Big Data, Small World

Anyone over 50 can hardly avoid brushing up against AARP. It lobbies for oldster causes. It peddles Medicare insurance and other unpleasant services. It promises discounts on travel and it sends out peppy communiques designed to make aging sound like a lot more fun than it really is.

A recent publication proposed to tell those 50 and over the best places to live out the rest of their days. At the top of the list were laughably out-of-touch suggestions. Among the most livable neighborhoods, the Upper West Side of Manhattan. Top three livable cities? San Francisco, Boston and Seattle. Healthiest? San Francisco, San Jose, Seattle.

Well, pack my bags. I’ll just move to one of those ideal venues as soon as I win the Powerball Jackpot and collected the $40 million needed to buy a retirement home and pay the taxes in such places. These may be great ideas for AARP executives, investment bankers and tech tycoons, but they are out of the question for most human who haven’t inherited a family fortune or written a hot app.

Never fear. AARP lets the rest of us check out our own miserable backwaters and see how they stack up at Thanks to the magic of computer algorithms and digitized research we can now contrast our home with those of others and suffer invidious comparisons from the comfort of our armchairs. So let’s give it a try.

Turns out my adopted hometown earns a mediocre livability score of 54. That sounds like less than a passing grade, however we do score 68 on affordability which San Jose probably can’t say. We also get good marks on parks and neighborhoods, cost of living, and quality of health care. But AARP giveth and AARP taketh away. We are awarded flashing red lights for subpar performance on access to health care, so those who can get it like it, but many can’t get it. We also do poorly on air quality, the crime rate, access to affordable internet service, and income inequality.

So maybe we should pack up and move before the sparse health care and crime kill us. A friend of mine lives in the very pleasant town of Branford, Connecticut. How about that? Oh my, it’s a 53, a point worse than home. Well, what about the college town of my youth, Berea, Ohio? Maybe you can go home again. Oh, it’s a 55, only a point better than where I live now, and a lot colder in the winter. Is one lousy point worth the trouble of moving? No.

For my sins I spent five miserable years in the frozen waste of Hopkins, Minnesota. I feel ceretain living in that icebox again would kill me, but it scores an astonishing 64. It beats my present, sweltering, Southern town by having fewer smokers and obese people and more access to health care, but it also has a lot of access to subzero temperatures. Why trade my golden years for frozen years?

If I had really big bucks I’d head for Santa Barbara, a beautiful setting, the climate of a Mediterranean paradise (except for the endless drought), and no red dots on the AARP misery meter. So what’s its overall score? Fifty-three! Sarasota, Florida, 58. Santa Fe, 54. Virginia Beach, Virginia, 52. Georgetown, Washington, DC where movers and shakers move and shake? Fifty-nine. Chappaqua, New York where the Clintons allegedly retired, 54. The same as my crummy Podunk. What’s the use of being an ex-president or president-in-waiting with a hundred million bucks in the bank if your exclusive suburb scores no better than Nowhere-in-Particular, North Carolina?

Even the cities in the AARP winner’s circle, the best locations in the nation—Seattle, San Francisco, Boston only clock in at 63 to 65. Personal bankruptcy in old age seems like a stiff price to pay for moving a few notches up on the AARP Livability Index.

In fact, it looks like the scores are all crowded in a narrow range between 51 and 65. Apparently, everyplace in America is more of less equal and more or less mediocre. Noam Chomsky, the leftie linguist once complained that acceptable political opinion in America ran the gamut from J to N. Apparently places to live in America run the gamut from 50 to 60.

One can’t help suspecting this is a put-up job. Why alienate AARP members and customers by telling most of them they are living in a place little better than Deadwood? Jiggering the index of livability to make every place look moderately endurable is friendly, reassuring. Of course it’s more like PR happy talk than a collection of actual, useful information, but that makes it no different than all the AARP articles explaining how decrepitude is just an overactive imagination, that we are all going to live on happily for years with only modest creaks and sorrows, playing games, seeing the sights, behaving like the fantasy couples in erectile dysfunction ads.

Just to check on my hypothesis that no place is a bad place to AARP, I inputted the most miserable places I have ever seen, places like Rock Springs, Wyoming and Yeagertown, Pennsylvania. Guess what? Rock Springs, a remote, rocky, arid wasteland is a 54 and Yeagertown, half rusted out industrial ruin, half starveling Appalachia is 53. And absurdly, both score a notch or two better than one of AARP’s top picks – San Jose, California.

Don’t hold your breath for the CEOs of Google, Facebook, and Apple to throw Silicon Valley overboard and head for Rock Springs or Yeagertown. Like the kids in Lake Wobegon, all American cities to AARP are above average. And old age is one long picnic, but the tech whiz kids know better than to trust the kind of math that produced the Livability Index.

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