Son of Fe, Fi, Fo, Frum

Well, it seems as if David Frum has responded to my post.

Unfortunately, it’s now been almost three weeks since that time, meaning the topic’s gotten sort of stale. The timing of things couldn’t have been worse for me, coming as it did at the end of the kids’ school year, when “frenetic” doesn’t begin to describe things in most households. Add to that the fact that – as I mentioned in my first post – I don’t have the luxury of a staff to help me, as Frum does. Frum’s original appearance on Bill Maher’s Real Time was May 7th. It took me an entire week to find the time to do the research Frum insisted someone else besides him do to refute his ridiculous-on-its-face claim that American corporations had been getting smaller, not bigger, since 1970, and then to write it up in a presentable format.

I waited some time for Frum to reply; he never did. Finally, almost two weeks later, I happened to see on Twitter that someone was using the FrumForum twitter account to post updates from Frum Forum. David Frum has his own personal Twitter account, so since I wasn’t sure who might be using the group account, I asked them if they would please remind David that I’d posted a detailed reply to his challenge and was still awaiting his response. Later that day (May 20), I received a tweet from Frum saying he’d “get to it this PM.” I guess I figured that meant that he’d be notifying me when he had, in fact, replied, but apparently, I was mistaken in that. Frum did indeed reply (though on the following day, not the 20th). Trouble for me was; this was the last day of school for my kids, and our family had an eight-day vacation scheduled to begin early in the morning the following day. As addicted to news, politics and social media as I am, I don’t check in much, if at all, when I’m on vacation. That’s sort of the point of a vacation, at least in my opinion. Also – as I mentioned – I’d been mistakenly assuming Frum would at least do me the courtesy of sending a link – or at least a notification – when he’d actually completed his reply.

Apparently, though, when you’re dealing with David Frum, Important Guy™, the mountain does not come to Mohammed; Mohammed must go to the mountain. Frum’s post was on his own web site (as opposed to a reply on mine). This makes sense; far more people read Frum’s thoughts than read mine. But, as I told Frum later, I hoped he’d forgive me that I wasn’t obsessively hitting the “refresh” button on his blog on my iPhone’s browser while I was on vacation with my kids, hoping to see his reply. At any rate, the upshot of this is that I wasn’t even aware Frum had replied to me until just a couple of days ago. So apologies to anyone reading this for the drawn-out time-frame. The actual reply begins below:

Frum’s response is typical self-serving doublespeak, of course. I admit to a sort of half-cynicism on this one: I’d been hoping for a better caliber of response, but not particularly expecting it. What would a better response have looked like, in my opinion? Well, one that included at least a tacit acknowledgement that he’d pulled the notion that the biggest American corporations have gotten smaller since 1970 directly out from between his butt-cheeks, because – as I demonstrated – that’s exactly where he got it. Sadly, the “not expecting it” part of me was pretty well aware that hoping for that level of intellectual honesty out of a member of the most famously “never admit fault” administration in American history, out of the man who was paid to think up semantically null but emotionally charged phrases like “Axis of Evil,” was pretty far-fetched.

And indeed, Frum’s response is neocon nonsense. As I mentioned in my last post, these guys figured out a while ago that they could make literally nearly any claim they wished – no matter how untrue and/or outlandish-sounding – if they covered their tracks by saying that if anyone wished to dispute them, it was incumbent upon them to disprove the nonsense. The disseminators of nonsense and worse, as H.L. Mencken referred to them, figured out that most people are both too busy and too lazy to fact-check things, especially if they think they’d be in for a protracted fight in order to be able to conclusively prove their case. And that goes double if the thing they’d be having to expend energy to disprove seems so baldly false on its face anyway. It feels like a waste of time to have to expend energy to prove that the sky is blue, for example, or that ice cream is considered delicious by most. That’s how guys like Frum can get away with saying – as long as they can keep a straight face, which must be no mean feat in itself – things like “we’ve actually had a trend away from ‘bigness’ in American corporations in the last thirty years.” They know that most people aren’t paying close enough attention, and the few who are will probably not be willing to go to the mat with them by doing the work necessary to disprove their bullshit.

The “meat” of Frum’s response (such as it is) consists of a repetition of the claim that American corporations employ fewer total workers than they did in 1970 (Frum actually uses 1969, but whatever). He’s at least honest enough to admit that “some readers objected: employment was the wrong metric to use. What about all that outsourcing? The big companies were earning as much or more than ever.” Yes, we did object, David. And yes, those companies were earning more than ever today. I’ll repeat it here: measuring corporate “bigness” by counting heads in the breakroom is about as sensible as measuring how damaging a hurricane will be by seeing how dark the sky is as it approaches.

Knowing that he cannot simply rest his case there, that the employment statistic simply isn’t satisfactory on its own, Frum continues:

In 1969, the revenues of the top 25 U.S. companies were equivalent to 15% of U.S. GDP, by 2005 (comparing a cyclical peak to a cyclical peak), 20%. In 1969, profits at the top 25 were equivalent to 1% of GDP; by 2005, 1.5%.

I don’t know where Frum gathered his data, nor how he conducted his calculations, because Frum doesn’t show his work. I also may not have the research staff he does, but (as he’s been “helpful” enough to point out to me twice now) I do have access to teh Great Gazoogle, as well as a copy of Excel. Back when I made my first post, Google led me to Fortune Magazine’s annual list of American corporations (that whole “Fortune 500” thing), and it was from this that I drew my initial figures. I did not use 1969 as one of my years, simply because Frum had never mentioned that particular year. I used last year (2009), 1999 (as a simple ten-year reference point), and 1973, the year Frum had initially mentioned on Maher’s show. But, using my method, if I go back to 1969 in Fortune’s archives, the sum of revenues of the top 25 corporations (I had initially used the top 100, but in the above example, Frum uses the top 25) is $143.75 billion. Using Wolfram Alpha’s computational engine, the US GDP in 1969 was $960.9 billion. That means the arithmetic (143.7 divided by 960.9) does indeed work out to just under 15% of GDP for the top 25 US corporations.

However, Frum says that in 2005, revenues at the top 25 corporations equaled 20% of US GDP. I’m not quite how he arrives at this figure, because using the exact same method (Wolfram Alpha’s GDP figure and Fortune’s list of top corporations for the year), we get a GDP of $12.38 trillion and a combined revenue of $3.69 trillion. That works out to a percentage of 29.83%, not – as Frum asserts – 20%. When we’re talking about trillions of dollars, a mistake of nearly 10% is “real money,” as the old joke goes. It also shows that the growth in percentage of US GDP made up by the revenue of the top 25 companies has grown much more dramatically than I think Frum would like to admit. A jump, from 1969 to 2005, which goes from 14.96% at one end (nearly 15%), to a figure of 29.83% (nearly 30%) is DOUBLE the amount, in just over 35 years. That’s huge, by any standards.

But Frum’s “massaging” of the facts doesn’t end there. After tossing out these figures without links or explanation, Frum then asks, rhetorically “which is the more valid measurement: employment – revenues – or profits?” I suppose opinions might differ on whether profits or revenues were more important, but I maintain that number of employees is an intentionally bogus figure at which to look to measure corporate “bigness.” Frum’s rationale goes thusly: many large American corporations have maintained their market share in the United States over time, earning roughly the same amount. What accounts for the increases in their actual bottom line is that their brands are now popular overseas, due to expanded globalization. In other words, says Frum, most of the gains are not from expanding domestic market share, but because of gains in foreign markets.

I’d say that’s a dubious claim at best – since, again, Frum provides no fact-checkable links to show his work on supporting this assertion. But even if we stipulate that he’s 100% correct – which he is almost certainly not – that doesn’t change the overall point of contention which he raised on Maher’s show May 7th. As one of the readers of his forum who saw Frum’s post when he put it up observes, quite correctly:

Now you’ve changed the story to the amount of global business done by US corporations and appear to be even changing the claim you made on Maher’s show that US corporations were not getting bigger. Back in 1969 US corporations were already the major players in international trade…….since then the world economy has grown enormously and American corporations got an increasing share of their business overseas while foreign corporations increased their penetration of the US market notably in areas like autos……..none of this has any relevance whatever to definition of corporate size……it’s revenue that is the determinant not where it comes from…….the other determinants are market cap, profitability and somewhat less significantly asset base although I’d principally say it was revenue and market cap since cap also captures profitability…….You’re game playing David…

EXACTLY. Frum IS playing games – and that is the only salient point in all of this, after all the calculators are put away and the links checked. This isn’t about me being a better mathematician or statistician than David Frum, Important Guy™. The reason that I and others like the above commenter to Frum’s post at his forum are able to make Frum look foolish on the facts is that Frum is, in a manner of speaking, debating with one hand tied behind his back. With his research staff, I’ve no doubt that he could have done what I did, in much less time, were he focused upon that as his goal. But that wasn’t Frum’s goal: what Frum was trying to do, both on Maher’s show and afterward, as he doubled-down on this notion that corporations have gotten smaller and not bigger since the end of the 1960s, is not examine the facts in good faith to see what they show, but to try to defend or prove a pre-determined point which fits his (and his paymasters’) view of how, as the title of Rush Limbaugh’s first book put it, “things ought to be.”

Actually, I’m not even sure that’s true, either: I don’t know if I believe that David Frum particularly gives a shit one way or the other whether corporations have gotten bigger or smaller since 1970. In fact, I’m fairly sure that’s more or less an empty intellectual exercise for Frum. The reason he bothers with it – his goal in bringing it up in the first place – is the same as it was during his speechwriter days: to get others to believe him, or at least to muddy the waters with a fusillade of irrelevant and/or inaccurate statistics. Have US corporations gotten bigger since 1970? Who’re you gonna believe: David Frum, or your lying eyes? If Frum can create juuust enough doubt that things are not what they seem, then media figures who aren’t certain of the facts themselves no longer feel comfortable simply contradicting him, and he drains away any motivation among others to actually DO anything about the sort of corporate bigness and unaccountability that allows for things like the current BP oil spill to continue to happen without fetter or restraint. It was the agenda Frum dutifully wrote hagiographies about as a “Reagan Republican” and member of the George W. Bush administration, and it’s the agenda he continues to advance by any means necessary today. That’s why I say I never believed Frum truly IS the “reasonable conservative” he goes to great lengths to paint himself as. He’s just figured out that it’s smarter to come across as someone reasonable, and he’s set himself up in a comfortable little niche being that “reasonable conservative” go-to guy in the public sphere.

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