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Science Fair

March 1, 2002

“I’m living in the material world,” sang George Harrison. “Get frustrated in the material world, senses never gratified …”

Can’t say if he’s in a better place now. But the material world is a curious place, for sure. I had the honor of judging a science fair again this year. One young scientist made a battery out of a potato.

Another investigated whether hair color affected the production of static electricity. I didn’t see that one coming; but the question was posed, and then properly investigated.

Another young scientist showed how a slice of bread handled with dirty hands grew mold quicker than an untouched piece — a cautionary tale. The material world can be a scary place, but it’s the only one we can get our hands around, literally and figuratively.

In America, we’re pretty fortunate materially. I’ve suggested before that everyone should spend a little time with an eye-opening book of photography entitled “The material world” by Peter Menzel. Representative families from nations around the world are photographed with all their possessions. The range of material wealth should give one pause.

A related book is “Earth from above: 365 days,” a picture-a-day book of spectacular images of the earth and its inhabitants. The material of our world, including that of our own making, is fascinating.

I’m reading a book about a particular science of the material world often called “the dismal science” — so called, the author claims, because its principles often countermand our hopes and desires.

The book is “Basic economics: a citizen’s guide to the economy” by Thomas Sowell. Economics is dismal because it is the “study of the consequences of various ways of allocating scarce resources which have alternative uses.” It doesn’t matter how you want things to be; everything has a price, and you can’t have everything.

Sowell takes pains to separate economic principles from the many political choices we make to try to get around them. For example, he makes the distinction between scarcity and shortage, the latter usually occurring because of political decisions, such as price control.

Shortages happen when demand exceeds supply at existing prices. Normally, prices would go up, but when by fiat they can not — such as with rent control, for example — then demand is kept artificially high and the market can not adjust. Consumers will seek more of something than they otherwise would at higher prices, and yet the lower prices keep producers from producing more.

I don’t know enough to argue; it makes great sense, as does the market economy in general. It must be a great political challenge to leave a market economy alone. Even Sowell’s basic economic principles invite politicizing, because they presume to say how things are between us.

But we know they are otherwise, too, which is why we have Christian love and Buddhist charity, as well as terrorism and war. But the basic equation is about personal profit and loss, and the incentive is personal gain, and so politics will always distort the dismal science. There are too many ways to gain advantage outside the marketplace.

One of my favorite lines from the book is “Knowledge is one of the most scarce of all resources …” and anyone who has priced access to a well-controlled and comprehensive information database, carefully cataloged with subjects headings, abstracts, and full text, will agree.

But by sharing a public library, we make knowledge mutually affordable. I’ll see if Sowell discusses this …


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