We live in strange and frightening times. Economists with some of the major banks are forecasting massive reductions in output for the second quarter of this year. As we enter the second week of living life online and “social distancing,” I have been struck by the ways in which an innovation-embracing society has helped me deal with the pandemic–and, as always, I’m struck by the power of a decentralized commercial society to harness others’ knowledge in ways that help me achieve my goals.
I’m very fortunate. I can do my job as an economics professor from pretty much anywhere–even the teaching part. I’ve taught principles of macroeconomics online several times, so switching from in-person classes to online classes has not been terribly difficult. It has presented its challenges, though, and fortunately, innovators have been there to help me.
First, there was the tangle of wires, cords, and devices I had to deal with if I was going to get my work done. Web conferencing without headphones, for example, is a recipe for screeching feedback, and I’m pretty sure I left my fancy wireless headphones in the back of a rideshare a few years ago. Second, working from the front porch is pleasant, but it brings its own distractions and annoyances like passing cars, barking dogs, neighbors’ lawnmowers, and so on. Third, we have three kids. They’re very well-behaved, but our house is hardly a silent sanctuary.
Enter Apple and Amazon. I noticed one of the students who came by my online office hours on the first day “back” from Spring Break was wearing wireless Apple AirPods. Figuring that now is just about as good a time as any, I went ahead and ordered a pair (I sprung for the expensive “pro” ones).
I did so with a quick trip to Amazon.com and a few taps of my thumb (for more on Amazon specifically, see this excellent post by David Henderson quoting a post by our mutual Facebook friend Ross Levatter). A few days later, they were delivered. They connected via Bluetooth to my phone and laptop with no difficulty at all, and they made it easier to communicate during web conferences, to make better videos for my students, and to be able to enjoy a lot more peace and quiet thanks to their noise-canceling features.
Do I know how noise-canceling technology works? Not really. Could I build a pair of AirPods from scratch? I wouldn’t be able to build something as simple as a toaster or even a pencil without the cooperation of great multitudes. I have no idea how noise-canceling technology works, I can’t describe what these things are even made out of in all but the most general of terms–I’m lost after “metal,” “plastic,” and “some other kind of plastic.” Suffice it to say that any effort I might make to build do-it-yourself noise-canceling earbuds would be doomed to failure.
And yet here I am, able to order online from the comfort of a front porch made even more comfortable by my new toys. I can, with a computer that sits in my lap, record videos in which I explain ideas, upload them to my university’s learning management system, and then click a few options that allow me to be notified when students type questions or comments on the videos. In the last fifteen years, we have enjoyed an explosion of high-quality instructional videos courtesy of organizations and websites like Marginal Revolution University and Khan Academy using video hosting platforms like YouTube and Vimeo.
Why do people go to such great lengths to help me? Obviously, there are a lot of things about crises that bring out the best in people. Distilleries are switching from making booze to making hand sanitizer and giving it away in part to build brand equity but also because they see people in distress and are well-positioned to help. Textbook companies and publishers are making their online resources available for students and instructors. I can depend on the kindness of strangers, it turns out.
But that’s not all. As the Library of Economics and Liberty points out in its article on Adam Smith, “Smith did not view sympathy and self-interest as antithetical; they were complementary.” In The Wealth of Nations, Smith put it this way: “Man has almost constant occasion for the help of his brethren, and it is vain for him to expect it from their benevolence only.” I enjoy a great many blessings simply because people are kind.
I enjoy a great many more blessings because people attend to their own interests. An ever-finer, ever-increasing division of labor makes it easier and easier and easier for me to take care of my own family by helping strangers take care of theirs.
We may not look, speak, or pray like one another, but the institutions of exchange make it possible for us to care for one another without necessarily caring about one another in the same way we care about our family and friends. We’re better able to take care of our own friends and family not just because we can sometimes depend on the kindness of strangers but because we can always depend on the self-interest of strangers.
Again, these are strange and frightening times. I want things to get back to “normal,” or at least as close to normal as they can get, as soon as possible. Until they do, though, I will remain grateful for the strangers who are helping me weather this particular storm.