Monday, June 25, 2012

How Return Migration Will Save The World

I'm prominently featured in Will Doig's latest "Dream City" column over at Salon. The title of the piece ("Moving home: The new key to success") and the use of the term "boomerang" are unfortunate. Shacking up in your parents' basement while weathering the economic downturn is not what I have in mind. That's not a knock on Doig's work. In my opinion, the story turned out well. Return migrants are "quietly making an impact on cities."

Three questions arise from the claim:

  1. What kind of impact?
  2. How much impact?
  3. 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.


Sam said...

Great mention in the article! And thanks for getting my term "mesofact" out in the world. I love it!

Jim Russell said...

Sam, you are welcome. I think the mesofact concept is very useful for understanding migration patterns.