Thursday, April 26, 2007

Say it ain't Pittsburgh again....

Last week everyone was on the verge of a region-wide conniption over the census estimates showing Pittsburgh's abysmal population decline... this week we get news that Pittsburgh will again reprise its role as #1 in the Places Rated Almanac. What gives? I hope somebody verified that press release.

Where to start?

Let's talk about the first time Pittsburgh came out on top of the (then Rand-McNally) Places Rated Almanac. When was that? 1985 of course. So somehow in the midst of the worst economic decline for a major American region in the peacetime history of the US, we were somehow the best place to live, work and play. That made so much sense that it prompted Professor of Psychology Geoff Loftus of Washington University to write an article in Psychology Today in 1985 about how screwed up the ranking system must have been*. Basically he explained how survey based ordinal rankings of preferences really added diminishing information beyond the top picks. Pittsburgh didn't really come out on top in 1985 because it excelled in any one category, it was sort of moderately ok across the board. Thus, according to Professor Loftus, the Pittsburgh #1 ranking was really an artifact of over-interpretation of the data. Just one contrarian voice? Maybe, but it turns out that the Places Rated publisher David Savageau was so taken by Professor Loftus' critique of the system that he brought him onboard and became co-author of the almanac in 1996.

But here we are 22 years later and again we are #1, again at a similar point in history where we all think the roof is falling in. What gives?

What would it mean to actually have the top rated quality of life right here? Does it mean everyone will start moving here? The answer to that question is painfully self-evident. Remember that publications like this are mostly measuring were we have been in recent years, the period when our population decline was 2nd only to the Big Easy. So QOL in itself must not be much of a causal factor influencing migration. Maybe quality of life does not induce any migration in and of itself. There is theory and research into how quality of life gets capitalized into local wages. What does that mean? Even if QOL is not creating or destroying jobs that will affect migration, more people will want to live in a place with a high quality of life. More (or fewer) people seeking the same jobs will push down (or up) wages. If that even partially explains what is going on here, what does that say about the low relative wages we are always complaining about?

There has to be a Ho-Ho joke in all of this.

* Loftus, G.R. (1985). Say it ain't Pittsburgh. Psychology Today, June, pp. 8-10.

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Blogger Matthew said...

Saying that Pittsburgh is "most livable" is great, but most livable to whom? The geriatric senior or the kid fresh out of college?

I'd be interested in a website where you can rank all of the factors that are important to you and then see what city it spits out. Don't have kids? Rank the education category low. Healthy and young? Rank health care low, etc. The result would be much more useful...

Thursday, April 26, 2007 5:40:00 AM  
Blogger Jonathan Potts said...

Someone said something to me a while ago that struck me. Pittsburgh, he said, works very well for the shrinking number of people who remain. That speaks in some ways to the clubby way that things get done here, but also to the fact that, if you have a good job and a career track that satisfies you, there's plenty to like about living here. (Whereas, there's this idea, at least in popular culture, that there is always a healthy contigent of successful people in New York and Los Angeles who nonetheless hate where they live.)

Of course, that brings us back to the chicken-and-egg debate over the whether good quality of life drives economic development, or results from it. If this Most Livable City thing is to believed, then neither is true.

Thursday, April 26, 2007 9:42:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It is interesting that both times Pittsburgh received the designation the city had a large population loss compared to the rest of the nation. Perhaps there is something in the model that ascribes greater benefit where there are big city institutions but fewer people using them? Lower student/teacher ratios, more world-class doctors per patients, shorter lines at movies, easier to get a reservation at a restaurant, etc.

Thursday, April 26, 2007 9:56:00 AM  
Blogger Jonathan Potts said...

About 10 years ago, the Wall Street Journal did an article about Pittsburgh that addressed some of those issues, in regard to young people--concerts, for example, did not sell out quickly.

Thursday, April 26, 2007 11:33:00 AM  
Blogger EdHeath said...

Nine categories, we don’t finish in the top *20* in any of them, and below 100 in two. Out of 379 competitors.
Doesn’t seem plausible.

Thursday, April 26, 2007 5:01:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Somebody's going to want a recount...

Thursday, April 26, 2007 11:35:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Like they say, "Pittsburgh--Nice place to live; wouldn't want to visit."

Saturday, April 28, 2007 7:22:00 AM  
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