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After studying all weekend, our number two son announced at 11:00 last night, just before going to bed–or, rather, just before he intended to go to bed–I was already there–that to take his exam this morning he absolutely had to have a non-graphing calculator. The calculator had to be–just had to be–sophisticated enough to handle sines, cosines, and logs (which, to be honest, I only dimly remembered from my own high school days), and yet, for some unknown reason, the teacher in the course had forbidden graphing calculators (this was new to me: sometime in the last decade, apparently, somebody figured out how to make hand-held calculators display not only numerals but charts and graphs).
The entire family then began ransacking drawers throughout the house, coming up, in not much more than five minutes, with the trove pictured here. And this trove doesn’t even count the calculator number three son admitted that he lost earlier this term, the two calculators I suddenly remembered I had in my junk drawer in the office, the built-in calculators every member of the family has on his cell phone, or the built in calculators every member of the family has on his computer.
The upshot? Since all the calculators we found were either graphing calculators (forbidden) or incapable of handling logs (too unsophisticated), it became necessary for my wife to get to Staples when it opened at 8:00 this morning. Since the last time I myself purchased a calculator was in business school, and it cost, as I recall, close to $100–this is one of the two now in my junk drawer at the office–I went to bed in a fury, supposing we’d have to shell out a like sum to get my darling but absent-minded boy through a single test. The actual price of the calculator, it emerged this morning? Just over ten bucks.
Question: What does this say about us? Back when I was in high school, hand-held calculators turned up in the hands of only a very, very few kids–I can recall one who brought his to chemistry class each day, calculating moles and atomic numbers and whatnot with a speed that dazzled even our crusty old teacher–and these kids were without exception a) nerds, and, b) the children of wealthy families. Early on, I feel certain, economic statistics should have shown the hand-held calculator as an improvement in American life–one of those breakthroughs that did so much to enhance our standard of living over the last several decades. And as the price of calculators dropped, so the statistics should, I presume, have shown our standard of living continuing, in a little calculator-impelled manner, to rise.
But now? What are we to make of these devices now that they’ve become so cheap and ubiquitous as to represent mere clutter? Wouldn’t we be at least a little better off with fewer of the darned things? At some very low but still not quite negligible level, hasn’t the mass production of calculators actually begun to impoverish us?
Yes, I know. I’m starting to sound almost like a socialist. But it’s true, isn’t it, that there really is such a thing as too much stuff?
If the Ricochetoise would please inform me how this observation comports with the findings of Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman, I would be most grateful.