Even from grave, economist drives 'doomsayers' nut

Posted: Aug 15, 2001 12:00 AM
Julian Simon, a relatively obscure "pro-human" economist, died of a heart attack at the age of 65 in 1998. But a new book, by an even more obscure Danish academic who tried to debunk Simon, has brought him back to life and is promising to make Simon's enemies all hot and bothered once again. An indefatigable oddball, Simon was the kind of guy who would jump out of his chair in excitement if he agreed with you. I didn't know him well. When I was a researcher at the American Enterprise Institute, working for Ben Wattenberg, Simon's longtime friend and ideological fellow traveler, Julian would almost literally fly by for a visit. If you agreed with Simon's worldview, his excitement, generosity and boisterousness were infectious. If you disagreed with Simon, he could be infuriating. I remember he once donned plastic devil horns at a conference to make fun of people who thought he was evil incarnate. So it doesn't surprise me that he's still driving those he called the "doomsayers" nuts - a full three years after his tragic death. You see, Julian Simon was the most ideologically consistent, intellectually rigorous and emotionally unrestrained optimist of the 20th century. For example, in the 1996 book he edited, "The State of Humanity," Simon made two predictions for the next century. The first was: "Humanity's condition will improve in just about every material way." And when he said "every material way," he meant it. Everything from life expectancy and the amount of food in the world to the square footage of the average home and the number of telephones in equatorial Africa. And in case that didn't put enough vinegar in the pessimists' cornflakes, his second prediction certainly did. He declared, "Humans will continue to sit around complaining about everything getting worse." Simon's philosophy was simple as it was accurate. Human beings are very, very smart, and they fix their problems before the problems get out of hand. When humans couldn't gather enough food from the ground, they learned to grow it. When humans ran out of wild animals to hunt, they domesticated them. Indeed, as Simon noted to the dismay of Malthusians everywhere, "scarcity" - of food, materials and land - was never a real problem for human beings. This enraged his opponents because the idea that we are "running out" of water, food, trees, animals, toilet paper, whatever, is the organizing principle of environmentalism. And what (ital) really (ital) infuriated his opponents was Simon's willingness to put his money where his mouth was. That's why Paul Ehrlich hated the guy so much. Ehrlich is perhaps the world's most respected pessimist. A Stanford University professor, Ehrlich wrote the 1968 best seller "The Population Bomb." The only problem is that he's never been right in any of his major predictions. "The battle to feed humanity is over," Ehrlich wrote in "The Population Bomb." "In the course of the 1970s the world will experience starvation of tragic proportions - hundreds of millions of people will starve to death." In the United States alone, Ehrlich predicted, famine would kill 65 million in the "Great Die-Off" of the 1980s. In short, God put Julian Simon on Earth to annoy people like Ehrlich. Which is why Simon offered Ehrlich a bet. In 1980 he told Ehrlich to pick any five "scarce" metals. If, at the end of the decade, they were more expensive, then, economically speaking, they'd be more scarce. If the prices were lower, then they'd be less scarce. Well, it turns out that every single metal Ehrlich picked went down in price. Only nickel dropped in price by a small percentage, 3.5 percent. The prices of the other four dropped big - copper by 18.5 percent, chrome by 40 percent, tin by 72 percent and tungsten by 57 percent. So, despite the rapid growth of both the world population and the global economy over the 1980s, the materials Ehrlich considered "precious" became more widely available. In 1990, Ehrlich wrote Simon a check and refused to take any more of his bets (though he did continue to malign and smear Simon for quite some time). So Simon offered bets to other environmentalists, including Al Gore. He put up $100,000 to underscore his conviction that Lester Brown's World Watch Institute was wrong in its doom-and-gloom predictions. Brown refused to take the bet. One person who did, in a sense, take up Simon's bet was Bjorn Lomborg, a movement environmentalist who says he once held "left-wing Greenpeace views." Lomburg, a professor of statistics at the University of Aarhus in Denmark, thought he was especially qualified to prove Julian Simon wrong. But in the course of his debunking expedition, he discovered the guy in devil horns was pretty much right about everything. Food production, Lomburg learned, has increased 51 percent since 1961 and is more abundant per capita than at any time in history. Fewer people are starving, and the air and drinking water are cleaner. Meanwhile, global warming, if it's a problem at all, would in all likelihood be made worse by wealth-inhibiting treaties like the Kyoto Protocol. Lomburg's conclusions can be found in a book due out in a few weeks called "The Skeptical Environmentalist." It will surely make doomsayers like Ehrlich, Brown and Gore crazy. And, I'm just as sure, put a smile on Julian Simon's face, wherever he is.