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Amy Wax and intellectual dishonesty–“brain drain” argument has been thoroughly debunked

There are many instances of falsehoods, half truths and logical fallacies riddling the recent speech given by University of Pennsylvania law professor Amy Wax at the National Conservative Conference in Washington DC.  In this article, I will focus on just one paragraph of Wax’s speech, but one that reveals an utter lack of intellectual honesty.

Here’s What Amy Wax Really Said About Immigration

A transcript of the entire speech as well as the Q&A session that followed have been posted here.


Lately, there has been talk of reforming the law to favor skilled immigrants, as do countries like Canada and Australia. Although unskilled immigration should be reduced, I believe, replacing the less educated with higher-skilled foreigners is not the answer either. By draining talent and energy from places that desperately need them, and especially people who are educated at public expense abroad, an overly generous immigration policy will inevitably damage the countries left behind.

This is the classic “brain drain” argument.  And it is an argument that has been thoroughly rejected by all serious thinkers who have studied the issue.  And this research and evidence can be available using google in a matter of minutes.

For example:

Return Migration as a Channel of Brain Gain

Karin MayrGiovanni Peri

NBER Working Paper No. 14039
Issued in May 2008

Recent theoretical and empirical studies have emphasized the fact that the prospect of international migration increases the expected returns to skills in poor countries, linking the possibility of migrating (brain drain) with incentives to higher education (brain gain). If emigration is uncertain and some of the highly educated remain, such a channel may, at least in part, counterbalance the negative effects of brain drain. Moreover, recent empirical evidence seems to show that temporary migration is widespread among highly skilled migrants (such as Eastern Europeans in Western Europe and Asians in the U.S.). This paper develops a simple tractable overlapping generations model that provides an economic rationale for return migration and which predicts who will migrate and who will return among agents with heterogeneous abilities. We use parameter values from the literature and the data on return migration to simulate the model and quantify the effects of increased openness on human capital and wages of the sending countries. We find that, for plausible values of the parameters, the return migration channel is very important and combined with the incentive channel reverses the brain drain into significant brain gain for the sending country.

Brain Drain or Brain Gain? Micro Evidence from an African Success Story

Catia Batista , Aitor Lacuesta , and Pedro C. Vicente

This Draft: September 10, 2007.

Does emigration really drain human capital accumulation in origin countries? This paper explores a unique household survey purposely designed and conducted to answer this specific question for the case of Cape Verde – the African country with the largest fraction of tertiary educated population living abroad, despite also having a fast-growing stock of human capital. Unlike previous literature, our tailored survey allows us to adjust existing inflated “brain drain” numbers for educational upgrading of emigrants after migration. We do so by combining our survey data on current, return and non-migrants with information from censuses of the destination countries. Our micro data also enables us to propose a novel, explicit test of “brain gain” arguments according to which the possibility of own future emigration positively impacts educational attainment in the origin country. Crucially, the innovative empirical strategy we propose hinges on the ideal characteristics of our survey, namely on full histories of migrants and on a new set of exclusion restrictions to control for unobserved heterogeneity of emigrants. Our results point to a very substantial impact of the “brain gain” channel on the educational attainment of those left behind. Alternative channels (namely remittances, family disruption, and general equilibrium effects at the local level) are also considered, but these do not seem to play an important role. Overall, we find that there may be substantial human capital gains from allowing free migration and encouraging return migration

Skilled emigration and skill creation:  A quasi‐experiment 

Satish Chand  Michael A. Clemens

May 30, 2009

 Does the emigration of highly‐skilled workers deplete local human capital?  The answer is not obvious if migration prospects induce human capital formation.  We analyze a unique natural quasi‐experiment in the Republic of the Fiji Islands,  where political shocks have provoked one of the largest recorded exoduses of  skilled workers from a developing country. Mass emigration began unexpectedly  and has occurred only in a well‐defined subset of the population, creating a  treatment group that foresaw likely emigration and two different quasi‐control  groups that did not. We use rich census and administrative microdata to address a  range of concerns about experimental validity. This allows plausible causal  attribution of post‐shock changes in human capital accumulation to changes in  emigration patterns. We show that high rates of emigration by tertiary‐educated Fiji  Islanders not only raised investment in tertiary education in Fiji; they moreover  raised the stock of tertiary educated people in Fiji—net of departures.

And, finally, a great overview article:

The Myth of Brain Drain: How Emigration Can Help Poor Countries

When emigration is understood in terms of the immediate brain drain it results in, this scenario indeed looks very gloomy for low-income countries. But it is a mistake to understand emigration in this way. Contrary to the intuition of brain drain, the long-term interaction between emigrants and their countries of origin has huge potential for the development of poor, migrant-sending countries. Because emigration can improve the prospects of the origin nation, developing countries should cease efforts to limit skilled emigration and seek to realize the development potential presented by emigration.

Either Professor Wax is incapable of a rather simple google search, or she is willing to ignore the highest quality peer reviewed research on the subject of “brain drain” vs “brain gain” in pursuit of her anti-immigration agenda.  I will leave it to the reader to decide.

Whenever you hear Wax or any other immigration restrictionists make the “brain drain” argument, feel free to judge them as the intellectual hacks that they are.  In poker terms, we would call the “brain drain” argument a “tell“.

Steve Kuhn

IDEAL Immigration