Give me your caffeinated, your well-off, your above-average yearning to get ahead

The second time I stayed in Russia in the mid-90s, the host mom once gave her opinion about why America was so rich and why Russia would stay poor: America had attracted the most adventurous, “can-do” people from all over the world, who were willing and able to emigrate, while Russia was left with the “can’t-do” people who had stayed behind.

Whether or not this tells you much about Russia’s problems (or America’s strengths), it seems likely to me that at least some poor countries are being harmed by losing their best and brightest to emigration. For example, let’s take a country like the Republic of the Congo.


As of 2016, the birth rate in the Republic of the Congo is 36 per 1,000, and the death-rate is 10 per 1,000. There is also currently a net emigration rate of 6 per 1,000 each year. Let’s make a couple of assumptions that seem pretty reasonable:

a) Let’s assume that emigration is non-random: if you are 1 standard deviation above the mean for potential for economic success, you have a 1.5 % chance of leaving each year, if you are 2 standard deviations above the mean for economic success you have a 3.0% chance of leaving each year, and so on (this gets us a 6 per 1000 starting emigration rate.)  If you are below the starting mean, you don’t leave.

b) Let’s also assume that children grow up to resemble their parents in potential for economic success.

So if we start in 2016 with a normally distributed population of 4,400,000:


Each year, we get 36 births per 1,000 people, and 10 deaths per 1,000 people, and 6 net emigrations per 1,000 people.  If the births and deaths are random, after 30 years we have a population of a little over 8 million, which has shifted to the left on our “potential for economic success” characteristic:


Even though the mean has shifted only 0.2 standard deviations to the left, the % of the population that exceeds certain benchmarks has dropped considerably: there are only 58% as many people who exceed 1 standard deviation above the starting mean, 38% as many who exceed 2 standard deviations, and less than 25% as many who exceed 3 standard deviations as before the 30 years. This obviously influences the percentage of the population who can become competent government workers, or doctors or teachers or college professors or engineers.

You think of open borders and free movement of people as making different parts of the world more similar to each other, and in some ways this is no doubt the case, but those processes can also intensify differences, making poor places poorer and making certain global cities into the kind of place that attracts “people who would just as soon step on your face as look at you,” as they say about New York in Ghostbusters 2. 

There’s probably a similar process happening in rural India as more people have left for the city, and in why shrinking cities like East St. Louis, Illinois or Camden, New Jersey tend to have more ever more entrenched problems as their populations collapse.

7 thoughts on “Give me your caffeinated, your well-off, your above-average yearning to get ahead

  1. Interesting thought experiment. I once heard a joke: “how to finally solve African poverty?” The answer is “suitcases.” Decades of interventions by well meaning 1st worlders have essentially done nothing.

    Along the lines of this post, I wonder what the effect on the culture that is Australia comes from the fact that it was a prison colony for the start of its existence.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Vizzini: Not remotely. Because iocane comes from Australia, as everyone knows, and Australia is entirely peopled with criminals, and criminals are used to having people not trust them, as you are not trusted by me, so I can clearly not choose the wine in front of you.
      Man in Black: Truly, you have a dizzying intellect.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I totally forgot that line from one of my favorite movies. Vizzini is a perfect example of someone, like my brother-in-law, who is smart, but not as smart as he thinks he is, because his perception is warped by his choice of companions.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Please see my “like” not as an endorsement of the idea that international migration is net-negative because of brain drain (I don’t think it is!), but rather as a compliment to the quality of the way you approach this problem. Toy models + charts is how I’d discuss that sort of subject if I had my own blog.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Actually, being on the patriotic side, I always saw this as a feature, not a bug; America should use its current wealth to ‘skim off the cream’ of other countries and raise our genetic endowments for when things go south, as inevitably they must.

    Depends which side of the fence you’re on, of course.


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