IPencil

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I listen regularly to the Freakanomics Podcast (Radio). And they did a two part series on writing. Starting with, “do we really need cursive anymore”, some light discussion on cursive, it was an interesting podcast, but just for curiosity. Mostly it was a setup for the next week’s one which was far more interesting. The second podcast was on i pencil: an economics treatise by Lawrence W. Reed, founder of fee.org (circa 1958), explaining the complexity of making something as simple as a pencil in the modern world. I’d heard parts of this, in other contexts, and I was very familiar with fee.org, which I’d read a lot of their stuff. But it piqued my curiosity, and read I pencil in it’s entirety. It’s definitely worth a listen or read.


NOTE: On the first article on cursive writing, I definitely fall into the camp that kids should have enough familiarity to read cursive (and maybe do a little writing, if forced), but beyond that it’s useless in the modern world. It would be better to spend the time doing something more valuable like touch typing, or learning shorthand. When I was a kid, I invented my own printing/writing system (basically teehand shorthand, with simplified characters like Palm's graffiti). But the podcast only did a high level flyover on some of these topics.

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I normally really enjoy Dubner and Freakanomics, but it can be a little too superficial, and miss deeper teaching opportunities. And the second half of the show was an even shallower, covering of making a toaster from scratch in the modern world. So it wasn’t a bad, it just fell short on where I wanted it to go.

Now where I wanted it to go was that I Pencil was a key economics lesson — explaining that something as simple as a pencil, was too complex for anyone in the world to understand how to make one, at least if you look at all the parts. Back in 1958 it was a global supply chain, that had iterated many times. Capitalisms creative destruction, and continuous improvement, had enabled every part of a pencil to be optimized in ways that no central planner could have foreseen or managed.

The point is that communism and central planners aren't as good at bringing order out of chaos as free markets are. And the truth about the simple pencil proves it. No one person knows all the nuances of how to make every part of a pencil: the knowledge is dispersed through many people, in many places. Which is why central planners are destined to fail: no one knows it all. You need dispersed planners that the free market gives you -- specialists all over the globe trying to optimize making every part. And someone will put it altogether, without having to know all the nuances of everything. But a central planner trying to plan for all that, is destined to fail, or underperform the alternative.

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Written: 2017.04.28 • Edited: 2019.04.28