Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Migration Is Economic Development

Your business is striving to retain talent. Your community is trying to plug the brain drain. In terms of economic development, both aims are destructive. Any attempt to keep people from moving, whether between employers or towns, is wrong.

Initiatives and policies designed to impede geographic mobility are baffling. Duncan Green, Head of Research for Oxfam GB, attempts to explain the anti-migrant bent:

‘Sedentary prejudice’: Development organisations cherish a mental image of happy peasants, tilling fields or resting of an evening in a flourishing village with schools, water and the like. I think many people in development therefore see migration as a failure – the talk is all about people forced to migrate, rather than choosing to. At least that point of view is reinforced by European history (think of the forced and miserable emigration of the Irish famine), but makes even less sense for New Worlders in countries built on migration.

Radioactive politics for campaigners: the gulf between politics and economics is probably wider on migration than any other issue. It’s always at the top of public concerns, and politicians know what’s in store if they’re seen as ‘soft on immigration’. Campaigning organizations are also keenly aware of the public mood, so the issue stays with the thinktanks like CGD until that mood shifts.

But I also wonder if there’s a more subtle political problem – supporting migration sets you up to oppose poor people in the UK. Lining up with a bunch of liberal economists to inform your fellow citizens that they are wrong (and quite possibly racist too) is not a comfortable exercise for any progressive spirit.

Brain drain: despite plenty of arguments to the contrary, a lot of people still see ‘stealing their doctors and nurses’ as an act of neocolonial plunder.

Sedentary prejudice resonated most with me. We fetishize the local. We privilege the insider and dehumanize the outsider. We are happy peasants until some migrants destroy everything. To model it as an equation: Local Graduate > Non-Local Graduate.

From the perspective of economic development: Non-Local Graduate > Local Graduate. Much better to attract than to retain. Encouraging a local graduate to stay makes everyone poorer.

Rust Belt cities such as Detroit are wasting millions of dollars on talent retention. Metros should be in the business of catalyzing migration. Urban economies thrive on churn. Whereas plugging the brain drain makes communities more intolerant, less creative. It's a downward spiral, a negative feedback loop.

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