What Happens When the World’s Best, Brightest Have Better Options?
(A review of Exceptional People: How Migration Shaped Our World and Will Define Our Future, Princeton University Press, $35.00)
Migration is a tricky topic for discussion. Not only it is politically loaded, but the data sets which economists, demographers and social scientists can use to define the parameters of migration are inconsistent and not exactly plentiful. So when a team of authors endeavors to overcome the hurdles and produces a first rate primer for a general audience, it’s worthy of note.
To understand migration is to understand one of the great macro-impulses of our species. Our ancestors’ urge to range out of eastern Africa 10,000 years ago was the start of an historic cycle of social dispersal and consolidation. That distribution of humanity to try, err and succeed on this vast and variable planet gave us, in it’s brightest moments, the Axial Age, the Renaissance and the exponential advances of the Industrial Era. It also gave us the Dark Ages in Europe, the forced migration of 100M Africans in the name of nationalism during the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries, and the periodic decimation of societies from disease or genocide.
But this look at migration offered up by Ian Goldin and his colleagues, Geoffrey Cameron and Meera Balarajan, is most compelling when it goes beyond the point of view of national economies and examines the economic impact at the personal level. Many decisions to migrate, domestically or internationally, are made at the family level. Often, one of more children in the family are chosen by the family to migrate, take advantages of the wage disparities between developing and developed nations and send back remittances. These payments home can the life blood of many local economies in developing nations, even providing a stabilizing force to the vagaries of local economic booms and busts. In the highly individualistic society of the United States, these family-first motivations don’t immediately spring to mind. But understanding them is key to crafting effective migration policies in the future.
No matter your political stance on migration, in the next 10 years nations immigration policies will definitely need adjustment – the dictate of demographics. The population replacement rate for society is 2.1 children per woman. And as women move from rural to urban settings they typically chose (or more to the point, can chose) to have less children. Thus many developed countries have replacement rates well below 2.1 (Japan, for example, is estimated to be 1.39 in 2012) and will face significant economic issues as a result. The US has held this backslide at bay despite increasing urbanization. How? Immigration. (The influx of Latinos in the 1980s and 1990s lead to a boost in the US fertility rate.)
Beyond smoothing out population extremes, migration, the authors point out, lead to the sharing of diverse ideas and therefore innovation. They cite US dominance in the world partly as a result of it’s policies on migration. But what happens when the world has fewer migrants, or when those migrants have more appealing choices. As more nations move toward “developed” status, the global replacement rate (already sinking since the 80s) will drift toward 0. Migrants, typically coming from developing countries (and mostly coming from Africa) will drift to societies where they are most accepted by local governments and existing social networks. Historically, the US has been that “city on the hill”. But its position as an attractor of high-skilled migrants is not a foregone conclusion, nor is its position as the world’s innovator. Migration policy will need to adapt to maintain competitive advantage globally.
Despite crafting an extensively documented work (nearly 40% of the book are endnotes), Goldin and his colleagues tend to stay away from more messy areas of study like sociology and anthropology. And sometimes their analysis seems a little too nice and neat. One area that particularly falls short is the way in which advances in technology could mitigate the need to tap the rising flows of immigrants from developing nations. Anyone who has read “Race Against the Machines” will know that technology could be a major disruption to migration of at least low-skilled laborers.
How technology may disrupt high skilled labor migration is harder envision. Regardless, the future of global human population dispersal is already in rough draft stage. Perhaps not quite as reliable as time and tide, but barring a black swan event, relatively knowable. The governments that adapt their migration policies earliest to create an equilibrium maximizing value for the host country, for these Exceptional People and for their families back home, stand to reap a significant competitive advantage characteristic of history’s most successful societies.
Ian Goldin also gave a great talk about this book at the Oxford Martin School of the London School of Economics. It’s worth a watch
And for another, shorter, perspective, The Economist had a good write up following the book’s release in May 2011. It subsequently became one of their best books of 2011.