Brains on the Move

Here's a belated repost of a comment I left on a colleague's blog, concerning the notion of "brain drain," and particularly a Christian perspective on labor mobility versus commitment to place.


Nicholas, thanks for pointing me in the direction of your blog post. Pride of place is important, and every community should strive to be as welcoming as possible to as many different kinds of people as possible. However, I have no problem with people moving around, even if it means you have vast disparities between high-agglomeration places and low-agglomeration places. In fact, from an economic development standpoint, I think it is important to not discourage either mobility or clustering, and rather to figure out ways to encourage both: mobility makes for more efficient labor markets (connecting people looking for work with places where that work is needed), and clustering has an exponential effect on productivity in today’s knowledge economy (the top 100 metro areas in the US account for 12 percent of land area and 78 percent of GDP).

We are finishing up some work for a part of the Commonwealth called the Pennsylvania Wilds. Some of the most beautiful nature in all of the US are located in these 12 counties in the north-central part of the Commonwealth. But relative geographic isolation has proven to be a huge disadvantage as we have shifted from a manufacturing-oriented economy to a mechanized and information-based one: these 12 counties account for 23 percent of the Commonwealth’s land area but only 4 percent of its population, 2 percent of its income, and 0.2 percent of its GDP.

That doesn’t mean these places aren’t viable places to live and work; far from it, as many who do so do so out of choice, and enjoy an incredibly rich quality of life. People can choose to live and work wherever maximizes their happiness, and some choose relatively rural places. But when their kids decide they don’t particularly like that lifestyle, and want to go somewhere more urbanized, where there is more economic, social, or educational opportunity, that may be a loss for that rural place (in terms of that young person’s talent and intellect being exported to some other part of the world) but it is a gain for that young person. If it wasn’t a gain for him or her, he or she wouldn’t move away.

Now sometimes, someone decides to return to a place that’s struggling; pride of place has caused him or her to forgo a more attractive lifestyle somewhere in order to return home to make it better. This is very commendable, and it should be particularly common for Christians of all people, given our willingness to practice “downward mobility” for the sake of the Kingdom of God. Consider Nehemiah, who pined for a Jerusalem that was now in disrepair, or Moses, who preferred to suffer with God’s people over all the riches in Egypt. So there is obviously nothing wrong and in fact very much right about people who decide to come back home to a place that the modern economy has largely passed by. But neither is there anything wrong with people making choices to participate in that modern economy, and in doing so find more opportunity to make their maximum contribution to society via their talents and the ways in which aggregating those talents with the talents of others makes for even more productivity.

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