Mark poses a reasonable solution to the challenge of comparing countries with corporations.
A much simpler measure would be employment. Multiply a firm’s headcount by some sort of population-to-employment ratio (about 2 for the U.S.) and you have the size of the population that the firm supports. Wal-Mart has 1.8 million employees; McDonald’s is second with 450,000. (Both of those numbers may be exaggerated by high ratios of part-time to full-time employees.) That makes Wal-Mart about the size of a smallish state or a tiny country: Oklahoma or Connecticut, Namibia or Moldova.
Of course the impression of the company’s value added that’s conveyed depends on the state or country you choose: Wal-Mart = Oklahoma sounds about right, but even Wal-Mart employees’ families are a more content lot than Moldovans—who, in any event, are largely supported by remittances, which means we’d have to start considering income per national.
It’s a mess. Just as much as in 2002, when Cullen Murphy sought a universal gold standard for comparing apples and oranges.
The quest for a gold standard leads in many directions. Some years ago a social scientist named Ralph G.H. Siu introduced the concept of the “dukkha,” from the Pali word for “suffering,” as the basic unit of discomfort, much as the calorie is the basic unit of heat. The columnist Michael M. Thomas has proposed the concept of a “gergen”—for the commentator David Gergen—as the basic unit of political-talk-show blather. For Americans, the basic unit of comparative world geography seems to be “New Jersey”; thus Swaziland is “about the size of New Jersey” (The New York Times) and the Netherlands is “about twice the size of New Jersey” (The Washington Post). Teams at MIT and Caltech, I’m told, are closing in on the basic units of boredom, fanaticism, hypocrisy, and fame.
Their research results are still pending, although beauty, happiness, and seating comfort all seem to have been taken care of.
At least these are attempts at clarification, rather than obfuscation. Reporters seem to grasp the public’s innumeracy, but the typical effort to make large quantities understandable runs to “a trillion dollars, if stacked in quarters, would circle the earth 175 times.” Australian epidemiologists may have solved the problem, for length and mass, at least:
If we assume that the annual rate of teaspoon loss per employee can be applied to the entire workforce of the city of Melbourne (about 2.5 million), an estimated 18 million teaspoons are going missing in Melbourne each year. Laid end to end, these lost teaspoons would cover over 2700 km—the length of the entire coastline of Mozambique—and weigh over 360 metric tons—the approximate weight of four adult blue whales.