It was one of those reports that causes a brief, small stir, then fades: the Brookings Institution, one of the most prestigious think tanks in America, said metro Hartford produced $75,086 per-person worth of goods and services last year, making central Connecticut the "highest-income metro area" in the world.
A few web sites picked up on the news, one of the state's happy listings — offsetting the flow of negative listings, such as the one this week that named Connecticut the worst place for retirees to live.
Really? Richer than Fairfield County? And Silicon Valley? And Oslo? We're rich, but we're not that rich.
Before you go out and splurge on a Valentine's Day bauble for your spouse in celebration, you should consider this: Brookings is mixing and matching two terms, "income" and "GDP," or gross domestic product. The result was a ranking that's not quite true.
The Bureau of Economic Analysis, the U.S. government agency responsible for economic statistics, found that the per-capita income for greater Hartford in 2010 was $51,291. That made us the 13th richest region in the country, behind Fairfield County, San Francisco, the Silicon Valley, Boston, New York and others.
Similarly, in measures of per-person output, or GDP, metro Hartford — Hartford, Tolland and Middlesex counties, basically — typically ranks in the teens.
Moody'sAnalytics, the data provider used by Brookings, wasn't measuring per-capita income for the Brookings report, despite the table's label, "incomes vary tremendously across the world's largest metropolitan areas," and the text below, which also says Hartford leads the world in "income."
What Moody's was looking at was GDP, the total value of goods and services, which is not the same as income. Our gross domestic product per person in 2010, from BEA data, was $72,554.
But not all of that money flows to residents as salaries. Some of the proceeds from all those engines Pratt & Whitney is selling to Middle Eastern and Asian airlines are going to shareholders in the company. Some of the money that's left at Aetna after paying out on claims goes to buy computers and software. Some of the money that families pay to a home health care aide to take care of their elderly mother goes to the agency that employs her, not to her paycheck.
But wait, it gets weirder. Moody's was not talking about how much Hartford's businesses and government agencies received for what they produced in 2010 and 2011. They were measuring that data for 2010, and estimating it for 2011, as measured in 2005 dollars. So the equivalent number from BEA for 2010 was $65,031, which made greater Hartford 10th in the country.
That's about where metro Hartford usually places in both income and GDP per capita, according to federal data: somewhere between No. 10 and No. 20.
Moody's said Hartford had $70,719 in per-capita GDP in 2010, tops in the nation.
For 2011, Moody's previously forecast metro Hartford at $75,086, second only to Midland, Texas — which was too small to make the Brookings list of 200 world metro areas. That's why Brookings put Hartford on top of the list.
In a revision, Moody's now estimates that Hartford's per-capita GDP in 2011 was $70,913 — still No. 2 behind Midland.
Is your head spinning yet? Are you hearing the words of Hartford's beloved Mark Twain in your head, about lies, damned lies and statistics?
The deeper problem is that BEA and Moody's (and therefore Brookings) are measuring the value of our work in two different ways. The BEA looks at what people who work for employers in these regions are actually paid, including benefits. Moody's only looks at what share of jobs within a state are in each area. So the more people earn in, say, lower Fairfield County, the more likely it is that BEA and Moody's estimates will diverge, according to Megan McGee, the data group analyst for Moody's who handles the metro GDP series.
Both Moody's and BEA tend to have similar regions near the top year after year — Fairfield County, the Silicon Valley, San Francisco and its suburbs — but Moody's appears more variable, with Burlington, Vermont, ranked richest in 2007. Vermont has not ranked in the top ten in the last decade for BEA.
Carey Anne Nadeau, a co-author of the Brookings report, said she felt confident in the Moody's estimate.
"I hate to say one is wrong and one is right," she said of the discrepancy between BEA's GDP data for 2010 and Moody's for 2011.
"The numbers reported in Global MetroMonitor are not comparable to BEA values," Nadeau said in a follow-up email. "Moody's Analytics improves upon BEA data."
The report's release last month received a bit of local buzz with headlines about Hartford topping the world.
Bloggers at Sad City Hartford said: "If this chart really underscores any point it's that the Northeast, with four cities in the top 11 (five if you want to include D.C.) is crazy expensive."
Truly, what the chart underscores is that people in central Connecticut, Norway, the Silicon Valley, Abu Dhabi and Fairfield County sell what outsiders want — oil, financial services, airplane engines, software and electronics.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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