The Greediness of Brain Drain


The phrase “brain drain” used to mean, in the 1950s and ‘60s, the flight of professionally-trained people from dictatorships to find opportunity in the U.S. and other Western countries. Now “brain drain” is used in American media to mean an active U.S. government policy to attract foreign entrepreneurs, scientists, physicians, nurses and other skilled laborers in short supply to the U.S.

Behind this push for a “great sucking sound” are companies like Intel, Google, Microsoft, and Pfizer, with their media cheerleaders like Tom Friedman of the New York Times, and members of Congress like Kansas Republican Congressman Jerry Moran and Virginia Democratic Senator Mark Warner.

The arguments for a deliberate “magnet brain drain,” are porcine. Our companies need these skills. The foreigners have these skills and we want them here where they can flourish, and create profits and jobs. Never mind that our country has plenty of people waiting to have the same opportunity. By reducing tuition barriers, overcoming historic discrimination (e.g. lack of women engineers), reducing the 40 percent dropout rate from colleges, and working with youngsters on a one-on-one basis so that they are not left behind or skewered by misguided multiple-choice standardized test regimens, are all great ways to reach out to Americans.

Also, what about having ready and able specialists here who may have to be paid more than their overseas counterparts? These Silicon Valley corporations are making huge profits, pay few taxes, and receive subsidies known as R & D tax credits.

Now we see the grossest of contradictions. We have an agency for International Development (USAID), economists and politicians saying that developing countries desperately need these same skills or what they call “human capital.” They need engineers for their transportation, hydraulic and soil systems, physicists for their universities and modern industries, physicians for their sick and injured, nurses for hospital care, public health specialists for eradicating systemic diseases, and entrepreneurs to jumpstart businesses that deal directly with the necessities of life. Through many columns, the globetrotting Tom Friedman has urged developing countries to retain such native talent to build their economies. Yet he has also written that students from abroad receiving U.S. PhDs in the hard sciences be given immediate permanent U.S. residence en route to citizenship. Well, you can’t have it both ways. There is not a large surplus of such talent that we can drain them from developing countries building their own societies. The U.S. is a major importer of physicians and nurses from places in South Asia, the Middle East and other regions. These are skills far more desperately needed outside the U.S. than here, especially when you consider the undeveloped pool of talent that lies ignored in our country. Is it so much easier to have foreign workers educated in countries like Pakistan, being battered by our overflowing war in Afghanistan, than to rescue Americans from their battered high school and put them on a track toward excellence?

What if the American-made magnet brain drain took the young Mohammed Yunis away from Bangladesh to Wall Street? Would there have been the micro-credit movement there that is currently spreading around the world? What if the magnet to America brought the young Brazilian, Paulo Freire to Harvard? Would he have created and applied his now world-famous literary program in Brazil? Or if the brain drain brought the young Hassan Fathy to our shores, would Egypt’s “people’s architect” ever been able to show poor Egyptian peasants how to build small elegant homes from the soil under their feet?

Note that the people populating the IMF, the World Bank, USAID, or any of our fabled universities were not able to think up or accomplish these and many other achievements of developing country innovators.

Silicon Valley companies are lobbying Congress to expand the H-1B visas, beyond the 65,000 new visas each year they already receive for various computer-related work. The Wall Street Journal’s Gerald Seib, in a recent booster column, bewailed that if there are not more visas granted, these young people who “come here to learn math, science and engineering… would return home and start new high tech companies there.” Really! Why would that be so bad?

Already a high percentage of PhDs in the sciences in U.S. universities are granted to foreign students. Guarantee these students a job and more will deplete the ranks back in their developing country. Even fewer U.S. students – say women and deprived minorities – will be given the attention and care they need to fill U.S. job openings.

We live in a society that is known for a deficit of empathy and visualization about societies in other countries that are far below our standard of living. When, for example, medical and other science students from Africa are bid for by higher paying institutions in the U.S., is it any wonder that there are virtually no indigenous scientific laboratories in sub-Saharan Africa pioneering against infectious diseases such as AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis? The same point can be made in other poor nations whose brains we’ve drained because for decades we neglect our own tens of millions of “poor and huddled masses.”

It is the edge of absurdity for the U.S. to urge and modestly assist these societies to build their educational systems and their knowledge industries – for their own future – and then aggressively pull the cream of their crop into our own orchard, while so many of our Americans are neglected.

Ralph Nader is a consumer advocate, lawyer and author of Only the Super-Rich Can Save Us! He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, published by AK Press. Hopeless is also available in a Kindle edition.


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