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

November 23, 2012

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.

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Happy Origin of Species Day! (November 24)

November 23, 2012

Tomorrow, November 24, 2012, marks the 153rd anniversary of a day that quietly changed all of science, should have changed much of theology, and brought much of the world into the future, though many people don’t know it yet.

It’s a Saturday this year — so let’s be a day early, to get informed and involved the people who don’t check their calendars on the weekends.

On November 24, 1859, Charles Darwin’s book was published, On the Origin of Species.

Title page, 1859 edition of Darwin's Origin of Species - University of Sydney/Wikimedia image

Title page, 1859 edition of Darwin’s Origin of Species – image from the University of Sydney via Wikimedia image

How to celebrate?  You could read a summary of Ernst Mayr’s shorthand version of Darwin’s theory, and understand it really for the first time  (I hope not the first time, but there are a lot of people who really don’t understand what Darwin said — especially among critics of evolution):

Darwin’s theory of evolution is based on key facts and the inferences drawn from them, which biologist Ernst Mayr summarised as follows:[3]

  • Every species is fertile enough that if all offspring survived to reproduce the population would grow (fact).
  • Despite periodic fluctuations, populations remain roughly the same size (fact).
  • Resources such as food are limited and are relatively stable over time (fact).
  • A struggle for survival ensues (inference).
  • Individuals in a population vary significantly from one another (fact).
  • Much of this variation is inheritable (fact).
  • Individuals less suited to the environment are less likely to survive and less likely to reproduce; individuals more suited to the environment are more likely to survive and more likely to reproduce and leave their inheritable traits to future generations, which produces the process of natural selection (inference).
  • This slowly effected process results in populations changing to adapt to their environments, and ultimately, these variations accumulate over time to form new species (inference).
Darwin's original sketch of a "tree of life," from Darwin's journals

Charles Darwin’s 1837 sketch, his first diagram of an evolutionary tree from his First Notebook on Transmutation of Species (1837) on view at the the Museum of Natural History in Manhattan. Interpretation of handwriting: “I think case must be that one generation should have as many living as now. To do this and to have as many species in same genus (as is) requires extinction . Thus between A + B the immense gap of relation. C + B the finest gradation. B+D rather greater distinction. Thus genera would be formed. Bearing relation” (next page begins) “to ancient types with several extinct forms.”  Wikimedia image

This is mostly an encore post — hey, it’s a history blog — with tips of the old scrub brush justified to Larry Moran and P. Z. Myers, and especially Eugenie Scott and the National Center for Science Education.

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