What Do Pencils and Global Trade Have in Common?
Updated: Jul 31, 2018
In my first grade the classroom was a small room, no more than 12 by 15 feet on the second floor of a caravanserai. The dictionary says that in the desert regions caravanserai (also spelled caravansary) is an inn with a central courtyard. That was all that my small city could afford as “school,” a few rooms at the city’s caravanserai. The caravanserai was on a dirt alley at the end of the city’s bazar. It had a main gate that opened into a square courtyard. The yard was dug out relative to the alley and around it were built two stories of rooms. The first story was at the yard level and the second at the alley level with a balcony that went all around. The yard and its rooms were for horses, donkeys, carriages, and servants. The second story for travelers.
I went to school at caravanserai for three years before the city built a four bedroom house, called it school and I was transferred there. I don’t recall whether I was transferred because my father was one of the city’s rich people or everyone at caravanserai went to the new school.
My memories of caravanserai school are vague and mostly about the physical surroundings. I do not recall how the classes were conducted and whether we had textbooks. Yet a single memory has remained vividly stuck in my mind and it is the pencil model that one teacher used to demonstrate a key aspect of life. You all have seen the standard pencil, the yellowish-colored one. It existed then. The teacher would pick six or seven pencils, tie a thread around them to hold them together, raise the bundle up and say, Who can break this? Anyone that does, will get a prize. With the mention of prize a number hands would go up volunteering to break the bundle. Yet, however anyone tried, even the strongest kid in the class could not put a dent in the bundle. When everyone had accepted defeat, the teacher would smile, take the bundle, remove the thread and give one pencil to a student and say, Can you break this? There were always a few students that could break the lone pencil. Then the teacher would smile and say, If you stand together, no one can break you. Go it alone, and you will be broken quite easily.
I do not know why after so many years this pencil model has stuck in my mind. Perhaps because it is an excellent model of human life as “capability sharers.” None of us—no human—can exist, can have a life without the capabilities shared by others. I get my car, my house, my medicine, my road, my plane, my toilet paper, my food—everything you can imagine—from “shared capabilities” of others. There is no exception to this. The human life is a life of “capability sharers.” The bundle of six or seven pencils tied together is a model of many people sharing their capabilities. Their life is robust and cannot be broken. Separate them into individual pencils that no longer share capabilities with one another, and they will be broken. Broken easily. Their life will not be robust. It will be pain, suffering and dying out.
So let me bring in the global trade into the pencil model. After decades of trial and error, many societies had come together on global trade, making it resemble a bundle of tied pencils. Mr. Trump is untying the bundle, separating it into its individual parts. His view is that “two pencils at a time” is the best way of trade—the best way of capability sharing. My teacher at caravanserai school would have smiled and said, Still, much easier to break a bundle of two than a bundle of six or seven. My teacher’s wisdom is obvious in every aspect of human life. Just imagine any aspect of life and take out one of the “capability sharers” and see what happens. Take out doctors and keep everything else. Are you better off without the capabilities shared by doctors? Take out the farmers and keep everything else. Are you better off without the capabilities shared by farmers? The same applies to nations that share capabilities. Take out the European Union and keep everything else. Is the United States better off without the capabilities shared by the European Union?
The picture of human life as “capability sharing” is most obvious in the pencil model. The more we drag down the possibilities for capability sharing, the more we create barriers for sharing capabilities, the worse our individual and societal life becomes. Yet that is what Mr. Trump does persistently, and most of us do not understand the significance of what he does because we do not know that human life is made of “capabilities shared.”
Do you want to learn more about human life as shared capabilities? Then read my book The Sucker Punch of Sharing. Note that I am not trying to sell you a book. That is the last thing on my mind. By increasing your knowledge of capability sharing I am trying to prevent you and me from being turned into low-intensity capability sharers and broken. This is self-interest and I hope you feel the same.