It’s a Wonderful Loaf

This is my ode to emergent order and the surprising effectiveness of undesigned and uncoordinated cooperation — the web of specialization and decision-making that feeds a great city. The text is below. An annotated version of the text with asides, caveats, and inspiration, is here. If you want to go deeper—videos, audio, and books on the ideas are here. And if English is not your native language, here’s a version with elegant onscreen text.

If you look down upon a city with the widest bird’s eye view

You might wonder how it functions, who takes care of me and you?

Who makes sure there’s food for vegans, and for carnivores as well?

It seems like there’s a wizard who has cast a magic spell

Just think of one small part — who makes sure there’s so much bread?

You want rye, she wants ciabatta, or make it sourdough instead

A baguette or a croissant, it doesn’t matter, don’t you see

You get yours and she gets hers, and I get mine, how can that be?

One’s buying a dozen bagels to grace an impromptu brunch

One’s using food stamps for a simple loaf to make her children lunch

No matter the amount we require, no matter the choices we make

An army of workers has mobilized to fashion the bread we partake

The farmer who grows the wheat, the miller that grinds the flour

The baker and all the others who work hour after hour

They’re all on their own, each one making independent decisions

But somehow their plans fit together with the greatest degree of precision

So there must be a czar of wheat and flour, of trucks and of bread and yeast

To allocate and oversee and plan at the very least

For the unexpected change. What if today’s not like yesterday?

It never is, though, is it? So who keeps chaos away?

Because there’s order all around us — things look as if they’re planned

Like the supply of bread in a city — enough to match up with demand

And though flour is used for more than just bread, we never have to fight

Over where it goes and who gets what. So why do we sleep so well at night

Knowing nobody’s in charge, it looks like all is left to chance

Yet in New York, or London as well as Paris, France

No one’s worried the shelves will be empty, we take supply for granted

But it’s a marvel, it’s a miracle, the world’s somehow enchanted

Of course the result’s never perfect, but the system’s organic, alive

Over time fewer people go hungry and more and more bread-lovers thrive

And if you’re allergic to gluten, there are sellers who work for you, too

Your choices expand and what you demand is created and waiting for you

I have my tastes and you have yours, we each have our own urges

Yet somehow there’s no conflict, a harmony emerges

Our dreams can fit together like a quilt that someone weaves us

But there isn’t a weaver of dreams, reality deceives us

And here’s the crazy thing, if someone really were in charge

To make sure that bread was plentiful, with the power to enlarge

The supply of flour, yeast and of bakers and ovens, too

Would that person with that power have any idea of what to do?

Could a minister of bread do even half as well?

Would there be enough of every kind of bread upon the shelves?

How could he know how much to make of each kind every day?

There’d be shortages and surpluses and waste and much dismay

You might think the job is easy — if the top seller’s rye

Then for every variety push production up that high

Then no one’s disappointed, bread eaters will rejoice

When they see that every bakery is filled with so much choice

Bread eaters, yes, but “Help!” the forgotten pizza lover cries

All the flour’s gone to baking bread there’s none left for the pies

Of pepperoni, deep dish, thin-crust and Sicilian

You’ve solved the bread challenge, yes, but created another million

Problems. No problem! We’ll just grow lots more wheat

But that means less of something else that people like to eat

Which only makes the puzzle of the harmony around us

Much more puzzling — this order, this peace has to astound us

So many things we count on, yet no one’s behind the curtain

No wizard, no controls, yet the supply of stuff — near certain

Every morning the bakers rise early to make sure your bread is fresh

And the world gets more complicated but the plans just continue to mesh

Every morning the bakers rise early, though not under anyone’s command

Where in the anatomy textbooks can I view an invisible hand?

The key to the process is prices and the freedom to shop where you want

Competition among all the bakers, makes sure that they rise before dawn

To make sure the bread’s near perfection, to make sure that the buyer’s content

You don’t have to know economics to know when your money’s well-spent

We know there’s order built into the fabric of the world

Of nature. Flocks of geese! Schools of fish! And every boy and girl

Delights in how the stars shine down in all their constellations

And the planets stay on track and keep the most sublime relations

With each other. Order’s everywhere. Yet we humans too create it

It emerges. No one intends it. No one has to orchestrate it.

It’s the product of our actions but no single mind’s designed it

There’s magic without wizards if you just know how to find it