Ideas to Action:

Independent research for global prosperity

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If you found a trillion-dollar bill on the sidewalk, would you pick it up? Michael Clemens thinks he has found a bunch of such bills—huge gains to the poor people and the world economy that could be achieved by easing restrictions on cross-border labor mobility.  He has written a working paper that sets forth a new research agenda on migration and is urging economists to pay more attention to the benefits of increased labor mobility for the people who move, the people and countries that receive them, and those who remain at home. In this week’s Wonkcast we discuss his four-point research agenda, and explore why some important questions about labor mobility are so rarely investigated.

Take the topic of so-called “brain drain.” While plenty of research has gone into documenting the exodus of skilled workers from developing countries, Michael says, little research has examined the actual effects of these departures on those left behind—and even less has considered the welfare gains to those who move. “When people talk about migration at the international level, they tend to only focus on the costs,” says Michael. “This negative labeling happens to such a degree that they eventually define the movement with a pejorative little rhyme, brain drain.”

Other topics are politically sticky. For example, do emigrants really suppress wages and raise unemployment in host countries, as opponents of migration often allege? What little research there is suggests otherwise.

Given the strength of emotions that surround the topic in high-income countries, can such research make a difference? Michael is no stranger to difficult politics of migration, but he remains hopeful that sound research on the benefits to all of increased mobility will open the way for reform—and he points out that even a relatively minor liberalization of restrictions on entry can have huge impact. “A degree of increased labor movement from poor to rich countries of just 5%... would bring more economic gains than the total elimination of every tariff, quota, and barrier to capital movement in the world,” he says.

To end, I ask Michael to wrap up with some final thoughts on where migration studies should be headed. His final consideration for economists: development is people, not places. “People in development are too focused on developing countries rather than people,” he says. “But there is very little research on the migrants themselves. Let’s focus on that. Now that they are earning more, let’s find out what is happening to them.”

If you have iTunes, you can subscribe to get new episodes delivered straight to your computer every week.My thanks to Will McKitterick for his production assistance on the Wonkcast recording and for assistance in drafting this blog post.