Hungarian Cafes and Self-Sabotage

Why Trump’s latest move puts us at a disadvantage.

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Illustration by Peter Grabowski

A friend of mine was at a coffeehouse in Budapest, Hungary recently. A kavezo, as the locals would say. Between sips of coffee, he noticed portraits of serious looking men on a wall.

“Who are they?”

“Ah, some of our country’s Nobel laureates,” his Hungarian friend explained.

Wigner and Gabor, Olah and Polanyi. In total, about a dozen Hungarian scientists, authors, and inventors crowded the cafe’s walls. They were giants in the fields of biology, chemistry, physics, and literature.

Knowing I would find this interesting, he sent me a message. Who doesn’t love caffeine with some nationalistic pride?

My friend was right, and I enjoyed the unique display. I asked him to send me a list of the prize winner’s names. He obliged.

A few days go by, and I decide to look up some of these (primarily) scientists.

Szent-Gyorgi was the first to isolate vitamin C. Wigner worked with Einstein to start the Manhattan Project. Harsanyi practically invented game theory.

But what quickly became apparent was something eerily similar amongst almost all of them. The pride of Hungary didn’t stay in Hungary.

Most conducted their research elsewhere and later died in other countries, primarily the United States. Of the thirteen Hungarian winners, only one — the author Imre Kertesz — died in Hungary.

But even Kertesz isn’t the poster child for Hungarian enthusiasm. He “felt little appreciation for his writing in Hungary” and wrote mostly in Germany, referred to himself as a “Berliner,” and complained that Budapest was “completely balkanized.”

And that’s the one guy who “stayed.”

One lesson became very apparent to me as I coursed through these Hungarian Wikipedia pages — it’s hard to retain human capital. This phenomenon, known informally as “the brain drain” and academically as human capital flight, occurs when intelligent people emigrate in search of better opportunities abroad.

Historically, the greatest benefactor of this phenomenon (the “brain gain”) has been the United States. Drawn by elite research institutions, dynamic capital, and boundless opportunity, foreign talent has been welcomed in America. Think Albert Einstein.

However, this advantage may soon be squandered.

This week, ICE announced that international college students would be stripped of their U.S. visas if their universities moved to online-only instruction. Such action would cause droves of foreign students to return to their native countries, depriving colleges of much-needed tuition dollars.

“They should go home, and then they can return when the school opens,” said Ken Cuccinelli, acting deputy secretary of the Department of Homeland Security.

As state budgets have shrunk, universities have had to rely more on foreign students to fill in the gaps, as most international students pay full priced tuition. NYU, for example, has 20,000 international students. In Michigan alone, the 33,000 international students contribute about $1.2 billion to the state’s economy.

The federal government’s action should not be taken in isolation. It is part of a broader pattern to reduce the number of foreigners who come here legally.

Just a few weeks ago, the Trump administration moved to block high skilled workers from entering the country using the H-1B visa program. The decision was met with widespread condemnation from American business leaders who argued that they needed such talent to compete internationally.

But this isn’t about making the economic, moral, or even political argument about why the new Trump directive is self-defeating.

Obviously not every international student will grow up to to be the next Nobel laureate. Not every H-1B visa holder is Einstein. But America has a unique advantage of attracting the best foreign talent and the brightest international minds.

Why sabotage that?

Written by

political science researcher. former valedictorian. reader/writer. host of “Politics Mostly” podcast.

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