Sunday, February 24, 2013

Misery

Internet lists are a dime a dozen these days and in this economy I think even that may be overvalued. Last year I wrote about a list of the twenty most romantic places in America compiled by a dating service for wealthy men seeking attractive women of limited means, (and no I'm not making that up). I'm not privy to the ins and outs of the making of these lists, but considering the random nature of their results, my guess is they're made this way: a list's creator comes up with a limited set of criteria, in this case, destinations for "romantic getaways", the data is gathered, and then it's ranked by a computer. There's nothing sophisticated about it and usually the sampling is too small to be meaningful. The above mentioned dating service for example may have drawn their sample from a list of say 200 clients, meaning any destination that had more than one vote may have made the list. Now don't get me wrong, they're all fine cities, but that might explain why Cleveland, Dallas and Houston all made the list of the most romantic places in America. Chicago by the way was number five on that particular list.

Since these lists are so common, I get several of them a day via e-mail spam, it's easy to ignore them. But here's one list, from a fairly significant source that is too outrageous to be ignored. It's the "America's Most Miserable Cities" list, published annually by Forbes Magazine. The major criterion for the list, not surprising given the source, is the economy as measured by things such as housing values, foreclosure and unemployment rates, and the exodus of people from a particular place. The list also takes into account violent crime and "quality of life" issues such as the weather and commute times.

Obviously this list is more complicated than the list mentioned at the top, as the "misery factor" as defined by its editors at Forbes, has multiple criteria that need to be evaluated, and weighed against each other.

Many of the cites that had the dubious honor of making the list are the usual suspects; unfortunately it should come as no surprise that Detroit was lited at the top. Violent crime, which is actually down there since 2011 and a 35% drop in home values in the last three years were cited by the editors. Flint, MI and Rockford, IL come next. Now to me, for a list like this to be meaningful, I believe it should only compare comparable cities. Despite losing a huge chunk of its population over the past several years, Detroit is still a top tier American city as it has been for two hundred years while Flint and Rockford with populations of just over 100,000, barely rank as big cities. It's like comparing the success or lack thereof, of major and minor league baseball teams.

Number four on the list is Chicago. Here's their comment on the Windy City:
Chicago has passionate supporters, but residents must endure the misery of long commutes, plummeting home prices, brutal winters and high foreclosure rates. The migration rate out of Chicago is the sixth worst among the 200 largest metros.
I have no argument with any of that. Frankly it comes as little surprise (or relief) to myself and my fellow residents of our fair city that we're just a little less miserable than our brothers and sisters in Detroit, Flint and Rockford. But before we pack our bags and move to a far less miserable place such as Gary, Indiana, (number 19), it might be helpful to look at this survey a little closer.

Here I'll use another baseball analogy. The book I've been pouring over lately, as spring is after all just around the corner, has been The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract. In case you don't know, Bill James is the foremost contemporary expert on the statistical analysis of the game and its players. His methodology to evaluate players was at first dismissed by traditional baseball men (yes they're still mostly men), but now has been adapted by most major league teams. James himself, long a renegade in baseball circles is now part of the establishment. The term he coined to describe his work is "sabermetrics", which he defines simply as "the search for objective knowledge about baseball."

From that description you might assume that Bill James is simply a "numbers guy", someone who sits in front of a computer day in and day out, entering stats into a spreadsheet and crunching the numbers. On the contrary, he's a brilliant thinker and an excellent writer who has a true passion for the game and a profound understanding of the way it works.

Baseball people since day one have been obsessed with stats; you can't read a story about a ballplayer that doesn't somewhere reference statistics such as batting average or earned run average in the case of pitchers.  Bill James and other like minded folks, understand that while these are useful numbers, they only tell a small part of the story, for example: Babe Ruth struck out a lot, Pete Rose holds the Major League record for the worst career stolen base percentage, and Lou Brock was a lousy fielder. Yet none of those facts prevented James from ranking those three players at or near the top of of their respective positions.

In other words, Bill James's methodology only takes into account the big picture. Faults may be overshadowed by much greater attributes. Of course, the reverse may be true as well but in the end only one thing matters, how a player's overall performance contributes to his team's success.

By contrast, most of the criteria used to calculate the Forbes misery list is taken out of context from the big picture. Beyond that. the specifics can be interpreted any number of ways:
  • Yes it's true that the bursting of the housing bubble is painful to those of us who have owned property for years. On the other hand, lower property values can present an extraordinary opportunity for new investment in a city. 
  • Unemployment rates alone are difficult to evaluate, especially when you compare big and small cities. One has to ask the question, does the city have the potential to recoup the jobs that have been lost in a bad economy, even if that means moving in a different direction, or is the city moving in a constant downward spiral? There are examples of both cases in the Forbes list and you simply can't compare the two situations by raw data alone. 
  • Exodus rates need to be evaluated to determine who is leaving a city and why, and also what kind of people, if any, are moving back into the city.
  • Violent crime of course cannot be spun in the same way, there is no silver lining there. Still, violent crime has always been with us, it's society's problem, not just the problem of specific communities.
  • Libraries, schools and other fundamental civic necessities are funded by property taxes. High property taxes are often, admittedly not always, tied to good schools and other things that citizens not only want but expect. Simply put, you get what you pay for.
  • No one wants to be stuck in traffic. The fact is, crowded places are the places most people want to (or have to) be. Those are the places with the most opportunity. The places with the least opportunities for their citizens have few traffic jams. It's a tradeoff. 
  • As for bad weather, well I'm in the minority but personally I like the change of seasons and would not want to live in a place where the temperature never dips below 50F and you have to be indoors in air conditioning half of the year.
Here's the Forbes 2013 Misery list and the reasons cited by the editors:
  1. Detroit - crime, shrinking property values, exodus
  2. Flint, MI - shrinking economic base (and everything else), exodus, crime 
  3. Rockford, IL - shrinking economic base, unemployment, high property taxes
  4. Chicago - shrinking property values, foreclosures, exodus, traffic, weather
  5. Modesto, CA - bankruptcy rates, foreclosures, unemployment
  6. Vallejo, CA - ditto
  7. Warren, MI - shrinking property values
  8. Stockton, CA - see Modesto and Vallejo
  9. Lake County, IL - shrinking property values, traffic, weather
  10. New York City - high property taxes, traffic
  11. Toledo, OH - lack of job growth, unemployment, exodus
  12. St. Louis - you name it (see below)
  13. Camden, NJ - poverty
  14. Milwaukee - weather, high property taxes
  15. Atlantic City - shrinking economic base, unemployment 
  16. Atlanta - shrinking property values, foreclosures, traffic
  17. Cleveland - exodus
  18. Poughkeepsie, NY - weather, traffic
  19. Gary, IN - crime (although in decline), foreclosures, exodus
  20. Youngstown, OH - shrinking economic base- exodus
A few more thoughts: 
  • Notice the distribution of the misery: Michigan, Illinois,  Ohio, and California all have three miserable cities and New York (State) and New Jersey each have two. With the exception of Atlanta which seems to be the only miserable place in the South, the remaining three, St. Louis, Milwaukee and Gary are clustered together geographically in the same region as Ohio, Michigan and Illinois. The three California cities are all clustered around the same region of the north-central part of the state, and combined their population is around 600,000, right around the size of Milwaukee. Can most of American misery really be focused on the Midwest, a small part of the Mid-Atlantic region and a very small part of California?
  • How did Lake County, Illinois, a collection of municipalities containing some of the richest and some of the poorest communities in the United States, get counted as a city?
  • There's misery and then there's misery. I'm not sure how the misery categories were weighted but to me anyway, one cannot possibly evaluate the misery of poverty in the same breath as the misery of traffic jams or bad weather.  While long commute times and long winters were mentioned in several of the causes for misery in cities, out and out poverty was mentioned only once.
  • A picture is worth a thousand words, well actually more like 973, and the images chosen to illustrate each city's misery were interesting. The picture used to illustrate St. Louis's blues is an image of a SWAT team in action. Together with this comment: "St. Louis and Detroit are the only two metros to rank in the bottom 50% in each of the nine metrics of misery we considered..." Forbes paints the picture that St. Louis must truly be hell on earth. It's not nearly that bad if you asked me, St. Louis is a terrific place that has a lot going for it, with of course some problems too. Most of the other pictures in the article of boarded up buildings, foreclosure signs, bad traffic, and a house in Cleveland being demolished, all paint a bleak picture. The image illustrating Milwaukee is of a babushka clad old woman walking through a snowstorm. Some folks might say: "goodness me, look at the plight of the elderly in a dismal snow-belt city", while others like me would say that picture speaks to the toughness and resilience of the people of that fine city. New York is illustrated by a group of people in amusing costumes protesting high tax rates, looking anything but miserable, while Chicago's is a shot of a tightly grouped pack of pedestrians. That shot was made with a long, telephoto lens which exaggerates the density of the group; none of the people in the picture necessarily look happy, but don't they don't look miserable either. What is very apparent in the photo to me, is the group is made up of a mixed bag of races and ethnicities, which contrary to the editors' intention, very much illustrates the character of a diverse and exhilarating city. 
  • Speaking of which, in the preface to the list it was mentioned that two sets of criteria used in the past, were not taken into account this year. They were political corruption and quality of the sports teams. Which brings up the question: if Chicago placed number four on the list without those two considerations, imagine where it would place WITH them? Could Chicago actually be more miserable than Detroit?
I suppose it's foolish to spend so much time commenting on a list that was generated for entertainment rather than scholarly purposes. My guess is I've already spent more time writing this piece today than the editors at Forbes put into it. The problem is, some folks take these lists seriously. Some people who actually read Forbes, have the means to invest or encourage the investment in, and have the means to positively contribute to the future of these places. No city anywhere deserves to be discounted like the morning trash, especially based upon flawed methodology. I believe it's a disservice for a national publication like Forbes to be printing such drivel.

In case you disagree with my assessment of the misery list all I can say is this: I'll take the piece seriously when I see the good folks over at Forbes relocating from their offices in Manhattan to the less miserable Camden, NJ.

1 comment:

Ben Solomon said...

A quick response to your thoughtful post.
Well done, Jim--now I feel less miserable. (And I'm mighty grateful the Forbes folks told me how miserable I was in the first place.)
I don't recall experiencing a "brutal Chicago winter" for several years.
Perhaps we can chart the metropolis misery ratings and discover trajectories and trends. Then the entire country can move to the one and only city where we'll all be deliriously happy...and won't need a magazine to rate us.