The newscasters around Chicago have been lit up with indignity the last 2 daysForbes magazine released its in-house study of Americ'as most miserable cities, and ranked Chicago 3rd – behind Stockton, CA and Memphis, TN (read article here).  As you might expect, even though Chicago has long had the nickname "2nd City", Chicago's journalists and leaders have been none too happy with this positioning as the most miserable large city.  The reaction has been pure defensiveness – pointing out the relatively low real estate values, the large opportunities for arts, major colleges (including Northwestern and University of Chicago, as well as Loyola, DePaul, University of Illinois and several others in the SMSA), beautiful summer weather, multiple historically leading professional athletes (such as Michael Jordan), on, and on, and on.  There are a lot of good things to talk about in Chicago.

But, this is the kind of reaction many businesses have when they hear about various problems seen through the eyes of an outsider (like an analyst, or a consultant, or maybe a customer).  Companies, and certainly Chicago, knows what works – and feels comfortable about doing more of what works, with minor tweaks where necessary.  Thus, the desire to defend the Success Formula is great.  But, smart companies know that this kind of input is extremely valuable, and well worth spending time looking at because it offers the opportunity for changes that can make you more competitive.  Negative feedback is an opportunity to identify weaknesses in your Success Formula, and give you the chance to Disrupt previous practices and use White Space to develop new and better solutions!

The facts Forbes puts forward are unassailable as facts.  That Chicagoans mostly know these facts and are willing to live with them is the issue worth discussing. 

  • Yes, it can be quite cold in winter – and frankly there's nothing Chicago can do about that one.  Just talk about how much nicer it is in the summer than most of the U.S. 
  • And the Cubs haven't won a world series – but does that really make a city miserable? I'm not sure their's anything the city can do about this.  (Especially with the Sox winning the series just a few years ago? And that long-term domination in basketball held by the Bulls?  And the Bears were in the Super Bowl just 3 years ago – even if they didn't win.)
  • That Forbes noted Chicago has the highest sales tax in the country is worth talking about.  The sales tax increase was very controversial in Chicago, implemented by the county board rather than the city, and perhaps that is a debate worth re-opening.  There are no easy answers to tax questions, but being #1 in any tax category is not a good thing and perhaps should be reconsidered.
  • Unemployment is an issue that Chicago can do something about.  The area has long loved its association with manufacturing – but that passion has hurt the city as top engineering graduates in electronics, IT, biotech and other fields leave the state for jobs in other marketsChicago has done far less than many other cities to support high-tech business growth, and has paid a steep price as start-ups regularly find they must "move to the coast" to raise money.
  • For many years Chicago bragged about its great train service and well-designed highways to move people around efficiently and cheaply.  But lack of funding has caused service costs to escalate faster than inflation, while quality has deteriorated.  You still can't find "reverse commute" trains most hours of the day on major suburban train lines, and service dramatically declines during non-rush hour times — and heaven help you stay late for dinner in the city as you'll find no service at all late at night to get you back home.  Meanwhile, the inner city buses and trains are notorious for being off schedule.  And the highways have been underfunded with cheap asphalt roading for so many years that there are no major roads which don't suffer from significant pothole damage slowing traffic.  Commuting in Chicago is no better than other major cities today, and in many cases worse.
  • Corruption has plagued the city (and state) since long before Al Capone had a major say in how the government worked and the behavior of local police.  If you've been around Chicago a long time, you sort of get used to it – and that alone is an incredible statement.  When businesses look for a headquarters location, or people look for a place to live, they don't want to wonder how much "palm-greasing" is required to get things done.  That the spotlight is again shining on Chicago as a corruption center may be something that is hard to accept – but it is an image (and a reality) that must be dealt with.

Any one of these items justifies a Disruption in the government of Chicago, Cook County and Illinois.  I remember when Miami and Dade County were places you feared being arrested – expecting to possibly be beaten to death.  But Florida Disrupted several of its "good old boy" practices, recruited for businesses like Disney to come into the area, and transformed itself from a southern backwater for retirees into a vibrant economy with strong links to international markets.  With proper Disruption, and efforts at trying new things, Illinois can improve.  But it won't as long as the city, county and state (and its citizens) prefer to Defend & Extend past practices rather than Disrupt them.  The former governer was a disapointment not just because his antics made national news, but because he promised to be a reformer — and turned out to be anything but! 

Chicagoans should heed this report from Forbes and see how it can be used to improve what is already a pretty darn great place to live and work.  Chicago can be better.  By asking to host the Olympics Chicago entered the competitive world stage.  To stay on that stage, and to raise in the rankings, the city will have to do more than the Olympics – it will have to listen to its competitors/distractors, and use Disruptions to implement White Space where it can improve.

Now – on to a rebuttal of Forbes: (Hey, I do live in and love Chicago – and you can't let him simply get away with cheap shots!)

  1. Let's not forget that Forbes magazine has long called itself "The Capitalist Tool".  The publisher, Steve Forbes, is a strong conservative and two-time presidential candidate on the Republican ticket.  That the magazine has an agenda is clear.  That the agenda is at odds with the highly democratic Chicago area should also be clear.  That Mr. Forbes is no cheerleader for Mr. Obama is well known, and attacking Obama's home is something of an unfair shot on the home of a politician Forbes does not like.
  2. While the Chicago sales tax is high, there are items (such as foodstuffs) that are not taxed or very lowly taxed.  To the sales tax is not across the board.  Additionally, the Illinois income tax is a flat tax – a favorite scheme of Mr. Forbes who has not been able to implement such a scheme in his home state of New York.  When looking at taxes you have to compare them all – and the income tax in Illinois is quite favorable.  Low state taxes are the biggest reason why city taxes in Chicago are higher.  Look at total taxation cost – not just the sales tax.
  3. Property taxes are capped in Chicago.  And far from the highest in the USA.  A big part of the reason the sales tax was increased in 2008.
  4. Workers in Illinois public service jobs – from teachers to firemen – receive a great pension which is state tax free.
  5. Most of the corruption referred to in the Forbes article relates to state positions – not city of Chicago positions.  Mayor Daly has dramatically attacked corruption as Mayor (as did his predecessors) and the city itself is far less corrupt than it used to be.  Forbes mixed apples with oranges in the discussion of corruption, labeling the city with blame for what were mostly problems with state and county politicians.
  6. Some great reformers have been very successful in Illinois.  The former governor was imprisoned for behaviors taken as Secretary of State, before he became governor.  His replacement as Secretary of State (Jesse White) has reformed the office in ways that have exceeded almost all citizen expectations.  The Illinois Secretary of State office is now a model for all states – and for citizens it is one of the most pleasant bureaucracies imaginable.  It is extra-ordinarily efficient, and everything is above-board.
  7. A brief listen to the television show "Hardball" and you'll quickly be reminded that "pay for play" exists in all cities – New York is not immune.  The country watched the resignation of New York's governor, for soliciting prostitutes even while a "law and order" candidate, just as it watched the recent debacle in Illinois.  It would appear that the creation of this new category, and its metric, look to hamper those who attack corruption (by measuring enforcment).  Since New York's governor resigned, his practices don't make it into the Forbes measuring system.   Because corruption is prosecuted in Chicago/Illinois, rather than swept under the rug with back-door deals, Chicago just might be less corrupt than many other large cities – the Forbes metric is questionable.  And one can't wonder if the category and the metric weren't selected specifically by Forbes to salatiously take advantage of recent news events and impune the new President in a back-handed way.
  8. While it is cold in January (this year was horrible – the 10th worst on record) Chicagoans love to call anybody in St. Louis, Miami, Charlotte, Washington, Dallas, Houston, Phoenix or Las Vegas between May and September.  While they are inside, air conditioned and fearful of heat stroke Chicagoans enjoy day-after-day of beautiful outdoor weather.  When it's cold, put on a sweater.  By the way, in sweaters you don't look as fat!  There are good things about cold.
  9. So the Cubs don't win the World Series - who cares? The team still sells out game after game. While you are a spectator in most major league ballparks, at Wrigley you are a participant.  It's an experience in yesterday to watch balls lost in the outfield ivy, creating a double-by-rule – or to see people on rooftops across the street watching the game.  Few teams can sport the loyalty of Cubs fans, during a losing season, even when their home team is winning.  What was attendance at Marlins or Texans games the last quarter of last season?

Come to Chicago – it's a GREAT city.  Full of warm and gracious people who are ready to make you welcome if you're on a visit, or looking to relocate.  From Northwest Indiana to the southeast corner of Wisconsin, the people of Chicago are from every city and state in the USA, and from every country abroad.  Every religion is practiced, and honored.  And Chicagoans love a place where everyone can get along with their neighbor.  All of us will take Chicago over New York City every day of the year – and Mr. Forbes should be careful lest someone takes the time to start pointing out the weaknesses of life in Manhattan!