The mainstream media love lists. On almost any day, open up the paper or log on to your favorite News website, and there’s some sort of list: The Richest Americans. The Best Colleges. The Most Powerful Political Leaders. Whatever.
These lists are designed to look like valid studies. They may even tout a rigorous methodology. But most of these lists are generated using arbitrary, and often ideologically driven, criteria. The lists that I find the most frustrating are those that rate cities. The Happiest Cities. The Best Cities to Raise a Family.
And this week’s entry: “The Best U.S. Cities for Business,” by a business News service on the Internet called MarketWatch.com. This list caught my attention in part because Des Moines, Iowa, ranks #1. Nothing against Des Moines. My sister and her family live there, after all. But what set of criteria would allow Des Moines to be #1, and put Washington, D.C., a very different kind of city, at #2? The list is especially baffling when you consider that Des Moines scored 50 points more than D.C., even though most of the other 99 cities are separated from each other by less than five points.
The reasons for the strange rankings: bias and ideology. To begin with, it turns out that the rankings took into account 10 criteria, all equally weighted. With so many criteria, the cities that did best, such as Des Moines, were those that didn’t bomb in any of the categories but were not necessarily excellent in some of them. In other words, the rankings didn’t reward true excellence, just consistent above-averageness.
MarketWatch’s Russ Britt put it this way: “How did this small metropolis plunked down in the middle of corn country win out? Nothing flashy, really. It just had above-average scores in every one of 10 metrics that MarketWatch examined. Well, not just above average; it was in the top fourth of all but one metric.”
What should we call this bias? An addiction to mediocrity? More charitably, we might call it, “The Lake Woebegone Effect,” where innovation and excellence are frightening, where the best thing you can say about someone is that they are “above average,” but not too much above average.
Now, consistent above-averageness wouldn’t be so bad if what was evaluated actually mattered. But that’s the next problem with this pseudo-study. For example, one would think that the ability to produce jobs would be a pretty solid indicator of a city’s business health. But it’s not, according to the MarketWatch list. Every single city on the list lost jobs, except McAllen, Texas. And where did McAllen, Texas, rank? Number 83 – near the bottom of the list!
And what about taxes? Economic development experts say that low taxes are vital to business health. Cities, counties and states routinely offer tax exemptions to entice companies to move. So, what role did tax rates play in the MarketWatch.com ratings? None. Tax rates were not included in the 10 criteria. In fact, high-tax cities such as Boston and Washington were in the top 10.
Another common characteristic of the top 10 cities? The government was the largest employer in at least six of the top 10 cities. Five of them – Des Moines, Minneapolis-St. Paul, Boise, Denver and Salt Lake City – were state capitals, with huge state government payrolls. Washington, D.C., is of course the quintessential government town.
One more thing: In the MarketWatch survey, size matters. If your city has a Fortune 1000 headquarters, your rank goes up, no matter that Fortune 1000 companies employ less than 5 percent of the American workforce.
Here’s another way size matters in the rankings: Only cities with more than 500,000 people are included. That’s 101 American cities. No matter that other surveys say the future of American business is the smaller city. Improvements in transportation and communication erase the competitive advantage that cities like New York, Chicago, Boston and San Francisco had in the 19th and early 20th centuries, when they had unique access to capital, talent, railheads, ports and raw materials. Today, a “raw material” is more likely to be an idea than a railroad car of iron ore, and a “finished good” is more likely to be a software program than a pallet of widgets. Today’s goods and services are increasingly likely to go to market over an information superhighway than over a concrete one.
All of this explains why a recent study by CareerBuilder (an Internet company) said the best cities in America to find a job were, in descending order, Bismarck, N.D., Casper, Wyo., and Logan, Utah. Of the 30 best job-producing cities on the CareerBuilder list, only one of them, Salt Lake City, was large enough to make the MarketWatch list.
So what does the MarketWatch list teach us? It certainly doesn’t tell us what it claims to tell us: that is, which cities are best for business. Indeed, you could argue that the cities that are best for business weren’t even considered. Rather, this list teaches us that we should value government jobs over those created by private investment, that bureaucracy is better than entrepreneurship and that large corporations matter more than people.
The MarketWatch list and others like it are pseudo-science and junk journalism. But that doesn’t stop the mainstream media from eating them up.
Warren Cole Smith is the associate publisher of WORLD magazine (www.worldmag.com) and the author of A Lover’s Quarrel With the Evangelical Church” (www.loversquarrel.net).