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Minnesota is the king of state rankings. Is the state really among the best, or just among the best at getting good grades?

What’s in a ranking, after all?

In February, U.S. News and World report ranked Minnesota third best state in the U.S.

Cue the chants of “we’re number three, we’re number three.”

That’s kind of what happened. Within a few hours, the governor’s office tweeted an animation touting our third place status, and mere hours later, Minnesota’s place was on a slideshow at the unveiling of the state budget forecast.

That kind of spectacle is nothing new for the state (though it might have been a first in terms of gubernatorial GIFs): Minnesota finishes high in a ranking of the fifty states by some publication (it hardly matters which) based on some measure (it hardly matters what) and like clockwork come the laudatory headlines in the local media outlets and a flood of Minnesota-based social media posts proclaiming this state’s (obvious) superiority. Minnesota: it’s the best place to retire, the best place for women, the best place to live on a list of lists.

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Minnesota does seem to punch above its weight, finishing high on quite a few of these rankings. But does that mean, as Minnesotans would have you believe, that the North Star State is really one of the best states in the union? Or does it say more about the lists themselves — and the people making them?

The rankings

Consider that U.S. News and World Report ranking the governor was so proud of in February. Minnesota came in third to Massachusetts and New Hampshire.

How do they figure?

That ranking weighted categories like health care, education, infrastructure, opportunity and others, based on a national survey that asked participants to prioritize them. It then weighted the importance of 68 subcategories based on expert opinions.

Here’s what they came up with:

U.S. News and World report’s best states ranking (2017)
CategoryWeightMass. (#1)Minn. (#3)Louisiana (#50)
Health care18%#2#3#45
Crime and corrections14%#7#17#50

Minnesota did really pretty well broadly, especially in things like health care (things like Medicare quality, mortality and health care affordability), infrastructure (renewable energy usage, transportation and Internet access) and opportunity (gender equality, poverty rates and whether people have enough to eat). Those three were some of the most heavily weighted categories.

Minnesota was more middling in other categories, even poor in some subcategories. It was 45th at low debt upon college graduation (under education), 45th in change in incarceration rate, 44th at equality in juvenile jailing (under crime and corrections), 44th at racial gap in income (under economic opportunity) and 44th at growth of the young population (under economy). But these factors — where Louisiana, near the bottom of the best state list, outranked Minnesota — didn’t weigh heavily enough in the estimation of the people whose opinions created the weights to drag Minnesota down.

That’s not the only ranking that uses some of these factors where Minnesota gets a good score. Minnesota placed second in a 2014 Politico ranking of states, which looks at some of the very same variables: unemployment, poverty, high school graduates, infant mortality, obesity, income inequality and crime rate — areas where Minnesota doesn’t do terribly. This ranking didn’t weight the categories; it averaged state’s rankings in each.

Politico’s best states ranking (2014)
CategoryNH (#1)MN (#2)Mississippi (#51)
Wealthiest per capita#7#12#51
Lowest unemployment#10#9#45
Lowest poverty rate#1#10#51
Highest home ownership#7#2#15
Highest percentage of high school graduates#5#2#49
Longest life expectancy#8#2#51
Lowest infant mortality rate#4#10#50
Lowest obesity rate#17#13#49
Highest reported wellbeing#8#3#48
Highest math scores#7#3#50
Highest reading scores#4#8#50
Least income inequality#5#14#48
Lowest crime rate#3#9#15
Highest percentage employed in STEM#7#11#51
Note: Ranking includes the District of Columbia.

And CNBC’s annual Top States for Business ranking gave Minnesota fourth place, based, again, on similar categories, this time with weights based on how frequently they pop up in economic development literature.

CNBC’s Top States for Business (2016)
CategoryWeightUtah (#1)Minn. (#4)Rhode Island (#50)
Workforce400 points251241215
Cost of doing business350 points21215595
Infrastructure350 points20722497
Economy340 points275202114
Quality of life325 points218269186
Technology and innovation250 points15817998
Education200 points108149111
Business friendliness160 points986547
Cost of living75 points443612
Access to capital50 points27306

Do you see a pattern? Could it be that by focusing more on things like health, education and employment instead of, say, racial disparities in education and employment, weather, or the cost of running a business, including taxes and wages — categories where Minnesota tends to do more poorly in these rankings — these lists are kind of just rewarding Minnesota-ness?

What about rankings that reward not-Minnesota-ness?

Washington Post reporter Christopher Ingraham learned all about those when he called Red Lake County the “absolute worst place to live in America” based on a federal natural amenities index, which measures “the physical characteristics of a county area that enhance the location as a place to live.” (He subsequently moved to Red Lake Falls with his family and, by all accounts, found it quite nice.)

That index is based on six measures: average temperature and hours of sunlight in January, July mean temperature, relative humidity, variation in land surface forms (these can be plains, open hills, mountains and other features thought to be desirable or undesirable), and water area.

Minnesota is really cold in the winter, hot and pretty humid in the summer, closer to the North Pole than a lot of states, and relatively flat. Nothing anybody does to make life here nice will change that. On a scale of 1 — the lowest level of natural amenities, to 7 — the highest level of natural amenities, Minnesota’s counties averaged 2.2. California’s counties averaged 6.3.

Entirely subjective

These kinds of rankings are not without their detractors. A big issue with the rankings: creating an index based on many variables requires making a judgment about which variables are included in the first place and which variables more important than others.

It’s for this reason that the U.S. News and World Report’s College Ranking faces annual criticism. Unlike rankings based on a single subject — say, colleges with the highest graduation rates, which is based on one, fairly quantifiable thing  — the U.S. News and World Report’s ranking is based on an index, which takes into account many variables. Common criticisms include that the same Ivy League schools are always near the top, and that by focusing on the institutions, it doesn’t measure whether students are actually learning.

“Using the U.S. News ranking for any more exacting purpose (than as a rough guide to the landscape of higher ed) is about as good for you as eating potato chips and Gummy Bears for dinner. With maple syrup,” wrote John Tierney, a former Boston College professor and ranking critic, in the Atlantic.

The same could be said of any ranking based on an index. In a 2011 piece in the New Yorker, Malcolm Gladwell poked holes in Car and Driver’s sports car rankings, demonstrating that by shifting the criteria just a little — less focus on price, more focus on looks – the result was a completely different list.

If the cars were alike, he writes, it would be one thing. But they’re not.

“It’s only when one car is thirteen thousand dollars more than another that juggling twenty-one variables starts to break down, because you’re faced with the impossible task of deciding how much a difference of that degree ought to matter.”

Furthermore, criteria used in rankings is often squishy at best. How good-looking is a Corvette? Depends on who you ask. How happy are Minnesotans? Depends on how you measure happiness, and also how well the people surveyed are able to accurately articulate that.

Are these rankings worthless then? Gladwell might say yes, but not everyone agrees with him.

Bert Sperling, who founded Sperling’s Best Places, a website that ranks places based on all sorts of measures, like cost of living, schools and safety, and provides index rankings, such as “Best Places for a Happy Retirement” and “Stressful Cities.”

Since ranking places to live is Sperling’s full-time job, he spends a lot of time thinking about how to best reflect quality of life using numbers. Sure, he said, some rankings are better than others, but he rejects the idea that all index rankings are all bunk, because there are certain criteria that people tend to agree make a place good to live: low crime, good schools, a good economy, pleasant weather (“is subjective,” he added), cost of living, transportation.

“It sounds very sort of fancy and grand to go ahead and quote Tolstoy,” but, he paraphrased from “Anna Karenina,” using a quote he said sums up the situation: “Every happy family is alike and every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

The places that tend to rank well — like Minnesota — usually do well in the areas Sperling and others often include in rankings. Places that fall farther down on lists, have more site-specific issues quality of life issues that creep in. That doesn’t mean they’re the bad places to live, Sperling said, and he rejects rankings that use phrasing like that.

“Every place is somebody’s home, and it’s special, it’s dear to them,” he said. Also, every place, even dreamy Santa Barbara, California, has its issues, living expenses among them.

Of course, best places are subjective, Sperling said. But that doesn’t mean index rankings, which make lots of information available in a more digestible format, aren’t useful.

“It’s all entirely subjective. When you even deal with mathematics, even pure mathematics, when you think something’s purely immutable and fact-based (there are) still arguments among mathematicians” about how best to solve theorems, he said. “It just means you’re trying to do the best thing you can and provide some insight to people.”

Best for who?

All this indexing aside, isn’t the real proof of Minnesota’s greatness as a state whether or not people want to live here?

Even that’s a little murky. A study by the Population Studies Center at the University of Michigan Institute for Social Research found Minnesota was pretty good at retaining its residents, but not as good at attracting new ones. And more people actually move away from Minnesota to other states each year than come from them. In particular, Minnesota is a net loser of residents to the Sunbelt and the West — states like Florida, Texas, California and Colorado. What does that say about what’s missing from state rankings: sunshine, mountains, excitement?

In their heart of hearts, everybody knows Minnesota isn’t the third best state. It’s not the first best state or the 22nd worst state, either. No state is truly any of these things, because if you asked 10 different people to rank the 50 states, you would get 10 different lists that reflect the criteria that those individuals care about most.

So maybe, the safest conclusion to draw from this whole discussion is not that Minnesota is one of the best states, but rather that Minnesota is the best place for people who like it and want to live here. The same goes for Hawaii. And Mississippi.