Free Trade

Joe Biden Invoked 'I, Pencil' To Explain Supply Chains, but He Seems To Have Missed the Point

"Even products as simple as a pencil have to use wood from Brazil and graphite from India before it comes together at a factory in the United States," Biden said.


Midway through an otherwise pretty unremarkable speech from the port of Baltimore on Wednesday evening, President Joe Biden uttered a few words that will make any libertarian's ears perk up.

"Even products as simple as a pencil," Biden said, "have to use wood from Brazil and graphite from India before it comes together at a factory in the United States to get a pencil. It sounds silly, but that's exactly how it happens."

Yes, it appears the president (or one of his speechwriters) has at least a passing familiarity with "I, Pencil" the 1958 essay by Leonard Read that offers a first-person perspective—that of a simple pencil—into the incredible supply chains that make even the most common household products readily available. It remains probably the greatest (and certainly the most concise) defense of the merits of free markets and free trade.

And there's nothing silly about it. "Not a single person on the face of this earth knows how to make me," Read's pencil explains. No government busybody or all-seeing CEO directs the complex markets that allow wood, graphite, rubber, and bits of metal to be produced, shipped, and combined. No one involved in the process is acting out of an altruistic desire to make pencils for others, either. Yet each step, each self-interested worker in the process is indispensable, Read explains.

As for Biden, he referenced "I, Pencil" as a way to explain some of the problems that America's supply chains are currently experiencing. "If all of a sudden you have a COVID crisis in Brazil, you can get the product because the plant shuts down," Biden said.

"Products like smartphones often bring together parts from France, Italy, chips from the Netherlands, touchscreens from New York state, camera components from Japan," the president continued, before acknowledging that "global supply chains have helped dramatically bring down the price we pay for the things we buy."

Yes, yes, yes, exactly right.

But—and you knew there had to be a "but" coming—it took Biden less than five minutes to toss all that aside and begin promoting his "Buy American" agenda. That "won't just be a promise but an ironclad reality," he promised.

What happened to the wood from Brazil and the graphite from India being used to make pencils here, one might wonder.

The simplicity of the pencil-making metaphor destroys the performative politics of Biden's "Buy American" rules, which will accomplish little besides forcing taxpayers to pay higher prices for just about everything the government purchases. Those rules also mean that Biden's just-passed $1 trillion infrastructure spending plan—Wednesday's speech was a victory lap moment for the president—will be less significant than it otherwise would be.

And it means that Biden didn't really digest the meaning of "I, Pencil."

The lesson Read offers in the essay's final paragraph is thus: "Leave all creative energies uninhibited…let society's legal apparatus remove all obstacles the best it can. Permit these creative know-hows to freely flow."

Notice that there is nothing in there about how you should stop the free-flowing of creative energy if less than 50 percent of it was manufactured in the United States. There's also nothing about import quotas or tariffs. Maybe next time Biden's speechwriters will read all the way to the end.