The devil is in the details of the metrics

Filed under: Hazlehurst |

“The kudos keep on coming!”
Such was the subscript of a giddy, triumphal e-mail from Dave White at the Greater Colorado Springs Economic Development Corp., giving your columnist (and hundreds of other recipients) the good news — Forbes magazine had just ranked Colorado fifth in business climate.
Coming on the heels of Money magazine’s No. 1 ranking of our fair city, that’s great news for the EDC folks.
But just how are these rankings created? Do they really mean anything?
According to the Forbes article, “To compile our listing of the best states for business, we ranked all 50 states on 30 metrics in six main categories: business costs, economic climate, growth prospects, labor, quality of life and regulatory environment.”
Sounds impressive, doesn’t it? Especially since they use the word “metrics” instead of mundane, less powerful words like “measurements” or “factors.” I’m already convinced — I would have been totally cowed if they’d used “robust metrics,” incorporating two meaningless buzzwords instead of just one.
But forget the metrics — let’s look at results. I don’t pretend to know as much as Forbes about comparative regulatory environments, business costs or economic climates — but quality of life? Now there’s an area where a reasonably well-traveled layman’s opinion might be just as valid as all those robust metrics.
Hmmm … at fifth overall, Colorado’s ranked first in growth prospects, second in labor, eighth in regulatory environment, 19th in quality of life, 31st in business costs and 35th in economic climate — quite a range!
So, I wondered, which states are ahead of us in “quality of life?” Hawaii, Florida, Montana, California, maybe? And which behind? Well, the flat states, the icebox states and the fading industrial states for sure — the places people come from, not go to.
Nope. You’ll be pleased to know that the No. 1 state for quality of life is … (drum roll) … Iowa! And who else beats us? Well, New Hampshire’s second, Minnesota’s third, Nebraska’s ninth, Indiana’s No. 10, New Jersey’s No. 11, North Dakota’s No. 13, Kansas is No. 15.
But we’re way ahead of Florida (42) and Hawaii (44), not to mention our pitiful neighbors Nevada (49) and New Mexico (50).
So just what “metrics” did Forbes use to vault Kansas, Nebraska, both Dakotas, New Jersey and Indiana above Colorado? By reverse-engineering the results, the answers are obvious.
Quality of life is clearly a product of geography (the flatter the better!), trees (the fewer the better!) corn (the more the better!), climate (the colder the better!), precipitation (the more the better — if it comes as snow!), sun (the less the better!) and out-migration (the more the better!).
Robust metrics indeed — no wonder we did so badly!
Now if these rankings bear even the slightest resemblance to the real world, we might expect the inhabitants of such desolate states as Hawaii, Florida, New Mexico and Nevada to be migrating en masse to the Dakotas, Nebraska and Kansas … but, somehow, there’s no statistical confirmation of what should be a powerful demographic trend.
So what does it all prove?
Nothing, except that things are not always as they seem — and our high scores in other categories may be just as meaningless as our low score in “quality of life.”
Meanwhile, on the “things are not always as they seem” front, let’s take a look at one of the proposed constitutional amendments on the state ballot this November, the so-called “Ethics in Government” amendment.
This amendment, sponsored by Common Cause Colorado, and almost wholly funded by eccentric centimillionaire Jared Polis, would forbid registered lobbyists from giving any kinds of gifts to legislators (that is, virtually all elected officials) — lunch, a cup of coffee, a newspaper, even a Kleenex.
It would also ban gifts from non-lobbyist citizens that amount to $50 or more on an annualized basis. In addition, legislators would be prevented from lobbying for two years after the completion of their public service.
And finally, it would create a so-called “Ethics Commission” with subpoena power to harass anyone accused of violating the terms of the amendment.
It’ll probably pass. It’s got a nicely populist title (who’s gonna vote against “ethics in government?”) and lobbyists are even less popular with the voters than politicians and journalists.
But, like so many “feel-good” laws, this one will probably have effects exactly opposite to those that it intends to achieve.
Big-time lobbyists — those who represent, say, the pharmaceutical industry, or the telecoms or the banks — will scarcely be affected. They don’t have to buy lunches for legislators, they can direct campaign contributions to them, or employ them during or after their term of office, or mobilize campaign volunteers, or help their friends/damage their enemies in a million different ways.
But little guys — the hundreds of small nonprofits, professional organizations and citizen-led advocacy groups who legitimately need to lobby their elected officials — will simply be shut out of the process.
Buying lunch for legislators is one of their few weapons, but even something as innocent as a slice of pizza at a Capitol Hill take-out joint would be off-limits.
On Capitol Hill, legislators tend to pay attention to power, and ignore the powerless. This amendment will simply make that tendency the law of the land. Why spend time with some yapping citizen advocate, when he/she can’t even buy you lunch? Best to hang out with Pharma or Big Labor – they’ll know how to help you out, keep the Ethics Commission out of your hair and they’ll even give you helpful suggestions about how to vote!
And when that mighty commission starts investigating, you can bet that the only people they’ll catch will be the amateurs, the little fish who don’t quite understand the rules of the game — a Rotary Club in Colorado Springs, for example, who had the same city councilmember as a guest three times during a calendar year.
It’s a nasty little amendment, meant to capitalize on public disgust with the Jack Abramoffs of the world. But it’ll just make the whole process for legislators, lobbyists, and the public more unpleasant, more difficult and less likely to produce decent outcomes.
It’s the product of an angry, puritanical, holier-than-thou mindset, brought to us by folks who are determined to make public service so unattractive that no one other than policy wonks will ever want to run for office.
But go ahead and vote for it, if you think our elected officials are so venal that they can be bought for a slice of pizza and a Diet Coke.
Speaking for myself, it’d take dinner at the Summit with a nice California chardonnay …
John Hazlehurst can be reached at John.Hazlehurst@csbj.com or 634-3223, ext. 241.