Monday, February 16, 2009

My Chicago - miserable?

Forbes magazine has come out with another of their peculiar (at Forbes, we substitute faux precision for actual analysis) rankings of things, this time coming up with the most miserable U.S. cities. [I would have linked to Forbes' own site, but I received errors on several browsers, making them almost unreadable.] There were nine categories used to do the rankings: commute times, corruption, pro sports teams, Superfund sites, taxes (both income and sales), unemployment, violent crime, and weather. The "winner" was Stockton, CA, followed by Memphis, TN, and for the bronze, Chicago.

The complete top 10 list:
  1. Stockton
  2. Memphis
  3. Chicago
  4. Cleveland
  5. Modesto
  6. Flint
  7. Detroit
  8. Buffalo
  9. Miami
  10. St. Louis
I am not going to spend time criticizing the methodology, because I couldn't find out exactly what it was. As such, I can't criticize the weightings, but I strongly suspect that those are flawed. Forbes seems to be trying for an experiential evaluation, that is, they are trying to rank how it feels to live in each of these places. That's really the only reason to include something as massively inconsequential as sports teams. But, then, are they trying to measure an average feeling, or the worst someone could feel, or what? (Yes, I realize I'm overthinking something that's used to sell magazines.)

What amuses me is how the local stations react to this, trotting out various talking heads to say, with great indignation, that Chicago is a great city, with Millennium Park, the symphony, the opera, the lakefront, Navy Pier, blah, blah, blah.

I love the idea that reporters, at least the ones who still have jobs, are the folks who are picked to give their evaluation. They tend to live pretty well, they are de facto not unemployed, corruption is a source of entertainment to them, violent crime doesn't often reach their neighborhoods, and weather is endured only in quick dashes out of the news truck. I'm certain we can find people in Stockton who are very happy to live there.

Of course, there are always those who go the other way, like local writer Dennis Byrne. He feels, quite strongly, that the rankings didn't come close to capturing the truly bad condition of Chi-town. Not a big fan of Mayor Daley, he writes:
Any public official who would launch a midnight sneak attack on a federally funded and highly useful lakefront airport is hardly worthy of “good manager” repute. Tyrant would be more like it. He’s the mayor who lambastes the city’s labor force as a bunch of slackers, while pretending that, as mayor, he has nothing to do with it. He’s the guy who plots to toss $20 billion or more of taxpayers’ and airline passengers’ dollars into an absurd and dangerous plan to expand O’Hare Airport, basically to lag more jobs and contracts to insiders.
There's actually a lot of truth in what Byrne is saying, that corruption is not just pervasive but damaging (I've written before that I actually see very little cuteness in the Blagojevich saga). And there is not a lot going on to mitigate the negative.

Chicago is no longer (in the words of Carl Sandburg):
HOG Butcher for the World,
Tool Maker, Stacker of Wheat,
Player with Railroads and the Nation’s Freight Handler;
Stormy, husky, brawling,
City of the Big Shoulders:
We have no large financial institutions left here, our big companies are dwindling in number and size (one of our big gets, Boeing, brought just a handful of jobs here), we're even losing our candy manufacturers. The photogenic trading pits are being replaced by dueling computers, which means the Board of Trade can be used by people anywhere in the world. Our attempt to get on the technology map, the so-called Silicon Prairie, died aborning.

The mayor, faced with huge obligations he can't possibly pay without pushing already-high taxes up, is selling everything but his own office furniture. He's desperate for tourism, so much so that he's foisting off a half-baked, uncertainly-funded Olympic bid on the people without telling them the true cost.

And yet, with all that, I don't have the feeling that Chicagoans are "miserable." I grant that the long-term prospects for the city are questionable, and, had Forbes decided to measure that, a third-place ranking wouldn't seem so wrong. But people don't live in the long term (which carries its own problems), and, for the most part, misery isn't the prevailing emotion. Concern, to be sure, frustration, perhaps, but not "misery."

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