Livability Ranking Not Worth Reading

We have finally touched bottom in the tortured charade known as "livability rankings". The Economist Intelligence Unit is out with its latest rankings and, to the delight of the Mayor’s office, has named Pittsburgh the nation’s most livable city. The same ranking places the ‘Burgh at 29th among world cities. Obviously, the Intelligence Unit rankers do not think very highly of the U.S. as a place to live.

Our analysis of previous livability rankings has pointed out the basic flaws in these attempts to compare cities as places to live. First, they are almost always metro area rankings and not core city rankings. Second, they focus on and weigh factors that are inherently difficult to assess in terms of livability because they are subjective and ignore many of the reasons people actually choose to live where they do. And, apparently city financial conditions are not included in the rankings otherwise Pittsburgh would be disqualified.

But in the case of the latest Economist Intelligent Unit ranking, it is literally not worth reading. For some reason the Unit is charging $500 to gain access to the ranking. They are releasing only the briefest of summaries. To learn details of the methodology or how data was collected will set an analyst back half a grand.

Here’s the ugly truth. This same ranking group back in 2005 named Cleveland and Pittsburgh as the country’s most livable cities. One would think Pittsburghers might want to look a little skeptically at a ranking that placed Cleveland on a par with the ‘Burgh. A Tribune Review article from October 10, 2005 dissected the methodology of the Unit’s rating system and was able to contact the survey editor. That article unearthed stunning revelations regarding how the Unit collected data. It turns out much of the data comes from "correspondents" who score the various factors. The freelancer who rated Pittsburgh education and infrastructure gave "perfect" scores. How is that for objective valuation?

No wonder the Unit is charging $500 to open the full report. They do not want people to know what they are actually doing. Surely, they do not believe anyone but Mayors of high ranking cities would pay for the study. And that is iffy once the mayors’ staffs learn that Cleveland was rated number one in 2005.

There is good reason the news coverage of this latest ranking story was so sparse. It is now clear to most thinking people that these rankings are little more than attempts to get publicity for the ranking firm.

Another Nonsensical Pittsburgh Ranking

The Brookings Institute has just released a report showing Pittsburgh as having the 18th economically strongest metropolitan area. They say Pittsburgh is doing so well in this recession because most of the area’s job strength lies in "eds" and "meds". This ranking is misleading and pure nonsense.

The study looked at jobs data from the fourth quarter of 2007 through the first quarter of 2009. A more detailed look at total private employment in the Pittsburgh metro shows that from March 2008 to March 2009 (last month of the first quarter), the area lost more than 19,000 jobs-at the time the largest year over year drop in more than two decades. Nor did the Brookings report include April 2009 employment data. It would have shown a loss of nearly 27,000 jobs from April 2008-and by far the largest drop in more than two decades. These job losses were widespread with almost every category sustaining significant losses.

And what of those eds and meds? Combined, they make up only 22 percent of the total private jobs in the Pittsburgh MSA. Most of the gains to the health sector (meds) are in the social assistance industry-more than one-third of the growth. Since 2000 job growth in the social assistance sector has outgrown the gains to private education sector (eds) by nearly two to one. These jobs are not high paying and most rely on heavy taxpayer subsidies to fund their operations. Not the basis for a strong economy.

But this will not matter for the area’s cheerleaders. Despite its core city being in financial distress and droves of citizens leaving the area, they have another glowing ranking to add to their list. Meanwhile they ignore the problems stunting the area’s real economic growth.