Creative-Class Brain Drain

Better than any other country in recent years, America has
developed new technologies and ideas that spawn new industries and
modernize old ones, from the Internet to big-box stores to
innovative product designs. We came up with these new technologies
and ideas largely because we were able to energize and attract the
best and the brightest, not just from our country but also from
around the world. Talented, educated immigrants and smart,
ambitious young Americans congregated, during the 1980s and 1990s,
in and around a dozen U.S. city-regions. These areas became
hothouses of innovation, the modern-day equivalents of Renaissance
city-states, where scientists, artists, designers, engineers,
financiers, marketers, and sundry entrepreneurs fed off each
other’s knowledge, energy, and capital to make new products, new
services, and whole new industries.

But cities from Sydney to Brussels to Dublin to Vancouver are
fast becoming creative-class centers to rival Boston, Seattle, and
Austin. They’re doing it through a variety of means — from
government-subsidized labs to partnerships between top local
universities and industry. Most of all, they’re luring foreign
creative talent, including our own. The result is that the sort of
high-end, high-margin creative industries that used to be the
United States’ province and a crucial source of our prosperity have
begun to move overseas. The most advanced cell phones are being
made in Salo, Finland, not Chicago. The world’s leading airplanes
are being designed and built in Toulouse and Hamburg, not
Seattle.

As other nations become more attractive to mobile immigrant
talent, America is becoming less so. A recent study by the National
Science Board found that the U.S. government issued 74,000 visas
for immigrants to work in science and technology in 2002, down from
166,000 in 2001 — an astonishing drop of 55 percent. This is
matched by similar, though smaller-scale, declines in other
categories of talented immigrants, from finance experts to
entertainers. Part of this contraction is derived from what we hope
are short-term security concerns, as federal agencies have
restricted visas from certain countries since September 11. More
disturbingly, we find indications that fewer educated foreigners
are choosing to come to the United States. For instance, most of
the decline in science and technology immigrants in the National
Science Board study was due to a drop in applications.

Why would talented foreigners avoid us? In part because other
countries are simply doing a better, more aggressive job of
recruiting them. The technology bust also plays a role. There are
fewer jobs for computer engineers, and even top foreign scientists
who might still have their pick of great cutting-edge research
positions are less likely than they were a few years ago to make
millions through tech-industry partnerships.

But having talked to hundreds of talented professionals in a
half dozen countries over the past year, I’m convinced that the
biggest reason has to do with the changed political and policy
landscape in Washington. In the 1990s, the federal government
focused on expanding America’s human capital and interconnectedness
to the world — crafting international trade agreements, investing
in cutting-edge research and development, subsidizing higher
education and public access to the Internet, and encouraging
immigration. But in the past three years, the government’s
attention and resources have shifted to older sectors of the
economy, with tariff protection and subsidies to extractive
industries. Meanwhile, Washington has stunned scientists across the
world with its disregard for consensus scientific views when those
views conflict with the interests of favored sectors (as has been
the case with the issue of global climate change). Most of all, in
the wake of 9/11, Washington has inspired the fury of the world,
especially of its educated classes, with its my-way-or-the-highway
foreign policy. In effect, for the first time in our history, we’re
saying to highly mobile and very finicky global talent, ‘You don’t
belong here.’

Obviously, this shift has come about with the changing of the
political guard in Washington, from the internationalist Bill
Clinton to the aggressively unilateralist George W. Bush. But its
roots go much deeper, to a tectonic change in the country’s
political-economic demographics. As many have noted, America is
becoming more geographically polarized, with the culturally more
traditionalist, rural, small-town, and exurban ‘red’ parts of the
country increasingly voting Republican, and the culturally more
progressive urban and suburban ‘blue’ areas going ever more
Democratic. Less noted is the degree to which these lines demarcate
a growing economic divide, with ‘blue’ patches representing the
talent-laden, immigrant-rich creative centers that have largely
propelled economic growth, and the ‘red’ parts representing the
economically lagging hinterlands. The migrations that feed
creative-center economies are also exacerbating the contrasts. As
talented individuals, eager for better career opportunities and
more adventurous, diverse lifestyles, move to the innovative
cities, the hinterlands become even more culturally conservative.
Now, the demographic dynamic that propelled America’s creative
economy has produced a political dynamic that could choke that
economy off. Though none of the candidates for president has quite
framed it that way, it’s what’s really at stake in the 2004
elections.

Richard Florida is the Heinz professor of economic
development at Carnegie Mellon University and the author of

The Rise of the Creative Class. Excerpted from The
Washington Monthly (Jan./Feb. 2004). Subscriptions: $44.95 (10
issues) from 733 15th St. NW, Suite 520, Washington, DC 20005;
www.washington
monthly.com

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