March 3, 2011 11:25AM

For a Dollar

The Crossed Pond has long been one of my favorite blogs. Here's a recent post I liked a lot:

I belatedly realized that I needed a calculator today so after quick stop by a gas station to try my luck, I ended up in my local Walmart. I was in a bit of hurry so I asked a very nice lady where I could find the calculators and was pleasantly surprised when it was much closer than where I would have gone if I didn’t ask. I made my way to the aisle and pondered my options. Because it looked to be a familiar style, I grabbed a Casio that was priced at $4.97 and was just about to double back to the registers when I noticed something on the top shelf that had exactly the same features like memory recall but was priced at a mere dollar. I quickly exchanged the one that was priced five times higher and headed out.

As I sat admiring my new purchase a few minutes later, I was struck by just how amazing this little piece of hardware really was. It’s about 20% bigger than a credit card and is encased in a rather attractive translucent case. This translucency allowed me to notice the interior guts of the calculator and got me thinking. Within the price point of a dollar, this little device had somehow managed to include an eight digit liquid crystal display, a little solar panel, a battery, a pcb board with attached cables from the buttons to the board and from the board to the screen, a system of buttons and a backing for them that transmits their signal and of course actual calculator microchip itself. It doesn’t have the largest of screens or the biggest battery and the whole device is only about half an inch thick at the thickest point. Yet it’s got nice soft buttons that do things accurately on the screen when I press them. Yet somehow, this marvel was able to be sold to me for a dollar.

That dollar includes all of the hardware physically inside of it. It also includes the cost of all of those who handled this device on its journey to me. Aside from manufacturing and the initial assembly, portions of that dollar were spent on transporting this all the way across the Pacific and then inland from container box to semi truck to the back area of Walmart where someone actually unpacked it and put it on the shelf for me to buy. This was all done for less than 100 pennies. Think about that for a moment.

Ain’t modern life grand?

Now, when people on the left hear me say things like this, they often seem to conclude that I must be speaking in code.

What I must be saying -- truly, deep down -- is that the poor should be happy with what they have. That all great concentrations of wealth are held justly and should be preserved as national treasures. That ours is the best of all possible worlds. And that you should all vote Republican.

Surely this is the most probable interpretation, right? I mean, what else could it be? Pocket calculators are so pedestrian. They're not grand. They don't make big explosions. They don't last forever. They don't even impress the neighbors. Pocket calculators are the most non-monumental objects around.

Well, almost. Leonard Read's essay "I, Pencil" explains it superlatively:

I, Pencil, simple though I appear to be, merit your wonder and awe, a claim I shall attempt to prove. In fact, if you can understand me—no, that's too much to ask of anyone—if you can become aware of the miraculousness which I symbolize, you can help save the freedom mankind is so unhappily losing. I have a profound lesson to teach. And I can teach this lesson better than can an automobile or an airplane or a mechanical dishwasher because—well, because I am seemingly so simple.

Simple? Yet, not a single person on the face of this earth knows how to make me. This sounds fantastic, doesn't it? Especially when it is realized that there are about one and one-half billion of my kind produced in the U.S.A. each year. [in 1958!]

Pick me up and look me over. What do you see? Not much meets the eye—there's some wood, lacquer, the printed labeling, graphite lead, a bit of metal, and an eraser.

Just as you cannot trace your family tree back very far, so is it impossible for me to name and explain all my antecedents. But I would like to suggest enough of them to impress upon you the richness and complexity of my background.

"Not a single person on the face of this earth knows how to make me." The same could be said of nearly all consumer goods today. In a very important sense, we do not know the world we have made. Its production, like the production of pencils, is so dispersed and depends on so many complex chains of events that if a central planner were to propose it, that plan would be laughed out of the politburo.

And yet, unlike designed plans, unlike the plans developed by an individual or a small central committee -- the plans that develop organically have a much greater chance of success. Pencils are produced. People work and get paid. Waste and scrap are typically either punished or eliminated. If one part of the system breaks, the system itself -- that is, the price system -- stands ready to tell us where the next-best thing can be found, and we don't even have to ask the central planner.

When I praise market freedom, this is what I'm praising. This process; nothing else. I'm not praising great concentrations of wealth, and I'm certainly not praising the people who hold them. I'm not saying that cheap pencils are sufficient, so let the poor stay where they are. All I'm saying is that no other system has produced so many pencils, for so long and so cheaply. That's pretty excellent all by itself, isn't it?

Nor has any other system given us the surplus time that makes it possible for nearly all children to spend their formative years learning how to use pencils. Market freedom neither abolished child labor nor produced mass literacy. But market freedom did make doing so a thinkable, non-starvation-inducing proposal in the first place. (Mass education for nearly the first twenty years of life? In the Middle Ages? Are you kidding?)

Which, again, is not to say that the poor should be content where they are, or that great concentrations of wealth are all perfectly just, et cetera, et cetera. It's only to say that you can buy a pocket calculator for a dollar today, and in the 1950s the only place you could even find a pocket calculator was in the pages of Isaac Asimov. That's pretty incredible. Would even Asimov have imagined it, so soon and so cheaply?

Outside of market freedom, nothing appears able to back privation into a corner -- so completely, even, that we in the industrialized world can think of privation as a curiosity, and -- dangerously -- conclude that it's easily abolished. It isn't. The way out of privation is narrow, and it took us nearly forever to find.

Yet privation is what nature gives us. Mother Nature is not, contrary to myth, a generous woman. She doesn't give us pencils, and not even fruit or vegetables in any great quantity. She gives us fairly demanding nutritional requirements that we've only recently managed to meet, as a species, with anything like adequacy. She gives us malaria, smallpox, and dysentery. She gives us this horrible urge to reproduce, whether the kids will live happily, or suffer, or die miserably. She gives us illiteracy, and ignorance, and intuitions about the natural world that may have been useful as hunter-gatherers but that take us not a single step beyond.

Nature is utterly cruel and ungenerous, and yet markets can overcome it, and that's why a solar-powered calculator for a dollar is so wonderful.