It’s always instructive, every now and then, to consider what a remarkable thing a pencil is, or even a simple sandwich. The late Nobel Prize-winning economist Milton Friedman has a famous video on YouTube where he explains the extraordinary complexity of a process that ends with a six-pack of pencils sitting on the shelf at Walmart waiting to be picked up for a buck.
Right? The wood and the graphite that must be harvested and mined, the machines that grind the wood into pulp and from there into the pencil shape we all know. The dye used to color the wood is a story all of its own. Even that little eraser attached to the top of the pencil is a miracle of human ingenuity, from harvesting and shaping the rubber, to the metal clasp that keeps it in place. Then they must be packaged, transported sometimes across oceans, unloaded, put on display and checked out at the checkout counter, all for a financial commitment from the average American that amounts to about three minutes of a 40-hour work week.
Some guy named Andy George just made a sandwich from scratch. It took him six months and cost him $1,500. He grew the wheat, ground the flour, made cheese and butter, slaughtered a chicken (gross), grew lettuce and tomatoes — you know, really from scratch. And it wasn’t a good sandwich, not within shouting distance of a Subway footlong most Americans pick up in return for 15 minutes work, which is to say 0.3 percent of Andy’s investment.
Put another way, Andy could have consumed 300 superb sandwiches for the same amount of money he spent on his disaster.
Friedman’s point, of course, being one of the 20th century’s great defenders of free markets, is that free people left to their own devices make extraordinary things happen.
Imagine that instead of entrepreunerial souls dreaming of riches and working with banks who share their vision, we had governmental departments that controlled access to the means of production.
Imagine that Jerry Murrell in 1986 had approached the Secretary of the Ministry of Popular Food seeking a license to open a new hamburger joint. He would certainly be told that the country is saturated with hamburger outlets and perhaps he should focus instead on roof shingle production, which, unlike hamburgers, is falling behind the government’s all-important six-year plan.
Jerry Murrell did not live in such a country. He lived in a country that allowed him, after his sons said they did not wish to attend college, to risk their tuition money on a hamburger joint in a country awash with hamburger joints. The plan was simple: We’ll do it better, and 33 years and almost 600 restaurants later, Jerry and his five sons have made Five Guys an icon of the American fast food scene.
That is, and always has been, America, from Peter Sarpy and his ferryboat to the Scottish vagabond Andrew Carnegie and his steel mills to the humblest immigrant pushing an ice cream cart. The honor roll could fill phone books.
I’m not sure that kids know this anymore, or believe it.
And that’s on us.