Audit notes: Commercialization, GM and Facebook, Saverin’s taxes

Conor Friedersdorf makes a nice catch on Tom Friedman’s Sunday column bemoaning the commercialization of seemingly all aspects of American life:

For example, his column is bizarrely titled, “This Column Is Not Sponsored by Anyone,” despite the fact that right above it on there is a banner ad for a Citi/American Airlines credit card.

But Friedersdorf says Friedman is “analytically sloppy” in connecting the commercialization of the culture with inequality:

Advertising on school buses may be problematic. Outsourcing war to private military contractors definitely is - but for a very different reason. Shorter security lines for affluent air passengers are problematic for a third reason. Conflating those things makes no sense.

I’m hardly a Friedman fan and I hate to defend him on anything analytical, but the thread running through these anecdotes is the commercialization of everything—the encroachment of the private sector on the public sphere, as Friedman says.

Friedersdorf defends advertising, for instance, as a leveler of inequality, citing sports stadiums of all things:

But if we mean that a sports stadium can charge 15 percent less for tickets because it sold naming rights to the building itself, the scoreboard, the halftime show, and the cheerleaders? That’s one of many times when the marketization of public life brings us together. And one day we may miss it.

I’d guess that naming rights subsidize gargantuan players’ salaries and owner profits more than they do ticket prices for fans.

— General Motors is dropping a bomb on Facebook three days before its giant IPO, The Wall Street Journal reports.

GM is yanking its ads from the site because it says they don’t work. Also, it can advertise for free on Facebook:

GM will continue to promote its products on Facebook, but without paying the social-media company, the GM official and other people familiar with the matter said. Many companies maintain free Facebook pages.

GM’s decision raises questions about the ability of Facebook to sustain the 88% revenue growth achieved in 2011. Facebook said last month its first-quarter ad revenue was down 7.5% from the previous three months. Facebook blamed “seasonal trends” for the decline, as well as a greater number of users from outside the U.S., where ad rates are lower.

There was already almost no way Facebook would sustain an 88 percent annual growth rate.

GM was already skeptical, apparently. It only spent $10 million on Facebook ads last year. But, “GM is the third-biggest advertiser across all media in the U.S. after Procter & Gamble Co. PNG and AT&T, according to Kantar,” the WSJ reports.

— What does Eduardo Saverin, the Facebook co-founder who’s renouncing his American citizenship to lower the tax bill on his upcoming $3.8 billion IPO windfall, owe the U.S.?

“Nearly everything,” writes Farhad Manjoo:

Yet if you study the trajectory of Saverin’s life—the path that took him from being an immigrant kid to a Harvard student to an instant billionaire to the subject of an Oscar-winning motion picture—it emerges as a uniquely American story. At just about every step between his landing in Miami and his becoming a co-founder of Facebook, you find American institutions and inventions playing a significant part in his success.

Would Eduardo Saverin have been successful anywhere else? Maybe, but not as quickly, and not as spectacularly. It was only thanks to America—thanks to the American government’s direct and indirect investments in science and technology; thanks to the U.S. justice system; the relatively safe and fair investment climate made possible by that justice system; the education system that educated all of Facebook’s workers, and on and on—it was only thanks to all of this that you know anything at all about Eduardo Saverin today…

Is this fair? No. It’s worse than that, though. It’s ungrateful and it’s indecent. Saverin’s decision to decamp the U.S. suggests he’s got no idea how much America has helped him out.

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Ryan Chittum is a former Wall Street Journal reporter, and deputy editor of The Audit, CJR's business section. If you see notable business journalism, give him a heads-up at Follow him on Twitter at @ryanchittum. Tags: , , , ,