Why the U.S. Attracts the World's Best and Brightest

This country attracts more than its fair share of bright scholars, entrepreneurs and artists despite our horrible scores on academic ability. Why do so many bright people opt to join a nation of dunces?! The most intriguing explanation is that they are attracted to talent already here.

The U.S. has always been attractive to bright people with something to get away from whether it was poverty and lack of opportunity, or political repression by totalitarian states. That is the push -- what they are getting away from. Identifying the pull -- what they are attracted to -- is more complex and more interesting.

While one might say that immigrants are drawn to opportunities, whether educational or occupational, that answer is too general and too vague. Bright immigrants never look for success in the abstract. They want to be a leading heart surgeon, or a research biochemist, or a choreographer, or a film director, or a green energy entrepreneur.

Which city? Most immigrants arrive in New York, or other port cities, such as Los Angeles. Whether they stay in New York is largely determined by their field of interest. New York might be a good place to settle for a would-be choreographer but not for a biochemist who might end up in some place with a large biomedical research community, such as Boston, or Birmingham, Alabama. Likewise, a green energy entrepreneur would be more likely to settle in California than in New York because the political environment there is greener. Of course the film director would make a beeline for Hollywood.

Why do people end up in one city rather than another? Two underlying principles seem important. The first is that population attracts more population. That is to say, large successful cities like Chicago attract more new immigrants than smaller, less flourishing places like Flint, Michigan. The second is that creative residents attract other creative people in the same field.

We know that population attracts more population because the largest city in a country, or state, is very much larger than the next biggest. In general, the second city is only about half the size of the biggest one and the third city is only about third of the largest and so forth. This rule is known as Zipf's law.

Zipf's law is an approximation albeit a compelling one. New York is slightly more than twice as big as Los Angeles, the next largest city -- 8.3 million versus 3.9 million, in 2012. The third city, Chicago is 2.7 million versus the 2.8 million predicted by city rank. Number four, Houston is 2.2 million versus the 2.1 predicted and number five, Philadelphia is 1.5 million versus the 1.7 predicted. (When estimates are made by fitting a power function statistically city population is almost perfectly predicted by city rank with only 2 percent error). Business professor Richard Florida believes that larger cities attract more people because they are essentially more exciting places to live. What makes cities attractive is the creativity of their residents where creativity is defined as working in dynamic information-rich industries and includes scientists, academics and computer programmers as well as creative artists.

That is not because creative people necessarily make good friends. According to Florida, they are the heart and soul of modern information-based economies because they generate the intellectual capital through which large companies make money. In the garment industry, for example, the real money is made by New York fashion brands created by a handful of designers rather than the Bangladeshi factories where their clothing might be produced.

Florida argues that flourishing cities are home to various creative enterprises that boost economic growth and attract new residents. Given that larger cities generally have a more vigorous creative economy, they attract more new people than their smaller rivals.

Despite the failures of our educational system, the U.S. retains top ranking in several fields, such as entertainment, digital technology and biochemistry that are magnets for talented immigrants. May they keep arriving! Otherwise, we are in deep trouble.