According to one estimate, worldwide auto production could slide by 30% because Hitachi Automotive’s Sawa Ibaraki Prefecture plant was debilitated by Japan’s earthquake and tsunami. Hitachi Automotive makes the air flow sensors that are crucial in autos for determining “how much fuel to inject, when to ignite the cylinder, and when to shift the transmission.”
Translate sensor production into jobs, sales, related parts and you have a massive ripple from one $90 car part. In Shreveport LA, small pick-up truck production from GM stopped. As a result, GM’s Buffalo, NY engine plant had to lay off 10% of its workers. Similarly, in Spain, France, and Slovakia, Peugeot-Citroen announced cutbacks.
The Economic Lesson
This returns us to the classic 1958 pencil essay by Leonard Read. Conveying how people and places around the world are necessary for a simple pencil, at the beginning of the essay, the pencil says, “I, Pencil, simple though I appear to be, merit your wonder and awe…Simple? Yet not a single person on the face of this earth knows how to make me…”
It also reminds us that “made in …” labels are not entirely accurate. A t-shirt “Made in China” could include cotton grown in Texas. The iPhone is actually made by 9 different suppliers located around the world. And, a pick-up truck that is made in a U.S. factory could include a sensor that was manufactured Japan.
In this TED talk, a designer explains how he tried to build his own toaster. Deciding to focus on five basic ingredients instead of the 100 he would really need, he describes what happened. For the steel, first he needed iron ore. For the plastic, he went to BP to get “a jug” of oil but was unsuccessful so he settled, instead, on using potatoes. (Yes, you can make plastic out of potato starch.) Also, he needed mica and copper and nickel. As you can see, step-by-step, the simplicity of an everyday inexpensive toaster got more and more complex.
By showing how many people and materials were involved, designer Thomas Thwaites sought to display our interconnectedness.
The Economic Lesson
Now as economists, we should take his story a step further. Why are people willing to interconnect? The answer is price. During every step of the production process, someone, combining land, labor, and capital, decided that he or she would be willing to exchange a good or a service for a certain price.
So, in a way, we could say that a toaster exists because of prices and incentives. Economists call the interaction of prices and incentives the price system.
Written in 1958, a classic essay,”I, Pencil: My Family Tree as told to Leonard Read” illustrated a similar phenomenon. Close to the beginning of the essay, the pencil says, “I, Pencil, simple though I appear to be, merit your wonder and awe…Simple? Yet not a single person on the face of this earth knows how to make me…”