Think Mind Wells, Not Oil Wells: Is Where You Live a Brain Drain or a Brain Collector?

If you want to be hopeful about the human future (including America’s), think about this: free minds and strong exchange economies are positively correlated. It’s not that there is a one-to-one relationship between them, but wherever you have free minds the odds are good, in any given year, that one or more of those minds will discover or create something new that ends up significantly bolstering or growing your country’s economy (from a teenage Bill Gates tinkering in his garage in the 1970s to Harvard students coming up with Facebook a few years back).

In other words, free minds think of the new ideas, products, and services that your country, in due time, exchanges with other countries. Free minds are like demographics: they are not destiny but they load the dice for you. The next Albert (or Alberta) Einstein, for example, is no doubt growing up right now in a place like the United States or India, and not, say, Iran. And if he or she has the bad fortune of being in Iran right now, that person, as we speak, is dreaming up ways to get out of the country.

In short, what is in the brain of that young Alberta Einstein is far, far more valuable than the oil that is in Iran’s ground.

So where do you live? Is it in a brain drain part of the world—like, say, Christian fundamentalist Mississippi or Muslim fundamentalist Iran—where the smart young people, the moment that they are old enough, start looking for exits? Or do you live in a brain collecting part of the world, where good minds from every part of the globe naturally flock (like, say, liberal and feminist California, the home of places like Silicon Valley and Cal Tech)? California’s “mind wells” are, by orders of magnitude, more valuable than, say, the oil wells of the Middle East.

When you think the world is going in the wrong direction, just remember this: free brains and good economies are correlated, and in our globalized 21st century world every country is feverishly trying to figure out how to set up the right conditions for high growth economies. That means, if they have wise leaders, that they are seeking formulas for finding, attracting, and collecting together good minds—for making mind wells.

So here’s the good news for America: we have all the resources for making mind wells. We have a good Constitution that guards individual human freedom; we have entrepreneurship; we have open immigration; we are good at assimilating diverse groups of people; and we have, in the urban parts of our country, healthy liberal mores—a live and let live ethos. We are the Saudi Arabia of brains. And we can continue to be so. We have problems, obviously, but we have enormous assets, most especially the places where we catch and collect brains for future export production—our mind wells.

Know hope.

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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