Thinking about brain drain
By Ryan Edwards It is almost the tenth birthday of the article “Think Again: Brain Drain”, where Michael Clemens and David McKenzie – two of the best migration researchers – work through common concerns around the so-called “brain drain”. As much as I wish this were just a birthday celebration, most of the concerns discussed by Clemens and McKenzie persist today. It is thus worth circling back, taking stock of what has changed since, and thinking about how the arguments and evidence offered there remain relevant. In this first of three posts on this topic, I sketch out how one might think about brain drain in the context of Pacific labour mobility. Like them, I’ll do this by spelling out some key assumptions underpinning the idea of a brain drain. Why? Brain drain is essentially a theory, a theory that migration opportunities leave the domestic economy worse off due to skill depletion. Theories rely on assumptions, which we can and should be clear about. When assumptions break down, so often do the theory’s predictions.
The first assumption, which is at the heart of the brain drain theory and which Clemens and McKenzie highlight, is that migrant sending countries have a finite stock of skilled workers: when people leave, (a) they are never coming back, (b) people cannot immediately fill their shoes, and (c) they are not getting replaced. The supply of skilled workers must be, as economists say, perfectly inelastic. This assumption is mechanically true in the short-run: if one trained nurse leaves Kiribati today for the Whitsundays (even if they are coming back due to the visa rules), there is one less trained nurse in Kiribati tomorrow. As time passes, this assumption weakens. In many Pacific economies there are fewer jobs than there are people willing and trained …read more