Thursday, December 22, 2011

'We're Number One!' What's Your City's Ranking?

December 22, 2011, 3:50 p.m. (addition below, October 3, 2012)

And Why Rankings Are Silly

Mason Williams wrote in the Foreword to his book Flavors, "If I had to do it over again, I'd do it somewhere else. How about your house?"

Are you long-term unemployed, recently divorced, generally miserable? Like to start life over? If so, where's the best place to do it?

The blog decided to do the research for those seeking a fresh start. Jerold Leslie, "6 Best Cities for Starting Over in 2012,"! Finance, December 19, 2011.

And what city came up Number One after all of their independent research? Well, Iowa City, Iowa, of course.

How significant is this? About as significant as the University of Texas' brag when I was a student there, that the school's marching band possessed "the world's largest base drum." As my friend, the late Molly Ivins sometimes observed, Texans believe that "more is better, and too much is not enough" -- illustrated by another brag at the time of the base drum: a billboard outside Austin that claimed to be "the world's largest billboard."

In my last blog entry I address whether being "average" is a necessary prerequisite for a state to be "first in the nation" with the presidential primaries and caucuses every four years -- something Stephen Bloom apparently thinks necessary, and finds wanting in Iowa: "Frankly, I don't think it obvious that the state to hold a presidential caucus or primary as first-in-the-nation has to be the 'most typical,' or 'average.' But if that's what you want, if that is your standard, Bloom to the contrary notwithstanding, Iowa is it. Michael Lewis-Beck, 'Iowa is a Natural for its "First in the Nation" Role,' Iowa City Press-Citizen, December 16, 2011, p. 9A ('50 states were rated on 51 important characteristics taken from U.S. Census data. Iowa turns out to be a highly representative state.')" Nicholas Johnson, "Taking the Bloom From My Rose; Another Perspective on Stephen Bloom's Iowa," December 16, 2011.

I have a similar take on the various "rankings" of cities. Sure, I prefer some cities over others, just as I prefer some states over others as first out of the gate in the presidential race. But just as I don't think "average" is necessarily the best criteria for picking caucus states, neither do I think rankings are the best way to pick cities.

(Nor are they the best way to pick law schools. For a more rational, focused and analytical way of thinking about the best law school for you, see one of the most long-term popular of the near-900 blog entries available here: Nicholas Johnson, "Random Thoughts on Law School Rankings," April 29, 2008.)

How I Prefer to Pick Cities: Their "Genuine Quality of Life"

So, what is the best way to pick cities, I hear you ask. It's not the point of this blog entry, but in brief, for me, it's what I call "genuine quality of life." What does that category include?

In another blog entry I commented, "Another nice thing about Iowa City is that an easy walk can get you to many of the places you want to go. If you're in a hurry you can bike. With time to spare, you can even drive." Nicholas Johnson, "Why Iowa? Chase Garrett and Robert Reich; Just Your Everyday Walk Around a Small Iowa Town," September 8, 2011. Of course, this can be said of any American rural town with a population less than, say, 25,000. The difference when that town houses a major state university -- such as Urbana-Champaign (81,000; Champaign), Bloomington (80,000), or Iowa City (68,000) -- is that the stress-free ease of "getting there" is combined with a high density of innovative, creative, intellectual, and cultural places and events worth getting to (as with Chase Garrett and Robert Reich, mentioned above). They are a sort of "best of all possible worlds" -- distinguished from the difficulty and cost (in time, money and stress) of "getting there" in, say, Los Angeles.

My home is three or four blocks from my office -- and a major research hospital, and a Big Ten football stadium. Many of our law students have an equally short walk from their apartments. That's worth something. In fact, if it were possible for millions of Americans to do this (as in some countries) it would pretty much solve our energy and obesity problems.

(An added, nostalgic "genuine quality of life" for me is that "my home" is the same house and lots my father bought in 1941, where I lived from then until graduating from high school in 1952. So that short walk to work also takes me through the neighborhood and woods where I delivered the Des Moines Register and played as a child.)

Genuine quality of life, for me, includes living in a town in which there is not only a radically reduced risk of theft, but one in which you occasionally hear stories of someone finding a billfold, and walking across town to deliver it to its owner -- complete with all cash and credit cards. It's a town surrounded by rolling hills, where a farmer who is seriously injured, or ill, wakes up one morning to find a column of tractors, or combines, his neighbors are bringing to plant, or harvest his crop; or perhaps when his barn burns, a "barn-raising" party of neighbors building the replacement.

It's what University of Iowa President Sally Mason noted in her response to Stephen Bloom: "[W]e were faced with a historic flood that devastated communities . . .. What I saw, . . . was the best that Iowa has to offer — our people. I saw sandbags being filled. I saw communities rallying together to help their neighbors protect what they treasured. I didn’t see woeful distress or abandonment." Sally Mason, "Bloom's caricature misrepresents Iowa and Iowans," Iowa City Press-Citizen, December 16, 2011, p. A9.

When I was running for Congress from Iowa's old Third District, it was a practice of small town merchants when a customer paid by check. There were books of blank checks on the counter from the various small banks in the area. You simply picked the one from your bank, filled it out, put your signature on it, and handed it to the clerk. No routing numbers; no printed names; no required identification. Just a signature, recognized by the bank teller who ultimately received it. My experience at that time in Los Angeles was that stores wanted, literally, my fingerprint as well as a photo ID.

It's a memory from my childhood of watching a local bank president, one of the community's wealthiest and most prominent individuals, pausing for a lengthy visit on the street with one of its poorest and most challenged citizens. Ever since reading in junior high Thorstein Veblen's Theory of the Leisure Class (1899), with its explanation of "conspicuous consumption," I have always preferred communities that value reverse ostentation -- like billionaire Sam Walton driving an old pickup truck -- to those that depend on obvious shows of wealth to establish individuals' worth.

Many Iowans have little desire to rank individuals, or place them in their proper "class." Evaluations turn on one's character, honesty, and professional ability and attention to detail -- not whether the work is neurosurgery or automobile repair, but how skillfully, conscientiously and professionally that work is done.

It's embodied in the story of the fellow criticized for not wearing a tie who responded, "Where I come from we judge a man by what he has above his neck, not what he ties around it."

Some of my law school colleagues wear suits and ties the days they teach. But one of our most nationally prestigious professors would sometimes return to the law school from the tennis courts in tennis shirt, shorts and shoes. Among the faculty, "casual" does not mean a sports coat instead of a suit; it means a shirt or sweater, maybe with jeans or khakis. (As a Supreme Court clerk, I recall a couple clerks from Harvard Law School who used to hold serious discussions not only about the comparative virtues of various designer suits, but the details of the most appropriate procedure to be used by their dry cleaners.)

These are among the characteristics of locations or institutions that are factored into my judgment regarding their "genuine quality of life."

Prefer High Rankings to "Genuine Quality of Life"? Iowa City Has Them, Too

Thus, as with whether Iowa is "average" enough to be first in the nation in picking presidents (it shouldn't need to be, but if that's what you want, it is that, too), so it is with Iowa City's placement in various rankings of cities. As just discussed with regard to "genuine quality of life," I don't happen to think rankings are that important, but if you do here are some to consider:

The most recent [October 3, 2012] is the American Institute for Economic Research ranking of top college destinations, which placed Iowa City among the top five. Iowa City and the UI scored high for research, accessibility, earning potential, low unemployment, and entrepreneurial activity. "College Destinations Index, 2012-2013," American Institute for Economic Research.

One of Iowa City's most prestigious bits of recognition was its 2008 designation by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) as one of the world's three Cities of Literature. Following UNESCO's designation of Edinburgh, Scotland, and Melbourne, Australia, all three cities became part of the UNESCO Creative Cities Network.

Coincidentally, this was quite a week of rankings for Iowa City. Sunday, December 18, the Press-Citizen reported that Iowa City had been ranked 19th among 138 American cities found to be the "most secure" based on a database (noting 600 physicians per 100,000 population vs. a national average of 220.5, and a 3.6 percent unemployment rate vs. 9.1 percent nationally). By Tuesday the city found itself ranked 8th on the Milken Institute's annual Best Performing Small Cities List (noting its $6.7 billion economy). On Thursday, December 22, came the discovery that Iowa City was ranked number one among America's best cities to start over -- the ranking with which this blog entry began.

Iowa City has the fourth best schools in the nation (out of 334 ranked). Expansion Management Magazine, 2004.

It is the third best metro for livability in the nation (out of 331), according to the same source.

Forbes ranked Iowa City as the second best metro area for business careers, eighth best "up and coming," and among the top ten "smartest cities," March 2008.

Outside Magazine called Iowa City the "Top Town in the Midwest" when it recognized the nation's 30 best towns in July 2007. It concluded that Iowa City is one of the "smart, progressive burgs with gorgeous wilderness playgrounds -- and realistic housing and job markets." They also found that "some of the happiest people in the world live in Iowa City."

Iowa City was one of the "Top Business Opportunity Metros" according to Expansion Management Magazine, which designated the city as the fifth best (of 329) "Metro Areas for Expanding a Business" in 2004.

The February 2010 issue of Oprah’s O Magazine came out with an unranked list of "100 Things That Are Getting Better," and Iowa was the only state to make this list (e.g., “Legalizing gay marriage in 2009 + University of Iowa football landing among the top 25 college teams for the fifth time this decade + ranking second on ’s Happiness Index = one seriously happening Hawkeye State”).

Men’s Journal, a national publication, in its February 2010 issue listed Iowa City as the healthiest town in the nation. CNN medical writer Dr. Sanjay Gupta considered locally grown fruits and vegetables, short commutes, availability of sidewalks, low pollution, green spaces and good weather.

The Iowa City area ranked 10th on the MSN CareerBuilder's "Today's Best and Worst Cities for Jobs" list. The CareerBuilder article cited the "Iowa City metro area's 1.2 percent job growth between July and October 2009 . . . only 19 [of 77 cities] posted growth rates of 1 percent or higher."

In September 2007, National Geographic Adventure Magazine listed Iowa City as one of the "50 Best Places to Live and Play."

Iowa City was ranked third by Money Magazine in its list of "Best Places in the Nation to Retire."

In March 2007, Iowa City was listed as one of the 10 most affordable places to live and work by Sperling's Best Places. "Iowa City feels progressive," Bert Sperling says. "It boasts a lively cultural scene, an attractive downtown, and active community efforts."

American City Business Journal ranked Iowa City among the top 4 percent in the nation for "quality of life," and number one in Iowa.

Iowa City was ranked the sixth best golf city in America by Golf Digest, August 2005.

Sporting News, August 2005, ranked Iowa City one of America's "50 best sports cities," and number one for college football.

Men's Journal, May 2003, ranked Iowa City as sixth in the nation among the "healthiest, safest, and sexiest places to live."

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics found Iowa City second in the country as an artist-friendly alternative to New York and Los Angeles, 2002.

USA Today, June 2002, judged Iowa City to be the "third most educated metro area in the country."

The University of Iowa in Iowa City -- and in Context

It is impossible to consider rankings of Iowa City without taking into account the many contributions of the University of Iowa, a major educational and research institution by any measure. Many of the local citizenry are either employees or enrollees of the institution. For example, Iowa City residents' easy access to quality, cutting edge health care, and the average educational level of the population, reflect the university's presence -- as would be true of other towns of comparable size that are home to major state research universities with hospitals.

U.S. News & World Report currently ranks The University of Iowa as the 28th best public university in the country. Of its graduate programs, 23 are ranked among the top 10 of their kind at U.S. public institutions. It is the only Big Ten university listed as a "best buy" in Fiske Guide to Colleges, 2011.

It is large: it has a budget of $2.8 billion, 30,000 students from over 100 countries, a 1700-acre campus with 120 major buildings, operated with 13,000 staff and 1700 faculty, offering over 100 areas of study including seven professional degree programs (MD, JD, MBA, LLM, PharmD, MNHP, and DDS), and an array of intellectual, cultural and athletic events that attract more than a million visitors a year.

The University has been around since 1847, was the first public university to admit men and women on an equal basis, and the first university in the world to accept creative work in literature and the arts for advanced degrees. West of the Mississippi it was the first to create a law school, educational broadcasting station, and college paper. As early as the 1870s it was one of the first public law schools in the country to grant degrees to women and African Americans. It had the nation's first female editor of a college paper. It is currently the home of the world-renowned Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and the National Advanced Driving Simulator.

University of Iowa Healthcare is "an integrated academic medical center under one executive leadership team, consisting of UI Hospitals and Clinics, the UI Carver College of Medicine, and UI Physicians, Iowa’s largest multi-specialty medical and surgical group practice." Its predecessors have been offering patient services since 1873. It is recognized as one of the best hospitals in the U.S., with nearly 10,000 employees (making it one of the state's largest employers), research grants in the $100s of millions (during a recent year the 11th largest NIH recipient), some 200 specialties and programs. University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics is currently again ranked as one of “America’s Best Hospitals,” now for the 22nd year in a row. Nine medical specialties are among the top 50 such programs in the nation: otolaryngology, ophthalmology, orthopaedics and rehabilitation, psychiatry, urology, surgery, neurology and neurosurgery, cancer, and kidney disease.

The UI's main library has been among the top 25 public academic research libraries. The law school's library is consistently ranked first or second in the nation; the research and writing of its faculty once placed it first in the nation among public law schools.

One could go on and on with such facts. All major U.S. educational institutions have their "brags": numbers of books and other publications, honors and memberships of faculty, quality of libraries, scientific inventions and cultural contributions, celebrity alums, new buildings and other facilities, athletic championships, or the size of endowments. Each institution has its strengths, its strongest colleges and departments, its "famous" faculty -- but also its weaknesses and its infamous faculty members. Iowa is no exception.

What does seem rather clear is that, by whatever standards and measures one may apply, the University of Iowa is clearly one of America's quality, public, research universities, and the full equal of its peers. Amongst those schools it makes even less sense to distinguish among them on the basis of a few positions one way or another in an arbitrary "ranking" than to decide who gets the gold and who gets the bronze on the basis of a 1/100th of a second difference in how fast they can ski down a hill. (At least there is agreement on the Olympics' criteria for such conclusions.) As I see it, anyone who can ski down a long hill at 90 mph and live to tell about it is a great athlete; and I feel the equivalent about our major research universities.


In my response to Stephen Bloom's mean-spirited screed attacking Iowa I noted, "[M]ost everything we say, or write is little more than an indication of what's going on inside that electro-chemical sensory processing soup we call our brain. . . . When we say the view of [a] . . . mountain range, river valley, ocean [or] desert [is] 'beautiful,' that 'beauty' is of our own making. It lies inside of us, not in the molecules that make up the physical stuff we're looking at." Nicholas Johnson, "Taking the Bloom From My Rose; Another Perspective on Stephen Bloom's Iowa," December 16, 2011.

It is an observation, if anything, even more applicable to our judgments about which are the "best places" -- for us -- during various phases of our lives. "Rankings" are of little use -- except for responding to mean-spirited characterizations of places and cultures by critics too limited to appreciate them.

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1 comment:

Jim Jacobson said...

I think your assessment of IC is right on. We are transplantees who have lived in NYC, LA and Chicago. But we settled here. Why? As Tony The Tiger might say, "Because It's great!"

That is exactly why we high-tailed it back here after 18 months in Massachusetts. We love the people, the options, the vibrancy of the university, and on and on. Truth be told, I do kinda like the rankings. It's a bit of ammunition when we have to deal with snooty coastal family and friends who still can't believe we live here.

When we first moved here, I immediately noticed that the population was less outwardly stratified than some of the other places I had lived. I do think that has changed somewhat (i.e. SE IC vs. big-bucks developments in Coralville). But I still think it is possible for the children of custodians and the children of professors who attend school together to become friends and learn from one another and about how the world actually works. Where I grew up, towns were far more homogeneous. The social classes were very, very separate.

Overall, I agree with your assessment. Quality of life and choosing where to live are all a matter of personal preference.

All I can say is we are very happy with the decision made to live here. Wouldn't change it for anything.