By Tom Still

As the nation’s “joyless recovery” limps along, the question for many people in Wisconsin is how the state stacks up to others.

Based on a range of rankings and indicators, the answer is a definite … who the heck really knows?

There’s a reason why economics is half-seriously called “the dismal science.” Precision often rests on interpreting data based on estimates, projections and measures rooted in a subjective analysis. That doesn’t mean the answers are wrong, but they can be varied and reflective of different starting points.

That’s why Wisconsin can show up well in some state-by-state rankings of economic activity and competitiveness – and not so favorably in others. Here are some recent examples on the plus side:

· CEO Magazine ranked Wisconsin 17th best for business in a survey published in May 2013. That’s up from 43rd in 2009. It’s a survey based mostly on the perceptions of chief executives, which matter because they’re decision-makers.

· Site Selection magazine’s 2012 rankings placed the state 13th among the 50 states, its highest ranking since 1998. That’s based on surveys of corporate site selectors.

· CNBC recently released a competitiveness survey that ranked Wisconsin 22nd based on 51 measures, which were grouped in 10 broad categories. The state’s top rankings were 13th in education, 17th in infrastructure, 19th in quality of life and 19th in technology and innovation. On the low end, Wisconsin scored 40th in workforce, 34th in economy, and 28th in cost of doing business and cost of living.

· Beacon Hill Institute’s annual state competitiveness report ranked Wisconsin 18th, up about four places from three prior years.

· The American Legislative Exchange Council’s 2013 “ALEC-Laffer State Economic Competiveness Index” placed Wisconsin 15th best among the states, up sharply from three prior years. But the state’s economic performance was mired at 41st, up only slightly from recent years.

Here are rankings with Wisconsin at or near the bottom half of the class:

· The Tax Foundation’s “2013 State Business Tax Climate Index” ranked Wisconsin 43rd based on 100 tax variables that can affect competitiveness. That’s on par with other recent years.

· In its “Best States for Business,” Forbes magazine ranked Wisconsin 42nd in late 2012. Its worst marks were for growth prospects and labor supply (also reflected in the CNBC rankings).

· The Small Business & Entrepreneurship Council ranked the state 27th in its 2012 index.

· A study sponsored by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, “Enterprising States: Getting Down to Small Business,” ranked Wisconsin’s business climate 39th overall.

· The Milken Institute ranked Wisconsin 15th in its biennial State Technology and Science Index, with the lowest score – 38th – tied to how well policymakers leverage tech-based assets into economic performance. Perhaps that will change in time with the recent passage of an early stage capital bill.

Another mixed indicator comes from a source much closer to home. The state Department of Revenue reports the Wisconsin economy will rebound to pre-recession levels by the end of 2014. However, economic growth still lags the national average. The tax agency predicted the state will add about 31,000 jobs through 2013 and another 40,000 next year. Counting jobs produced in 2011 and 2012, that’s still short of the goal of 250,000 new jobs by 2015 set by Gov. Scott Walker.

So, how are we doing? Business perceptions of Wisconsin are changing, but the reality of recovery on a par with the nation is lagging. If it’s any comfort, that conclusion is consistent with history. Economists may not agree on much, but decades of data confirms the state slips into recession later than the nation – and emerges later, as well. Even a “dismal science” has its certainties.