I, Pencil Revisited

Leonard Read’s essay I, Pencil showed how even simple objects like a pencil were produced only through the cooperation and coordination of many thousands of people all over the world who often knew neither one another nor even what their actions ultimately produced. Milton Friedman made the pencil metaphor famous in Free To Choose when he said that “There’s not a single person in the world who could make this pencil.” Tyler and I illustrate the same idea with a romantic twist in our I, Rose video.

The NYTimes doesn’t seem aware of the history but, as if guided by an invisible hand, has a lovingly produced series of photos from a pencil factory showing that even the proximate steps are charmingly esoteric.


So what is the answer to how many people involved in making a pencil,1, 10, 100 million?

The division of labor has to be 1 of the driving/confusing factors socializing modern man into a tax paying peasant.

It would not surprise me if just a handful of companies make pencils, and that includes the component parts like graphite. Adam Smith's small artisan workshop has been obsolete for about five generations now...

You think that medieval peasants didn't pay taxes? You may want to read up on that.

Do people actually still use traditional pencils? I haven't seen a non-mechanical pencil in like twenty years.

I do. Soft 4B drawing pencils. You need a sharpener. But they don't run dry or leak, and meet the paper with just the right friction. For first drafts and taking notes, I mildly prefer them to pens, and always use them on flights.

The NYT photos were great. They made me think about mechanical engineering and the immense labor of getting machines to work effectively with natural materials. Is there a good history of mechanical engineering?

Mechnical pencils don't leak either. And they "run dry" by the exact same process a traditional pencil does, although the traditional perhaps provides better indication of how much lead is left.

Strangely enough, I haven't seen a mechanical pencil in the wild since the 1980s. We must run in different circles!

The first pencil we know of was a mechanical pencil. Conrad Gessner described his own in 1565.


Gravity feed clutch pencils, which are still standard with 2mm leads, are not all that different, I use one for my field book, a lot better than a ballpoint pen and it satisfies the legal requirements too since the impressions in the paper make it very difficult to alter.

A lot of carpenters, bricklayers and masons still use them too. This ridiculous replica doesn't look much different than what I carry in the field.


I loved that piece. Great delineation of the flow of work in General Pencil. I even love this name!

Somebody doesn’t have kids.


I visited the US a couple of years ago and I found an entire shelf in a popular shop displaying traditional pencils and sharpeners. Surely there must be demand for them?

A small pencil can reflect a vast artificial network; Each pencil has to be processed by the workers to the carriers and retailers. This is the price system, without the control of the Central Committee, all stages are carried out independently. The wood in the raw material may come from Brazil, and lead comes from Mexico. All these elements are shipped to Southeast Asia for processing and assembly and finally shipped to the United States.

By coordinating the interests of different people, the market makes these people who have different abilities and come from different regions automatically divide the division of labor, thus cooperation and mutual benefit.

No, no, and no! Who is doing the coordinating here? It's not the "market"; it's the managers of the pencil firm ... Grant it, the firm is responding to market signals (prices), but someone has to decide how much raw materials and equipment to buy, how many workers to employ, whether to hire the workers as employees or contractors, etc.

Behold: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bill_of_materials

No, no and No! It is the retailer who decides how many pencils will sell and how much shelf space he allocates. And how much staff he needs to do the work.

But no, there are dozens of retailers doing the same thing.

Buying from different pencil manufacturers.

Who buy from any number of wood producers, producers of the lead, the eraser material and the metal gizmo that holds it on. Then there is the paint.

And then the manufacturer of the assembly equipment. Or manufacturers.

Who would all reallocate the wood, the metal, the rubber, the paint, the shelf space to another willing buyer if the price was good. But that would quickly bring others into the market, limiting the prices.

All businesses are deeply connected to the market on both ends, needing multiple sources of inputs and multiple outlets for their products, constantly making adjustments based on market conditions.

So retailer and manufacturer are just making educated guesses (predictions really). The "market" is just what happens after the fact ...

Again, no. There is no "after the fact" -- it's ongoing process. Manufacturers (and suppliers and distributors and retailers and marketers and shippers) are constantly adjusting those guesses based on past results and new information. But the market includes not only all of them but also, obviously, final customers who may, unexpectedly, start buying more or less of the finished products. Perhaps because of a fad or saturation or because a new alternative becomes available. The market is a complex web of relationships between countless decision-makers.

You can see from the bag labeled "Navajo Pumice Company" that clearly other actors are involved in this pencil. Judging by its name, Navajo Pumice Company is probably somewhere in the American west and its possible nobody who works there has ever been to Jersey City where this factory is located.

Just as an aside bit of information, I have seen the carbon rod in the center of dry cell batteries described as graphite. That is not true. It is amorphous carbon. You can tell the difference by trying to draw on paper with it. If you can draw, it is graphite. If you can't, it's amorphous carbon. Amorphous carbon can be converted to graphite by baking it in a reducing atmosphere at very high temperature, but if you don't need it you don't do it.

How 'bout that pencil company that skimps on the eraser, giving you not soft, yielding, and effective pink papilla, that sheds rosy, easy-to-blow away shards onto your cleansed paper, but a hard, useless nubbin, that smudges the unwanted word, and leaves behind a slate smear of frustration. Whenever I get one of those pencils (who ever buys a pencil? They kind of fall into your hands), it tends to shake my love of humanity.

I'm impressed by how easily your love of humanity is shaken. How will you feel if you get a broken cracker in a package of Saltines? And, more importantly, how will you exact your much-justified vengance against those responsible?

A better analogy would be if the package was always full of broken crackers, leaving it a mystery as to how such a company could stay in business and who the heck keeps buying them.

Good call.

Other things that have the effect on me that Faze described: Straws that bend when you slam them on the table to pop them out of the wrapper. Feel like that didn't happen until the late 90s. Now very few places have slammable straws. This country has fallen apart.

The NYTimes doesn’t seem aware of the history

That is a terrible indictment of the New York Times. Who can expect to be taken seriously if they have not heard of I Pencil? America really is becoming two nations.

Although the question is whether people on the Right are on the Right because of I, Pencil or if they are more likely to have read I, Pencil because they are on the Right?

This is a photo shoot of the manufacturing process (and actually only one part of the "I Pencil" essay), not an economics article.

I, Toaster


You want to know about pencils? Here's the ultimate appreciation of pencils:

What you need to know: Henry Thoreau got his start in his father's pencil factory.

I read "I pencil: in my early libertarian days, and back then, libertarians were not exactly on the right, arguably on the left.

Today, libertarians piously say that they are in favor of gay marriage, sodomy, and men in the lady's toilet, but they oppose taxes and regulation.

However, when Trump cuts taxes and regulation, while being vaguely supportive of gay marriage, sodomy, and men in the lady's toilet, those Libertarians indignantly denounce him as an absolutely terrible person, obviously crazy, ignorant, and stupid.

What has happened since those days is that leftists are no longer seeking to tribalize people on the basis of their relationship to the means of production, and create covetousness, envy, conflict and violence on the basis of those tribes, but are instead tribalizing people on the basis of race, sex, and sexual preference and creating covetousness, envy, conflict and violence on the basis of those tribes. This renders libertarianism irrelevant, so libertarians are being assimilated into the left or the right.

Libertarians assimilated into the right tend to stop calling themselves libertarians, while continuing their opposition to taxation and regulation and continuing their support for free speech and the right to keep and bear arms while libertarians assimilated into the left tend to continue calling themselves libertarians while abandoning their positions on regulation, taxation, freedom of speech, and the right to keep and bear arms.

"The NYTimes doesn’t seem aware of the history..." is the type of statement that gets educated people derided as elites. The article is focused on photographs of the manufacturing practice, not on Alex' political agenda or economic theory. Not every article needs to lecture people about economics.

The New York Times certainly has its share of writers who are well aware of various economic theories and the workings of the economy.

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