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Thursday, December 10, 2009


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As you may know, I am completely opposed to the concept of "brain drain". I think it is a mistaken metaphor. A few things jump out at me from this, and I think they are generally applicable to most thinking about these issues.

1. The fact that parents are grooming and pushing their kids to succeed is a great thing. I happen to consider it just plain wrong to deliberately circumscribe the possibility sphere of our children in order to make sure they never leave. Sadly, I've seen actual government initiatives that are designed to do this. Their logic is that if kids never get a taste of life away from home, they'll never wander off to the big city. (The big push here is to decentralize professional education away from traditional state college campuses). I believe that we should be doing everything in our power to make sure that the next generation has the greatest possibilities for realizing their desires, whatever those might be.

I don't see the rural behavior as any different from that of upscale suburbs. As a product of rural education (graduating class of 50), I can tell you I had far less push than those who went to New Trier or Highland Park High School. And it hurt me competitively vs. those kids even apart from the socialization gap. (Interesting fact: of the 50 graduates in my class, about 8-10 got college degrees. Of those, 3 live in Indianapolis, one lives in Kansas City, and another lives in Chicago. The rest stayed local but commute to Louisville).

2. It confuses physical geography with economic geography. It's like mercantilism but with people instead of doubloons. Who is more value to Indiana: an Aaron who never left Laconia, or an Aaron who left and had experiences in the world. I can tell you this, if I'd never left, I'd probably be no different today than those who stayed. I certainly would not be The Urbanophile or bring the things to the table that I do today. Universities and corporations clearly see the value in alumni networks. Towns should as well.

3. Rural areas need to shrink. The painful reality is that they are no longer the nexus of economic life, which is now in cities. I think you said it best in your book when you talked about having the courage to talk about painful truths. This is one of them. The new rural residents are likely to be those without a previous connection.

Wasn't this notion of rural brain drain in a more open modern era part of the logic behind "The Bell Curve"? I'll admit I did not read the book, but I heard the authors made an analogy to rural areas similar to that some have made about segregation era black neighborhoods, where the "talented tenth" doctors and teachers and lawyers and entrepreneurs, etc. had to live in those areas. Now, they are free to move where ever, and the regions they left behind are struggling due to lack of talent.

I also find it odd to find so many fretting about migration domestically when they cheer it internationally. Plenty of people are both anti-brain drain and pro-immigration, which to me seems logically inconsistent since they are basically the same thing.

Aaron Renn's comment manages to be as thought-provoking as one would expect from The Urbanophile, while missing the point. The argument by the authors of "Hollowing Out The Middle" (and by me) is not to discourage bright, college-bound kids from leaving small towns, nor to criticize their parents and schools from grooming them for success in the outside world. Both Aaron and I, like so many others, fled small Midwestern towns for the city and never regretted it: he's also right that the cities themselves benefit from this exodus.

The argument instead is the well-being of the towns they leave behind and the people who will spend their lives there. As Carr, Kefalas and I argue, the global post-industrial society has left these little places adrift. Their revival doesn't depend on keeping the Leavers, but on preparing the Stayers for a life in this new society. This is what these towns in general and schools in particular are failing to do. If these towns want to have a future, this is job one.

I don't think Aaron denies that the "brain drain" exists. He only seems to dispute that it's a problem that must be addressed. His argument seems to be that since cities increasingly are the focus of economic activity and the drivers of our regional future (no argument there), then any attention to the shrinking rural areas is some sort of mercantilist social and eocnomic engineering that is not only doomed but wrong. (He probably should read "The Bell Curve:" it's not the firmest foundation for his argument.)

This gets to his big question: Why should we care? He's right that, in my book, I painted a bleak picture of small-town and rural life and its probable future. This was descriptive, not prescriptive. Small towns like "Ellis" have a lot of strikes against them in this global society. Perhaps they will simply die out. So what?

For one thing, all these places are little civilizations unto themselves. All have value, recognized by most of us who left and cherished by those who stay. This is a human problem and can no more be shrugged off than we shrug off the condition of lives in inner city ghettos.

If we lose these little towns, we lose part of our Midwestern culture. Perhaps we will lose them, but the preservation of this culture seems worth the struggle.

But let's face it, most of this struggle is up to the towns themselves. If they're going to be saved, they have to be saved by the people who live there. That's what Carr and Kefalas are writing about. The rest of the Midwest has too much to do to reinvent its overall economy, reform its higher education, rebuilt its infrastructure, and that, like our economic future, means a focus on cities. Public policy can help: the current emphasis on community colleges is a plus: so would be a more rational farm policy and infrastructure moves like the spread of fiber optics. But public policy, being aimed to the needs of the majority, will necessarily and rightly focus on cities.

Some small towns don't care. These towns are so dominated by a nostalgia for the past that they can't think about the future. So turn out the lights. But others want to be part of this new age. Whether they succeed is up to them, and Carr and Kefalas post some guides. There's a good deal of thinking about this going on now, and I intend to feature some of it here. Perhaps the biggest contribution is a Heartland Paper by Mark Drabenstott, the former rural specialist for the Kansas City Federal Reserve Bank, which the Global Midwest Initiative plans to publish soon. It's worth waiting for.

I'll be interested in seeing that paper.

My view on brain drain is that it is wrong because it fixates on outflow. The real net brain loss results in my view from a lack of inflow. Many people leave, say, Chicago. But people are always coming to replace them.

I don't see that small town culture lasting long. Perhaps it never really existed, or at least not without supporting social structures and norms we might find noxious today.

If there is a future in these towns, it is probably from some mixture of:

- Natural resource exploitation (coal, wind, rock, etc)
- Recreation (in selected areas) and second homes
- Specialty farming (such as organic farming)
- Attracting telecommuters who want a rural life
- A limited number of boomerang professional (such as the doctor in my hometown who decided to come back and dedicate his professional life to serving the needs of that community).
- Remittances (similar to how some Mexican towns survive). This could include things such as children who moved away paying for elderly parents medical care, home care, etc.
- People who commute to nearby cities
- Some limited industry

There is certainly plenty of room for helping people who aren't going to university to:

- Graduate from high school
- Not have teenage or out of wedlock births
- Avoiding drug abuse
- Training in the trades, if near enough a city to practice them

etc. But ultimately there has to be some economic basis for these places.

What I think would be proper is to make sure urban norms aren't imposed on rural residents. Urban dwellers are far too keen to punish rural areas through environmental laws that hurt the resource extraction, recreation, and agricultural industries. It shouldn't be criminal to ride in the bed of a pickup truck. Also, I've noticed a big trend in arresting people who otherwise never would have ended up in jail when I was younger. It's a much more criminalized environment. Let's let the country by the country. (One might encourage rural residents similarly with regards to cities).

Mr. Longworth presents a false choice: Invest in the stayers or die. Rural communities should understand that such an initiative will enable more talent to leave. The pull upwards in the urban hierarchy is one of the defining features of globalization. Many of the stayers are, in a word, stuck.

The irony is that no one talks about all the people who leave global cities such as Chicago, a domestic migration loser. Take away immigration and Chicago is a shrinking city. That's true for many global cities in the wealthiest countries. Atlanta, Dallas, Tampa, Denver, and Boston all carp about brain drain.

As brain drain is commonly understood, encouraging greater education attainment is civic suicide. That's an absurd stance. The only solution is attraction. The communities which refuse to embrace this paradigm are the ones committing civic suicide.

As an aside, some evidence of brain gain in rural Minnesota:


I would note that the overall economic picture is a lot more complicated than just who leaves and who is left behind.

It would be interesting to know how the 40-somethings who are moving into the western Nebraska panhandle are supporting themselves. Does anybody know the answer to that question?

Gary Davis
Board Solutions

Even in cities today it's winner-take-all. Chicago, Atlanta, Boston all lose out to New York. As every thriving economic sector goes global, there are not many other levels left to make a living on.

As far as quality of life, it's already getting hard for even a 2nd tier city to support its own cultural scene, no matter how many bright shiny engineers and marketing folks it may support. They usually prefer to live in developments and watch the toob anyway.

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