Has “Brain Drain” warped government and created hyper-partisan politics?
Back in the day I was a reporter in mid-sized metro areas, and the fear of “brain drain” was significant: our children go to college and they don’t come back. Even local colleges, filled with local students, were often a passport out of town. It was a real thing, everyone knew it, it was a bi-partisan problem — and most of the measures proposed were self-evidently stupid. One county-executive proposed the creation of a glossy “lifestyle magazine” for college students highlighting how great it would be to live and work there. Even then, “the kids” weren’t reading magazines anymore, and were not interested in the County Executive’s idea of cool. Genuinely significant approaches (I was in favor of offering the central city’s abandoned housing stock to graduates willing to stick around for a few years) never got serious consideration.
But the issue was always framed as a demographic and economic one: if young people don’t stay, and old people die, how do we keep the region from eventually collapsing in on itself?
Two recent articles, which have nothing to do with one another but pair elegantly, suggest that brain drain is also at the heart of our nation’s political problems — and is the reason we are collapsing in on ourselves.
Writing in the New York Times, David Brooks writes that “the rotting of the Republican mind” is a side-effect of regions losing access to the 21st century economy as their educated students all leave town:
“Over the past decades the information age has created a lot more people who make their living working with ideas, who are professional members of this epistemic process. The information economy has increasingly rewarded them with money and status. It has increasingly concentrated them in ever more prosperous metro areas.
While these cities have been prospering, places where fewer people have college degrees have been spiraling down: flatter incomes, decimated families, dissolved communities. In 1972, people without college degrees were nearly as happy as those with college degrees. Now those without a degree are far more unhappy about their lives.”
The result is that the increasingly empty places in our country experience
“populist backlashes against the highly educated folks who have migrated to the cities and accrued significant economic, cultural and political power. Will Wilkinson of the Niskanen Center calls this the “Density Divide.” It is a bitter cultural and political cold war.
In the fervor of this enmity, millions of people have come to detest those who populate the epistemic regime, who are so distant, who appear to have it so easy, who have such different values, who can be so condescending. Millions not only distrust everything the “fake news” people say, but also the so-called rules they use to say them.”
Having passed a threshold, the brain drain has now been bad enough for Red counties that it has warped our politics. It has turned Red counties against the very institutions of American economic power and prosperity — which is why, as I’ve noted before, Blue counties are now better at 21st century capitalism.
Writing in The Atlantic, Derek Thompson makes a compelling case that the concentration of degree holders in major metro areas is equally warping — and in many ways just as bad for Blue counties.
One reason is the structure of our representative government. Concentrating blue voters in metro areas is a terrible way to stay competitive in the senate and in state legislatures.
“One analysis of Census Bureau data projected that by 2040, roughly half of the population will be represented by 16 senators; the other, more rural half will have 84 senators at their disposal. If Democrats don’t find a way to broaden their coalition into less populous states with smaller metro areas, it may be impossible to pass liberal laws for the next generation.”
An equally significant reason is that when you put a bunch of educated information economy workers together, they reinforce their own biases in exactly the way everybody else does — only they call it a “meritocracy.” This pulls the core cities further and further away, culturally, from the rest of the country — creating an economic and cultural elite who really are incredibly out of touch.
Thompson calls them “Instagram Socialists,” and his description is just too good to miss:
Instagram socialists are highly educated, but not necessarily high-earning, urbanites who shop like capitalists and post like Marxists and frequently do so in adjacent tabs. Many of their causes are virtuous, such as universal health care and higher pay for low-income service workers. But given the dynamics of online communication, which prizes extremity, Instagram socialism usually functions as a crowd-sourcing exercise to brand widely appealing ideas in their most emotional and viral — and, therefore, most radical — fashion. Thus, major police reform (a popular idea) is branded “Abolish the Police” (an unpopular idea); a welcoming disposition toward immigrants (a popular idea) is blurred with calls for open borders (an unpopular idea); and universal health care (a popular idea) is folded into socialism (an unpopular idea).
“Defund police, open borders, socialism — it’s killing us,” said Representative Vicente Gonzalez, a Democrat from South Texas who nearly lost a district this year he’d previously won by 20 points. Beyond giving Republicans and Fox News easy ways to tarnish otherwise appealing reforms, Instagram socialism’s sloganeering is a turnoff for moderates who spend time online but are not, in the modern capital-O sense, Online. The average voter in a general election is something like a moderate 50-year-old woman without a four-year college degree who stays away from partisan media and follows politics only occasionally. She might hate Trump, but her dispositional conservatism makes her less likely to embrace policies tweaked in a social-media lab for viral emotionality.
Instagram Socialists are effectively becoming a third party, one that has no appeal outside their core constituency — and is often actively loathed by the people it needs to build coalitions with.
Meanwhile — to extend beyond Thomson’s analysis — for all that Blue counties are far and away the wealthiest in the nation, they are also some of the most difficult to live in: schools are dropout mills, real estate prices are impossible, segregation is actually the worst in the nation, it’s hard to raise a family …
It turns out that concentrating all your educated people into major metro cities isn’t so good for them, either.
Is there a genuine solution to our country’s divisions that don’t involve more of us living in the same communities, being neighbors, and working together to build local prosperity? Short of an incredibly lucky break, it’s hard to fathom.
We desperately need businesses that can relocate to the middle of the country to do this again — or, better yet, a Universal Basic Income which will make it possible for people to move out to those areas and develop them up again without risking economic devastation. The brain drain is good for no one. Not even the “winners.” We need to create circumstances in which people move to major metro areas because that’s where they want to live, not because it’s the only place they can find work.