The Big Reboot: 13

“Scarcity is a condition where the wants for something are greater than its availability. If something is scarce, there’s a price for it. Not scarce, no price. Consider air.” Mr. Webb began to hyperventilate. “I do that, and nobody’s panicking that I’m taking all the air. Nobody’s thinking that I’m getting more than my fair share. But if we all chip in for a pizza and I take half the slices…”

Meron objected. “Hey! Not cool!”

“Exactly. Not cool. There’s a scarcity of pizza, so we consider its price when we figure out who gets what, and how much. Let’s not confuse scarcity with shortage. A shortage means there’s not enough of something, at all, so its price goes through the roof. Like bottled water right before a hurricane. If you don’t get it fast enough, you won’t get it, no matter how much money you may have. That’s a shortage. Scarcity means that you can get what you want, but you’re gonna have to pay for it.”

“So the more scarce something is, the higher the price?” Salina was sharp.

“That is correct. Or at least, the more scarce something is made to appear, the higher the price.”

“Huh?” Meron and Sakura had the same expression.

“Consider diamonds. Their price is artificially kept high. There are enough gem-grade diamonds in the world for everyone to have a cup of them. That’s seven billion people, each with a cup of diamonds. Synthetic processes can make even more of them.”

“That’s like everyone having a cup of dirt.” Sakura looked puzzled, wondering why anyone would want to walk around with a cup of dirt.

“It is. Diamonds are only so much carbon, smooshed together. But if the guys making the diamonds can promote them like a rare commodity, then they can make that cup of dirt very profitable for themselves. Before the 1940s, diamonds were like any other sparkly rock. Then the DeBeers company said, ‘A Diamond Is Forever’ and suggested that men spend three months’ salary on one of their sparkly rocks.”

Edgar admired the chutzpah of DeBeers’ campaign. “Daaaaaaaaamn. That’s straight-up gangsta. And people believed that?”

Mr. Webb shrugged. “You see jewelery stores everywhere, making big profits on those rocks.”

Pamela had a question. “So, wait, those blood diamonds? The ones that little children are being enslaved to dig out? Wouldn’t releasing all the diamonds make those worthless? Wouldn’t that end that problem?”

“And then it would create another. The guys making the blood diamonds to fund their civil wars or whatever aren’t misguided angels. They’ll do anything that makes money. That’s why places where drugs are legalized see a big spike in child abduction and exploitation. If drugs don’t make money, then the local thugs get into businesses that will make money. In fact, that also happens wherever the UN goes in to try to resolve a conflict: the UN officers on the scene get involved in human trafficking, big time. There’s one UN general that is notorious for creating child prostitution rings, but because he’s way up in the UN and is protected by powerful people, he just gets transferred from one UN peacekeeping operation to the next one.”

To head off possible cries of BS, Mr. Webb Googled up “UN officer prostitution” and let everyone take notice of the 3,310,000 results. “Scarcity. There’s a price for satisfying that want. I believe that there’s enough stuff in the world to take care of everyone’s needs, but when we allow our wants to be unlimited, we see stuff like this. The textbook would have you think that unlimited wants is a normal situation and that markets can resolve all the issues of unlimited wants, but I see something like this, and I have to say that it’s up to us to find ways to put limits on our wants, so that we don’t create situations where someone is enslaved or otherwise exploited in order to satisfy our wants.”

Pamela blinked slowly. Sakura looked like she was either about to cry, or had begun a slight flow of tears. Time to step back from the edge. “I believe that if we’re aware of evil, we can try to keep it out of our lives, that we can try to keep from being evil, ourselves. I believe that there’s a higher power that we answer to and that we’re accountable for what we do in our lives.”

“Is what you’re saying against the law?” Michael Wilkins, a young African-American skater, looked concerned – he didn’t want Mr. Webb to go to jail.

“No, I can talk about belief. I just can’t promote any belief. I can’t force anyone to agree or disagree with a particular set of beliefs as a condition for passing this course. I think it’s important for us to realize that we’re allowed to believe whatever we want to believe, but that we should also be willing to consider our beliefs in light of facts that we discover. I don’t think that we should suddenly reject everything we’ve ever known just after seeing one or two things that are shocking, but that we need to carry on a reasoned inspection of our own beliefs throughout our lives.”

“Do you believe in God?”

“Yes, I do. And I have friends that are atheists. If I don’t pester them by saying they’re going to go to hell, they won’t bother me by trying to convince me that there isn’t any heaven that I’ll be going to.”

Some laughter.

“But we all agree that there’s a reason to live. It may be one reason for one person and another for another person, or it may be a whole group of reasons… but there’s a reason to live. No matter how awful things may seem to be in the world around you, there’s a reason to keep going, to keep striving. It may seem so easy to extinguish the light within and become part of the darkness that surrounds you, but there’s a reason to keep that light shining.”

Michael asked, “What’s your reason to live?”

“Like I said, I have many.” Mr. Webb Googled up images of “carne al pastor.”

Sakura said what everyone else was thinking. “Those tacos look delicious!”

“They are. And if you’re dead, you can’t eat them.” Many nods acknowledged the wisdom in that sentiment.

Mr. Webb noted the time. The bell was about to ring, so he fired up Jackson Browne’s “Running on Empty” and said, “That’s all for today. We’ll get more into chapter one and how I do grades in my class tomorrow.”

As the guitar solo began, the bell rang and the class filed out past Mr. Webb’s desk. He took the “you’re an awesome teacher” and “this is already my favorite class” comments in stride, accepting them with grace. He wasn’t going to be everyone’s favorite teacher, but it was always nice to know that what he said resonated with a pretty big cross-section of his classes.

After everyone left, he queued up Blues Traveler’s “Run Around”, followed by his song. The playlist ready, he went back to the hall to keep the traffic moving where it needed to go. He smiled when he noticed that nobody had torn down his sign by the bathroom. It augured well for this year’s students.

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