Geopolitics of Talent: United States vs. Brazil

"There are large economic gains to be realized from flows of people in both directions."
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"There are large economic gains to be realized from flows of people in both directions."


An international trade war is brewing between the United States and Brazil. No, I'm not talking about the U.S. sugar cartel and the demise of our beloved Twinkies. The issue is talent and how Brazil wants to protect its brain drain pipeline to the United States. Ohio Congressman Tim Ryan applying the pressure for purposes of extradition:

Rep. Tim Ryan scored a victory in his six-year battle to extradite an Air Force pilot's accused killer from Brazil by getting the House Appropriations Committee to defund immigration visas for its citizens. ...

... "Brazil does a lot of commerce with the United States," said Ryan. "It is just one angle for us to try to get their attention on this issue. Our hope is that the Brazilians will come to their senses and help out and we can continue the good relationship we have with them."

Ryan has also been working to cancel foreign aid to Brazil and U.S. defense contracts with Brazilian companies. He said he's not sure how much money is spent each year to process visas for Brazilian nationals. His measure would cancel any expenditures for that purpose.

To keep the record straight, Ryan is threatening to help Brazil retain talent. Where's the leverage? Brazil benefits a great deal from emigration. The national government understands this:

Selling her country's technological prowess and booming IT market was the main order of business for Dilma Rousseff at a big trade fair in Hanover on March 5. But Brazil's president made sure to pose for photographs with young compatriots who last month began to study at German universities under her government's new scholarship programme, Science Without Borders.

By the end of 2015 more than 100,000 Brazilians—half of them undergraduates, half doctoral students—will have spent a year or so abroad at the best universities around the world studying subjects such as biotechnology, ocean science, and petroleum engineering which the government regards as essential for the nation's future. That will cost 3 billion reais ($1.65 billion), a quarter of which will come from businesses and the rest from the Brazilian taxpayer.

Science Without Borders is Brazil's boldest attempt to move up an economic gear. The country's trend rate of growth, at 4-4.5 percent, is slightly below the Latin American average and far slower than in the other BRIC countries. Officials hope that improving the quality of the workforce could make a big difference, though it will take time to have an effect.

Brazil has a talent export strategy. I can't imagine a U.S. state or community considering such a policy. It would be political suicide. Winning the zero-sum game means talent attraction.

Migration isn't a zero-sum game. The flow of people connects two places and maps opportunity for commerce. There are also direct benefits from the international "trade" of people:

There are large economic gains to be realized from flows of people in both directions. Flows from rich countries would allow Americans to get cheaper services, while skilled immigrants coming to the United States would enhance production possibilities by making the U.S. economic pie larger.

Free the talent. People develop, not places. Let your graduates go.