Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Myths of Brain Drain

As a Rust Belt refugee, I obsess brain drain policy. This preoccupation has developed into a successful blogging niche. I've been studying this issue for about 3.5 years and I continue to notice a steady flow of false information about a perceived brain drain problem.

The other two sectors to enjoy significant growth have been education and health. Yet these fields do not seem to generate the broad-based economic growth needed to boost the overall economy. The region most often favorably linked with the "eds and meds" economy, Pittsburgh, has produced only modest, below-average job growth over the past generation. In fact, Pittsburgh has looked successful largely because the region has continued to hemorrhage its population to other regions, and it attracts few foreign immigrants.

To be frank, the above assessment is bogus. The analysis barely scratches the surface of the demographic story. Pittsburgh did "hemorrhage its population to other regions" back in the early 1980s. But the overall population decline over (at least) the last decade is a result of an aging population dying off and an anemic replacement rate (that does connect to the lack of immigration). Joel Kotkin's claim is wrong and he should know better. I gather he hasn't digested the articles I have written for his website.

Kotkin is in good company. Jumping to brain drain conclusions is the rule, not the exception. Few seem interested in drilling down into the numbers to get a better idea of what is going on in the region. A recent study of rural brain drain is an excellent example. Minnesota Public Radio recently tackled the issue and unearthed some surprising results:

Given this refreshed view of changing demographics, rural America needs to rethink its description of gains and losses. If rural America is losing high-school educated youth (the brain drain) and replacing them with those that at least have a bachelors, isn’t this a Brain Gain?

Indeed, this is brain gain. But Kotkin and others are too busy trying to shoehorn their preferred narrative to notice. The result is misguided policy and government waste, which is ironic given the dominant perspective of many brain drain fear mongers. The rush to judgment only serves surreptitious ends. Brain drain talk is a popular political football. Beware when politicians and pundits invoke the term.

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