Sunday, November 29, 2009

Celebrating Brain Drain

New Jersey is debating the wisdom of financial incentives that keep the brightest high school student in the state. Our model for workforce development is broken. The investment in local talent is paying big dividends in Texas and Colorado, but not in New Jersey. There has to be a better way. There is:

Indo-US ties have for decades been driven by individuals and corporations, rather than governments. During the Cold War, India's governmental relations were warm with the USSR and cool with the US. But a million Indians migrated to the US while none went to the USSR. Indians galore went to US universities, enjoyed American books and music, and got jobs in US firms. They got on well with Americans, but had no such affinity with Russians. Thus, person-to-person relations strengthened Indo-US ties even when the two governments bickered. With the end of the Cold War, the relationship grew: The two governments caught up with the people. They still had strong differences (Pokharan II, the Iraq war) but found natural affinities too.

Indian migration to the US was once castigated as a brain drain. More recently, it has been rechristened brain circulation, with many migrants returning to India. Economist Deena Khatkhate (see his book Money, Finance, Political Economy) was among the earliest to contest the brain drain thesis. He saw the exodus as a safety valve for educated Indians unable to find enough jobs in India's licence-permit raj. He also highlighted the way the Indian Diaspora catalysed changes in social, political and economic attitudes in India, paving the way for economic reform.

It now seems that the Diaspora played an even bigger role: It changed US attitudes. The brain drain steadily increased the number of influential Indians in the US. Indo-US economic relations and the size and clout of the Diaspora grew fast together, most prominently in Silicon Valley.

The relationship between India and its Diaspora has been rocky. Those who emigrated to the United States were characterized as abandoning their country, their culture. The result is a large population caught between two nations, belonging to neither the place of birth nor the current place of residence. These people inhabit a liminal, global space; the New Argonauts at the frontier of globalization.

In this regard, India and New Jersey could be similar. Instead of luring native talent to state colleges and universities, spend that money on cultivating a global network. Better yet, subsidize the export of the best high school graduates to important centers of innovation. These ambassadors can remake New Jersey's image while connecting the state to new business opportunities. Those who go the furthest away from home will make the best entrepreneurs. They will always remember who gave them a leg up, providing New Jersey with an avenue to recoup its investment in human capital that was going to leave anyhow.

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