Mary Meeker captures America in PowerPoint
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.