Common Ground

A realization of how we can all come together on Mississippi’s talent questions.

“Brain drain,” “outmigration,” “talent loss,” whatever you you may call it, has been a contentious topic in Mississippi over the past year. Notable people and organizations have taken staunch positions on how much of, if at all, the issue really exists and is affecting the state’s economy.

But here’s the real problem: We’re arguing about the wrong thing. Or more precisely, we should be asking ourselves, regardless of which position we believe, “Why even argue???”

Projects by several reputable organizations — including the U.S. Census Bureau, and the Mississippi Institutions of Higher Learning — have noted that Mississippi is the only Sunbelt state to experience a net outmigration of population over the past decade. Other reports, including a recent one by the “medical city” development of Tradition, have noted that Mississippi is losing Millennials faster than any other state in the union. And this coming at a time when the second largest American generation ever is entering their prime years for earning potential.

Opponents of the “brain drain” narrative point to a whole host of legitimate points of why the data might be skewed: very high rates of non-native Mississippians in our college and university system, vast majority of whom will leave after graduation, regardless; a radically lower teenage pregnancy rate (every little bit helps!); lower-than-average immigration rates from Latin American countries. A report from the National Strategic Planning and Analysis Research Center at Mississippi State University points to data showing Mississippi to be at or near the national average both for Millennials as a percentage of state population, and for the percentage of college students who remain in state following graduation.

With both sides armed with sets of demographic statistics, economic impact projections, and facts to back up their respective positions, it seems that we are not near to finding a resolution, right?

What I haven’t heard anyone stop and ask is, “Why are we fighting about this in the first place?”

Let’s take a Schrodinger’s Cat approach here, and assume that both sides are equally right at the same time. Yes, the state is losing Millennials. No, the state isn’t really losing Millennials. Yes, this has negative economic impact. No, this isn’t any worse than it’s ever been and we’re doing just fine…look at the unemployment rate (which is actually really good for Mississippi). Ok, so there, both sides get to have cake and eat it too.

Mississippi is better off with MORE intellectual capital (talent).

Whether you believe that our talent loss is indeed a heavy albatross or acdtually wildly overblown, I’m guessing that you agree with the above statement. It is a truism that operates independent from the outmigration debate. The tragedy has been that it is also a truism that has been unfairly shackled to the outmigration argument and reduced to an “if-this-then-that” policy debate. This is something that I, myself, have admittedly been guilty of doing. I therefore feel compelled to do what I can to help remove the shackles.

Mississippi doesn’t have an outmigration problem. The more talent we can attract to and retain in Mississippi, the better the state will be.

Mississippi has an outmigration problem. The more talent we can attract to and retain in Mississippi, the better the state will be.

When you associate the truism directly with each side of the debate, you can see how it’s not really directly related at all.

If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it?

I understand that those on the “overblown outmigration” side claim that if we accept talent retention isn’t really an issue, we shouldn’t be enacting policy to address it. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it…right?

This old maxim — which is an undisputed first ballot hall-of-famer among non-Biblical proverbs — is SUCH an obstacle to progress. We strive to build an economy based on innovation and entrepreneurism, right? This is exactly the opposite of an “ain’t broke don’t fix it” mentality. Historically speaking, progress has been attained nearly exclusively on evolving and innovating from products and methods that worked well enough…just someone figured out how to do them better. Steering systems in cars weren’t broken, but try and find an automobile now sans power steering. Walking worked just fine. Then pack animals worked just fine. Then boats worked just fine. Then the wheel worked just fine. Then motorized transport worked just fine…you get the idea. Man, now we got vertically landing rockets! Sure, the old ones worked just fine, but the Falcon 9 is UBER cool.

Mississippi doesn’t have an outmigration problem. The more talent we can attract to and retain in Mississippi, the better the state will be.

Mississippi has an outmigration problem. The more talent we can attract to and retain in Mississippi, the better the state will be.

We’re arguing over the wrong thing.

As I said previously, I don’t think we should be arguing over anything here, other than what is the best policy we can put in place to increase our intellectual capital.

I get it

I also understand why many, including elected officials, have such an aversion to citizens running down aspects of our own state. I do, too. Please understand, you will NOT find a bigger cheerleader for Mississippi than myself. And no, it doesn’t do much good to constantly be pointing out what’s wrong, or perceived to be wrong, with the state we call home. But we do have to take action to always make it better. Just because Mississippi isn’t broken, doesn’t mean we can’t fix it.

In full disclosure, I have been involved with an effort to pass what has been labeled as “brain drain” legislation for the past few years in Mississippi. A big regret I have is my part in it being positioned in this way. It can be off-putting. Such a moniker can create aversion where none is necessary. Remember, we’re arguing about the wrong thing.

HB 1453 didn’t make it out of committee in 2015. In 2017, HB 1550 unanimously passed the Mississippi House of Representatives, and ended up dying in the Senate. Good progress. While the final language of HB 1550 wasn’t as strong as I hoped it would be, it was encouraging to make it further through into the legislative process.

See here for our suggested concept legislative framework for Talent Attraction/Retention in Mississippi.

As this effort moves forward, I hope we can get beyond thinking of these types of policies in the narrow tunnel vision of addressing “brain drain,” but instead to think about it more as policies that will shift our talent-building capacity into over-drive.

I’ve always been a believer in the economic principle of “if you want more of something, subsidize it, if you want less of something, tax it.” I don’t consider this philosophy as left-leaning or right-leaning, but rather as a simple law of economics. If we want more intellectual capital in Mississippi, let’s find a way to subsidize it.

Because, the more talent Mississippi has, the better off we are. And I just don’t see how anyone can argue with that.

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“You don’t have to agree with someone to work with them.”

— Maisie Brown, then 15-year-old freshman at Jim Hill High School

TEDxJackson talk, 2016.