Laughing and Crying

May 23, 2007
Op-Ed Columnist
By THOMAS L. FRIEDMAN

First I had to laugh. Then I had to cry.

I took part in commencement this year at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, one of America’s great science and engineering schools, so I had a front-row seat as the first grads to receive their diplomas came on stage, all of them Ph.D. students. One by one the announcer read their names and each was handed their doctorate — in biotechnology, computing, physics and engineering — by the school’s president, Shirley Ann Jackson.

The reason I had to laugh was because it seemed like every one of the newly minted Ph.D.’s at Rensselaer was foreign born. For a moment, as the foreign names kept coming — “Hong Lu, Xu Xie, Tao Yuan, Fu Tang” — I thought that the entire class of doctoral students in physics were going to be Chinese, until “Paul Shane Morrow” saved the day. It was such a caricature of what President Jackson herself calls “the quiet crisis” in high-end science education in this country that you could only laugh.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m proud that our country continues to build universities and a culture of learning that attract the world’s best minds. My complaint — why I also wanted to cry — was that there wasn’t someone from the Immigration and Naturalization Service standing next to President Jackson stapling green cards to the diplomas of each of these foreign-born Ph.D.’s. I want them all to stay, become Americans and do their research and innovation here. If we can’t educate enough of our own kids to compete at this level, we’d better make sure we can import someone else’s, otherwise we will not maintain our standard of living.

It is pure idiocy that Congress will not open our borders — as wide as possible — to attract and keep the world’s first-round intellectual draft choices in an age when everyone increasingly has the same innovation tools and the key differentiator is human talent. I’m serious. I think any foreign student who gets a Ph.D. in our country — in any subject — should be offered citizenship. I want them. The idea that we actually make it difficult for them to stay is crazy.

Compete America, a coalition of technology companies, is pleading with Congress to boost both the number of H-1B visas available to companies that want to bring in skilled foreign workers and the number of employment-based green cards given to high-tech foreign workers who want to stay here. Give them all they want! Not only do our companies need them now, because we’re not training enough engineers, but they will, over time, start many more companies and create many more good jobs than they would possibly displace. Silicon Valley is living proof of that — and where innovation happens matters. It’s still where the best jobs will be located.

Folks, we can’t keep being stupid about these things. You can’t have a world where foreign-born students dominate your science graduate schools, research labs, journal publications and can now more easily than ever go back to their home countries to start companies — without it eventually impacting our standard of living — especially when we’re also slipping behind in high-speed Internet penetration per capita. America has fallen from fourth in the world in 2001 to 15th today.

My hat is off to Andrew Rasiej and Micah Sifry, co-founders of the Personal Democracy Forum. They are trying to make this an issue in the presidential campaign by creating a movement to demand that candidates focus on our digital deficits and divides. (See: http://www.techpresident.com.) Mr. Rasiej, who unsuccessfully ran for public advocate of New York City in 2005 on a platform calling for low-cost wireless access everywhere, notes that “only half of America has broadband access to the Internet.” We need to go from “No Child Left Behind,” he says, to “Every Child Connected.”

Here’s the sad truth: 9/11, and the failing Iraq war, have sucked up almost all the oxygen in this country — oxygen needed to discuss seriously education, health care, climate change and competitiveness, notes Garrett Graff, an editor at Washingtonian Magazine and author of the upcoming book “The First Campaign,” which deals with this theme. So right now, it’s mostly governors talking about these issues, noted Mr. Graff, but there is only so much they can do without Washington being focused and leading.

Which is why we’ve got to bring our occupation of Iraq to an end in the quickest, least bad way possible — otherwise we are going to lose Iraq and America. It’s coming down to that choice.

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Published in: on May 22, 2007 at 9:51 pm  Comments (11)  

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11 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Is America dying?

  2. Very good post Jen. I started to add my thoughts here and found myself typing & typing. I decided to address this with attribution to you on my next entry. Thanks for putting this up & getting me thinking.

  3. Friedman generally makes good points but his naivete is sometimes infuriating. America’s oligarchy has no interest in improving anyone’s standard of living but its own. It does, however, have a vested interest in maintaining a permanent, docile underclass that has neither the means nor the talent to usurp its power. if those talented foreign minds could be harnessed for corporate exploitation, that would be one thing, and we’d be granting citizenship at a heady pace. But anyone smart enough to innovate privately constitutes a threat to the establishment. Why else would we still be powering this country with fossil fuels? There’s no inability on the part of our “leaders” to think outside the box — there is a stubborn refusal to do so.

  4. Interesting that at both ends of the educational spectrum, Americans seem to have no real desire to do the work and earn the rewards.

    From uneducated “illegals” taking over the menial work, to Phds from foreign countries whats left?

    If this isnt a wake up call to get serious about education, I dont know.

  5. [...] could not agree more strongly with Thomas Friedman’s recent op-ed “Laughing and Crying.” It is pure idiocy that Congress will not open our borders — as wide as possible — to attract [...]

  6. [...] Laughing and Crying May 23, 2007 Op-Ed Columnist By THOMAS L. FRIEDMAN First I had to laugh. Then I had to cry. I took part in c […] [...]

  7. bob Said:

    Interesting that at both ends of the educational spectrum, Americans seem to have no real desire to do the work and earn the rewards.

    Well, this is a consumer society, our job is to consume. Preferably mindlessly.

    The day enough people get knocked conscious the house of cards comes down.

  8. [...] it seemed like every one of the newly minted Ph.D.’s at Rensselaer was foreign born… [More: donkey o.d.] Posted by Pejman Habibi on May 26th, 2007 with no comments. Read more articles on Thoughts & [...]

  9. Interesting article — but one slight (what I would call) error that should be commented on.
    American corporations (like Microsoft, Cisco, etc) do not want to give these foreign born PhDs Green Cards — that would give them negotiating power and provide for paying them $100K-$200K per year (as U.S. citizen PhDs command) instead of $30K-$50K per year (ergo the reason for the huge demand for H-1b Visas). Think of it from Microsoft’s point of view as an example — if they can get 30,000 employees at $50K per year instead of $100K per year, they pocket $3B per year. Wouldn’t you go for H-1b Visas instead if you owned the company?
    (Don’t think this is true? The company I was with, which is a body shop for a U.S Gov’t agency, rents out their foreign born [H-1b Visa] PhDs for ~$80K per year and their U.S. citizen [Green Card or Native Born] PhDs for ~$160K per year. Which price do you think the U.S Gov’t agency prefers? Which employees do you think the company believes makes them more competitive?)

  10. Hi Jim. Photos i received. Thanks

  11. ?? Maybe you haven’t heard about the infamous — “How NOT to Hire an American ” video ??

    Isn’t it all about replacing Americans with cheap foreign labour??

    Suggested viewing:
    http://www.youtube.com/programmersguild

    and more check the following:
    http://www.eng-i.com/E-Newsletters.htm


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