Mary Meeker captures America in PowerPoint

By Chrystia Freeland
March 11, 2011

Mary Meeker first became famous as Queen of the Net. That is the title Barron’s magazine granted her in 1998, after a 1995 report she wrote for Morgan Stanley predicted the power and shape of the then still exotic World Wide Web. Ms. Meeker, who recently moved to San Francisco to become a partner at the venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, continues to be a forward-thinking guide to the global technology revolution: Her recent reports on mobile devices and the Internet in China have joined her 1995 ‘‘Internet bible’’ as instant classics among the digital cognoscenti.

One of the secrets of Ms. Meeker’s success is her flair for PowerPoint. In the hands of most of its users, PowerPoint is both an excuse for fuzzy thinking and one of its causes. But Ms. Meeker, who told me working with PowerPoint was a fun personal hobby, is a poet of this usually dreary and bureaucratic medium.

Ms. Meeker’s PowerPoint presentations pack a powerful numerical punch — which appeals to everyone’s inner geek and confers a potent aura of legitimacy in this age of the supremacy of data. But her real genius is using those charts and graphs to tell a story, always with an emotive zing and a dramatic narrative arc.

Ms. Meeker has now turned those skills to America’s fiscal woes, with a presentation called ‘‘USA Inc.’’ in which she examines U.S. finances as if the country were a business, then asks what a turnaround expert would do to put USA Inc. back in the black. Not surprisingly, it has been a huge hit with America’s business and finance chiefs: Michael Bloomberg and Paul Volcker were among the five wise men who blessed ‘‘USA Inc.’’ with a glowing foreword.

But it has been a popular success, too. Seeing Charlie Sheen instantly attract more than a million Twitter followers may have made you mourn the state of the republic. So take heart from the fact that over the past month, Ms. Meeker’s collection of 460 decidedly wonkish slides has been viewed some 40,000 times.

Budget experts are good at making the United States’ finances seem mysterious. That is why one of the most bracing features of Ms. Meeker’s presentation is its simplicity.

Ms. Meeker said she got the idea to produce ‘‘USA Inc.’’ from her day job of analyzing businesses: ‘‘I’m constantly watching the economic data. I need to know the trends so I can understand how companies I follow may be impacted.’’

So, one day, she thought it might be interesting to present those government numbers in the same way she dissects financial information from companies. Her colleague Liang Wu thought he could create a ‘‘simplified income statement, of the kind we prepare for Google’’ using public information, in about three hours. Ms. Meeker thinks he did it even more swiftly than that.

When Ms. Meeker looked at the income statement, her takeaway was straightforward, and it remains the main message of ‘‘USA Inc.’’: ‘‘Revenues have been flat, while expenses have gone up dramatically.’’ You can spend a lot of time and ink dissecting the economic problems the U.S. government faces, but you will not get far from that one-liner as a succinct diagnosis of the nation’s financial dilemma.

Ms. Meeker’s other big observation — which is both obvious and yet being studiously ignored in the current budget battles in Washington — is that the United States’ single largest budget problem is government-funded health care. It accounts for 21 percent of USA Inc.’s total expenses and is much less sustainably financed than the other big-ticket entitlements: Social Security and unemployment insurance.

Ms. Meeker’s final slide on the subject (page 113) asks the question that should be at the heart of the budget debate: ‘‘USA per capita healthcare spending is 3x OECD average, yet the average life expectancy and a variety of health indicators in the US fall below average. But if you spend way more than everyone else, shouldn’t your results (a.k.a. ‘performance’) be better than everyone else’s, or at least near the top?’’

For everyone who has decided that the 2009 health care battle was a pointless exercise in naïveté and hubris (and that seems to be most of America’s political class at the moment), that slide and that question are useful reminders that USA Inc. will not get its finances in order until it reorganizes health care.

One reason Ms. Meeker’s presentation has had so much resonance is that it plays to the country’s strengths. The 2008 financial crisis was a big black eye for Wall Street, but, overall, America is still pretty good at business. It is pretty awful at government. Ms. Meeker’s report is smart because it takes the country’s strengths and applies them to its weakness.

Ms. Meeker really is Queen of the Net, so her report is available online for free, and she encourages readers to contribute their own insights.

Here is mine. The one big issue that is largely missing from Ms. Meeker’s analysis is careful consideration of the distributional implications of the U.S. budget crisis and its likely solutions.

Balancing the budget is not just a math problem. It is a question of specific groups of people paying higher taxes or receiving fewer benefits from the state. If USA Inc. really were a business, you can bet these distributional questions would be central to any analysis. When KPCB makes an investment, who gets the loot is not a secondary concern. It is the main one. America’s budget debate would be more effective if Americans were not so shy about facing that fact head-on.

13 comments

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…but the first thing you learn in Public Finance is that a government is NOT a business, it doesn’t operate by the same rules, and any time some bean counter analyzes any government in this way, it is fallacious, because they always fail by comparison.

Posted by revdrdark | Report as abusive

Nicely done (what I’ve digested so far). My only concern is that the average American might not have the attention span needed to get through the entire presentation.

Ya can’t really do this kind of thing in sound bites and therein lies a problem.

Thanks for the piece and the link.

MIA

Posted by Missinginaction | Report as abusive

Since Mary thinks business has it right, the author asks the right question….where does the money go? Obviously not to job creation. The rich get richer through tax breaks and unnecessary incentives and record profits, banks don’t lend, mortgage companies lie to the American public and Republicans want to put more stress on our poor (not illegals, but poor Americans). No, the business strategy does not work just like business cvannot put Americans to work because they have run out of ideas.

Posted by djrose | Report as abusive

How wonderful it is to have another Woman with creative and crafting skills present us with a bite of energy to begin wrestling with our fiscal health. No doubt, were it for the Swedish model of governance in corporate boardrooms to be instituted in the USA it is likely our home legislative and business models would be in much better shape already. Brava, madamme!

Posted by Jlmeshell | Report as abusive

I can’t agree with the assessment that healthcare is central to the budget debate even as I agree that we are not getting the return on our investment that one might think appropriate. If the government were acting as a business, all it’s major budget items would have an income stream identified to pay for that item. Only those items that represent an insignificant spending stream would be covered by a G & A funding source. The government does have some major budget items that do have a specific funding sources, for example, SS and unemployment. Both of these budget items have a specific tax collected to pay for them. One can argue weather or not the income stream (tax collected) is adequate for the expense and weather the expense should be trimmed or the income stream increased to bring income and expense into line with each other. The government has two huge budget expenses for which there is no corresponding income stream: the military and the surveillance state. The military’s budget is much larger than stated because some military spending is included in non-military budget line items and because of secrecy. The surveillance state’s budget is largely unknown due to secrecy. Yet these two budget items are paid for by the G&A fund (aka the general fund). When the government wants to develop a new aircraft and wants to spend $35B (not including development costs) on it, why is no income stream (tax) identified to pay for it? When the government wants to start a war (current, realistic estimates for Afghanistan alone are running in the $160B range annually), why is no income stream (tax) identified for it? I have seen estimates for the surveillance state that run from hundreds of billions to over a trillion dollars annually. Why is no income stream (tax) identified for it? None of these budget items amount to what could be called chump change. A business is managed, in part, by constantly comparing forecast budget expense verses actual and forecast income verses actual. Business makes its most fundamental decisions based on that feedback. The owners (the electorate) and managers (our elected officials) of US Government, Inc cannot make rational decisions and cannot control their costs without those kinds of structures and information. Currently, neither exist.

Posted by majkmushrm | Report as abusive

Whether or not this presentation has all important things in it is a matter of opinion. What is significant is that this could be a practical thought framework for sifting out the chaff … programs that our elected officials recommend, if they don’t align with basic principals, should be scrubbed …

Hopefully this will be a good start point that both business leaders AND elected officials will use as a model.

Thanks, Ms. Meeker, for taking the practical approach that elected officials have been remiss to take on their own …

Posted by tomwinans | Report as abusive

Too bad Ms. Meeker took the DOD’s numbers at face value. It skews the whole picture away from the Money Hemorrhage that the Department of Defense has hidden all over the budget Nuclear Weapons costs hidden in the Dept of Energy for instance and the hidden billions of dollars in Black Operations. This is too good an exercise to cripple it with cooked figures. It is time to tear away the mask of secrecy the Industrial Military Complex has so skillfully woven into our nations fabric. That clandestine nature of our priorities and real expenditures only hinder us from being able to genuinely examine the nation’s financial health.

Posted by arcoknuti | Report as abusive

In the zeal for control divisive strategies net divisive damage, waste and spoils.

Posted by phyvyn | Report as abusive

Contrary to the obvious:

Sure, we need triage.
-We need to focus on the desired result.
Failure to know the desired result as a changing target will result in under used resources, great waste, greater damage.

Excessive triage can sink the boat.
-Know the day to day desired result and adjust the plan so for every miss there is still progress at the base.

Prior to any big project identify the obstacles and ensure yo have a team that can synergize the expertise and resources that will be needed.

The plan and desired result is a framework. With care and feeding this framework is a vessel to safety.

All concerns go into the framework. It is immoral to believe immoral solutions are the only answers.

The desired result?

Posted by phyvyn | Report as abusive

I’ve noticed that more than 35,000 people have so far viewed “USA Inc.” on Scribd, for example, for a short period of time since her firm uploaded it on 2/24 (http://www.scribd.com/doc/49434520/USA- Inc-A-Basic-Summary-of-America-s-Financi al-Statements). As the author noted here, it is popular with the public since the charts are “easy to understand.” Unfortunately, that is why I find it quite disturbing despite its “non-partisan” claim; it could easily mislead the public to subscribe to a conservative notion that the current budget problem is all about government spending. Nation is not a for-profit business so that the fundamental premise (“as if it were a business”) inevitably leads to a serious self-distortion; even if we accept it as an interesting conceptual exercise, one may still wonder, for example, why the presentation never explores the reasons that USA Inc.’s revenues (tax receipts in this case)has been declining (e.g., relentless tax cuts, widening income inequality, financial crisis, etc.), compared to the presentation’s massive and almost exclusive focus on the so-called “expenses” side. Financial experts including the authors of “USA Inc.” must know that nothing can be more misleading than economic data and numbers, when they are treated without honest narratives of their delicate contexts. That is why I just cannot help but wonder if the effort were truly “non-partisan” as claimed by the authors; if not, it is simply and grossly misleading, however interesting or popular (e.g., look at their treatment of defense spending – all military-related spending is almost twice bigger than the official Pentagon annual base budget).

Posted by StuartNam | Report as abusive

One possible solution is the identification to an individual the realm of challenge and need and then an avenue for assisted development.

By simply fixing the first order system those wanting to be in control will feel dis-enfranchised if not allowed for. Sadly this is a part of our demise.

If there was a way to repair our well being then there may be a chance at real solutions.

I have to ask what are we solving?

I know what I want to solve today in this moment and I hope there is enough common ground to help us get to the next quantum state of readiness.

Humanity needs a chance to make our maker proud.

Current activities seem to feed our negative survival instincts and overload our ability to reason leading to consistently poor choices and outcomes.

Posted by phyvyn | Report as abusive

“the first thing you learn in Public Finance is that a government is NOT a business, it doesn’t operate by the same rules”

Yes, and all of those “Public Finance” gurus are “shocked” and “surprised” when their notions that governments can make unlimited promises and spend endless amounts of money without regard to the impact on the real economy and the ability of the economy to support their spending turn out to be false.

“Public finance theory” has bankrupted the US government, 47 of the 50 state governments, and every major city in the United States. Yet they call fiscal prudence and demands for ROI “bean counting” and “not realistic.”

What, one wonders, would it take to change their minds if the insolvency of federal, state, and local governments isn’t enough? Bond market failures? Empty government treasuries? Bounced public paychecks?

Posted by B_Miller | Report as abusive

“it could easily mislead the public to subscribe to a conservative notion that the current budget problem is all about government spending”

It’s a lefty (and conservative, in many cases) fallacy that it’s not about government spending.

For example, the amount paid in direct welfare payments and government wages exceeds 80% of the amount paid in private sector wages. To balance the budget, one would have to have to eliminate all non-welfare programs and have a marginal tax rate of about 90% to fund unemployment, Social Security, Medicare, and debt interest payments by themselves.

Those are the painful numbers. People have convinced themselves, through foolish ideological lenses, that there is no problem, that money is limitless, that they can have everything they want provided by government, and that “spending isn’t the problem.” It’s a bit like the credit addict who made $80,000 a year yet spent $150,000 a year. As long as credit was available, everything seemed great — yet when the cards are finally cut off, the addict claims that it’s not his spending that’s the issue, but rather the lack of new credit.

Posted by B_Miller | Report as abusive