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BOHANON & STYRING: Enjoy all the rankings, but read the fine print

March 11, 2017

Economic AnalysisAmericans love rankings. College sports teams are routinely ranked. We rank universities and university programs. “Quality” rankings are ubiquitous. Quality of life. Quality of health. Quality of government. Quality of air. Somebody, somewhere seems to rank everything. 

Journalists love to latch on to studies ranking their own locale, especially when a standout high or low score is given. On Feb. 28, U.S. News and World Report rated Indiana No. 1 among the 50 states for quality of state government. Just two weeks earlier, an Indianapolis Star headline shouted that “Indy finishes in bottom on quality of life study” based on a report from de Beaumont Foundation. 

So how is it that Indiana has the “best” government in the nation, yet its capital city has the lousiest quality of life? What manner of disconnect is going on here?

The answer is that whoever does the ranking has great leeway in choosing the criteria to measure and how to measure those criteria. The U.S. News definition of good government was a composite of the state’s “fiscal stability,” “budget transparency,” “degree of digitalization” and “state integrity.”

We happen to think these are pretty good measures of good government. Someone else might plausibly think Indiana government is awful because it doesn’t build Bullet Trains or crack down on southwestern Indiana coal fields. And even if the U.S. News criteria are accepted, would everyone agree on how to measure something as amorphous as “state integrity”? Is it that Indiana governors don’t wind up in jail and Illinois governors often do?

The de Beaumont-sponsored study ranked cities based on factors that read like a wish list of progressive pet policies. For example, it considered whether local government procurement laws mandated “healthy food” is served at city-sponsored events. It also examined whether the city mandated “healthy food” in vending machines on city properties. We are not quite sure how the ratio of broccoli to potato chips at mayoral receptions looms so large in the life quality of a city. But what do we know? 

Here is the dirty little secret behind all rankings. More than anything else, they reveal the policy preferences of the organization doing the ranking. Look carefully at what went into the ranking. Even in the best studies, many of the components are ultimately arbitrary. The worst are propaganda designed to promote an agenda. Are rankings worthless? Not at all. But read the fine print.•

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Bohanon is a professor of economics at Ball State University. Styring is an economist and independent researcher. Both also blog at INforefront.com. Send comments to ibjedit@ibj.com.

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