“I, Pencil,” updated and animated — and not so offensive as I expected

Every economics teacher knows that old Leonard Read piece, “I, Pencil.”   It’s a good, practical demonstration of the concept of Adam Smith’sinvisible hand,” free markets, and the way economies put stuff together for sale without a government agency issuing instructions, written by Read in 1958, for the Foundation for Economic Education, a once-free-market economic think tank that recently made an unexpected (by me) lurch to the radical right.

The essay is dated, though, for high school kids today.  Most of the stuff Read properly assumed people knew something about, is left out of modern curricula in elementary and middle school, so a high school teacher must do remedial work in mining, international trade, lumbering, manufacturing, chemistry and metallurgy, just to make the thing make sense.  Where we used to learn about pencils in first or second grade, my students in recent years labor under the misconception that pencil leads are made out of lead, and I have to explain to them that graphite is a form of carbon.  They don’t know cedar from pine, or mahogany, they don’t know copper from tin from zinc from steel, and they think rubber has always been synthetic.

Imagine my surprise on this:  I got an e-mail touting an animated, YouTube update of Read’s essay. It’s not bad, even though it’s from the Competitive Enterprise Institute, which is neither competitive, nor an institute, but is instead a propaganda arm of crazy right-wing wackoes.

Whoever made this film appears not to have had much interference from the CEI poobahs.

Am I missing something? Is this film more right-wing than I see?

I worry that I missed something, or that the producers of this movie wove a spell over the usual radical near-fascist groups.  This movie has been touted in recent days by almost all of the usual crypto-black-shirt think puddles, American Enterprise Institute, the unreasoning Reason magazine from the so-called libertarian view, the cartoonish Glen Beck effluent pipe The Blaze, the Coors family’s Heritage Foundation, the offensively-named Lexicans, the biased Cafe Hayek (which is often a good read anyway, so long as you don’t take them seriously on any science issue),  the sanctuary for authoritarian-leaning victims of lobotomy Hot Air, and even that publication from the propaganda organization, The Daily Capitalist — in short, it’s been plugged by organizations covering the entire political spectrum from Y to Z, the far right end of the alphabet.

Maybe they didn’t watch it? 

For today’s teenagers, someone should do a couple of updates.  “I, SmartPhone” and “I, Tablet Computer” could include lessons in government regulation of radio spectrum and how such regulation allows public safety functions and air traffic control to exist alongside great profit-seeking groups, and how such developments would be impossible without government regulation. There would also be a section on the mining and milling of rare Earths, of ores like Coltan, which would introduce the concept of blood or conflict diamonds and ores, the collapse of order in unregulated areas like Congo and Somalia, slave labor as in Pakistan and China.  “I, Fast Food Breakfast” could include side lessons in importing of orange juice from Brazil and other nations, artificially-flavored syrups from China and the threat from climate change to U.S. maple tree farmers, and meat from Australia and Argentina, along with the ideas of food safety regulation on eggs and egg products by USDA and FDA.  “I, Burrito” could include lessons in cultural diffusion and migrant farm workers who pick the tomatoes . . .

By the way, the fact that pencil leads are graphite (and clay), and not lead, should not be taken to mean that pencil manufacturers came up with a kid-safe product on their own; lead in the paint on pencils was enough to worry the health officials, until regulation got different paints used.

We need a classroom guide on Read’s piece and this new movie that seriously discusses the need for regulation in pencil manufacture, from the safety of the saws used to cut the trees, and in the mills, to the anti-child labor provisions of the graphite and rubber import agreements, to the forest regulation and research necessary to keep the incense cedar wood in production, through the anti-deforestation requirements on rubber plantations and the regulation of lead in the paint.  The movie is good, much less right-wing than those groups who fawn over it, but still in need of some real-world economic reality.


7 Responses to “I, Pencil,” updated and animated — and not so offensive as I expected

  1. Ed Darrell says:

    Plus, Leonard Read opposed OSHA.

    Facts are damnably stubborn things, sometimes.


  2. Ed Darrell says:

    You’re aware, I trust, that pencil lead is not lead, but carbon, right?

    That’s part of the story of the pencil. Graphite is carbon.


  3. Hilarious. Of course every government water authority, from DC to Flint, MI seems to be poisoning kids with lead. And workplace injuries declined faster before OSHA was created than after. And you burble this.

    Another victim of government schools I guess.


  4. dscotese says:

    I try to protect myself from blind spots by imagining that the opposite of what I think is actually the truth, and searching for ways to prove it. I think externalities went unmentioned in the essay and in the movie because they take care of themselves. So, to protect myself from blind spots, I’m looking for ways to prove that externalities do not take care of themselves, or, since you can’t prove a negative, that “such regulation allows public safety functions and air traffic control to exist alongside great profit-seeking groups,” and, importantly, maintains public safety more effectively than it would be done without “such regulation.” Sadly, it is still impossible to prove.

    What I am left with is this: whatever we can do that remains acceptable to most people, we should do. If and when most people find it unacceptable, we should stop doing it. There is a group of people which attempts to create this distinction, rather than to discover it. That group is called “the legislature”. They do worse than creating an arbitrary counterfeit of something that already exists: They hurt (imprison or fine) those who attempt to show that they have erred by ignoring their “legislation.” That, to me is unacceptable, and I submit that we should stop doing it.


  5. Ed Darrell says:

    Yeah, “externalities.” A one word, concise, accurate and scathing criticism of this video — and of the original Read essay, in reality.

    Good catch, George. Just the word I needed and didn’t find.


  6. george.w says:

    I love your examples from consumer electronics, or even the the chain saws used to fell trees. Everyday objects have chemical content with various effects, yes; but they also have hidden ethical content that can’t be ignored by the same people who claim to be moral.

    It is a beautiful video but it studiously ignores the fact that their celebrated Invisible Hand cares naught for externalities – and that it is not so fragile a thing that it would fall apart if guided to protect them by the visible hand of the _people’s_ corporation.


  7. […] “I, Pencil,” updated and animated – and not so offensive as I expected (timpanogos.wordpress.com) […]


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