Sunday, August 22, 2010

The Best Places to Live (and study)

You've seen the articles. They take a bunch of data and crunch it, and then proclaim Ames, Iowa; or Burlington, Vermont; or Eden Prairie, Minnesota as the best place to live in the whole country. Invariably, the places where people actually live end up far down the list: San Francisco, New York City, Dallas, and so forth.

That disconnect from reality convinced me long ago what the true value of these analyses are: they quantify precisely the flaws in their algorithms. I'll be the first to say that people are not rational, but people get mighty rational when tens of thousands of dollars are at stake. That's the difference each year between living in somewhere like Brooklyn vs. Overland Park, Kansas. Why would anyone choose to live in a closet that costs $2000/month when they could live in lovely Fort Collins, Colorado?

If all the data they have point to Nowheresville, the obvious conclusion is that their analysis is flawed. They're missing out on what matters to people. Yes, cost and schools and safety and big houses are important to people. However, if they are willing to pay thousands of dollars extra to live somewhere that has mediocre schools, relatively high crime rates, and small dwellings, that tells you there are factors that compensate.

And so I chuckle every time I see one of those articles. I'm sure that there are many undiscovered gems out there, but to rank so low places that compel so many people to deal with so many quantifiable disadvantages is ridiculous. The further down the list they put places like San Francisco, Seattle, Boston, and New York City, the more obvious it is to me that they are missing the point. They've got these models that reach such wildly different conclusions from reality that it simply emphasizes how bad their models are. They say those are awesome places to live, but nobody lives there. You do the math.

Anyway, so I've had that bouncing in my head for a while. Today I saw a thing that I realized was similar. The Parade insert in our newspaper had a run-down of colleges. "No disrespect to Harvard, Yale, and Princeton, but you don't need to attend a fabled Ivy to get a big-league education." Just like the articles about cities, they take a bunch of numbers and some arbitrary formulae, and then spit out a list of names you've never heard of.

As much as higher education in this country is screwed up, I just don't see people getting things wrong so consistently for so long. I'm sure those schools they name are excellent schools. And I'm sure that the schools that everyone knows about are better. I'm sorry, but Rice University is not equal to Princeton. If my kids were admitted to both Princeton and Rice, I know which one I'd rather they attend.

Just like with "Best Places," they act like they've discovered some truth that all the rest of us have been missing this whole time. But their so-called truth is wildly different from the decisions that millions of Americans make each year. People will make all kinds of foolish and irrational decisions, but when so much money is at stake, they actually behave pretty sensibly. Really, it's kind of embarrassing that the Excel jockeys got it wrong. I feel sorry for them.

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Blogger wins32767 said...

There is an important distinction between "best place to live where you are likely to be able to find a job" and "best place to live if you are independently wealthy/not career minded". Burlington is a much nicer place to live than, say, Worcester, provided you don't have to worry about finding a new job though it's 1/10th the size.

Additionally, you aren't factoring in inertia. A great many people live where they grew up. Someone from Brooklyn may prefer to live in Fort Collins provided that they were aware of the differences, had the finances and transferable skills to move, and if their entire family was able to move with them. The targets for those articles are people who aren't tied down by family ties, job or financial constraints. By those metrics, they are a lot closer to accurate.

August 22, 2010 at 2:09 PM  
Blogger Ketan said...

I've never seen Bel Air or Sausalito or Greenwich on these lists. I think they exclude places middle class people can't live. So the distinction is moot.

Inertia in the United States is low compared to most countries. Millions of people move every year; one of the big trends over the last few decades has been the exodus of northerners to the Sun Belt.

Besides, inertia is a dodge. Inertia should apply pretty evenly across the country. The net effect should be to slow rather than eliminate migration. There are people who stay in Brooklyn because of the ties you mention, but that's true of Fort Collins, Eden Prairie, and pretty much everywhere else.

August 22, 2010 at 7:46 PM  
Blogger wins32767 said...

I'd be willing to wager you don't even see those sorts of lists in, say, Germany. They are an artifact of the higher mobility in the US.

I agree with your points about inertia, but you aren't taking that to the logical conclusion. Since inertia slows migration places that are historically large tend to stay large well past they should. Metro Detroit still has ~5 million people but it's dropping (relatively) fast. It will take decades for Detroit to decrease in size to its "proper" size. Places that aren't as terrible as Detroit (Cleveland, for example) can stay large just through natural growth so saying that Detroit is a better place to live than Seattle, Austin, Portland Oregon, or Orlando is dumb. I think a better proxy than size is growth rate relative to the US average as well as growth rate relative to metropolitan category (1m+, 500k+, 250k+, etc) to factor in job availability.

August 23, 2010 at 9:03 PM  
Blogger Ketan said...

The places you mention are dirt cheap. If I was living in New York, selling my place would make up for a lot of inertia. Detroit is like the bottom of a gravity well; everywhere else is uphill. New York is the opposite, so why do people run so hard just to stay in the same place?

August 23, 2010 at 9:31 PM  

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