Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Emigration Economic Stimulus

Brain drain is positive economic development. Generally, migration is seen as a problem in need of management and mitigation. Cities are the ultimate geographic expression of migration and its benefits, whether talent is coming or going:

In terms of international migration there is a growing perception of the potential of international migration to induce positive effects in the “sending” countries through various channels, which include remittances, return migration, diaspora externalities and network effects, which may compensate the sending countries for their loss of human capital.

The increasing recognition of the potential of emigration in stimulating development in countries of origin is accompanied by a new push for engagement of migrants and diaspora organizations in development cooperation. Following the surge in remittances – which now amount to well over two times the value of official development assistance and tenfold of the net private capital transfers to developing countries –international organizations and governments are increasingly integrating emigration into development policies. There is particular focus on the macro-economic impact of migration, such as the importance of remittances for national accounts and their potential role in enabling business investments. Notwithstanding, these changing perspectives will need further studies to establish their real impacts.

Emphasis added. Outmigration is a component of economic development policies. For U.S. communities, the very idea is an anathema to place-centric/zero-sum thinking. The scope of this conversation is, as at the international scale, beginning to widen:

Nebraska's brain drain and its loss of young people are linked, according to Eric Thompson, director of the Bureau of Business Research at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln. "Young people are more likely to be college educated because it's more common now than it was 40 years ago to go to college," he said.

Thompson said he does not believe a lack of good jobs is entirely to blame for the flight of Nebraska's youth. "This is a great place to raise a family in an absolute and relative sense," he said. "In a relative sense, it's maybe not as great a place to be young and single."

Scott Fuess, chairman of the economics department at the University of Nebraska- Lincoln, was more blunt in his assessment of the state's appeal to young people.

"Why would talented young people not want to leave?" he asked, adding that Nebraska is one of the most remote and sparsely populated states in the country. "Why wouldn't a 22-year-old college graduate be drawn by the allure of life in Chicago or the Twin Cities or Dallas or Houston?"

Thompson agreed that young people are often attracted to large urban areas where they perceive more opportunities for themselves. "Research shows that there are advantages for young people living in larger cities," he said. "Their skill rises faster in cities."

Fuess said it's not surprising that young people want to strike out to pursue opportunities elsewhere, but, he said, "what you want to focus on is trying to lure them back when they're having families."

This is what economists refer to as the "boomerang effect." People move away from an area in their 20s to gain experience and learn new skills elsewhere, only to return in their 30s to settle down and raise a family.

Thompson said he doesn't think youth outmigration is a major problem precisely because many of those people are coming back to the state in their 30s. The key, according to Thompson, is to lure them back.

The boomerang effect is the brain gain Ben Winchester has measured in his research on rural communities. We've tended to focus on the young adults who leave (and are most likely to leave, anyplace, even Portland), not on the people moving into town. Our default perspective is xenophobic. We ignore the return migration going on right under our noses.

Worse, we focus on urban amenities, density, and creative placemaking instead of geographic mobility. This is the Portland/Creative Class model of economic development. The usual spiel from CEOs for Cities and Joe Cortright:

If the [The New Geography of Jobs by Enrico Moretti] has a weakness, it is a chicken-versus-egg argument -- leaning on anecdotes rather than data implying that amenities and talent attraction have little or nothing to do with a city's economic prospects. To Moretti, urban amenities are an effect, rather than a cause, of growth (Seattle), and are ineffective in triggering economic growth (Berlin). Each of these examples is highly debatable, but more importantly, there's little question that the interaction between talent and amenities is a self-reinforcing virtuous circle: cities with great urban amenities attract talent; places with a strong talent base support urban amenities.

Emphasis added. There exists considerable question about urban amenities attracting talent. Moretti is aware of the academic literature. For example:

While clearly the presence of appropriately skilled and talented people is essential to innovation, it strains credulity to suppose that members of the creative class move about the economic landscape as though they were principally in search of amenity based gratification. Equally, we dispute the idea that bringing them together in particular places is sufficient in and of itself —and in the absence of further enabling conditions—to generate innovation and innovation-led growth in different sectors of the economy. In fact, innovation processes are always grounded in a much wider historical and geographic frame of reference.

Emphasis added. I highlighted the part of the passage that speaks to my recent posts about the cult of density gripping urbanism. There is a considerable chasm between urban policymakers and academic research. The drive for density and better urban amenities will make real estate developers happy. But the economic development arguments marshaled in support of these projects are superficial. The intuitive appeal won't survive closer inspection.

Cities without migration are not factories of human capital. Talent is not better off being packed into an urban neighborhood. It's the moving, in any direction, that matters.

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