Friday, February 22, 2008

Leaving the country

ChairsWhen economists want to know what people think they try to avoid relying upon asking them. Surveys, opinion polls, personal anecdote and other ways in which people express their opinion can often be misleading or distorted. When and how a question is asked and how it is phrased can seriously affect the outcome of a poll. More importantly, people may express a certain preference in a poll but make quite different choices when asked to make real decisions with real consequences.

It is often better to look at revealed preferences; how people actually behave when faced with actual decisions in real life rather than hypotheticals in a survey.

Some dramatic new evidence of this kind emerged yesterday. High staff turnover often suggests that an organisation is not a pleasant place to work. High numbers of asylum seekers from Venezuela suggest that Hugo Chavez's rule is not very pleasant. The Army's recruitment and retention difficulties suggest that the poor management of the Armed Forces is making them an increasingly unpleasant place to work. In that light, the evidence yesterday that Britain is facing the biggest brain drain in 50 years, that those most able to leave are doing so, is an alarming suggestion that things are going very wrong in Britain today:

"There are now 3.247 million British-born people living abroad, of whom more than 1.1 million are highly-skilled university graduates, say the researchers.

More than three quarters of these professionals have settled abroad for more than 10 years, according to the study by the Organisation of Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).

No other nation is losing so many qualified people, it points out. Britain has now lost more than one in 10 of its most skilled citizens, while overall only Mexico has had more people emigrate."

Why are people leaving? One suggestion:

"Prof David Coleman, of St John's, Oxford, said the brain drain was "to do with quality of life, laws and bureaucracy, tax and all the rest of it"."

Ever higher levels of tax; little to show by way of public service results for that huge drain on private incomes; an overly meddlesome state that leaves people bereft of control over their own lives. Yesterday's emigration numbers should be a wake-up call for a nation whose government is attempting to do too much and doing a very poor job of it. If things don't change Britain will continue to lose far too many of its best and brightest.

Cross-posted from the TaxPayers' Alliance blog.


Jonny Newton said...

Also there's a lower cultural & linguistic cost to Britons emigrating, as there are many attractive destinations which have English as their first language.

Anonymous said...

How does this compare to other changes in British history? For example the Saxon or Roman invasions? Britain is moving in an interesting direction: post-English, post-christian, maybe post-royalty? That may be sad to those born in those eras, but isn't it really just the way all British history has gone?

Dayton, Ohio, USA

Matthew Sinclair said...

I think the numbers are high relative to the Roman, Norman and Huguenot immigrations. Low relative to the Saxons.

Anonymous said...

It's not their country anyway, it belongs to the Mexicans.


Anonymous said...

Let's just go ahead and use the M Word. Many Britons are leaving because they don't want to live under the reign of idiotic political correctness and civilizational self loathing that is slowly but surely turning the UK into the "Islamic Republic of Britain".

Anonymous said...

Why would a country's best and brightest be willing participants in that country's suicide?

Anonymous said...

4:55 PM,

It's called rational self-interest or self-preservation, or maybe even enlightened self-interest if those leaving think it will bring their countrymen to their senses.

Anonymous said...

I predicted this a couple years ago. We'll start seeing it from other Western European nations. Time to re-open Ellis Island.

Anonymous said...

No need for Ellis Island. Let them fly to Mexico, and they can then walk across the border.

Anonymous said...

I urge all skilled non-socialist English who want to leave to come to America. You will be warmly welcomed. Become a citizen and then warn your fellow Americans of the fate that befell your former country.

Anonymous said...

As one of those who left the UK, for love though not economics. I look across the ocean and am fearful of what is becoming of England. I choose not to use UK wisely because asde from all else it is in danger of fragmentation. As an American and proud now,I would urge all to be vigilant that we do not slide into socialist multicultural political correctness. We are the USA we are Christian, speak English and uphold our traditional values despite those who decry any and all of these things. GOD BLESS AMERICA.

Jim O'Sullivan said...

So this is why we have to put up with Andrew Sullivan?

Polish Immigrant said...

Left Poland 20 years ago. Moved to US. Started at $6/hr, making 6 figures now. If Obama wins and manages to implement his policies, I will be paying more than 50% of what I make in taxes. I will be half-enslaved by the state. Where will I go? Switzerland?

Anonymous said...

Ever since Benny Hill died, the country just hasn't been the same.

Anonymous said...

This is truly tragic, as the history of freedom is told in English. The Magna Carta, Declaration of Independence, and "Common Sense" are in English and this is not an accident. Patrick Henry screamed for liberty in English. Adam Smith and John Locke were from the Isles. The Founding Fathers were only a few generations removed from England. Benjamin Franklin was dismayed at the level of freedom in England, yet he acknowledged it to be the best in Europe.

William Wilberforce's native tongue was not French, Spanish, Portugese, Russian, Chinese or Arabic. Speaking as an American, if the cradle of liberty, England, wills away its freedoms, it will be very sad. Just let us rebury Churchill here, in his mother's country, so he doesn't have to lie buried under tyranny.

Anonymous said...

They don't want to live in Londonistan.

cato said...

With all due respect to Nikrite, most of the Brits I meet who've moved to the U.S. bring their pro-statist, pro-multiculti attitudes with them. Like most liberal yuppies, there is a disconnect between what they prefer for themselves (low taxes, economic freedom), and what they support in terms of government policy.

My pet theory on this: Because most (again, pace Nikrite) are atheistic or agnostic, they use politics as a form of absolution for their sense of guilt over their personal success.

donpaskini said...

What you don't mention is that there are more graduates coming to live in Britain than the number leaving for other countries.

I liked how you explained that economists try to avoid using personal anecdote as an explanation, and then explained why people are moving abroad by, um, referring to an anecdote.

scottynx said...

donpaskini writes: "there are more graduates coming to live in Britain than the number leaving for other countries"

So Britain is still a better place for skilled graduates than third world countries are. We are supposed to be impressed with that?

Anonymous said...

Fine comment Cato but, I fear you may live in one of those areas where the ex-pat Brits tend to 'huddle'. I do not, oh sure, there are plenty here but aside from the odd visual clue we have all gone native. Yes you notice the ones who have not integrated, those of us who have are more difficult to spot until we open our mouths. Just for any American friends reading this, NO! I don't understand the rules of cricket either.

Matthew Sinclair said...


Where's the anecdote? There's an assertion but that's very different to an anecdote.

Also, your comparison of raw number in the immigrant population and emigrant population is unfair. There are more immigrants.

We're losing Britain's best and brightest. We're then getting a lot more people. Some of those are skilled but a lower rate (most immigrants are low skilled - see the archive on this). The two processes leave our population with a significantly lower average level of skill.

Plus, as scottnyx says it doesn't seem much of an achievement to be the mid-point that the poor world want to enter but existing citizens want to leave. We shouldn't be some kind of mid-point.

Meg said...

DEFINITELY not wading into this discussion, but I just wanted to say I really like the photo you used in this entry.

Biff said...

I'm afraid that cato was right in his earlier comment that "most of the Brits I meet who've moved to the U.S. bring their pro-statist, pro-multiculti attitudes with them. Like most liberal yuppies, there is a disconnect between what they prefer for themselves (low taxes, economic freedom), and what they support in terms of government policy." That is exactly the same story for many people in the US who leave states like Massachusetts, New York, and California, only to land in less expensive states like North Carolina, Nevada, and Montana and then demand the same policies from which they fled. I really believe that they don't see the connection between the policies and the results.

donpaskini said...

The statement that 'we are left with an average lower level of skill' is just an assertion (even supposing you could work out how to measure this). More graduates are moving to the UK (from all parts of the world, not just developing countries) than the number who are leaving.

I think it is good that British graduates are able to choose where in the world they want to work. You don't seem to have any actual evidence about why they are not working in Britain, just a list of things that you personally don't like about Britain. I could equally well argue that the much maligned British education system can't be so bad if it is producing all these people able to find highly skilled and paid work in the international labour market.

If it resulted in a shortage of graduates, that would be something to worry about, but it clearly isn't.

Matthew Sinclair said...


You're completely ignoring my argument so I'm not sure it's worth continuing this but I'll try again. Your use of the absolute numnbers is misleading. Those who are entering the country are disproportionately low skilled (there are numbers for this) whereas those who are leaving are disproportionately high skilled. As such, even if there are absolutely more skilled people in the country (as the population goes up with immigration) we will have a lower portion of our population skilled.

If you can't understand that then stop being so arrogant in your approach to my arguments.

As to the final section of my piece. Yes, it was assertion. This is a blog and not every post is a treatise. Sometimes I'm just recording my thoughts. I do have both logic and some evidence to back up some of my assertions but I didn't include it here. That's for another day with more time.

Meg, I'm glad you like the picture. I love it.

Anonymous said...

Polish Immigrant said, "If Obama wins and manages to implement his policies,... Where will I go? Switzerland?

He doesn't sound like much of an American but rather more like a foreign mercenary who shows loyalty only to making money.

America gives him a new home, a refugee from his then communist Poland, but he will move on to another land that pays better or has lower taxes. If past immigrants were of this type, America never would have become great.

Instead of working to change the system or working to save his "adopted" homeland from falling into ruin, Polish "immigrant" (Polish Mercenary)has stated that he will just bail out.

I'm sure glad that not all Americans share this attitude.

But too many recent immigrants do.
(To Polish Immigrant's credit, he has learned English and adapted very well, it is even more a shame that he wishes to bail out of his adopted nation when times get tough instead of being here for the long-haul. I wish all immigrants had his attitudes, except for the America-is-a-place-to-make-money, not a home, belief system)

donpaskini said...


I'd be interested to see your numbers about immigrants being disproportionately low skilled. The OECD found that 34.8% of foreign born workers living in Britain had a higher education qualification, compared to 20.1% of Britons. From the OECD figures that you cite in your post, just over a third of the Britons living abroad are graduates (just over 1.1M out of about 3.25M).

To be fair, there are questions about whether having a degree is really a sign of being a skilled worker, and the changing nature of the labour market means that Britain needs more skilled workers than ever before. There is also a real problem with migrant workers who are employed in jobs which are well below their skill level.

But I think that revealed preference overall tells a good story about Britain in 2008, one where millions of Brits have the opportunity to go and work wherever in the world they want to, and where an even greater number of skilled workers from all over the world (first as well as third world) want to come here to work. It certainly doesn't support the conclusion that this is a government trying to do too much and doing a poor job of it.

Matthew Sinclair said...


The NIESR, here:, confirm that immigrants are concentrated in low skilled professions. They will exacerbate, rather than compensate for, the loss of high-skilled workers to immigration. Graduate figures can be distorting because there is a huge skilled workforce in the UK without a degree as the numbers going to university only recently ramped up. You're overemphasising formal education.

I don't think the revealed preferences story you tell stands up. After all, Americans, Canadians and Australians all have the same opportunities to go elsewhere. They don't leave in the same numbers. That our country is an improvement for, for example, poor Pakistanis doesn't seem like much of an achievement. As such, relative to developed countries the revealed preferences suggest Britain has real problems.

Anonymous said...