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America, keep rewarding your dissidents

By ,

Ever since I became an academic six years ago, I have been one of the biggest critics of U.S. competitiveness policies. I documented, for example, that we had our data wrong when it came to India and China’s advantages in engineering education and R&D, that we didn’t understand how to build innovation centers, and that our assumptions about entrepreneurs and entrepreneurship were wrong. I have been particularly vocal about America’s flawed immigration policies. I quantified the amazing contribution that skilled immigrants make in the technology industry and raised the alarm about the reverse brain drain that is in progress. I testified, assertively, to Congress, and have been badgering our political leaders to act on these important issues.

My father, a retired Indian diplomat, called me on several occasions to plead that I tone down my criticism. He worried that I would anger U.S. government officials and they would find some way to have me deported. Indeed, this would have been the case in many countries, where I could have ended up in a Gulag — or worse.

But what happens in America?

The Government gives me an official recognition — Outstanding American by Choice — for my “commitment to this country and to the common civic values that unite us as Americans.” When I received the call from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services Director, Alejandro Mayorkas, I had tears in my eyes. He told me that the government appreciated all of my efforts to make the country more competitive and that my criticisms of his department had motived his team to work harder to improve the system.

This is the greatness of America and why this country leads the world: Disagreement and debate are cherished. Challenging the norms, thinking outside the box, and questioning those in power is encouraged and celebrated. The louder you speak the more prominence and respect you are given. Society’s heroes aren’t merely revolutionaries or political figures, but opinionated, non-conformist entrepreneurs like Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg.

This is what distinguishes American children from others and why they grow up to be innovators. From childhood, they are encouraged to pursue their dreams and to challenge authority. So they challenge their parents, then their teachers, and then their government. And they learn to work with each other and compete. There are no barriers to success. If you work hard, think smart, and persevere, you achieve success. And this success is celebrated. Reaping fortunes through entrepreneurial success even has a special label: it’s called the American Dream.

America’s unique strength is that it also welcomes foreigners. Yes there is some discrimination and there are a few hurdles to leap over. But once you surmount these, you are treated like everyone else. You are given the same respect and have the same opportunities. You can compete in any field. And this is what has been happening through American history: wave after wave of immigrants has landed on American shores, embodied its values, and helped birthright citizens to work harder and think smarter.

Today, America is in a slump. The ups and downs of the economy and rise of new global competitors are discouraging and often cause American’s to lose hope. But, as someone who came to the U.S. by choice, and who has studied the warts of this country and its competitors, I have no doubt that the U.S. will continue to prosper and lead the world.

It has to—no other country has the ingredients for long-term success.

© The Washington Post Company