Brainpower famine in Eastern Europe: food for thought

lisboncouncilreport.jpgThe Brussels based think-tank, The Lisbon Council, sees trouble ahead for the countries of both Western and Eastern Europe. The Eastern European low-wage, low-tax, FDI-driven growth rates of today, accelerated by membership of the EU, are not going to last. A combination of low-birth rates and increasing brain drain will combine to fix their economic trajectories at well below the EU average with no prospect of improvement. And that is a problem for Western Europe too: it has been the dynamism of the East which has given a fillip to the West.

In its just issued report, The European Human Capital Index: The Challenge of Central and Eastern Europe, the Lisbon Council claims:

There is a very real risk that in coming decades Central and Eastern Europe could become a sparsely-populated area with a declining workforce that will have to shoulder the burden of a population set to experience unprecedented levels of aging and decline. At stake is nothing less than the long-term sustainability of these remarkable countries, which have added so much to Europe’s history, economy and diversity.

Now, if we look beyond the doom-laden futurology and risk of future collapse which seems to be so much a part of these calls for action, we can begin to see the contradictions in the analysis and the prescriptions. The EU economy is driven by processes of centralization and concentration and we can see this in the movements of knowledge, technology and capital. Universities are heavily implicated in this and the mobility of students and the highly skilled is the brain drain which is going to accelerate the emptying of the East. The extension of service and production commodity chains into the East and the region’s growth as a consumer market has gone hand in hand with their low tax, flexible labor laws and low state spending. In short the growth model is predicated on the very things which the Human Capital Index measures as being lacking.

The Lisbon Council solutions – reformed universities, on the job skills training, investment in knowledge, skills and innovation – require a shift in the growth model and the question is, how to achieve that within the context of macro and micro economic orthodoxy, the EU promotion of mobility and double-think about brain drain. At the time of the formation of the EU single market there was a response – the EU as a whole had to invest in the conditions for more and better jobs and a geographical spread so that capital, technology and knowledge are shifted away from concentration and centralization. The problems and solutions were posed in those terms which of course requires an increased European tax base and a commitment to significantly greater regional re-distribution and planning.

The challenges have always been clear and the solutions filled with all sorts of dilemmas which don’t even get a mention from the Lisbon Council. Human capital mantras suggest that the governments in Eastern Europe need to improve the supply of human capital, invest more in formal education, create their entrepreneurial universities and attract migrant (cheap) labor from the potentially massive new pool of Turkey etc. And so move themselves onto a different growth path. Perhaps.

One thing that is increasingly clear, is that the Economics of Education and the Human Capital theorists, and this report comes straight out of that stable, can offer descriptions based on such measures as its Human Capital Index, but its policy relevance is restricted and amounts to the same old same old. Quite how societies approaching the sorts of collapse envisaged in the report would react and what shibboleths of neo-liberal human capital development models would then be questioned seems to be beyond their remit. A pity.

Peter Jones

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