Sunday 10 July 2011

Wasting Josh Gans's time

Josh Gans left Australia to take up a position at the University of Toronto. And now he gets to deal with Canadian Immigration, who've made him spend four hours proving that he can indeed function in English. Presumably he could have chosen to sit the test in French instead. Despite having more published papers than I care to count, Josh still had to sit through this kind of nonsense:
The first part was a speaking test. This is where a tester sat across from you and carried on the most unlikely conversation for someone you just met. He read a scripted piece which I filled in the other side of the conversation from. It started off standard and friendly enough with some exchange of basic information before he somewhat ominously decided to put a question to me where I would be allowed some “thinking time” before I answered. The question was to describe a job that I believed helped the world and to explain why I thought that. Of course, my first thought was “well, not your job because this is clearly a waste time in some broad sense.” But as I was the only person in our family required to take this test, I had been ordered to be on good behaviour. So I went with scientists and put in a solid discussion of the microfoundations of endogenous growth theory for a minute. I don’t think he was that intrigued because when my minute was up he cut me off mid-word — apparently more desperate to be free of this than I was. He then decided to provoke me by asking whether I thought that “industry destroyed the environment.” I said I thought that by definition all human activity, including industry, destroyed the environment, what of it? We then meandered back into whether technology was making people’s lives more enjoyable (I said, “it is me! I have an iPad”) but before I could get onto the Easterlin Paradox, my time was done.
And it gets better from there; read the whole thing. He concludes:
Anyhow, I cannot recommend against doing this enough. There has got to be a better and quicker way to assess language — maybe some two step procedure. I’m glad it is over — assuming I pass that is. If I don’t pass, it will turn out I am not recognisably proficient in any language!
Take Josh's experience, multiply it across all the thousands of English-speaking immigrants to Canada, multiply it by the value of their time, add in the bureaucracy's cost, subtract the bureau's cost of an alternative triage method: there's a social cost for you!

At least it sets people up with proper expectations of the Canadian bureaucracy. When I was home in Manitoba, a friend was talking about somebody who was trying to get into farmed fish. They'd gotten all the permissions for the fishing operation, but hadn't realised that their meat processing facility, already certified and registered, couldn't be used also for fish without an extensive additional permitting process. Instead of anger at the bureaucracy, folks instead puzzled over why the would-be entrepreneur hadn't made sure from three potentially relevant certification agencies that everything was allowed; the default assumption is that something is forbidden unless permitted in triplicate. That's no way to live. I was reminded of how Ellis Redding, paroled after decades in prison, still couldn't stop asking for permission to use the bathroom.

Meanwhile, here's how Immigration New Zealand solves the English-language problem:
The principal applicant is the person making the application. If you are the principal applicant, you must meet our standards of English. The minimum standard of English is an International English Language Testing Systems (IELTS) certificate, with a band score of 6.5 or better in the General or Academic modules. This certificate must be less than two years old.

However, we may consider one of the following as evidence if you can show us that you:
  • have a recognised qualification from a course taught entirely in English,
  • have ongoing skilled employment in New Zealand, and have been in the job for at least the last 12 months, or
  • have other evidence proof of competency in English. We will consider a number of factors.
When I made my application a few years ago, in the third of the page where it asked for evidence of English competence, I listed a few publications and offered a copy of my dissertation. That was good enough.

Kiwis have no clue how bad things are elsewhere.


  1. Kiwis have no clue how bad things are elsewhere.

    Absolutely. This is something I'm always struck by when I return to NZ from elsewhere - whether it's government or industry, NZ is remarkably efficient for all sorts of day-to-day transactions.

    I filled in a tax form last week on the deadline day: it took me about 30 minutes - including waiting on the phone lines to speak to an IRD person. If I'd just done it online, it would have taken 5.

    A year or so ago, I remembered the absolute indignation of a US immigrant to NZ, complaining that they had to go halfway across town for a 10 minute appointment to renew their work visa.

    Doing the same thing for a Kiwi in the US - well, you start queueing outside an INS office at 6am in the morning. If you're lucky, they may even see you that day.

  2. @Anon: Exactly right. I got my US Green Card (marriage) while a grad student. Insanely difficult relative to NZ.

  3. "So I went with scientists and put in a solid discussion of the microfoundations of endogenous growth theory for a minute."

    That's a terrible way to prove that you can function in English.

  4. @Keith: But I bet Josh had fun expounding on it. I would have. If constrained against insulting the guy.

    Fun Canada Customs story. In high school, we had to do work experience. So I went and hung out with customs for a day. Sat in the booth where Customs agents met folks who were coming back from the States. Carload of Canadians of East Indian descent pulled up having gone across the line for some shopping. The Customs guy closed the window, turned to me and said "East Indians...they're the least patriotic of all Canadians." Still have a sour taste in my mouth from that one.

    On the US side: Summer of 1998. I'd been accepted into George Mason. The folks at Mason told me to try to get my student visa early so that I could get my SSN so they could get things set up for my stipend. I was working in Ottawa but went down to Detroit with a buddy for the weekend. Figured I'd take care of the visa stuff while crossing the border at Detroit. Went to the counter, told the woman behind the desk what the University had asked that I get sorted out. She said, exact words, "And if they told you that the sun shone at night and the moon shone in the daytime, would you have believed that too?" Then she buggered off for a coffee break, leaving me standing bewildered at an empty window 'till one of her colleagues saw that I was standing there, abandoned, came over and stamped my papers.

    Customs and immigration agents in most parts of the world are awful.... The worst drecks of humanity who wish nothing but to wield power over others.

    Everybody who thinks government is all for the good has never had to deal with immigration.

    On the plus side, I have not had a single bad experience with any part of New Zealand's immigration service.