The following musing, surely inspired by I, Pencil, the economic essay by Leonard Read from 1958 to demonstrate the power of Adam Smith’s invisible hand of the market concept (cooperation without coercion) and the necessity of prices to communicate among dispersed knowledge, to paraphrase Milton Friedman’s characterization of the essay, popped up on my Facebook memories. If anyone has followed this blog for a while (and thank you!), then you know I love cereal. I mean, what’s most important in life is family, dogs, and cereal. I kid, sort of. But inspired by the aforementioned essay, I started thinking … (I edited my original thoughts for grammar, clarify, and added some points here and there to round out the point.)
Has anyone else ever considered how screwed [I used such beautiful language eight years ago] we would be if we had to make our own food? I’m not talking about cooking; I mean literally making our own food. And not just food, but really, any good that we use. But let’s stick with food, and take one of my favorite dishes: cereal, and any cereal, such as Frosted Flakes, Fruit Loops, Waffle Crisp or Cap’n Crunch.
I wouldn’t even know where to begin. Perhaps the “easiest” step would be procuring the milk, but first I have to figure out where some cows are, and I can’t just go up to them and start tugging on their utters, and besides, I would have to YouTube how to do it right — YouTube in general can get you far, but I think it still hasn’t contradicted the point of Read’s essay 65 years ago. But then what about the pasteurization process? Granted, there are those who drink — and have legally fought for the right — milk raw, but no thank you!
Beyond that, from scratch figuring out how to bring together all the necessary equipment and ingredients to make the cereal itself. Even a few ingredient cereal is still going to be time-intensive, if you have reasonable access to them. Then there is the process to make the spoon and the bowl to eat it with. Going as basic as you can on this — perhaps forgetting about the spoon and using your mouth! — with a clay-based ceramic bowl instead of a plastic one or more advanced clay techniques, such as silicon carbide, that is still, as you may notice the reoccurring theme here, time-intensive!
Imagine how much time it takes just to create one bowl of cereal for one person dong it on their own. It’s madness. To peel back the layers upon layers and interconnected processes involved, most of whom aren’t even aware of the other (in other words, the bowl-makers don’t care about the spoon-makers who don’t care about what General Mills is doing, but they nevertheless depend on each other for optimal product use!), and you can see the issue. And I sure as hell ain’t interested in killing the cow and turning it into a juicy hamburger.
The division of labor, specialization, capital accumulation, all the these things, make it possible so that most of the things I utilize and interact with on a daily basis are immeasurably easier to access, freeing me up to ponder these things, to write fiction, to read poetry, to watch movies, to read a book and so on. It’s a pathway to culture in that sense, but I digress.
Read’s essay is obviously better and I highly recommend it, but if you take anything away from this (other than that cereal is delicious!), then let me end on the same G.K. Chesterton quote Read used, “We are perishing for want of wonder, not for want of wonders.”
Never cease to wonder, even about something as basic as a pencil or a bowl of cereal.