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ASU 'Doing Business' report ranks 130 cities on rules that hinder commerce

Mesa tops Phoenix in ASU's latest "Doing Business North America" rankings.
October 6, 2020

ASU undergraduates help with huge research project on regulations

Starting a business is complicated, and entrepreneurs must consider many factors when deciding where to set up shop. How long will it take to get approval? How much must employees be paid? Even, is the electricity reliable?

A new report from Arizona State University analyzed more than 12,000 data points to rank cities in North America on how easy it is to start a business.

“Doing Business North America 2020,” released Oct. 5, is the second edition of a report that employs undergraduate researchers to compare a wide range of business regulations among 130 cities in Canada, Mexico and the United States. The project is led by The Center for the Study of Economic Liberty, a joint endeavor of the W. P. Carey School of Business and the School of Civic and Economic Thought and Leadership.

“Doing Business North America” started two years ago based on the World Bank’s “Doing Business” report, and this year involved nine undergraduates in different disciplines, led by Stephen Slivinski, senior research fellow and project director at the Center for the Study of Economic Liberty.

“Policymakers are interested in this in order to make sure they have a healthy economy and a base of people to fill their cities,” Slivinski said.

The students pored over publicly available data sets and websites, collecting information such as the laws covering maternity leave, how many steps it takes to get the power turned on, and how high the tax rate is. Some of the variables score cities on how transparent and accessible the information is.

The more regulations a city has, such as required paid time off or multiple steps for rezoning, the lower the score.

Among the cities evaluated, Raleigh, North Carolina, ranked first in overall ease of doing business, with a score of 82.42 out of 100.

Phoenix, which came in 20th last year, ranks 59th this year, scoring 79.43 out of 100. The other two Arizona cities ranked were Mesa, 58th, with a score of 79.53, and Tucson, 69th, 60.06.

Compared with last year, the new report adds 15 cities, including Mesa and Tucson, for a total of 130.

Mesa, home to ASU's Polytechnic campus, was added to the Doing Business North America research project this year and ranked 58th, one spot ahead of Phoenix. Photo by Deanna Dent/ASU Now

The team also added new research variables.

“One group of variables has to do with the ability for a business to get reliable electricity, using engineering best practice standards – how often there are brownouts, the duration of the brownouts,” Slivinski said. “This is an important feature for a lot of places – even places you don’t expect, like California. They have serious issues now.”

Another new variable is zoning.

Many studies have examined the impact of regulations on the supply and demand of residential land, Slivinski said.

“But no one has done that for commercial property, and we figured there would be a similar impact,” he said. “Would zoning regulations make it more difficult or easier to build or rent an office building?”

So the team took the methodology of the Wharton Residential Land Use Regulation Index and applied it to commercial property.

“As far as we know, it’s the first time anyone has done that,” Slivinski said.

The “land and space use” category compares things like the number of approvals needed for zoning (one in Houston and Washington, D.C.; two in the Arizona cities; five each in St. Louis and Birmingham, Alabama) and whether there’s an environmental review board for rezoning (no in Arizona and Maine, yes in California and Georgia).

One reason that Phoenix dropped in the rankings was because of low scores on commercial zoning regulations, according to Mason Hunt, project coordinator for the Center for the Study of Economic Liberty.

“Adding the zoning stuff probably hurt them the most, as well as ‘autopilot’ changes from year to year, like the rising minimum wage,” he said.

Besides land and space use, the other categories that cities are compared by are starting a business; employing workers; getting electricity; registering property; paying taxes and resolving insolvency. All of the data is available for download by the public.

Slivinski said that last year’s debut report drew a positive response.

“It’s been policymakers, people at the city council level in particular, but also academics and other researchers, who saw in this data a great opportunity to research migration and why people move from one city to another,” he said.

“But most important, the attention gets at the kinds of things we really should be measuring.”

Steven Moore, a senior majoring in civic and economic thought leadership, is one of the students who has been working on the project since it started.

“From version one to version two, we really got to sharpen our methodology and our approach to collecting raw data, which is a big part of what I did,” Moore said.

The students sorted through an enormous volume of online data to pull out facts like cities’ commercial tax rates. And they couldn’t depend always on municipal web sites.

“You’re looking at a PDF that might be really old. You would imagine that the information would be more up-to-date,” he said.

“Then we had to see if the sourcing was consistent, and whether there were any outliers.”

Slivinski said that the team is interested to see how trends develop, and especially whether there are effects from the pandemic.

“One thing would probably have to do with employees’ ability to work remotely,” he said. “There are tax provisions and licenses that go into that and we may be able to measure those types of things.

“We hope to add a handful of cities every year and have enough of a time frame to see a good, strong pattern emerge over the course of multiple years.”

The analysis showed a wide range of experiences in starting a business:

  • Average number of days it takes to start a business: one in Anchorage to 28 in Fargo, North Dakota. (12 in the Arizona cities.)
  • Minimum wage ranges from $5.15 in Atlanta and Cheyenne, Wyoming, to $15.59 in San Francisco.
  • Most cities don’t require any paid or unpaid maternity leave. Portland, Oregon, requires 24 weeks of unpaid leave.
  • Many cities don’t require businesses to offer any paid sick leave days, including Atlanta, Denver and Tampa, Florida. Wilmington, Delaware, requires 15 days. Arizona requires five days.

Raleigh, new to the list this year, took the top spot from the 2019 winner, Oklahoma City, which fell to 16th. The second- through 10th-place cities: Jackson, Mississippi; Tulsa, Oklahoma; Sioux Falls, South Dakota; Charleston, South Carolina; Houston; San Antonio; Colorado Springs, Colorado; Cincinnati; and Cheyenne.

The cities on the bottom of the list were all in Mexico. The lowest ranking U.S. cities are: Philadelphia, 71st; Portland, Oregon, 72nd; Portland, Maine, 73rd; Buffalo, New York, 74th; Providence, Rhode Island, 75th; Newark, New Jersey, 76th; San Diego, 77th; San Jose, California, 79th; New York, 80th, and Los Angeles, 81st.

Edmonton, Alberta, is the highest ranking Canadian city at 78th and Tijuana is the highest ranking Mexican city at 86th.

The Center for the Study of Economic Liberty is holding a free webinar at noon Thursday to discuss Doing Business North America 2020.

Top image: Phoenix, which came in 20th last year, ranks 59th this year in the Doing Business North America rankings. Photo credit: ASU

Mary Beth Faller

Reporter , ASU News


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Creative nonfiction pioneer on his 'last 8,000 days'

ASU's Lee Gutkind to discuss new memoir in virtual event, Tuesday, Oct. 20.
Online magazine Transformations publishes excerpt of Lee Gutkind's new memoir.
October 6, 2020

ASU Professor Lee Gutkind reflects on life as a writer, the impact of aging

Lee Gutkind has made several costume changes in his life. The fatigues of the U.S. Coast Guard. The leather of a biker. The black T-shirt of a beatnik. The tweed of a college professor. But through it all, one thing has remained the same: He is a writer.

This month, at age 75, the Arizona State University professor published his memoir, “My Last Eight Thousand Days: An American Male in his Seventies,” a deeply personal reflection on the journey that brought him to where he is now, revealing all the discomforts of his latest costume change — that of an older man.

Gutkind will discuss the book with Steven Beschloss, director of ASU’s Narrative Storytelling Initiative, in a live Zoom event co-hosted by Changing Hands Bookstore at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 20. An excerpt from it is available to read now at the online magazine Transformations, a collaboration between the Narrative Storytelling Initiative and the Los Angeles Review of Books that features essays inspired by the belief that sharing transformative stories has the power to influence the trajectory of our lives.

The power of story is something Gutkind discovered early in life. As an outsider in high school, he took refuge in books. When he joined the military immediately afterward, he again found solace in the written word.

“When I went into the military, there were a lot of things I couldn’t do,” he said. “One thing I could do was go to the library.”

After his service in the Coast Guard, Gutkind felt directionless, and eventually found himself back at school, taking night classes in his hometown at the University of Pittsburgh. By this time, he had developed an interest in not just reading, but writing, and a couple of his professors encouraged him to pursue it.

At the time, one of his favorite books was Jack Kerouac’s classic American road trip novel, “On the Road,” and Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper were lighting up screens across the country as spiritual nomads in “Easy Rider.”

It was all so exciting and romantic to Gutkind, who decided the best way to be a writer would be to gather as many wild and wonderful experiences as possible and draw inspiration from there. And the best way to gather those experiences without much money was to follow the example of Fonda and Hopper’s characters and hop on a hog.

“It was a real special way to see the country back then,” he said. “There were many more side roads, not all these super highways. One could sit in a small town, in an old diner — not a Starbucks — and meet all kinds of interesting people.”

Much as it is now, in 2020, the world then was in upheaval. Then, as now, racial tensions surged, trust in the American dream was unraveling and people felt lost and exhilarated, all at once. In his travels, Gutkind met them all. In his first book, “Bike Fever,” published in 1973, he wrote about the motorheads.

“To be part of something I knew nothing about at all and then tell true stories about it made me feel good,” he said. “It gave me direction. Because I sure didn’t know where I was going.”

That style of writing, which would eventually come to be known as creative nonfiction, wasn’t common — or at least wasn't well-respected among the literary elite — then. It certainly wasn’t anything akin to poetry or fiction. These were stories based on true events, after all. But it wasn’t quite journalistic, either.

“Journalists then were not as free to use certain literary techniques. There wasn’t a lot of training for that kind of sheer, beautiful, rich, three-dimensional cinematic writing,” Gutkind said. By the end of the 1960s, the New Journalism movement that sought to utilize such unconventional techniques was only beginning to gain momentum, and nonfiction writing programs didn’t even exist in higher education.

Gutkind was about to change that, though. By the early 1990s, he had taken a long enough break from his free-wheeling days of wanderlust to take up a position in the department of English at his alma mater, where he helped to found the first MFA program for creative nonfiction. In 1991, he founded Creative Nonfiction, the first literary journal to exclusively publish the genre. His role in legitimizing it was solidified when a 1997 Vanity Fair article described him as the “godfather of creative nonfiction.”

“It was a gigantic fight, a real battle in the academy, in order to get people to understand that nonfiction was an art form as challenging and as rich as the other genres,” he said.

Since joining ASU over a decade ago, Gutkind has continued to advance the genre, teaching a class called “True Stories That Matter” and establishing Think Write Publish, a program sponsored by the Consortium for Science, Policy and Outcomes and funded by the National Science Foundation that brings together scientists and creative nonfiction writers to craft stories that communicate important issues in science policy to a broad, general audience.

Think Write Publish came into being after Gutkind gave a lecture to ASU science and technology students on the power of narrative. David Guston, director of the School for the Future of Innovation in Society, approached Gutkind after his talk, and a plan was hatched.

“Dave and his colleagues were all for this idea of trying to communicate to the general public how we’re going to shape the future, and what science means in technology and policy,” Gutkind said. “The idea was if I could bring the skill of narrative to (scientists), it would open up the door to an absolute richness of connection between the general public and the science and technology world. And that really excited me. It made me want to push the genre past just people writing about themselves or general things. And I thought it was really important as our world is advancing in so many ways, and we need to understand so much more about science and technology just to live in it.”

Professionally, Gutkind was delighted at the opportunity to explore new frontiers in creative nonfiction. Personally, he was in crisis. Turning 70 was distressing for more reasons than the simple fact of getting older. Two of his best friends and his mother had recently died, he had just broken up with his long-term girlfriend and a book deal had fallen through.

“Suddenly, I felt all alone and defeated,” he said. “So I took a step back to look at my life and see where it was going next.”

Around the same time, a study from MIT caught his attention. In it, researchers broke a person's life down into periods of 8,000 days. Gutkind was struck by a claim the study made, that if you’re still alive at 65, you have a 50% chance of living another 8,000 days.

A self-described “immersion” writer, Gutkind spent much of his career immersing himself in the lives of others in order to tell their stories. He had scrubbed with organ transplant surgeons and spent months on the road with a crew of MLB National League baseball umpires – but he had never turned his lens inward.

“I have immersed myself for long periods of time with lots of different kinds of people, and it has been one of the greatest privileges of my life,” he said. “But this time, I decided I would do immersion on myself, and in particular, the impact of aging.”

In order for it to work, Gutkind said, he knew he had to be completely honest: about his fears of losing the ability to write, to focus, to teach. About not being able to run his favorite trails anymore.

“It’s all very exciting to write about other people. But the biggest writing risk of my life has been writing about my own life,” he said. “A good memoirist can’t shirk information and cannot hold back. You have to tell the reader things that sometimes you’re afraid to even think about. You’ve got be a writer who comes clean with himself.”

Despite his fears, Gutkind hasn’t slowed down. He’ll be teaching his “True Stories That Matter” course again in spring 2021, and he’s already working on his next book. If “My Last Eight Thousand Days” is a memoir about his personal life, his current project is shaping up to be a memoir about his professional life.

In the meantime, he’s waiting out the pandemic in his hometown of Pittsburgh, teaching remotely and dreaming of the days when he’ll once again be able to stroll the sun-soaked malls of ASU’s Tempe campus.

“The thing that makes teaching at ASU so exciting for me is that I’m able to teach people with all kinds of interests,” Gutkind said. “In my classes, I teach engineers, scientists, physicians. It’s always a really satisfying pleasure and surprise to see who shows up.”

Top photo courtesy of Lee Gutkind