A relevant piece from our archives, on a topic that is still a hot-button issue. First published on March 14, 2017.
What is this notion of the best and brightest? For one, it is the most conflicted banality of the moment. The term is generously used by liberal politicians and business leaders to make the case for H-1B immigrants, but the phrase has a long history of ideological righteousness much reviled by conservative politicians.
The Wall Street Journal reported that IITs were ranked fourth behind Stanford, Harvard, and University of California for incubating the most number of students who formed billion dollar startups in America.
In 1972, David Halberstam, a Pulitzer prize winning New York Times journalist, wrote a seminal book questioning President John F. Kennedy’s foreign policy decisions during the Vietnam war. He called it The Best and the Brightest. The book debunked the foreign policy credentials of the best and the brightest in Kennedy’s administration. Halberstam wrote about how this group of academics and intellectuals, “all of whom had seemed so dazzling when they had first taken office,” ended up becoming the architects of one of the worst disasters of American history.
It was just a few weeks ago that Stephen K. Bannon, the White House Chief Strategist, was spotted in an airport carrying a copy of The Best and the Brightest. In an op-ed published in The New York Times, Marc Tracy writes about Bannon’s respect for the book and quotes him as saying: “It’s great for seeing how little mistakes early on can lead to big ones later.”
In the book, Halberstam describes an incident between a “dazzled” Vice President Lyndon Johnson and his mentor, Sam Rayburn, after the Vice President’s first Cabinet meeting, when Lyndon Johnson exclaims enthusiastically to Rayburn: “how extraordinary they were, each brighter than the next,” referring to the intellectually attuned Cabinet staff. To which, Rayburn responds “you may be right, and they may be every bit as intelligent as you say, but I’d feel a whole lot better about them if just one of them had run for sheriff once.” That story, according to Halberstam goes to show “the difference between intelligence and wisdom, between the abstract facility and verbal facility which the team exuded, and true wisdom, which is the product of hard-won, often bitter experience.”
Hobbled by this narrative, it is no wonder that when the same term came to be applied to those poor, unsuspecting foreign nationals who came to America armed with H-1B visas to connect the wires of innovation in the Silicon Valley, it became baggage that they either had to live up to or confront.
As the number of H-1Bs increased, the labor bottleneck eased somewhat, and those who began to lose jobs because of incompetence, lack of knowledge, incomplete education, insufficient application or a combination of these factors found a bogeyman they could easily identify. Today, “the best and the brightest” is used as both an invective as well as an invocation. It depends on one’s political bent.
As a reader recently commented in response to one of my immigration columns: “The education system [in] India [is] far worse, but they are able to infest the United States with mediocre engineers, disguised as the best and brightest engineers. The problem is the dumping of inferior tech workers from India displacing American workers.”
The commenter is only partially wrong. The Wall Street Journal reported recently that India’s Indian Institute of Technology schools were ranked fourth behind Stanford, Harvard, and University of California for incubating the most number of students who went on to form billion dollar startups in America. But not all engineers who are hired in the H-1B program are from the IITs or from top notch institutions. And not all engineers hired from top notch schools are necessarily the best or brightest.
The issue is about volume and displacement, stupid! Elementary science terms have become yardsticks of aggravation.
People who enter the pool tend to displace others from the same pool and the more this happens, the more there is a pervading sense of affliction. In 2016, there were 236,000 H-1B applications received, an increase of 3,000 from the previous year.
We may argue that these jobs that H-1Bs are hired for are not always replacements, but merely the right fit for the right job at the right price. Even so, grievance is a perceptive state and given voice to even by those who are not really good fits for those same jobs.
Many folks I talk to tend to provide anecdotal evidence of at least one H-1B engineer they know, or they’ve heard of, who performed sub-par at his/her job—who had poor communication skills, did not speak up at meetings, was behind schedule, delivered an inadequately thought-through product, required more training, or had deplorable personal hygiene habits. It’s about the impact of numbers. The pervasiveness of an idea begins to take hold, if enough people have enough anecdotal evidence.
It’s a time of crisis for H-1B visa holders and applicants. This cannot be about working longer and harder anymore. That alone, unfortunately, may not be sufficient to stave off the perils of imminent White House policies.
Writing about Robert Kennedy, Halberstam recounts how “toughness fascinated him; he was not at ease with an America which had flabby waistlines.” That frame of reference has not changed much since Kennedy’s time. As America’s H-1B policy heads to the chopping block, it is time to cinch those smart belts. America has no patience for even a hint of slackness.
Jaya Padmanabhan was the editor of India Currents from 2012-16. She is the author of the collection of short stories, Transactions of Belonging.