Regrettably the Washington Post chose to wait until after Christmas to publish this, so this post is not quite on time. Nevertheless, in the vein of the post of Christmas past I present you with Amazon.com‘s patented method (as yet unimplemented) for ameliorating the deadweight loss of Christmas, to theirs and the receiver’s benefit, and in some sense to the giver’s benefit as well:
Apparently returned purchases are a major cost for retailers, especially otherwise largely-automated ones like Amazon.com. So avoiding shipping bad gifts, only to then have to process them again when returned, and possibly resell them at a loss, is a good way for Amazon.com to cut costs. (And though the article doesn’t mention it, presumably this system would act as an incentive for shoppers to shop exclusively at Amazon.com rather than elsewhere — even better from Amazon.com’s point of view.) Strangely (or perhaps not so strangely in today’s newspaper world, alas) the article doesn’t link to the patent itself, but it’s not particularly hard to find. I doubt many patents these days include “mildred” in their text.
I express no position on the wisdom of permitting Amazon.com to patent this. But the idea itself is a good one.
(I considered posting this as a comment on the original post, but it’s grown enough that it warrant its own post. As a further aside, I find it interesting that the prevalence of post-to-reply varies across different planets. My impression is it’s much more common on Planet GNOME than on Planet Mozilla, for example.
And as one last aside, I’m amazed how much easier I find it to write on a topic I care about, presenting analysis I actually believe important, than to write on a topic I find uninteresting, or to espouse a position to which I hold little to no attachment — as most paper-writing in school tends to be, especially for one who is generally apathetic concerning literary analysis.)
Shortly before Thanksgiving roc ruminated about the effects of choosing a foreign college over a local college, in particular making these observations:
I’ve always found it ironic that at the same time Americans complain about foreigners stealing US jobs, people in the originating countries complain about the “brain drain” of talent moving to the US. Can both groups be right? Would everyone be better off if talent stayed at home?
I think the right conclusion is that sound bites are rarely “right”. There’s some truth and some incompleteness in both (even if the answer to the second question is unequivocally “no”).
The simplistic view
The obvious “cost” of “brain drain”, stated as such, is to the country losing the talent, and the obvious “gain” is to the country gaining it. Looking only at it in this narrow sense it’s just a zero-sum game. Of course more visas must be better for the gainer and worse for the loser!
The most obvious “cost” of incoming talent is that you must work harder for your position, and the corresponding gain is to those who get better positions than they had. Again it’s zero-sum: better for my labor force competitors, worse for me.
But since immigrants and not nations benefit in the latter case, “brain drain” can only be bad for the nation as a whole when it loses its best and brightest. So nations are better off if everyone stays at home in a state of autarky, right?
The unconsidered benefits
The narrow views ignore the benefits of migration. (One easy way to win a game of war: deal yourself the entire deck.) Examine both at once, and you see the incompleteness of either view.
The expats are better off
First, consider the value the expats, the people actually migrating, derive in doing so. They benefit from concentrations of people in their fields, or close to them, or perhaps even just of similar mental acuity, which would not necessarily be available if they couldn’t broaden their search radius to include the destination country. A country of four million like New Zealand may not be able to sustain world-class universities specializing in and job markets covering all of computer science, nuclear physics, oncology, aeronautics, and quantum mechanics. (Add more industries if you think New Zealand could field these.) If you can only study locally, you probably can’t study with the best in the field. If you can only work locally, you may not find your ideal job.
Incidentally, this point flatly answers the question, “Would everyone be better off if talent stayed at home?” Certainly some may see moving as a complete loss, but most will not.
Skill concentrations are more efficient
Second, consider the externalities from skill concentrations afforded by talent migration. If you get a lot of smart people working on a problem in the same location, you’ll likely get more progress than if they were geographically dispersed. The portion of the SpiderMonkey team that works in Mountain View, for example, is helped by being able to sit down and discuss issues, from small to large, in person. (Although to be sure, this is rarely necessary, as IRC, Bugzilla, and so on are adequate for all but the most intricate communication.) Functionally instantaneous communication lessens the gains of physical proximity, but it’s no substitute. This translates into more effective universities and more efficient companies. Heightened efficiency translates into reduced costs to provide products and services to the market (education is but one product/service). Reduced costs, in competitive markets (universities certainly do compete, as do most businesses), translate to reduced prices or increased quality. This is the oft-neglected good that reducing barriers to immigration provides; it is also one notably absent from the sound bites.
Restrictions burden even desirable immigration
Third, supposing that some restrictions are nevertheless desirable, consider that restrictions and impositions on visa quotas make it harder for the desired level of talent to migrate. Businesses and universities must fill out more forms and employ more people to process foreign talent. Immigrants who would be acceptable must still undergo more interviews, pay higher entry fees, and suffer more onerous restrictions on their freedom to modify their future plans. It’s hard to see how this yak shaving is good for anyone but the excess government workers employed to administer it (and demagogues who gain power promoting it).
A certain level of screening necessary to reject utter lowlifes may be unavoidable. Yet I see no rational relationship between this aim and, say, the rough US requirement that “you must remain continuously enrolled in a university or permanently employed while you remain on your visa”. And even a rational and properly limited policy might be the camel’s nose prior to truly excessive restrictions (no doubt spurred on by demagoguery and special interest groups).
So if you add it all up, is brain drain good or bad when considered in total?
I think the benefits are much greater than popular rhetoric makes them out to be. Moreover, we should acknowledge that not every emigrant, say, who goes off to CMU to study computer science is forever lost to a country like New Zealand. Making exit easier for skilled workers does not necessarily doom a state to permanent loss.
Still, some people certainly will be worse off at the individual level. It’s also sometimes the case that groups of people, even entire industries, may be worse off with greater trade: the people the simplistic views focus on to the exclusion of all others.
To sum it up: the marginal gains from mobility of talent are widespread but small, while the losses are isolated and larger. But don’t expect special interest groups or demagogues, of whatever stripes, to acknowledge this.
A closing question, and answer
Having said my piece on the opening questions, I will close with one of my own, with an answer I hope may illuminate a deeper issue.
Take as a given that restricting “brain drain”, or restricting labor competition, is sometimes selfishly good policy. Why apply restrictions nationally and not at other levels? Why not at the level of the Swiss canton, the Indonesian province, or the American state (or in the special case of the European Union, the European country)?
It seems to me that the reason we see far fewer restrictions at non-national levels is that the overarching governmental units prohibit or severely curtail them, and special interests can’t overcome obstacles to changing that. But nationally, disparate special interests reach the critical mass to successfully push for restrictions. (At the international level the multitude of self-centered sovereignties make effective advocacy much more difficult.)
The national level isn’t really the appropriate level for restrictions on talent mobility. It’s merely the one at which special interests can be effective enough to get them enacted.
As planned I wake up early enough to catch the tail end of darkness before sunrise; this being the middle of a fairly large valley, I should be able to see it unimpeded. Surprisingly, given last night, little wind blows past the lake, and it’s much more comfortable than it was or than I had expected it would be. The sunrise is excellent but blinding; my camera has some difficulty capturing both brightness of the sky and comparative darkness of the ground. Nevertheless, I take a few pictures as I huddle inside sleeping bag and bivy sack waiting for the sun to rise to provide warmth to leave them.
Hiking begins relatively early today, in accord with rising for an early sunrise. The first several miles of trail wind around several lakes named for gems, climbing up and over and down ridges along the way. Today is the fourth day of hiking, and my ankles are beginning to adjust to the inclines and constant pounding through which I’m putting them. But for now, I’m far more engrossed in enjoying the thoroughly ridiculous scenery than in feeling any lingering pain.
The largest of the precious-stone lakes, Garnet Lake, provides the greatest views. It dominates the landscape through its size, and its gently-rippling waters are a blurred mirror for the peaks in the distance behind it.
(Interestingly, my first picture of it and the mountains in the background is a near-exact copy of the cover of the guidebook I carried, even though I didn’t intend to precisely replicate the picture. [I probably aimed for the general idea — towering mountains above lake with some ground and trail in the foreground — but I didn't notice the exact spot of that picture was mere steps away, even though I usually try to look for the settings of pictures in guidebooks I use.] The guidebook picture is obviously older, but beyond that the major difference is that my picture captures reflection in the lake while the guidebook doesn’t. I suspect it was deliberately airbrushed out of the picture to reduce busyness.)
Past Garnet Lake the trail ascends out of Garnet’s bowl, then generally descends on the way toward Devils Postpile National Monument. I pass by more lakes, none of which strike me enough to merit a picture.
Just past one stream crossing I wander by another deer. Unlike previous deer on the JMT, this one cautiously watches me as I stop and take its picture, starting briefly at my experimental, abrupt move intended to gauge its reaction. Yet as with earlier deer, it generally ignores me. In the past I’ve considered this unnatural: wild animals should be afraid of humans, and they should retreat when humans approach. Yet this deer makes me reconsider. The primary problem with Shenandoah deer (often brazen beggars) was not their willingness to be near humans: it was their willingness to be near humans to beg. Proximity, and even some level of ease, is not inherently bad. The problem occurs when this is taken for granted: then, fearlessness and misguided beneficience produce a vicious cycle by which wildlife becomes no longer truly wild.
Shenandoah is too easily accessible for wildlife’s cautious acceptance of human presence to be workable. Throngs of visitors will to a sufficient extent ignore signs, act carelessly, and inexorably lead deer and other wildlife to mendicancy. In Shenandoah it really would be better for deer and other wildlife to be fearful of human presence to the point of fleeing it. (Bears in Shenandoah actually do this, mostly, I suspect, because SNP deals with problem bears much more aggressively than it deals with the vastly greater multitude of problem deer. Of course, bears being much more fearsome than deer also reduces interaction. )
But in many sections of the John Muir Trail, in the middle of remote wilderness, the deer that turns a wary eye in my direction yet continues about his business presents no problem. Nor does he induce any. Backpackers generally well-educated about interacting with wildlife (and usually not carrying food to spare!) won’t be much of an issue. Horseback visitors from nearby Devils Postpile are inherently hindered from over-close interaction, and they’re often supervised by informed guides. Less-educated day hikers are most problematic, but fewer of them will be here simply because it’s difficult to get to much of the JMT, severely blunting their ill effects. Complete lack of fear in wildlife is likely unworkable; it lowers barriers to interaction too far. But wildlife’s cautious acceptance along the JMT of human presence at a small distance, so long as the JMT remains remote, is a fragile yet stable equilibrium.
After much more descent I finally reach relatively flat ground: Devils Postpile National Monument is at hand. Devils Postpile’s main attraction is its bizarre natural rock formations: tall, regular hexagonal basalt columns (other sidedness less frequently) formed by volcanic action. The JMT passes through Devils Postpile’s periphery, so I’d have to detour to see the formations, partly contributing to my decision not to go see them. But more than the delay, I decide not to go because the monument feels like it’s a Pacific Crest Trail experience, not a JMT experience. If I’m not deliberately visiting Devils Postpile, I’m going to leave seeing it for when I thru-hike the PCT. (For the same reason you won’t find me hiking a section of the PCT to hike it, except as part of a thru-hike.)
I follow the trail through Devils Postpile, guided mostly by a picture I took of the map at a trail junction shortly inside it. (The guidebook strangely foregoes a map to awkwardly describe it in prose, making it less useful and more confusing than one might hope.) It’s mostly deep sand, so the going is a bit slow. Finally, I reach the turnoff to visit Reds Meadow, a campground, store, and restaurant just off-trail where I hope (likely quixotically, given the wide variety of digital cameras and batteries) to find a replacement camera battery. The meter on my camera’s been declining much more quickly than I’d expected, so I’m worried about running out partway down the trail and thus missing the end. I’m not in luck: the store has nothing more than standard batteries and regular rolls of film. I consider eating dinner at the restaurant, but I propel myself southward in hope of reaching a camping spot with some daylight. It’s now 17:00, and if I move quickly I can reach Crater Meadow in daylight.
Trail south of here turns a bit eerie as I pass through the remains of a forest fire eighteen years ago. Blackened trees are everywhere, but smaller growth abounds. The trail curves through the area before heading up into the mountains again, and I hit a solid pace as I push to the end of the day.
The trail leaves the burned area and starts ascending, and I notice a few decent campsites. However, having noted Crater Meadow as a goal, I feel compelled not to stop until I reach it. It starts to get dusky as I finish out the day, but I make it to a campsite near a small river crossing with light to spare and call it a day. The site’s partially occupied by Michelle, another JMT thru-hiker (albeit one starting from Tuolumne Meadows due to scheduling mishaps, hiking the entire stretch without resupply — a very aggressive pace/load that’s still not inconceivable). She’s started a small campfire, which provides for a nice break from my usual habit of not having campfires while backpacking. I eat dinner and we talk off and on as night falls.
I’m still carrying that boxed wine, but there’s a lake roughly a day’s hike from here. Maybe I can break it out tomorrow night, cool it in the lake, and finally get rid of its weight with dinner.
(18.5; 0 side; 78.5 total, 132.5 to go)
It’s up and out around the usual time this morning. Michelle and I end up leaving about the same time, but I overtake her shortly as I move faster with much less food to carry. I speed through the first six-odd miles of the day: there’s some scenery but no water, so I have little reason to stop.
Duck Creek ends the drought, and even though it’s a little early in the day I take the opportunity and stop for lunch, Michelle passing me as I eat. Readily-available water is always good at mealtime, especially as tortillas with thick peanut butter or Nutella contain little water. I continue south again after lunch, curving around a small mountain before descending to Purple Lake. It looks like a nice camping spot, if I had reached it at the end of the day. I exchange pleasantries with a few people near the lake’s outlet, learning that Michelle is shortly ahead of me, and ascend again toward windswept Lake Virginia, passing Michelle along the way. Lake Virginia’s slopes are much flatter than those of other recent lakes, probably because it’s a larger lake.
Past Lake Virginia the trail switchbacks steeply descending into Tully’s Hole, then follows a creek to a trail junction. It’s around 17:00 now, so if I move quickly and keep moving I should reach Squaw Lake a bit short of nearby Silver Pass with daylight to spare: just about perfect for lightening my pack of a liter of wine. I do so, arriving at the sublime Squaw Lake shortly after 18:00.
I scout around for some sort of decent campsite before settling for bare rock halfway between the lake and the trail proper. (Bivy sacks are versatile — and mine is certainly more versatile than my non-freestanding tent.) Michelle arrives and contemplates continuing to Pocket Meadow, which looks to be about five miles south (most of which she’d be traveling after dark) before deciding to stop here as well.
Dinner is scampi (Knorr pasta as always) with salmon and a splash of pinot grigio. I have no idea whether I’m significantly improving the taste, or if I’m adding the optimal amount at the correct time, but I figure I can’t go wrong (and in any case, there’s nothing wrong with the placebo effect ). I have more than I really need to drink, so it’s painless to experiment. Michelle also takes a splash in her dinner since I have so much.
I finish off dinner, then the remaining part of the liter, as darkness falls. But it’s not dark! Entirely by accident I have scheduled my hike to occur during the moon’s waxing phase, ending a couple days into its waning phase. (I don’t believe I could have timed my hike any better if I’d tried.) The moon is large and bright in the sky, enough so that I eventually turn off my flashlight as darkness falls; I really don’t need it to see as long as I don’t have to walk around much. Once I finally finish off the wine it’s off to sleep underneath stars and moon by an alpine lake. Can it get any better than this? I am extremely hard-pressed to think how.
…but, as has happened before, this is not the end of the day! Around 03:00 I wake up to the flashlights of two hikers passing from the north. They don’t stop, perhaps recognizing a campsite with sleeping hikers when they see it, and I’m in no mood to wake up and find out why they’re hiking now, so back to sleep I go.
Deep in Lyell Canyon sunrise starts at its usual time, but direct sunlight doesn’t reach the floor until hours later. I eat my breakfast near the campfire with the other nearby backpackers, and we have some reasonable conversation as I eat my oatmeal. The fire provides a nice bit of warmth in the not-quite-sunlight. Once food’s finished it’s time to head back down the trail to wherever I end up today.
My stumbling continues, but when the ascent out of the canyon starts it necessarily slows as the trail begins crawling up and over rocks. I pass by a couple also doing a thru-hike of the JMT at one point; they’ve been out since a little before me, and they plan to leisurely hike the trail into early October. We leapfrog a few times until I pass them for a final time after lunch today.
The ascent continues past several tarns, mountain lakes fed by glacial runoff. The lakes are connected by the Lyell Fork, which is much smaller at this elevation than it was from even the earlier bridge (let alone the canyon itself). It’s also much smaller now than it was a couple months ago; this late in the season I can cross it on rocks without getting my feet wet.
Just above the lip of rocks in the near foreground is a flat area with another tarn whose outlet the trail crosses. Now seems like a good time for a lunch break, and I stop and cool off my feet and swollen ankles in the water for a brief moment (this being snowmelt water after all) before I eat lunch. There’s another group of other hikers here already doing the same things I’m doing; they head off before I finish.
After lunch the ascent resumes. It’s pretty gradual as ascents go, which also means it’s rather long. Donohue Pass may be a pass, but it’s not nearly the sight to see that later passes are, clearly occupying a narrow ridge between peaks. It’s more accurate to call it Donohue Plain or Donohue Plateau, I think.
Donohue Pass marks the end of the first recreational area the JMT passes through, as I leave Yosemite National Park and enter Ansel Adams Wilderness, not surprisingly named for Ansel Adams, a noted black-and-white photographer of nature, most particularly Yosemite — try a web search to see his work.
From here south through the end of the day is mostly a blur. The scenery is impressive as always along the JMT, but it is not particularly more memorable than other sections, perhaps because the lakes being passed by are a bit smaller, peaks are further in the distance, and there aren’t many people out and about. My biggest recollection from this descent, and from some others, is of a marmot or two living at high elevation.
The initial descent from Donohue Pass presents some nice views, and the gradual winding around lakes, over small streams, and through some trees makes for a comfortable, leisurely section. I have no particular goal for the day, but as I approach it Thousand Island Lake seems like a good stopping point: reasonable mileage for the day, going by my map, great views, plenty of space nearby for camping.
I descend near Thousand Island Lake around 17:00, although the lake has been visible for awhile (Banner Peak behind it even moreso). I haven’t filled up on water in awhile, so I’m going to need to do that when I get to the lake, and by the time I reach wherever I end up staying near it the iodine I’ll add to it should have purified it.
A handful of lakes in this section of the trail don’t permit camping within a quarter mile of their outlets. I pass by most of those lakes without stopping for the night, but Thousand Island Lake is the one exception. I attempt with partial success to follow the path around the lake past the edge of the no-camping zone, and I reach a flat, rocky area a short distance from the lake itself around 18:00. Daylight disappears as I cook dinner, made slightly more interesting by the constant wind blowing along the lake. Constant wind is the harbinger of a cold night, so I put on some long underwear. I can see more stars in the sky than I’ve seen in a long time, including all of the generally-too-faint-to-be-seen Little Dipper, as I head to sleep.
I took enough pictures this day and the next that each warrants its own post. These days are probably the most gorgeous of the whole trail, but the passes in the latter half of the trail are more breathtaking. (Literally.) This isn’t to say that either is more beautiful than the other but rather to say that they’re beautiful in different ways — about what I’d say if asked to compare the Appalachian Trail to the John Muir Trail. It’s apples to oranges as far as I’m concerned. (What if I really had to choose A.T. versus JMT, with no further distinction? 139 days versus 15 days is a no-brainer. But taken day by day, the JMT easily wins.)
I’ve purchased groceries and household supplies at Safeway#705 in Mountain View on Shoreline intermittently for four years (regularly since March 2009). It’s the closest grocery store to my apartment and carries nearly all the groceries I need, so I rarely go elsewhere.
I travel primarily by bike, and I usually walk my bike inside with me when I buy groceries at Safeway #705. This is much more efficient if I’m only getting a handful of items, and I don’t have to worry about a wheel or a seat walking off. At all times of all days of the week, no employee has ever looked askance. (There are no automated checkout lines, so I always walk by a few employees when I pay.) I’ve never been asked to leave my bike outside.
Not until today.
Today I was told Safeway #705 doesn’t allow bikes inside it. I replied that I’d walked my bike in regularly, to no avail. So I went and locked up the bike, then returned to finish my little bit of shopping. (I was fortunate to have a lock, since I usually carry it to Safeway only when buying an especially large amount of groceries.)
I understand why a store might wish to forbid awkward, bulky bikes. (Still, they’re less bulky and much more maneuverable than carts.) But this makes Safeway #705 quite unusual for the area: no other grocery store has forbidden my bike. I have no reason but convenience to particularly visit Safeway #705. Other grocery stores as little as half a mile further away (even other Safeway stores!) have no problem with me taking my bike inside. Safeway #705 can exclude me, but I can retaliate: I can stop shopping there, and I can use this bully pulpit to tell others.
So in the future, Safeway #705, expect to see far less of me, and my money, than you have in the past. I may rarely show up when I especially need convenience (only if I have my lock), but you won’t be my default stop for groceries. I can suffer minor inconvenience to make my preference for bicycle flexibility known. Who knows? Maybe you’ll see light here; I wouldn’t bet on it, but I’d love to be proven wrong.