Saturday, March 03, 2012

Places Develop People

For talent migration, tolerance doesn't matter. The idea that London is a winner in the vote-with-feet competition because of its cosmopolitan disposition is amusing. No city is immune to parochial attitudes:

But London in 2012, like most other global cities, is in significant flux, much less beholden to sepia-tinged notions of what it used to be and much more a product of its new arrivals. Over the last decade, the foreign-born population reached 2.6 million, just about a third of the city. In addition to longstanding Irish, Indian, Jamaican and Bangladeshi communities, there are now many new immigrants from Nigeria, Slovenia, Ghana, Vietnam and Somalia. I’ve seen Russians fly in on their private jets, and Eastern Europeans breach the city limits in cars filled to the roof with suitcases and potted plants.

The changing population has inspired a certain amount of nativism in the city, sometimes good-natured, sometimes less so. There are those who believe that true Londoners are cockneys, and to be one of those you must be born within earshot of Bow Bells. Or: True Londoners are born within the ring of the M25 motorway. Others think that all it takes to be a Londoner is to have lived here for a great deal of time — at least 70 years, or 52 years, or 8 years, or, in one case, just over a month. “But it was a very good month,” this new Londoner told me, fresh from the north of England. “I’ve totally forgotten Macclesfield.”

Emphasis added. This reality check casts a pall over the slew of welcoming committees designed to increase immigration to shrinking cities. Rolling out the red carpet to any migrant won't do much to enhance talent attraction and boost population. The same is true for expensive urban amenities and transit boondoggles.

Forget migration. There is still a benefit from increasing tolerance and weaving outsiders into the fabric of your community. People develop, not places. A corollary to that slogan is places develop people. Parochialism is a drag on place's potential to develop talent. Eroding that mountain of social capital will unleash creative potential not unlike putting the kibosh on noncompetes:

Pennsylvania still follows the common law rule that treats noncompetes as legal, so long as they are "reasonable" in length, geographic scope, and range of employment.  California law, as many people know, treats noncompetes as presumptively illegal in all but a small handful of cases, and several other states have employment law rules on noncompetes that are nearly as liberal as California's.  PA should change its law, perhaps not all the way to the California end of the spectrum, but to make noncompetes far narrower in scope, and limited primarily to truly high value employees with truly specialized training and knowledge whose development really matters to employers.  (In recent years, I've heard of noncompetes being used and enforced against hair stylists and truck dispatchers.  That's ridiculous.)   In most areas of the economy, the change would improve labor mobility -- which would help small businesses get off the ground.  If you want to start a business, you need money, and you need employees.  PA law should make both of them easier to get.

Noncompetes are parochial and anti-innovation. Removing the barriers to talent movement within the region is akin to priming the pump of tolerance. Place better develops people and talent will move there to reap the benefits. But a shift in attitude against noncompetes is often a function of a dramatic increase in outsiders moving to the region. A place already does a relatively better job of developing people despite entrenched parochialism. I've experienced this firsthand in Seattle and Denver. The backlash against Californication was (still is) substantial. The newcomers are wrecking our cool city. Don't move to Austin. We don't need more people. They still come.

Something else was (still is) attracting talent to those intolerant cities. People are flocking to crowded and expensive locales. The traffic in Northern Virginia is awful. Yet, here I am. What makes you think that your cheaper and friendlier city with better public transit will change that?

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