The Other Side of Immigration

This page written circa 25 September, 2012.

The graph at right is a very effective visual presentation of the modern, global flight of human capital, the so-called "brain drain". For each country, identified by its flag and its name in the middle, the green arrow at left quantifies the number of researchers it imports, its "brain gain", and the orange arrow to the right the number it loses, its brain drain.

I look at the picture and think of the green arrows as showing financial opportunity, and the promise of freedom and culture. The red arrows measure employment weakness and opression. You want to be where there is a large green arrow and a small red one. America still winning, India losing. Italy not so good.

Portugal and New Zealand are too small to make the map at right. Wikipedia tells us that Portugal is suffering the largest drain in Western Europe, having lost almost 20% of its educated population. New Zealand has a total loss of 24%, but a net brain gain. Our "immigrants are higher skilled than our emigrants", which is excellent, although the imports are older than the exports, according to a recent Treasury paper. Most of the exchange is with Australia. Think of NZ like Australia, but with bigger % flux. There is one fascinating discrepancy: An above-average fraction of the NZ to Aus flux is low-skilled workers... the late PM might have been right when he said that the flow of Kiwis to Oz raised the average IQ of New Zealand (though there is yet no proof that it does the same for Oz).

What I also see in the picture at right is far more balance than I expected. The UK, Switzerland, Australia, and Canada all have large arrows in both directions. What does this mean? Since the two motivations are financial and cultural, it is tempting to assume that two big arrows signifies a good reputation in one direction but lousy actual performance in the other. I can imagine immigrants heading for Aus because the economy looks fabulous, but discovering that the opportunities are found living in some mining town. In reality it is more likely to be "brain sharing", people moving to places where their skills are more appropriate. Australia sure isn't making so much electronics but they know how to sell rocks.

All these people moving countries are assumed to be bringing tech skills. They are driving the production of smart phones, media systems, green power technologies, biomedical devices, computers, whatever. Many gadgets are increasingly disposable. The batteries are soldered into them, on the theory that the battery will outlive the device. Robert Lucky recently observed that he has a drawer full of obsoleted digital cameras, but one old film camera with a family of lenses, an asset he thought at point of purchase might serve him for the rest of his life. Kay has the same, a venerable old film SLR. We have given away or sold for peppercorns several generations of digital camera. I cannot bring myself to lose our G5 iMac, though we are all otherwise well-provided with computing power and no new or updated software runs on the old girl. This simply does not feel right.

I believe that a lot of the appeal of steampunk is the Victorian engineering philosophy of building things to last. Steam engines, binoculars, and bicycles can last for a long time with modest maintenance. In principle you can re-use the parts. The digital clock I built as an undergraduate operated 24/7 for 40 years. Some things truly are so completely obsoleted that they must be retired---film cameras are a good example, no matter how durably built, they are unthinkably crude. On the other hand, my clock still did all that I needed and my favourite wristwatch is one I bought in 1980. We are spending the technological boost of globalisation in wasteful ways simply because a large chunk of the population can be sold flimsy toys and manipulated into buying shiny if short-lived goods.

If the fact that you can sell people short-sighted products is a worry, then trends the IEAust report in their Statistical Overview of the Engineering Profession are more worrying. The plot at left depicts the fall in the number of students carrying at least one science subject through to the end of high school in Australia. It is apparent that the unthinking masses not only like to buy high-tech disposables, but they care decreasingly about who might be going to make them.

Steampunk has not got an answer for this problem, except perhaps to make tech stuff a bit retro-fashionable.

Damn, I feel the need to build a Nixie clock.

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