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Irrational Choice Theory: The LeBron James Migration From Miami to Cleveland

Return migrants to Cleveland have been coming home in large numbers for quite some time. It makes perfect sense.
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(Photo: Erik Drost/Flickr)

(Photo: Erik Drost/Flickr)

Miami is dying. LeBron James and anybody else with talent are fleeing South Florida. Bill Simmons (Grantland) tying himself into knots attempting to explain why James would forsake Miami for Cleveland:

I think LeBron would have stayed in Miami — for at least one or two more years — if he truly believed he had a chance to keep winning there.

If you think of him like a genius, it makes more sense. He’s smarter about basketball than you and me, and, really, anyone else. He sees things that we can’t see. During that last Miami season, I don’t think he liked what he saw from his teammates. LeBron James wanted to come back to Cleveland, but he also wanted to flee Miami. His heart told him to leave, but so did his brain. And his brain works like very few brains — not just now, but ever.

Simmons rambles on for another 40-plus paragraphs, a tale about how an idiotic migration must be crazy like a fox. Something had to be wrong in Miami for James to "flee" as he did Cleveland. Place failure spurs brain drain.

Perhaps nothing is wrong with Miami. Perhaps when I write that a place is dying, I'm mocking the demographic ignorance that shovels dirt on shrinking cities located in the Rust Belt. Perhaps Bill Simmons should start shaving with Occam's razor.

Society understands migration as a negative outcome. Something must be wrong. If only the neighborhoods were more walkable, Millennials wouldn't leave. Don't laugh. I heard that prescription at a national economic development conference. Just about all of the presenters and attendees believe that improved quality of place will stop young adults from moving. Give the people what they want and they will stay put. LeBron James couldn't get what he wanted in Miami. Northeast Ohio was home, as good a place as any since it wasn't loserville Miami. James "wanted to flee Miami. His heart told him to leave, but so did his brain."

The heart of LeBron James didn't tell him to move back home. His heart told him to leave Miami. His brain sure as heck didn't tell him to move to Cleveland. Cleveland? Doesn't take a genius to realize that you get out of Northeast Ohio as fast as you can. Rust Belt bad. If the James brain was still working, Sun Belt bad.

Bill Simmons is in good company. Edward L. Glaeser, a Ph.D. at Harvard University, tying himself into knots attempting to explain why rational people would move to unhappy places (i.e. Cleveland):

According to the Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System (BRFSS), only 35.9 percent of the residents of the Gary, Indiana, metropolitan area report themselves as very satisfied with their lives, as opposed to 45.7 percent across the nation as a whole. Self-reported unhappiness is high in other declining cities, and this tendency persists even when we control for income, race, and other personal characteristics. Why are the residents of some cities persistently less happy? Migrants come to these areas and they also report less happiness. Why do people choose to live in unhappy places?

What about it, LeBron? Why do you choose to live in an unhappy place? All you idiots moving to New York City, it's the unhappiest metro listed. Stop moving there. Save, that you aren't moving there. More people leave miserable New York than move there every year. The Big Apple is Big Brain Drain. LeBron James takes Bill Simmons and Edward Glaeser to school:

Remember when I was sitting up there at the Boys & Girls Club in 2010? I was thinking, This is really tough. I could feel it. I was leaving something I had spent a long time creating. If I had to do it all over again, I’d obviously do things differently, but I’d still have left. Miami, for me, has been almost like college for other kids. These past four years helped raise me into who I am. I became a better player and a better man. I learned from a franchise that had been where I wanted to go. I will always think of Miami as my second home. Without the experiences I had there, I wouldn’t be able to do what I’m doing today.

When LeBron James chose the Miami Heat over the Cleveland Cavaliers, he chose economic development. He didn't leave Cleveland. He moved to Miami. More recently, he didn't leave Miami. He moved to Cleveland, big fish, small pond migration.

Migration isn't a zero-sum game. Migration maps how places are connected. Cleveland excels at producing talent. New York, or, in the case of LeBron James, Miami, refines talent. Once refined, moving downmarket to an unhappy place isn't irrational. It's aspirational.

In Miami, LeBron James is a big fish in a big pond. He has hit the ceiling. What else can he accomplish? In Cleveland, James is a whale in a small pond. He has no ceiling. He can't do worse than prodigal son returns home. He can do something in Cleveland that's impossible in Miami.

Why do hundreds of thousands of people "flee" alpha dog New York City? Glaeser and Simmons struggle to reconcile this migration with rational choice. What if relocation is a positive outcome? In the realm of international economic development, that's the emergent paradigm.

LeBron James is following the beaten path. Return migrants to Cleveland have been coming home in large numbers for quite some time. It makes perfect sense, to the migrant. The last word goes to Richard Florida on the James migration from Cleveland to Miami:

So why Miami? Why would the “Three Kings” choose this particular location over, say, the Big Apple or L.A.? The reasons, I believe, lie deeper than its low taxes, abundant sun, and great nightlife. Experts and average people alike tend to think that companies pick places that offer the best cost profiles and that people go to the cities that give them the highest salaries and biggest bang for the buck.

But real entrepreneurs – those who want to build something new – sometimes pick “frontier locations,” places where they can mold the environment to help them reach their desired goals, like the tech pioneers of Silicon Valley in the late 60s and 70s, or Hollywood’s early moguls. Perhaps this is what Miami had to offer “the Three Kings.” The place is diverse enough, open-minded enough, free-wheeling enough, and hungry enough that they can make their own rules. The media spotlight is less glaring than in New York. And Miami is incredibly diverse, all the way to the very top of its social order – it is home to extremely wealthy Latinos, Middle-Easterners, Russians, and African Americans who have made money their own way. Wade has been there; he has insider information, he knows the place very, very well. Not just its clubs and restaurants, but its deeper resources, the way it works. ...

... Miami offered the best place where these three savvy, talented, and surpassingly entrepreneurial young men could create their own kind of space – a more open-ended space, where they could realize their ambitions and dreams. The more I think about what they have pulled off, the more amazed I am. They are true Wild West cowboys; Horatio Alger made flesh. They have shown us how very good they are at America’s most important game, one that goes beyond sports and even money-making to the very heart of the American dream: of writing your own ticket and forging your own path, of doing it – and having it – one’s own way.

Oh yeah, emphasis added, "The Return of the Burger King."