Saturday, January 23, 2010

Brain Drain Report: Residual Migration

I was prepping for a phone conversation with Ohio State Senator Joe Schiavoni concerning his bill designed to help plug the brain drain. My blog is an archive of this kind of information and I searched for tax credit proposals in other states. As I expected, the idea isn't new. Someone needs to tell that to West Virginia. Better yet, voters and politicians would be wise to listen to a fellow resident:

Still, the state can’t focus solely on financial incentives to attract educated young people, said 26-year-old R.B. Seem, a Martinsburg banker who leads the Young Professionals of the Eastern Panhandle.

“If it’s just about money, I’m not sure the tax breaks are enough to make a difference for a lot of young graduates,” said Seem, vice president of lending at MVB Bank in Martinsburg. “If someone graduates with a teaching degree, and they can work here for $30,000 or earn $50,000 in Loudoun County [Virginia] and money is the big consideration, then a break on state taxes probably isn’t going to persuade someone to stay.”

But Seem said West Virginia’s appeal goes beyond money.

“I didn’t move back to West Virginia for the money,” said the Martinsburg native who lived in North Carolina and Washington, D.C., before returning to the Panhandle in 2007. “I know a lot of young people feel the same way: It’s about what West Virginia offers. I like my life here.”

Given the tremendous pull of agglomeration economies, states such as West Virginia should focus on residual migration. As Mr. Seem explains, a tax credit isn't going to discourage native talent from moving to Washington, DC. How do I know? Others have tried and failed.

At the Golden Gate club on the river Spree, Gerald Simpson, 45, is often to be found DJ-ing. The musician moved to Berlin as much to get away from the pressures of London as to soak up the charms of what Mayor Wowereit has referred to as a "young, unfinished city".

"I love the grunge, the lack of pretension and the simpler way of life," says the Manchester-born DJ and record producer, better known as A Guy Called Gerald, who helped to shape the acid house scene in the 1980s. "I love the fact that I have a studio in Tacheles (a former 1930s department store-turned artists' collective in the centre of Berlin) which would be totally impossible elsewhere, unless I was a friend of Donald Trump's."

For Alexine Good, a painter and printmaker from London, one of the attractions of the city is that one can get by on relatively little.

But she is reluctant to use the phrase "arm, aber sexy". "There's nothing sexy about being poor – but if you're going to be poor, there are far worst places to be so than Berlin."

Arm, aber sexy is a kind of geographic arbitrage. You can get your big city buzz at a fraction of the cost. This is gentrification on a global scale. Instead of moving to another undervalued part of London or New York, hipsters are pooling in Berlin.

London is still a major draw. But Berlin does a good job of sucking up the cost of living refugees. Residual migration is a feature of the city's brand. I think this would be an effective model for West Virginia to explore. How did word get out about the allure of Berlin?

Reviewing the article about the West Virginia tax credit, I see examples of promising residual migration flows:

John Connor, who left his native Pennsylvania for a VISTA assignment in West Virginia and then a full-time job with Almost Heaven Habitat for Humanity in Franklin, believes it’s possible for West Virginia to make itself more attractive to young college graduates born and raised out of state.

“The tax changes that are being talked about would have come in handy for me,” said Connor, who is the president of the newly formed Generation Pendleton, which officially launched this month as the newest regional group under the Generation West Virginia umbrella.

“West Virginia is so beautiful, such a great place to raise a family,” said the 33-year-old Connor, who is married and a new father. “If these incentives can get them (out-of-state grads) here, I feel sure many, many of them would get rooted here and want to stay. It’s hard not to fall in love with West Virginia.”

Connor, whose group held a town hall forum earlier this month and plans an informal networking event Jan. 25 at the Fireside CafĂ© in Franklin, said he’s delighted to see West Virginia lawmakers looking for ways to keep and attract young graduates to the state.

Mr. Conner moved to West Virginia without the promise of a tax credit. Unwittingly, he describes the real problem. It is hard to fall in love with a place from afar. How is this long distance intimacy cultivated? That's the code that needs to be cracked. Financial incentives are a dime-a-dozen and cannot compete with the gravity of a major global city.

But regional literature sort-of folds into itself anyway. Speaking as a bookseller, I don't think most Southern fiction sells well outside of the South. A novel taking place in the Midwest is going to sell best in that part of the country. The prominent exceptions to this rule are just that...exceptions. But my guess is that novels taking place in London or NY sell everywhere and the Londoners and New Yorkers are reading each other...hell, the two cities might as well be joined together at the hip...New London York City.

I crashed this year when two Western locale novels that I loved were virtually ignored by the NY press. This local isolation of writers is not a good thing for our national American literature. How can we get writers from different regions to be read elsewhere and get the attention they need from the big media centers? How does a writer take to the national stage? What themes would a writer have to address to make make our regional literatures national, presuming that's a good thing?

Most regional writers appeal only to a residual audience. Angling for a more global appeal is like offering a tax credit, fishing in the wrong pond. There's a niche market that is going under-serviced. Surely there are many readers residing in New York City who would appreciate parochial literature. The dominance of cosmopolitan tomes is curious since that so many urban dwellers are from somewhere else. This helps to reinforce various geographies of fear (my earliest images of the South were the movies "Deliverance" and "Easy Rider").

Such perceptions haunt West Virginia and all of Appalachia. Effectively conveying a sense of place to someone unfamiliar with a landscape is very difficult. The low hanging fruit are the people who share at least some common experience. That's the power of archetypes, something writers understand better than most.

A great practitioner of this art is Richard Linklater, who helped to make Austin a hot destination via his movie "Slacker". The college town quirkiness appealed to overeducated/underemployed Generation X and put the Texas city on the map for a number of nomads who had never been to the state. I'd love to see artists play demographer and figure out how this migration happened.

West Virginia could commission such work instead of offering the tax credit. The flight of the creative class is a residual migration. The flows of Generation Y might be even more esoteric. And Berlin booms.

1 comment:

Tyson said...

Don't you think the knowledge that a film or other work was commissioned by a state or local government would seem kind of lame to the very people the place is trying to attract?