A Deeper Dive into CNBC’s Rankings

by Chris Saxman

In doing a deeper dive on the CNBC Top States for Business rankings, two quotes keep running through my unsettled mind.

Why unsettled? Well, last year I posed this question to Virginia FREE’s Board of Directors:

If Virginia was a stock, would you Buy, Sell, or Hold?

Not one said Buy. They all said Hold. Thankfully, no one said Sell.

So, the first quote comes from New York Yankee Hall of Fame catcher Yogi Berra who is now more famous for his Yogiisms than his playing. This one was an answer to a question about a famous New York City restaurant — was it still as good as it used to be?

To which Berra replied:

No one goes there anymore, it’s too crowded.

The next quote comes from the movie Moneyball. In that scene, the general manager of the Oakland A’s, Billy Beane (played by Brad Pitt), asks his scouts about a player. They tell him one player has a great swing and when the ball comes off his bat you can hear it throughout the ballpark. Then Beane looks at the player’s statistics and he notices that the objective doesn’t line up with the subjective. That player might have a great swing but his batting average is suboptimal:

If he’s such a good hitter, how come he doesn’t hit so good?

Here’s what CNBC says about Virginia in its announcement last week:

This is Virginia’s fifth win, having previously taken the title in 2007, 2009, 2011 and 2019 – more times than any other state. At a time when companies are clamoring for talent, Virginia performed well in the critical categories of Education (#2) and Workforce (#3). High-performing high school students feed a well-funded higher education system. That, in turn, has helped Virginia assemble one of the most educated workforces in the nation.

Since CNBC started their ranking system in 2007, Virginia has been consistently at the top except for a couple years when we dropped to 12 and 13.

Here’s the run down by year starting with 2007: 1 – 2 – 1 – 2 – 1 – 3 – 5 – 8 – 12 – 13 – 7 – 4 – 1 – 2020 -1 .

That’s a great run. We have a great swing. According to CNBC.

And before we start down the “you’re just trying to throw water on our good news” lane of thinking – stop – I am doing no such thing. As I have stated for years, Virginia is a great state for business and I want to keep it that way. As such, it is my role and responsibility to go beyond talking points and political theater in order to keep us moving in the right direction. Every winning team and business – which Virginia is right now – examines what they did right and wrong on the way to the championship.

Or paraphrasing the hottest business/sports guru out there today – Ted Lasso – it’s not about the ephemeral wins and losses, it’s about helping us find the best version of ourselves for the long haul of life.

Sports teams break down the tape/data/video and so should we because our competition is not looking to equal Virginia, it’s looking to get ahead of us.

Here’s how CNBC totals up an:

unprecedented 85 metrics across our 10 categories.

(And why do their metrics have to be “unprecedented” to determine these rankings?)

  • Cost of Doing Business – 400 points or 16%
  • Infrastructure – 375 points or 15%
  • Life, Health, and Inclusion – 375 points or 15%
  • Workforce – 325 points or 13%
  • Economy – 250 points or 10%
  • Business Friendliness – 200 points or 8%
  • Access to Capital – 175 points or 7%
  • Technology and Innovation – 175 points or 7%
  • Education – 150 points or 6%
  • Cost of Living – 75 points or 3%

Here’s what CNBC says is the reason for those weightings (Bold for emphasis):

We assign a weight to each category based on how hard the states are pushing it in their economic development marketing. We determine that by analyzing every state’s economic development web site. If, for example, more states are pitching their low business costs, Cost of Doing Business carries more possible points.

So, they base their weighting on how the states market themselves to attract new business? Okaaayyy….

CNBC has come under some light fire for adding a new category this year – Life, Health, and Inclusion. They:

decided to reimagine the category we formerly called Quality of Life.


The pandemic has changed the way we view health care. And the new, national focus on racial and social justice has led to unprecedented demands from corporations for inclusiveness in the locations where they choose to do business.

Ok, fine. It’s their ranking. But I’m curious as to why that’s worth 375 points while Economy and Business Friendliness are 250 and 200 points respectively. More on those later.

Oh what the hell, let’s do it now.


Where did Virginia rank in economic growth in the 1st Quarter of 2021?

Since we are the number one ranked state for business, one would expect us to be….#1? Well, top five? Easily top ten then, right?

According to the U.S. Department of Commerce’s Bureau of Economic Analysis, Virginia was #38. The growth rate was 6% and up from Q4’s 4.7%, but we were also 38th in Q1 growth.

The top five in Q1 growth rates were Nevada, Utah, New Hampshire, West Virginia, and Colorado. Nevada grew at 10.9% which is more likely than not a recognition of tourism opening back up – a reminder that growth rates are also relative and that Virginia’s lower ranking might be attributable to having a better economic foundation that Nevada’s.



Business Friendliness.

Virginia is ranked #11 by CNBC this year; however, that’s down from #3 in 2019. Is this a one-off or a trend? To date, no headline writers have picked this up. Would they use Dips, Drops, Dives, or Plummets to describe the move? Words matter, but so does context. See above.

Now go back to the Life, Health, and Inclusion rankings. CNBC pulled the Top Ten from this category declaring them to be in a separate click bait story:

These are the 10 states are America’s best places to live.

They are in order: Vermont – Hawaii – North Dakota – Minnesota – Iowa/Maine (tied) – Washington – Massachusetts – Nebraska – New Jersey and #11? Virginia!

Wait…what? New Jersey is a better place to live than Virginia? Pump the brakes, CNBC. Gotta throw up a Yellow Card on that one. And just how much have you been drinking?

Let’s see how they explained THAT ranking.

These ten states are America’s most welcoming in 2021.

Yes, Virginia is being outperformed here by the famous New Jersey Welcome Wagon.

Gotta call bullshit on that one.

Seriously, admit it – when you cross the border into New Jersey and see a sign that says “Welcome to New Jersey” you say aloud in the car, “They don’t mean it.”

But looking more closely at the CNBC website in the Life, Health, and Inclusion category narrative one finds this: (bold for emphasis)

We continue to rate the states on livability factors like per capita crime rates, health care and environmental quality. Because of the new focus from businesses, we have expanded our measures of inclusiveness, looking more deeply at protections against discrimination, as well as at voting rights and current efforts to expand or restrict access to the polls, based on legislation enacted as of June 1, 2021.

Ah. There we have it. New metrics courtesy of the corporate PR departments. Post pandemic election laws as a business metric? That’s a tough sell. But hey, not my ranking.

Speaking thereof, Coca-Cola and Delta sure seem to be quiet these days…

Now look at our competitor states which are usually the Carolinas, Georgia, Florida, Tennessee, and Texas.

They rank in the CNBC Life, Health, and Inclusion category – North Carolina 37, South Carolina 39, Florida 40, Georgia 45, Tennessee 46, Nevada 47, Texas 49, and Arizona 50. According to CNBC – they are the LEAST WELCOMING. Maybe they are less welcoming because so many people are moving there. See Yogi above and In Migration ranking below.

We can take a look at what are the states with the highest levels of In Migration:

  • Florida
  • Texas
  • Arizona
  • North Carolina
  • South Carolina
  • Georgia
  • Nevada
  • Washington
  • Tennessee
  • Colorado

Top Ten for Out Migration: Bold Italics here is a CNBC Top Ten State to Live in

  • California
  • New York
  • Illinois
  • New Jersey – such a great place to live, that people are leaving.
  • Massachusetts – not as bad as New Jersey. Congrats or something.
  • Louisiana
  • Michigan
  • Maryland
  • Connecticut
  • Pennsylvania
  • Hawaii #2 best state to live in, but they don’t want to stay there #SeriouslyExpensive.

Of the CNBC Top Ten States to Live In – only three have Net In Migration (Maine, Minnesota, and Washington) and seven are losing domestic population while of their bottom ten states in the new LHI ranking – Arizona, Texas, Nevada, Missouri, Tennessee, Georgia, Alabama, Arkansas, Louisiana, and Indiana – only Louisiana and Missouri are losing domestic population.

Yeah, that’s a lot of rankings. And we haven’t even added in the OTHER ranking organizations which I discussed last week – Forbes, USNews, and Chief Executive Magazine.

But let’s get to the bottom lines, shall we?

  • Virginia is and has been an excellent state for business, but that doesn’t mean it will remain so. Our out migration is FLASHING YELLOW LIGHT or should be to policy makers. Virginia tax payers are subsidizing K-12 and higher education degrees which then are leaving the Commonwealth for more affordable states. That’s according to UVA’s Weldon Cooper Center. Linked in previous columns.
  • Virginia’s rankings in CNBC are not going to change anytime soon. We line up well with their metrics. Our foundation for talent and workforce is best in class, we sit adjacent to the largest customer in the world – the U.S. Federal Government’s Print Shop, and our political leaders, so far, bend but don’t break in the national political storms. It’s good to be an Off Off Election Cycle State.
  • If there is any organization out there which should be getting more credit it is the Virginia Business Higher Education Council. They were formed in 1994 to do exactly what is paying off so handsomely for Virginia – build and fund the best higher education system in the nation. That is a selfless group of people who love the Commonwealth and are willing to put in the work regardless of party. Members listed here. The VBHEC saw the future a generation ago. Thank them.
  • The credit also goes to BOTH major political parties and their leadership over the last twenty years. With an election of consequence every year, it would have been easy for us to govern as we campaign. We have not – so far. Bipartisanship works. Divided government works. At the end of the day, Virginia’s government is a damn good one and that matters. Also thank those legislative and executive branch staffers who grind away every day doing the jobs that need to be done well – which they do.
  • It’s been great to see political leaders of Virginia celebrate our rankings over the years and especially so given the tremendous uncertainty brought to us by this pandemic. But let’s not think for a second that making business conditions a partisan contest is good for business. It’s not. Most business leaders are agnostic when it comes to politics – never bet how you think they are voting politically. Ever. Like most of us, they, too, vote for themselves.

Governor Jerry Baliles liked to quote Benjamin Disraeli (19th Century British PM) – “Remember the context”

I’ll add in my paternal grandmother and toss in “Consider the source.”

So, remember the context, consider the source, and selflessly plan to win the future.


Chris Saxman is executive director of Virginia FREE. This column is republished with permission from The Intersection found on Substack.

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23 responses to “A Deeper Dive into CNBC’s Rankings”

    1. WayneS Avatar

      DC tops the list. What product or products are produced in Washington, DC? Do they have a lot of factories there?


      1. LarrytheG Avatar

        They have “stuff” there! valuable stuff, apparently.
        By the way, what counts for GDP? sports, entertainment, religion? illegal drugs?

        1. Matt Hurt Avatar
          Matt Hurt

          You have to keep in mind that this may be somewhat skewed due to federal spending. That may account for DC being at that top of the list. Every year that I have looked it up, Virginia is the state in which the most federal dollars are spent per capita. I imagine this may cause Virginia to be a little higher up on the list than if this were not the case.

        2. WayneS Avatar

          “By the way, what counts for GDP? ”

          I honestly don’t know, Larry. The term implies products – how much “stuff” we produce. However, based on the rankings in that graph, a lot of other things must be considered “product” for purposes of computing GDP.

          I mean, the only way I can see Washington DC being at the top of the GDP list is if “hot air generated” is considered part of the GDP.

          1. LarrytheG Avatar

            I presume things like consultants and think tanks and PR/campaign stuff. Pretty sure GDP also includes services, and my point is that something “produced” is not the same as it’s intrinsic value. So, prostitution is likely also a “service” that is “produced”.

  1. Nancy Naive Avatar
    Nancy Naive

    Helluva jump from 2020 to 1 in just one year.

  2. LarrytheG Avatar

    California has some of the highest taxes, highest energy costs, and strict regulations – yet it dwarfs most State in GDP, in fact, most countries. California is more like Germany than most states:


    So how does California rank in the CNBC Poll?


    1. Nancy Naive Avatar
      Nancy Naive

      When it’s not on fire, it ranks highly for the weather, and probably always will until it slides into the sea.

      My brother bought some land just on the west side of the San Andreas Fault. He swears that when the big one comes he’ll have the best Atlantic beachfront property.

      1. WayneS Avatar

        Shouldn’t he have bought on the east side of the fault?

        1. Nancy Naive Avatar
          Nancy Naive

          And wind up in the Atlantic? He’s convinced everything east of the fault will slide into the Atlantic.

          1. WayneS Avatar

            Well okay, then.

            But I hope your brother doesn’t make his living as a geologist…

    2. WayneS Avatar

      “California is more like Germany than most states…”


      1. LarrytheG Avatar

        or France or Japan… or even Russia.

        1. WayneS Avatar

          Why the hatred for California?

    3. WayneS Avatar

      Further evidence that “hot air generated” is considered part of the GDP.

  3. energyNOW_Fan Avatar

    I would like to see a ranking based on NoVA cost of living etc…in other words, Virginia ranks well due to low tax rural Virginia metrics, but the jobs are in NoVA, which presents an increasingly New Jersey-esque personality.

    1. Super Brain Avatar
      Super Brain

      Virginia does offer a wide range of options in where to locate. One has to make a balanced choice. You can chose the Richmond area and locate in Henrico or Chesterfield to avoid higher property taxes. If healthcare is important, SWVA is not a good choice.

      1. Nancy Naive Avatar
        Nancy Naive

        And if the weather drives you, Monterey.

        1. WayneS Avatar

          Monterey also has an awesome road-race course. Laguna Seca is on my Top 3 List of best tracks for motorcycle racing.

    2. LarrytheG Avatar

      re: ” but the jobs are in NoVA” – because that’s where the economy is, no?

    3. John Harvie Avatar
      John Harvie

      Virginia is probably like five states in order of ranking down from NOVA, Hampton Roads and/or Richmond (tie?), BR Valley, ROVA; just my guess.

      Have no idea how you wrap it all up into one neat little box.

  4. Nancy Naive Avatar
    Nancy Naive

    My favorite berra-ism came in the Knight-Ridder review of “Animal House” when the critic (a woman with refined tastes, no doubt) slammed it from the first sentence to the last which went something like “… disgusting, vile, definitely not funny and it was difficult to hear the dialogue because the audience was laughing so loudly.”

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