Three questions arise from the claim:
- What kind of impact?
- How much impact?
- What's in it for the return migrants?
Before this whole return migration narrative gets away from me, I want to address the rise and fall of Creative Class theory (hat tip Brian Kelsey @ Civic Analytics). Richard Florida has many critics. Frank Bures recently sums up the most damning:
Today, Creative Class doctrine has become so deeply engrained in the culture that few question it. Why, without any solid evidence, did a whole generation of policy makers swallow the creative Kool-Aid so enthusiastically? One reason is that when Florida’s first book came out, few experts bothered debunking it, because it didn’t seem worth debunking. “In the academic and urban planning world,” says Peck, “people are slightly embarrassed about the Florida stuff.” Most economists and public policy scholars just didn’t take it seriously.
This is partly because much of what Florida was describing was already accounted for by a theory that had been well-known in economic circles for decades, which says that the amount of college-educated people you have in an area is what drives economic growth, not the number of artists or immigrants or gays, most of whom also happen to be college educated. This is known as Human Capital theory, mentioned briefly above, and in Hoyman and Faricy’s analysis, it correlated much more highly with economic growth than the number of creative class workers. “Human capital beat the pants off creative capital,” Hoyman said. “So it looks like growth is a human capital phenomenon—if you’ve got a lot of educated people. We’re in a knowledge economy, where human capital is worth a lot more than just showing up for work every day.” In other words, if there was anything to the theory of the Creative Class, it was the package it came in. Florida just told us we were creative and valuable, and we wanted to believe it. He sold us to ourselves.
Emphasis added. Those two paragraphs do not do the essay justice. Throughout, I was all agog for the next sentence. Upon finishing, I was filled with dread. What if boomeranging back for Rust Belt Chic becomes the next empty promise of economic revitalization?
"Jim Russell said moving to Braddock is the new key to success. I read it in Salon."
The difference is that I'm not offering a new theory. I'm using established migration theory to better understand how talent moves and relates to economic development. Pittsburgh's population is declining but college educational attainment rates are rising fast. What gives?
Over the weekend, I finished "The New Geography of Jobs" by Enrico Moretti. I wanted to disagree with his arguments. I expected to dislike his book. Instead, I find a theoretically rich text that makes me rethink how I understand talent migration. I highly recommend reading it, especially if you are interested in economic development and innovation.
I can take what I've learned from Moretti and apply it on my next project. I'll never have all the answers. Sorry, I'm out of silver bullets. Today I'm right. Tomorrow I'm wrong. But there is something interesting going on with return migration, in the Rust Belt and around the world. We need to better understand its impacts and how it can improve our communities.