money protecting backwaters no terrorist has even heard of
2. The Drug War and it's army of informants
3. Seizures of property and cash, dimensions currently unknown
4. A Cold War-sized military in a post-Cold War world
5. The prison-industrial complex
Those are all discretionary spending. And those are all conservatives' favorites. And they all get wrapped in "we can't be transparent, because drug lords and terrorists!"
It shows a breakdown, for the year 2014-2015, of "consolidated financial statements for the whole of the UK public sector".
The pie chart and "Breakdown of WGA Balances" can be hard to understand when you first load the page, but if you hover over a column in the column chart (under '2011-2015 Balance Information'), you can click to see a breakdown for one of the sections of the column chart.
It's kind of nice to see the information categorised by type, rather than by which body spent the money.
> “And you say, O.K., what are the other big blocks?” Mr. Ballmer continued. “Well, active-duty military, war fighters. Government hospitals. Really? I didn’t know that.”
I'm really surprised if this really surprised him. I mean, the ex-CEO of one of the most powerful and influential corporates on Earth didn't know that soldiers, public teachers, medical personnel etc. are employed by government?? If that's true, I don't even know what to say. I would find it ridiculous, laughable, if it wasn't so sad.
Hopefully having the data in one place can help us calculate that fuzzier side of the equation.
Sorkin's article ignores Ballmer's billion-dollar tax dodge... er, break... for buying a basketball team.* Ballmer should revise his boast from "paid for with pre-tax dollars" to "paid for with "shamefully un-taxed dollars."
Interesting terms that don't show up when Googling Ballmer's site (at least as of today...)
Now that, Mr. Sorkin, would be an interesting article.
* Check out "Steve Ballmer Gets Billion-Dollar Tax Write-Off For Being Basketball Baron"
If we can't start taking "real, true" data at face value and using it to drive actual policy again, this is just another drop in the bucket.
We've seen recently that some people believe what they want to believe, regardless of facts. This doesn't mean the rest of us should be deprived of facts, or that we should throw our hands up and give up on seeking the truth.
I'm pretty sure I've read about many CBO reports that disagreed with the party in power. What basis is there for saying they are highly politicized?
Can you source that?
WIFE: You should help with these philanthropic efforts.
BALLMER: I pay lots of taxes, the government takes care of helping people.
WIFE: That's not true.
BALLMER: Yes it is, and rather than contribute philanthropically, I'll start a start-up to settle this.
“I mean it’s funny, but I didn’t realize all these not-for-profits were in a sense almost like government contractors.”
Well, yeah. Antipoverty nonprofit agencies run programs like Head Start and handle all sorts of charity operations. Adoption agencies, training programs, and on and on. A key skill for nonprofit comptrollers is knowing how to get governments to cough up the money they're contracted to pay these agencies.
“You know it’s not legal to know how many firearms that are in this country? The government is not allowed to collect the number.”
Mr. Ballmer, are you the LAST person to know that? People interested in stemming urban violence have known that for decades.
Maybe somebody with his clout can make a difference. It's good to have this information gathered up in a useful form. But, enough with the "innocents abroad" narrative!
To belittle those individuals who did not have access or exposure to this information seems cynical or high-horsed. Exposing verifiable data is the first step, encouraging people to challenge their belief systems through curiosity and with the assurance that changing their mind (based on that data) is not stupid or reprehensible is the second.
I'm willing to give him the benefit of the doubt and hope his wide-eyed innocence helps others by making this data easily digestible.
I liked the style.
Quite interesting (and low-key for Ballmer) talk
In a way, he was just supporting state tradition.
A former Microsoft exec wondering what the government does with money? A lot landed in his pockets I suspect, but it's good he's philanthropic now.
The secondary beneficiaries of education are everyone else is society. Education has the highest ROI out of anything the government spends, and it keeps all of us safer and healthier.
Are there people who think it isn't?
Do they all get a derogatory psuedonym?
adob$ amaz$ face$ goog$ mailchim$ etc etc etc
or is the negativity reserved for M$
Suggesting there is something wrong with a software company because it makes money seems to be a blow in from 1990's militant open source philosophy and probably best left in the 1990s.
At the time, the M$ acronym was IMO well earned. These days it appears to be different. Microsoft still has a large dominance on the desktop, but appears to not be playing quite as hard ball anymore. Stuff like NodeJS on Azure and VSCode would simply not have happened in the early 2000. Whether they actually changed, time will tell.
As for other companies deserving a derogatory acronym, I think you can measure these companies with:
1) How much do they actually subvert/interfere with standards and other companies inventions to gain/maintain their market dominance?
2) Do they at all innovate to deserve their market position and/or give back?
Without much analysis, I think Adobe may actually deserve an Adob$. Here you have a company that still almost every year change their proprietary binary formats (.PSD, .AI, etc) forcing an entire creative industry to spend a lot on software that have largely not had any significant innovation for the last 10-15 years (the functions in Photoshop/Illustrator have more or less remained the same).
And it is the same lock-in as Microsoft Office has/had, because even if you decide to operate your creative business using only alternative software, your clients and suppliers won't.
It doesn't help that not one of your examples is replacing an 's' with a '$'.
Adob€ and Goog£€ have some potential though.
If you hated MS in the '90s/'00s for what they did back then, you should have that same hatred right now, but not especially for MS but also for Apple and (to a lesser extent) Google.
But the battle, and the war, was lost long before Apple became the behemonth it is now. Apple did nothing to kill OS, it arrived when it was dead.
As for Google, they actually played a positive role back then. Whatever they do now, does not matter anymore. The window of oportunity closed long ago, and it was M$ who did it.
Stop living in the past. Do you just want to wallow in self-pity about what could have been or are you actually upset about real problems that are fixable?
Apple is halting progress of web standards right now. Apple is locking in users into its closed ecosystem (good luck trying to develop for iOS without macOS). Google and Facebook are "embracing, extending, extinguishing" the web (AMP, Instant Articles, PNaCl, etc). Even the W3C has bowed down to the copyright industry with proprietary window dressing in the name of DRM.
Not everything these companies do is evil, the attacks are far less orchestrated than those carried out by Microsoft back in the days, but they're happening and they're here.
If you just want to hate Microsoft for nostalgia's sake like the grumpy old vet who still can't get over how the US lost in Vietnam, that's fine. But don't pretend you care about principles if all you can do is hold a grudge against what was and don't give a fuck about what is.
I am relatively cool about Google.
I do not live in the past, but I still like to point out what happened, whenever I get the chance. They are solely to blame (with a minor role by Sun / SCO) of the mess we are in. As I already mentioned, Apple is simply evil, but is not to blame for the destruction of OS.
For me to change my mind about M$, BIG things should happen. I think the minor grievance of referring to them by M$ can be endured, even by sensitive bystanders.
Those who know what we are talking about, understand that. If they nevertheless attack it as childish, even knowing that what lies behind is a complex story of ideology wars, propelled by lies and disinformation, are simply being dishonest.
Those who don't know what lies behind the symbolism, maybe care to inform themselves.
Its an off the cuff shorthand term.
The defensiveness of some people here is incredible.
I was pissed at the time, I've loathed them plenty. But corporations are not people, they are generally without morals, I never expected them to be or do good.
Now the leadership is different, the company mostly acts differently. I can still be vary of them but I'll applaud their good calls.
In that situation, Apple would not have succeeded as a walled garden, as it has.
So, although OS-the-product is still going strong, OS-the-movement was effectively stopped on its tracks. Which is a very bad thing, in my opinion.
I don't believe that the FUD from MS actually accomplished anything besides a very minor short term benefit where people didn't touch the GPL for legal reasons. Businesses are smart and they are very capable of figuring out what does and doesn't make money. Heck even Google figured out that being open is bad for business.
OS-the-movement OTOH is going strong. Its cool to have contributed to an open source project. Its cool to have all your work up on github. Its pretty much a gold star on your resume if you have a popular OSS project...
"Suddenly, he explained, the faceless bureaucrats who are often pilloried as symbols of government waste suddenly start to look like the people in our neighborhood whom we’re very glad to have."