David Heenan is an old hand at the global game, having worked for the famed Asian trading house Jardine Matheson as well as Citicorp. He is a prolific writer who has authored or cowritten five books, including Double Lives, which chronicles successful people who also have a second vocation. He has taught at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania and Columbia's business school, and he also was vice president of academic affairs at the University of Hawaii. In his latest book, Flight Capital, Heenan explores the exodus of high-powered immigrants from America back to their homelands.
Q: Immigrants used to view America as the promised land. That's no longer true?
A: I noticed it about five or six years ago, but it really picked up after 9/11. The other driving force is that their economies, in the interim, have galloped forth.
Q: But there's another reason, too, that has to do with American culture?
A: The coarsening or the dumbing down of America, yes. A lot of them say, "We loved America, we really enjoyed it, but we don't want to raise our kids in the MTV generation."
Q: That's a real problem, isn't it? You point out that the children of immigrants, especially from Asia, are among the best students in American schools.
A: The more educated the parents are, the more they seem to be worried about their kids'education.
Q: The repatriates include some very high-powered people who have headed back to India, China, Singapore, and even Iceland--cancer researchers, semiconductor-firm CEO s, filmmakers, and the like.
A: Every country is trying to trade up the so-called value curve. It's their industrial policy. It's in the life sciences. It's information technology, nanotech, optics. Governments and countries overseas are all over them.
Q: But aren't America's capital markets still second to none?
A: Clearly, that was the case five years ago. But these folks go where the brains are, and if these people are going back to India and creating companies, the bankers will follow them.
Q: How much of this is related to pundits bashing immigrants for some of the nation's economic woes?
A: There's a real backlash to the recent spate of anti-immigrant commentary. It sort of reinforces for these people that "we are not Americans" and engenders nationalism for their own countries.
Q: Is the flight of human capital from this country recognized by politicians or business leaders?
A: Craig Barrett at Intel has been one of the most outspoken about this. So has Andy Grove, who is of course an immigrant himself. They're aware of it, but from a public-policy standpoint, a lot of people don't know.
Q: So what do you suggest should be done?
A: Half of the recommendations really relate to being more accommodating to the immigrant population. The other half is let's get our own house in order and reform our education system and reinvigorate our science and math programs. We have to work much more effectively at bringing our schools up to world-class standards.
This story appears in the September 19, 2005 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.