Saturday, May 08, 2010

Brain Drain Freakonomics

I'd guess that most of my readers are familiar with the Freakonomics phenomenon. If not, check out the video of author Steven Levitt discussing the economics of drug dealing:

Contrary to popular myth, he says, being a street-corner crack dealer isnt lucrative: It pays below minimum wage. And your boss can kill you.

Levitt's hook is to use data analysis to assail conventional wisdom. The approach has found an audience among sports fans:

These are just a few of the widely held sports beliefs economists David Berri and Martin Schmidt attack in their new book Stumbling on Wins, an analytical look at performance and decision-making in sports that is bound to provoke barstool arguments across America.

More important: A breakdown of wins and losses against individual stats shows that for all the access to data that's available to team executives, many continue to make the wrong decisions. Example: NBA players are disproportionately paid to score. Because so much of basketball success is tied to gaining (and maintaining) possession of the ball, players that rebound and commit few turnovers should be valued higher, they argue.

Leaders in a given industry can be operating under false assumptions. The same could be said about regions and cities. A good example is workforce development and the fretting about brain drain. Yesterday, Ben Winchester posted the following comment on my blog:

Long time lurker on your blog. I am a rural and small town researcher. Yes, people in the midwest do hear about brain drain ALL THE TIME - books like Hollowing out the Middle are written without a balanced perspective on the dynamics of population movement, rather they just look at the kids that leave. However, our towns are more proud of the fact they can prepare the kids well for the larger world.

My research shows that people aged 30-45 move to rural areas, and in many cases provide a balance to the kids that leave. I call this the Brain Gain. Yes, we lose kids making $7/hour and have a HS education - yet we gain 30-45 year old people, with life experience, education, and kids (in 4th - 8th grades).

Anyway, thought I would throw a note your way. You can google "brain gain of the newcomers" to find out more.

You can find a copy of Ben's research here. The brain drain is real. Surprisingly, so is the brain gain. The authors of "Hollowing Out the Middle" buy into the dominant narrative uncritically. Repeating the hype serves to obfuscate the challenges facing rural communities. The resulting policy suggestions are a step in the wrong direction:

Hilda Legg, a conference presenter who sat in on a session by YPEK, said she thinks Eastern Kentucky needs to overcome the perception that there are no jobs. The region needs a sense of empowerment and entrepreneurship.

"We've taught our children to leave, that there's no opportunity," Legg said.

The region needs a better sense of what is going on in terms of migration. In some (too few) parts of the country, the discussion is more constructive:

The fellowship is meant to address a growing threat to rural communities— the “brain drain,” or the loss of local talent to bigger cities with more perceived opportunities, organizers said.

“It’s a major economic development issue,” said Mark Rembert, co-director of ECC. “We encourage the best and brightest of our local youth to go off into the world, with very little encouragement to come back. When that happens, there’s no return on our investment as a community.”

“We invest so much into our youth,” he continued, “through the school system and elsewhere, and we want to retain some of that investment, and at the same time provide them with a unique opportunity.”

Preparing your community's children to succeed in the larger world is not a bad thing. The issue is figuring out how to get a return on that investment given all the educational success. That doesn't mean ignoring the talent that does stick around town. There's nothing wrong with linking graduates with local opportunities. I think the authors of "Hollowing Out the Middle" do a good job of making this case. However, they give short shrift to the rural inmigration that Ben Winchester details. Attraction is either insufficient or too culturally disruptive. We've only begun to explore the possibilities.

But the conversation can't start until we are willing to assess the situation more frankly.

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