Who Are the Best and the Brightest?

05/14/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

"The best and the brightest" is a phrase that has been used a lot lately - usually in an attempt to cajole, convince or frighten us.

When there was a public outcry regarding the $3.6 billion in bonuses being paid to Merrill Lynch employees because the securities firm had lost over $27 billion in 2008, John Thain, the former CEO said, "If we don't pay our people well, we won't be able to keep the best and the brightest."

AIG's CEO, Edward Liddy issued a warning that essentially copied Thain, which was not very convincing a couple months earlier either: "We cannot attract and retain the best and brightest talent to lead and staff the AIG businesses, which are now being operated principally on behalf of American taxpayers --"

Liddy must have forgotten why AIG was being operated on behalf of the American taxpayers.

If there is universal health care, as the argument goes, the best and the brightest will no longer have the incentive to become doctors. There always seems to be the threat that only the worst and the dimmest will be left to fill the ranks of the medical and financial professions - two professions I hope aren't inexorably linked together.

The phrase, "the best and the brightest" was made familiar in 1972 by journalist David Halberstam's landmark book of the same name. The irony is that Halberstam used the phrase in a far different way, asking the following question regarding U.S. policy in Vietnam during the Kennedy administration:

"What was it about the men, their attitudes, the country, its institutions and above all the era which had allowed this tragedy to take place?" They were, after all, "the best and the brightest," so why did it happen? ...they had, for all their brilliance and hubris and sense of themselves, been unwilling to look and learn from the past." (The Best and The Brightest by David Halberstam)

Halberstam's question is as relevant today. If these people were "the best and the brightest" why did this happen? My question: who are the best and the brightest and what does that mean? By definition, they certainly would not be the ones who messed things up so badly in the first place. The notion that nobody could have seen these coming flies in the face of so many people stuffing their pockets before it happened. Even in the children's game, "hot potato", one understands that somebody is bound to lose so you get rid of it before you get stuck with it. Adults call that game "collateralized debt obligation".

You want the people who built the bomb to defuse it, is the argument for how to deal with the economy blowing up. While bomb makers know how the bombs work, the physical evidence of cause and effect is clear, nobody seems to know how the economy works, at least those who blew it up don't - or it wouldn't have.

So who are the best and the brightest? If the criteria is financial acquisition, the grading scale has slid way down - all of a sudden there aren't so many best and brightest. Is the notion that transitory? I don't think so.

In 1994 I did a film about The Harvard School of Public Health. It was a humbling experience. The dean, Harvey Feinberg told me that while those who graduate from Harvard Law or Business School anticipate a high standard of living, graduates from Public Health are the only ones graduating from Harvard that don't. I met a student, Vineeta Rastogi, who was chosen by her classmates to give the commencement address. She told me what inspired her was the work of Albert Schweitzer. She quoted from his "Teaching Reverence for Life":

"No one has the right to take for granted his own advantages over others in health, in talents, in ability, in success, in a happy childhood or congenial home conditions. One must pay a price for all these boons. What one owes in return is a special responsibility for other lives.''

Vineeta died of cancer in 1995. She was 27. The Vineeta Rastogi Foundation continues her mission of public health, human rights and cultural exchange worldwide.

I mention Vineeta because she was one of "the best and the brightest". What she did in her unfortunately short life clearly demonstrated that. The fact that her mission, through her foundation's work, continues, is further proof. She didn't receive any bonuses.

There are many out there; doctors, teachers, scientists, politicians, entrepreneurs, community organizers and more whose efforts are geared toward improving the lives of others, whose innovative thought and committed action place them among the best and the brightest.

It seems to me that the true best and brightest among us are too busy doing that which makes them such rather than making excuses and claiming that they are.