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Julian Simon

Economist, professor, husband, father, grandfather


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Sense out of numbers

His work permeates our everyday lives, yet - much like his personality - it goes unnoticed, improving our quality of life without yearning for attention

The hundreds of millions of air travellers around the world are not likely to recognise the name, Julian Simon. They are more likely to have heard of his namesake, Paul Simon, the musician turned stage-artist. Yet, they owe him such a debt of gratitude as to make that non-recognition almost unjust. Before the problem of "overbooking" (the process whereby airlines hedge their bets and sell more tickets than spaces available to forestall shortfalls due to passenger last-minute delays or cancellations) was solved, air travel was frequently a nightmarish game of roulette. Often, the selection of eventual boarders was shady and unclear. Arbitrary selection - at fairest, but controversial nonetheless - was the best possible result. Either way, travellers would get bumped off, escalating tales of distressful inconvenience.


Professor Simon came up with the neat idea of paying compensation to would-be travellers who voluntarily gave up their place. Like many management solutions, it sounds so commonsensical. Yet, for years before Simon, no durable solution had been found. His method has been in use on all North American airlines for many years and has now been adopted by several hotel chains.


Julian Simon prided himself on being - precisely - commonsensical. He had an obsession for data surpassed by few. "Data don't lie." You couldn't fault him there. He insisted, throughout his research career, on studying trends and basing projections and conclusions on those trends. The "overbooking” solution was a combination of that premise and another favoured by him: "People aren't stupid;" they will choose options that serve them better.


But Professor Simon would become more famous for something else. He was to be enveloped by another form of people-numbers: the economics of demography. For many years until quite recently, issues of demography were underlined and informed by Malthusian and neo-Malthusian theories, which, indeed, it was difficult to ignore or resist. Paul Ehrlich began his famous book, The Population Bombpublished in 1968, with the sentence: "The battle to feed all of humanity is over. In the 1970s the world will undergo famines, hundreds of millions of people will starve to death". This was the guiding philosophy influencing such improtant institutions like the United Nations and the World Bank.


Until the turn-around. The Economist in one of its annual double issues catalogued a number of doom predictions that ended up on their head. Lester Brown, president of the World Watch Institute, had been screaming hunger outbreaks since 1973. Every year he predicted a scarcity of cereals, and a resulting jump in price. Instead, prices, stubbornly, have been falling consistently year after year. President Jimmy Carter's Global 2000 Program in 1980 announced that world population would outstrip food production, that by the year 2000 prices would have risen by between 35 and 115 percent. Since 1980, prices have fallen by 50 percent.


The UN took notice and recanted its previous position. In November 1997, it convened a workshop of demographers to study the issue of world population. For the first time ever, the official crisis was stated not to be overpopulation, but rather the opposite, as well as a fall in fertility rate. (The fall in birth rate is universal at the moment, with the highest drop in the third world.)


These contrast sharply with previous rhetoric. In 1960, for example, the UN warned alarmingly that world population would increase in astronomical leaps to an undefined but unsustainable figure by the middle of next century. Twenty years later, the "explosion" had become a projected increase to 15 billion persons by 2050. That same estimate fell to 12 billion, then 10 billion. Now the official line is that world population will rise to a maximum of 9.4 billion by 2050, after which it will fall.


How come the big decline? Well, there wasn't any. The Economist maintains that the trends are moving in the same direction they had all along been doing; what has changed is the previously erroneous information on them. Other analysts (the New York Times Magazine, The Globe and Mail, Sunday Telegraph) think that, besides the fact that these institutions exaggerated their figures, some other factors have influenced the drop. But none of them attributes a significant role to birth control campaigns, citing instead various natural and sociological factors.


Why was there such a panic in the first place? Apart from objective motives of self-interest of various countries and institutions in propagating a fear of overpopulation, there is in all of us some kind of built-in fear for the worst: population-induced scarcity is one of those possibilities taken for granted as real. Another fundamental cause is the underlying pessimism inherent in the Malthusian outlook: it views man as helpless in the face of challenges, incapable of providing solutions but destined to be swamped by the difficulties with impending doom.


For over thirty years, the only voice on the other side of the fence was Julian Simon's, with only a very few others. A cry in the wilderness it was, pitted against such behemoths as the World Bank, UN, and the Academy of Sciences. All the while his main thrust was "the data". (In 1995 he published another book, The State of Humanity, a 700-page volume, full of figures.) He persistently pushed forward the observation that the numbers showed availability of natural resources increasing with population, just as productivity and food supply. "There are more resources available now than ever before, like every expert agricultural or natural resources economist knows." The measure of scarcity is price - a basic economics tenet - and the price of every natural resource has fallen. "There is no reason why it shouldn’t continue doing so," says Simon; barring - of course - artificial causes of price increase, such as cartels. He had already shown unequivocally (data again) that rate of economic development had nothing to do with population growth rates; just as population growth posed no threat to availability of space, neither was it a strong factor in environmental catastrophes.

Professor Simon's was an engaging personality. Jewish, he was completely bald and wore a permanent smile. There was charisma in his avuncular countenance, and when he spoke it was in a measured and polite east coast accent. You felt quite at ease. Whenever asked why he was such an optimist, he always countered, "I am not; I am a realist."

Professor Simon's was an engaging personality. Jewish, he was completely bald and wore a permanent smile. There was charisma in his avuncular countenance, and when he spoke it was in a measured and polite east coast accent. You felt quite at ease. Whenever asked why he was such an optimist, he always countered, "I am not; I am a realist." He believed in checking the situation on the ground, rather than impulsive prophecies. He also believed strongly that whether in the air passenger case or matters of population or any other, if given the opportunity, human beings tend to choose the option that benefits them more. And so, population does not just multiply to their own detriment. Likewise, people don't waste limited resources: they create them with their intelligence and work. People are the "Ultimate Resource", a title he gave his most famous book, now translated into five languages.


Sadly, the many years of misdirection have resulted in the implementation of streams of misconceived developmental policies especially in the developing world. In their 1997 work, The Lie of the Land, Professors Melissa Leach and Robin Mearns of the University of Sussex show how the myths of overpopulation, deforestation, and the exhaustion of petroleum and gas resources led to these policies. The Economist holds that the exaggerations have also led to a form of misanthropy, dangerously akin to fascism, which has one patent manifestation in the drastic curtailment of the freedom of couples to have the children they want.


By any index, the quality of life of the world's population has never been as good as it is now (whether by quality of water, habitation, clothing, number of telephones, etc.) and by Simon's reckoning, it will continue to improve; not simply because of "natural" causes, but because of the ingenuity and resolve of human work. "In the long run, the inevitable force of progress will roll over [these problems]. Population will grow, knowledge will increase, economies will develop, liberty will flourish. But in the meantime there will be innumerable avoidable tragedies because the good news goes unreported. How sad that is." Julian Simon died, aged 65, of a heart attack. Until his death he was a professor of Business Administration at the University of Maryland.◼︎

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