In the world of technology manufacturing, the launch of every new gizmo sets off a rush among competitors to take it apart to see how it works.

Deconstructing the iPhone is an industry in itself, supporting everything from innovative improvements to piracy to patent litigation. Much the same can be said about every new list that is published purporting to rank places and businesses — best places to live, to retire, to do business, to eat, to bike, to meditate. You name the activity, and someone has a list rating the best places to do it.

In that vein, I was pleased to see another edition of Forbes’ list of best places to do business. As is usually the case with such releases, the reactions were predictable — first a burst of public hand wringing about Maine’s woeful ranking (we are 50th for the second straight year) followed by a weary cry to cut taxes and regulations. And then a response from the other side of the political/ideological spectrum saying that some data are suspect and that others important to Maine aren’t included.

Since the only real value of these lists (apart from selling ads for Forbes) is to build positive or negative stereotypes about places, my interest is in trying to figure out how the stereotypes are constructed. What exactly does it mean that Utah is the best place in the country to do business and Maine is the worst? And not just what is measured, but how are the measures combined?

It was striking to me to see that while Utah was ranked first overall, its best individual ranking in any of the six elements by which “doing business” is purported to be measured was fifth (in labor supply), and its average ranking across all six variables was 10th. Conversely, Maine, while the 50th ranked state overall, was 50th in only one of the six categories (growth prospects) and had an average ranking across all six variables of 38.

This apparent discrepancy led me to compare each state’s ranking in each category to its overall ranking, sum the differences and see which states moved up the most using a straight ranking of the rankings. The winner from this little recalculation was Iowa. It moved up nine spots from 10th to first using an “unweighted” average of rankings. Next was Georgia, which moved up eight spots, and Oregon, which moved up seven spots. Maine moved up two spots to 48th.

At the other end of the scale, Utah fell eight spots to No. 9; Virginia fell eight spots to No. 10, and Washington, Texas and Colorado all fell seven spots.

And sports fans thought the BCS system for picking the top-ranked football teams was complicated.

The secret to success, it seems, lies in the weighting scheme. Which of the six elements purporting to measure importance to “doing business” is most important of all. Or, more accurately, what is the relative weight of all six variables? And in trying to answer this question, we encounter the real problem with the entire scheme — its assumption that there is some secret standard applicable to all businesses in all locations by which difficulty or ease of “doing business” can be measured.

If I’m running an aluminum smelter or an Internet server farm, electricity costs are going to be very important. If I’m developing advertising campaigns or trying to attract customers to my motel, electricity, while undoubtedly necessary, is less important.

Similarly, growth prospects — which on closer inspection proves to be simply Moody Analytics’ projections for state growth, i.e., the assumptions in someone’s econometric model — is the only variable on which Maine scores a ranking of 50.

Yet on labor supply, Maine ranks 28th, and on quality of life, 17th. Clearly, for businesses for which labor supply is very important, Maine isn’t the “worst” place in the nation to do business. We may not be the best, but we’re apparently not the worst.

All this leads me to three conclusions. The first is that any ranking system can produce just about any result depending on how the variables used are weighted.

Second, different variables apply differently to different businesses depending on what they produce, for whom they produce it, and what their competitive forces are.

Third, and most importantly, to the extent that the publicity following such rankings creates or reinforces a stereotype that portrays an inaccurate picture for a particular business in a particular industry, it does significant and unjustified harm to some states.

Charles Lawton is senior economist for Planning Decisions, a public policy research firm. He can be reached at:

[email protected]