When economists want to know what people think they try to avoid relying upon asking them. Surveys, opinion polls, personal anecdote and other ways in which people express their opinion can often be misleading or distorted. When and how a question is asked and how it is phrased can seriously affect the outcome of a poll. More importantly, people may express a certain preference in a poll but make quite different choices when asked to make real decisions with real consequences.
It is often better to look at revealed preferences; how people actually behave when faced with actual decisions in real life rather than hypotheticals in a survey.
Some dramatic new evidence of this kind emerged yesterday. High staff turnover often suggests that an organisation is not a pleasant place to work. High numbers of asylum seekers from Venezuela suggest that Hugo Chavez's rule is not very pleasant. The Army's recruitment and retention difficulties suggest that the poor management of the Armed Forces is making them an increasingly unpleasant place to work. In that light, the evidence yesterday that Britain is facing the biggest brain drain in 50 years, that those most able to leave are doing so, is an alarming suggestion that things are going very wrong in Britain today:
"There are now 3.247 million British-born people living abroad, of whom more than 1.1 million are highly-skilled university graduates, say the researchers.
More than three quarters of these professionals have settled abroad for more than 10 years, according to the study by the Organisation of Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).
No other nation is losing so many qualified people, it points out. Britain has now lost more than one in 10 of its most skilled citizens, while overall only Mexico has had more people emigrate."
Why are people leaving? One suggestion:
"Prof David Coleman, of St John's, Oxford, said the brain drain was "to do with quality of life, laws and bureaucracy, tax and all the rest of it"."
Ever higher levels of tax; little to show by way of public service results for that huge drain on private incomes; an overly meddlesome state that leaves people bereft of control over their own lives. Yesterday's emigration numbers should be a wake-up call for a nation whose government is attempting to do too much and doing a very poor job of it. If things don't change Britain will continue to lose far too many of its best and brightest.