You’ll get no argument from me that charts and data and lists and rankings are kind of fun. I follow the NL Central like crazy.
And I love things like this:
The way Freakonomics uses hard data to tease out fascinating sociological insight into the popularity of the Prius, incentivizing organ donation, teacher manipulation of test grades, etc. is pretty cool, too.
But then there are also things like this map, a grotesque and ridiculous attempt by The Atlantic to analyze American demographics by assigning every U.S. county to one of 12 categories like “Monied Burbs,” “Tractor Country” and “Service Worker Centers.” (Rockingham County is an “Evangelical Epicenter” full of “young families and Evangelical Christians” and “driven by cultural issues;” Augusta, Page and Shenandoah counties are “Emptying Nests.”) It’s nifty to examine, and it’s also an incredibly shallow and simple-minded elementary-school way of describing a country of 314 million people.
On that note, we turn to a news item that caught Old South High’s attention earlier this summer: NewGeography.com’s annual rankings of job growth in American cities.
According to this list, Harrisonburg’s 2012 job growth ranks 66th of 243 small American cities. Decent side of mediocre. 72.8 percentile. Maybe impressive enough for a mention on Facebook.
NewGeography.com lays out its methodology on the website, which basically gives different weight to various U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics employment reports over several short- and medium-term timeframes. And using this magic formula, NewGeography.com spits out its list, which you can examine to learn with relief and delight that 66th-place Harrisonburg is a better place than Danville (#73), Bristol (#150) and stupid, creaky Lynchburg down at 201st place. Or you could discover to your consternation that Harrisonburg is worse in yet another regard than grand, wonderful Charlottesville (#23), not to mention Winchester (#50) and Blacksburg, which somehow earned the 6th-highest ranking in the entire nation.
You can see how a bunch of small Metropolitan Statistical Areas in Texas totally put their employment growth boots up Harrisonburg’s ass by cracking the top 50: Odessa, Midland, San Angelo, Lubbock, Laredo, Tyler, Longview, Victoria, Killeen-Temple-Fort Hood, Sherman-Denison, Texarkana, Amarillo AND Brownsville-Harlingen.
You can wonder what’s going on in poor, old, last-place Dalton, Georgia.
See, lists and data and rankings are fun, right?
Back to Blacksburg for a second. In 2011, it was in 168th place. And this year, it jumped 162 places to 6th? I don’t know that much about Blacksburg, but… really? Harrisonburg fell from 40th in 2011 to 66th this year. Really? Pascagoula, Mississippi was looking pretty good in 7th place last year. In 2012, great indeed was its fall to 148th place. Really? The list is riddled with these large jumps up and down: Hanford-Corcoran, California, up 107 spots. Elmira, New York, down 115. Really? Do the economic fortunes of small cities across the country really yo-yo so wildly?
Maybe. Or maybe such are the idiosyncrasies of NewGeography.com’s neat little time-weighted model that mashes up a bunch of different employment reports and spits out rankings every year.
And what are you supposed to do with this information anyway? Take a glance, and feel vaguely, fleetingly good that NewGeography.com has placed the Friendly City in a non-terrible spot on its magical list of metropolitan statistical areas with nonfarm employment of up to 150,000 jobs? Dig a little deeper into the numbers, and feel vaguely, fleetingly less good that Harrisonburg is down 26 spots from its 2011 position? Move to first-place Odessa, Texas, if you’re having trouble getting the job you want?
If you care about Harrisonburg, you should care about local job growth, and how it compares and contrasts to job growth elsewhere. And if you care about Harrisonburg, you probably don’t need to care at all about clever little formulas and rankings that pretend to tell you something insightful about it.