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Charting The Life And Death Of Our Greatest Companies

An astonishing visualization project by Fathom throws light on the ebbs and flows of American capitalism–and offers an unexpected window onto our present doldrums.

Charting The Life And Death Of Our Greatest Companies

I’ve said it many times and I’ll say it forever: A great data visualization has the power to illuminate the world in ways that would otherwise be impossible. Today’s example comes from the inestimable Ben Fry and his firm, Fathom, who created a simple but astonishing chart of the performance of the Fortune 500 ever since 1955. By simply flipping our expectations of the data, and presenting it in a surpassingly elegant form, the interactive chart manages to suggest a half-century of grand narratives that have wracked American business.

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The chart is simply a plotting of the financial performance of each company in the Fortune 500. But clicking on it brings up a through-line, showing how a single company performed over time:

Thus, amidst all the wash of data, you can pick out individual stories, and you can choose to view them through the lens of ranking, revenues, and profits. Here, for example, is the profits chart for Pfizer, which is probably the very definition of a stable business, simply because they’re a drug company that’ll always find new ways to make money curing (or at least soothing) our maladies:

But compare that to a company such as BF Goodrich, the tire company. Founded in Ohio, they benefitted from the heyday of American manufacturing, but they saw huge losses during the period coinciding with the rise of China:

Now they look pretty healthy. What happened? You guessed it: They now make most of their tires overseas. Compare BF Goodrich against a company such as Brunswick, which makes pool tables among other things, and has been far more heavily invested in American labor. It isn’t pretty, and the company’s prospects seem far from certain:

Clicking around this chart, there are all kinds of stories, from the rise and fall of the great newspaper companies to the storming rise of American high tech. But the most interesting narrative comes out when you pull back from considering the fates of individual companies. Pay attention here to the pattern amongst the profits:

The upward trend is unmissable, and should serve as proof that American companies have always emerged stronger despite economic storms. Truly, capitalism is an engine that can’t be stopped. Good times will return. And American companies will figure out new ways to make even more money than before.

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But the examples of companies such as BF Goodrich do present an unsettling counterpoint. When firms are forced to move so much of their operations abroad, their success becomes decoupled with that of America’s. In the days where most American companies relied on American workers, the success of a big company tied quite neatly with our own. But these days, a big firm might be trucking along quite profitably, while the country around them falls apart. (I’m looking at you, Wall Street.) When people say that free markets have served to concentrate wealth at the very top, this is the mechanism behind it: Companies owe it to their shareholders to maximize profits. Not jobs. And definitely not the wealth of the middle class. So while the people running the companies might get quite rich, those below are left with a smaller and smaller share of the proceeds.

Whether or not that sounds great or terrible probably depends on your politics, but it does mean that corporations aren’t totally at fault for leaving the middle class behind. The middle class will simply never look quite like it did in the past. To survive, it will simply have to be the most educated, most skilled, and most mobile workforce in the world.

Click here to check out the interactive chart.

[Image: Tupungato/Shutterstock]

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About the author

Cliff was director of product innovation at Fast Company, founding editor of Co.Design, and former design editor at both Fast Company and Wired.

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