Intellectual Property

In Defense of Brain Drain

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Could brain drain be good for poor countries? A new study finds that when "brains" leave their native countries, their fellow citizens may benefit more from their smarts and creativity than if they had chosen to stay.

Imagine, if you will, foreign movie makers who come to California. They are much more likely to make excellent movies there–or even to make movies at all, really–and more of their countrymen will get to watch them when they appear, especially if their countrymen have few qualms about bootlegs.

The authors, economists Peter J. Kuhn and Carol McAusland, write that those who remain behind "benefit because 'their' brains produce 'better' knowledge (such as more effective medicines, more entertaining movies, or more effective software) abroad than if they had remained at home." This is particularly true in situations where a discrepancy between protections for intellectual property at home and abroad makes it easy for residents of the innovators' countries of origin to enjoy the fruits of their labors with low transaction costs.

Previous studies have demonstrated the benefits of cash remittances and return migration, suggesting that money (and people) returning after a stint abroad is the best arrangement. Likewise, the possibility of making big money abroad seems to lead to higher overall educational attainment in certain circumstance. Since not everyone who dreams of emigrating and prepares to do so actually will, those who remain behind may be better educated overall. The mere possibility of skilled worker emigration can "jump start" an economy.

Emigrants who produce "knowledge goods" for large foreign markets also create the largest gains for their home countries: "The emigration of a physician who spends all of her time treating patients (a private good) may be more likely to hurt the remaining residents of her country than the emigration of a physician primarily engaged in research on new treatments and medicines," the paper reports.

There are legitimate concerns that brain drain's short term benefits disguise the high costs of slowed long term growth in developing countries, but the body of work on the surprising upside of brain drain is growing.  

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  1. The big problem is not economic, but political. With the smart people gone, they’re neither running for office, running the country, or working as a check against demagogues inflaming the remaining, less-smart, population into stupid policies. Furthermore, with jobs like doctors, lawyers, etc being underfilled, the common people’s lot is worsened making it even easier for demagogues to get support.

    Economically, it may be superior, but it directly leads to lousy government by populist oligarchy.

    Imagine if the USA was entirely composed of Bubba with the 6-pack of bud and the confederate flag on his truck, Moonbeam the drugged-out commie hippie, and some inner-city drug dealers. We’d still be rich and prosperous for about two weeks, even with loads of remittances from abroad.

  2. Aren’t the benifits of braindrain at best just a work around for the real problem; corrupt governments who stifle the potential of their populations for the benifits of elites? Yeah, people coming here and reaching their potential is better than having them rot in some third world hell hole, but having them come here is not a sollution to the underlying problem.

  3. “Imagine, if you will, foreign movie makers who come to California. They are much more likely to make excellent movies there….”

    This is a defective premise.

  4. P Brooks-

    I kind of have to agree. Look at John Woo’s movies from when he lived in Hong Kong vs. the movies he’s made in Hollywood.

    Hard Boiled is probably the best action film ever made. Wind Talkers, well, not so much.

    That said, if you live in a country where there is zero opportunity to make a film, then it behooves you to get out of that country and go somewhere with the technology and creative freedom to tell your story.

  5. ….but the body of work on the surprising upside of brain drain is growing….

    That’s what I told my momma in high school. She wasn’t buyin’. Took the car keys anyway.

  6. it was horribaly written and needs to have mire written in it about the subjects and points its trying to reach the point ur an idiot at because u wrote this if u want to have a better article i will write one that actually will hit the point

  7. it was horribaly written and needs to have mire written in it about the subjects and points its trying to reach the point ur an idiot at because u wrote this if u want to have a better article i will write one that actually will hit the point

    um, ok. Will you use punctuation? 😉

  8. Jared: I look 4werrd to reeding mire of ur righting.

  9. So that’s the real strategy for victory in Iraq!

    Create an environment that is so horrible that all the smart people will leave. Then, once they’ve all gone, the remaining sectarian butchers and their victims will finally live in peace and prosperity.

    Seems like it would have been easier to just pump the oil there.

  10. Aren’t the benifits of braindrain at best just a work around for the real problem; corrupt governments who stifle the potential of their populations for the benifits of elites? Yeah, people coming here and reaching their potential is better than having them rot in some third world hell hole, but having them come here is not a sollution to the underlying problem.

    Everybody worried about the “brain drain” issue for the third world should remember that, ultimately, this is good for the U.S.

  11. The link to the paper seems broken.

  12. Wouldn’t it be easiest to say that the drain of producers of goods can be beneficial under some circumstances, but the drain of those who provide services is not?

  13. I’m calling bullshit on this one, Katherine.

    First, let’s get rid of Hollywood example because there are number of flaws with it. One of which is the idea that the people of Zimbabwe care really care about the relative quality of the “Zimbabwean John Woo’s” movies. What they care about is eating, having shelter and having clothes.

    Instead, let’s look at two other examples. Maybe an inventor and a scientist.

    As for the inventor, no way is Zimbabwe better off if he leaves. Even if the inventor could design a “Great” invention in the US, but only a “good” invention in Zimbabwe, Zimbabweans are better with just the “good” invention because more of them get jobs manufacturing, marketing and selling the invention. As they make salaries, they buy things from others in Zimbabwe which raises everyone’s income and quality of life.

    Admittedly, the scientist gets a little more complicated. I suppose if the drug the scientist would develop in the United States is SO great that its effects would be felt all the way in Zimbabwe, the people would arguably be better off. But that assumes that they have the money to purchase the drug. Without jobs created by smart inventors and businessmen, they may not be able to.

    I have no doubt that it is better for the world to pool all the smart people in a few countries so that they can share resources and maximize their creative output — but it is not better for the countries that are left behind.

    One last thought, if the smart people are true problem solvers, they are likely going to be inspired to solve the problems that they see around them. If they are in the United States, they might invest the next Tivo. Great for us, not so great for Zimbabwe. If they are over there though, they might invent a cheaper way to make a water irrigation system or another more productive farming method. That clearly benefits other Zimbabweans, but the smart people will never realize those inventions if they are out of their country.

  14. Bryan, if a Zimbabwian Thomas Edison invented a Star Trek Food Dispenser, even if he wasn’t killed by a War Lord or Government troops and his invention stolen for military use, he still would be unable to obtain financing to manufacture the device.

    And even if he did get financing to begin manufacturing, half his work force would die from AIDS every month and would he would need to rehire and retrain constantly.

    Better for his fellow Zimbabwians (and the world), not to mention himself that he get the hell out of Dodge and find someplace with more sagety and security to build his food replicator.

  15. Wouldn’t it be easiest to say that the drain of producers of goods can be beneficial under some circumstances, but the drain of those who provide services is not?

    Maybe it’s just me, but aren’t “goods” and “services” really the same thing?

  16. Just a little libertarian fundamentalism here:

    The brains in question belong to the people who have them, not to the “nation”, the “people” or the “government” of whatever country they happen to have lived in.

    I recognize that most educational systems are owned and run by governments, but the fact that the people in question received their education in a coercive monopoly does not give the state running that monopoly a proprietary interest in those people.

    If you don’t want your brainy people to run away, try making your country into a place people want to live and where they can get ahead.

  17. Actually, there is something to this argument.

    I think if we got the smartest people in this country (that is, the ones at the top) to leave, we might indeed be better off.

    The country they go to, on the other hand…

  18. “Maybe it’s just me, but aren’t “goods” and “services” really the same thing?”

    No. Goods are tangible things: apples, oranges, etc. Services are not tangible things: picking apples, oranges, etc.

  19. Aresen: You’re right. However, as a hypothetical, “wouldn’t it be nice,” thing, rather than as a “let’s make people do this” thing, third-world countries would be better off if the smart people stayed. The smart people, however, would suffer.

    This is one of those instances where the cure is worse than the disease and we should do nothing, but there still is a disease.

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