Morton Marcus: Some rankings aren't worth much
Thursday, March 09, 2017 9:45 AM
INDIANAPOLIS – When I first came to Indiana, nearly a half century ago, I found a study in the IU library declaring South Bend as the best place to live in the Midwest. It wasn’t surprising, since the author was a professor at a campus in South Bend. That’s what it is about rankings. Pick your criteria carefully and you can make Hell the most desirable location for permanent residency.
Last week, several Hoosier newspapers carried a story from U.S. News & World Report ranking Indiana’s government first among the 50 states. Actually, it wasn’t government, it was state government finance, but that could not stop some headline writers. The governor was pleased by this national recognition and promised to keep up the good work. We could not expect him to say otherwise.
Four factors gave us these laurels. First, fiscal stability was worth 50 percent for low pension liabilities, high state credit ratings, and revenues exceeding expenditures in the state budget. No mention of local government finances for cities and towns, counties, and schools. We ranked eighth in this factor; North Dakota was first. In contrast, a report from the Mercatus Center at George Mason University ranked Indiana 17th in fiscal solvency.
Second, worth 17 percent in the scoring, was budget transparency or the ease with which the public may find the state budget on line. Indiana ranked first, but tied with Ohio, Michigan and Oregon.
Third, was digitization or how well a state uses technology to reach policy goals and expand capacity. This also was weighted at 17 percent. Five states tied for first place. Indiana was among the next four states, each of which tied for sixth place.
Finally, we tied with four other states in 25th place for state integrity, which includes “electoral oversight, public access to information, lobbying disclosure, state civil service management and ethics enforcement agencies.” This factor too was worth 17 percent in the rankings.
Are these four factors what you think is important about state government? To me the outputs of government are more important than the inputs. Yes, transparency is desired, but not nearly as much as quality in education where we ranked 27th, with pre-K to 12 ranking 11th and higher education 47th. We were 20th in infrastructure and 41st in health care.
Indiana’s overall ranking was ignored until further down in the articles. Then we learned Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Minnesota were the top three states, with Indiana coming in 22nd place. Flanking us was Ohio (11th place) and Illinois (47th). On the bottom of the stack were Arkansas, Louisiana, and finally, Mississippi. However, all this can be put aside now as dozens of colleges and universities battle for the title “Number One” in basketball. Naturally, the Hoosier state will be “Number One” when Butler, Indiana, Notre Dame and Purdue all make the final four.
Mr. Marcus is an economist, writer, and speaker who may be reached at email@example.com.