PRC Forum: Julian Simon (S1031) – Full Video

PRC Forum: Julian Simon (S1031) – Full Video


Music Reality. Captured in user friendly symbols and processed for understanding. Music The Idea Channel. I’m Julian Simon. I’m an economist by trade and I teach business administration at the University of Maryland for a living. And I’ve spent most of my time in the last 20 years writing about the economics of population, about the effects of more and fewer people on other people. Let me begin with some of the facts of life. The most important and exciting event that’s occurred in the whole history of civilization has occurred in the last 200 years in the richest countries in the world. Two hundred years ago in France, which was then the richest country in the world, the chance of a person who was born of living beyond the age of 27, 28, 29, was just about 50/50. That was the life expectancy of the average person in the richest country in world…less then 30 years. And it had been less then 30 years for 10,000 years, 20,000 years, a very, very long time. Very, very little had happened over the whole history of the human enterprise. And then just in the past 200 years which is a mere blip in history, life expectancy at birth has gone up from under 30 to well over 70 in the rich countries in the world. And the poorer countries in the world, another extraordinary achievement has occurred. In just the 30 or 40 years since World War II, life expectancy has gone up 15 or 20 years throughout the whole, poor part of the world. So I ask you, has anything else that’s ever happened in human history come close to this and its importance? This has meant that people have not only lived longer, but they’re living healthier and they’re living better lives. Our material lives, too, have been getting better rather than getting worse. The newspaper stories you customarily read would tell you that we should be worrying about running out of natural resources, copper, wheat, what have you. But the history of the past 200 years, in fact the whole history of humanity, has shown us the extraordinary event contrary to all common sense. That the more that we use of natural resources, the more we have of them. That is rather then natural resources becoming more scarce as we use them, they have been becoming more available. When I say more available I mean that when we look at natural resources with the measure that we as economists use and the measure that’s important to us as consumers. That is: how much do we have to pay to get these resources. We see that the price of natural resources has been going down rather then up throughout all of human history. Let’s take an example, if you want a ton of copper delivered on your front lawn it would only cost you about 1/20th as much of the most valuable thing you have which is your human time to earn enough to buy a ton of copper as it did 200 years ago. And it would only take you about one two thousandth as much of your time now to earn enough to buy a ton of copper as it would’ve 4,000 years ago. And it’s the same story with every single natural resource. It’s the same with iron. It’s the same with aluminum. It’s the same, you name it, it’s the same story that all of the natural resources and that includes all the foods; wheat and corn and rice, all of them have become more available rather then more scarce contrary to all common sense, to all standard methods in thinking. So that what you’re saying is that more seems to be better. More people and more use of natural resources somehow does the reverse of what our common sense tells us. That’s exactly right. The more we use, the more we have. And perhaps we should take a minute to explain the process by which this occurs. When we use more of something, we have more people. When our income goes up so that we can buy more there is for a while a shortage; either a real short shortage or an expected shortage. We use more and the price goes up. But the process doesn’t end here and that’s what’s fundamental. In response to these shortages some people look at the situation and say “A-ha, here’s opportunity.” The price is going up. If I can find some way to get my hands on some, I can sell some and make some money on it. So people begin to look around for shortage and say how can I find some more copper or how can I use the old copper mines to refine, to get the copper out more cheaply. Or how can I refine it more cheaply. Or even more important in the history of people, how can we find something to replace the copper with? So, people look. Some succeed and some fail. And the people who succeed, sooner or later, in finding ways to supply our need for this copper in response to the higher price find ways to do it and the exciting part of it is that at the end point of this process after people find new ways to supply our need for copper, we are left better off then if the problem had never arisen in the first place. That’s what’s extraordinary. Yes it is. That we’re better off then if the problem had never arisen. And what this means is that we need our problems. In some fundamental way we need bigger and better problems. That’s not to say we should run out and create any problems because we manage to create problems pretty well, but we do need our problems. If problems didn’t arise, if population hadn’t grown so that people ran short of food, if we still had 10 million people on earth as we had perhaps 10,000 years ago when people were still living an average of 30 years or less at birth we wouldn’t have had this fancy lunch that you and I had today. But instead we’d be out chasing rabbits and digging roots…not worried about a shortage of rabbits or roots, but that’s the kind of lunch we would’ve had. What seems to me, most people would agree with the, if you would, the technological side of what you’re saying; that problems create challenge which lead to new ways to meet those and the increasing standard of living. I don’t think nearly as many people would agree with you on the people side; that we need all these people around. And yet you feel very strongly about that. Well, imagine it. Cast your mind back to this thought experiment which I raised with you a minute ago. Imagine what would’ve happened if we thought the population of our Earth had remained at 1 million or 10 million people as it was tens of thousands of years ago, 10,000 years ago perhaps. Do you think that the processes would have begun and played out so that we now would’ve had the electricity to run this videotaping? Do you think that people would’ve come up with the ideas to produce television? Do you think that we would’ve had enough human minds or enough human imagination to have produced the air conditioning keeping this room cool or the penicillin which may have cured your daughter of strep throat last month? I think if we didn’t have human beings to do two things and let’s name those two things. One is we need people to create more demand of things by using more. That is to make the problems. But we also need the people to create the solutions. So we need their mouths to eat and to create the demand. We need their brains to create the ideas to supply our new needs. Without these the population had never grown we would, as I say, still be chasing rabbits and eating roots and trying to cool ourselves with fans instead of this air conditioning. And we’d be lighting this room with…there wouldn’t be a room here. If you want more people, you must like people… Yes, I do like people, Bob. I like them, I also admire them. Luckily, however, this admiration does not conflict with what we know about the scientific evidence about people. And let me cite a body of scientific literature which is now more than 30 years old- 25 years old. For long 2,000 years or more we know that people have believed that if you have more human beings that there would be less to go around and that economies would develop more slowly then if there were fewer people. We can hang this idea on Malthus for convenient memory. But the idea has simply been that if you have two people trying to work an acre of land there’ll be less output per acre then if there’d been if there’s only one person. But if you had ten people in the family, there’d be less food and other goodies to go around then if there were only five people. Then, perhaps 25 years ago, some economists began to explore the matter and say, let’s check it out empirically. Let’s look at the evidence that’s available to us. Let’s consider the sample of countries that we have historically and see if it really works that way. So the first of these was a man Simon Kuznets; perhaps the greatest economic, demographic, statistical historian that’s ever lived. And he looked at the evidence for all the countries for which we had data for in the past hundred years to see whether those countries that had faster population growth had slower economic growth. Lo and behold, no such negative relationship. Then he and other people also looked at the countries, much larger number of countries for which we had data say- for the past 25 years; and once again no negative relationship. Exactly the opposite from what the simple minded, Malthusian Theory had let us to expect for all these years. This empirical, scientific research liberates us to feel good about people in ways that we might not otherwise. We cannot only like people and admire them for their individual qualities, but we can also see that people on balance are good for other people. But not all people. Not all people. I’m sure there’s some behavior- Not all people. But on average, people create a little more then they use up in their lifetimes. People leave a little bit of good behind them so that each generation is a little bit richer and lives a little bit better then the generation which went before, on average. Now you’re right that there are periods and there are places when we do worse. And there are some of us who won’t contribute and who use more then we contribute. On average, people give more to other people than they take. And therefore, we can admire people in the large as well as individually for being creators more then they are destroyers. Well, at the individual level, what kind of person aren’t you comfortable with? What kind of attributes cause you the most problem in an individual? That’s a real curve ball, Bob. I think the attributes that distresses me most, aside from the usual ugly things… the people who are bullies or exploiters…but among ordinary good people, the attributes that causes me most trouble is lack of imagination and the inability to imagine the good things that can be created by other people. This feeds into people’s fear about population growth and about their fear that we’re going to be running out of copper and oil. They can’t imagine so many people simply are unable to conceive how other people can respond to problems with new ideas and with imagination with solutions which will leave us better off if the problems have never risen. They imagine that there are fixed number of jobs in this world and they therefore assume that if more people are born, more people come along, that must mean that some people are unemployed. They can’t imagine how people create new jobs for other people, how they create new ideas which employ other people. They can’t imagine how immigrants come into this country, not only take jobs, but make jobs for other people. They can’t imagine how people cannot only use and create problems, but look at these problems and respond to them with ideas and new solutions that leave us better off. So I’m troubled by that kind of imagination. I mean along with it, Bob, goes their lack of appreciation for the gains that humanity has made over the years. And appreciation of what life offers them also? An appreciation for what life offers them. But as I was driving down today I was admiring how uncongested the road was and how easy it was to get here. I was admiring the air conditioning in the car. How it’s a hot day and here I was sitting coolly inside the car enjoying myself. Not sweating the way I was 30 years ago and gotten here in a sweat. I was admiring how people looked healthy on the street. I was admiring how people have so many conveniences. And I was comparing this with how things were 30 years ago. I was comparing this, also, with a drive that I remembered when I was child. When I was about 7 years old, it was during the summer, and my parents were driving down to the Jersey Shore where we owned two little houses which we rented out and ordinarily we didn’t go there during the summer because we rented the houses out. This summer we couldn’t find a renter so we went down for a weekend during the season. And it was a 45 mile trip and it took more than four hours. I remembered how the cars would stop bumper to bumper, some of them would stall and they overheated. I remember how some people would try to cut out and drive up the gravel or drive near the side. I remember the head on collisions when people went through the windshields when there was no shatter proof glass. I remember these things. I remembered recently driving down that Jersey Shore again and it took less then an hour breezing down the New Jersey Turnpike in comfort. I thought how much better life is in so many ways. And I hope the people would have the imagination to appreciate it, to cast their mind back a few years. And if they had children and one of the children had diabetes, you were doomed to watch the child sicken, die early. Now your child has diabetes and you can keep it under control with shots or even pills. Your child can live as long and as healthy and as athletic a life as other children. These are things to be grateful for. Is that what you mean when you speak of yourself as an appreciator? Yes, that means that I appreciate these things. I appreciate the inhaler that keeps my mild asthma under control and allows me to play squash without getting all breathy and winded. Should we all strive to achieve that? Should we all be appreciators? Is that a prescription for positive living? I think so. I think it’s also a prescription for better economic living, Bob. I think that if we appreciate where we’ve come from, it not only is good for us emotionally and spiritually, but it also allows us to see that things have been getting better. By the way, let’s qualify this. I’m not saying that things are good everywhere. I know, as you know, that children are sick. People are hungry. People are born into this world without opportunity, intellectual and economic. And I’m not promising you that the future will be perfectly rosy. There are going to be problems in the future, in particular places and particular times among the particular people. But what I am saying is that on average things have been getting better and we ought to appreciate it. And when we see the things have been getting better, then we’re not so likely to go into a panic with worry that we’re going to be running out of this or that and then going through the government and asking the government to bring about policies to control things. Policies which tend to leave us worse off then if the government had never intervened. If you worry about us running out of oil as people did in the 1970s, you go to the government and you say we’ve got to do something, we got to tell the automobile companies to make cars that will, on average, use less gasoline. So the automobile companies change the kinds of cars they make. They go into an emergency pattern. The cars they make are not much better in the short run; open those companies up to competition which is more than ordinary competition. It’s disastrous for those companies. The government and airlines decided they’ve got to worry about $3 a gallon gasoline by the 1990s so the airplane manufacturers and the airlines spend billions of dollars to redesign airplanes for this supposed $3 a gallon gasoline, twisting themselves all out of shape when if the government had not forecast $3 a gallon gasoline and the government hadn’t gone through automobile companies. Or hadn’t gone through Congress and said let’s make a laws to control these things. We would’ve been a lot better off, would’ve saved this endless economic aggravation. We would’ve done better if the sequence hadn’t occurred. If people had not become frightened of impending shortages based on their lack of appreciation that’s happened in the past. If they hadn’t, therefore, gone to the government and said intervene, do something about this. So it’s not just a matter of our feeling better about it. This appreciation, also, has positive, economic benefits for us. Well, I don’t think it’s too far from the mark to say that you’ve challenged a number of accepted theories. We’ve already touched on some of them. Using, what I assume, is the same data, how do you reach what are essentially contrary opinions? We all use the same data, Bob, but some of us use more of the data then other people do. If you look at what has happened to, if you look at, say, iron prices from the year 1940 to the year 1975, you’d look at those iron prices and my goodness the prices of iron have been going up, we ought to do something about it. And some people will use 35 years of iron prices or 15 years of iron prices or 2 years of iron prices. I want to use those data plus the iron prices to go back to the year 1800 for the United States or the iron prices that go back to the year 2000 B.C. or 3000 B.C. And when we use so much data we see a different story. We see that what has happened since 1940 with iron is a mere blip in history. Or we look at what had happened to wheat prices starting in 1973. Sure you get into a panic if you look at just 5 years or 10 years prices. But if you look at the prices of wheat since the year 1800, you see a different story. You see a long term decline coming way, way, way down and some blips here and there. But if you only look at the blips, then you see a very different story. Yes, we’re all looking at the same data, but some people look at only a small squib of those data and often a squib that shows what they would like to see. Whereas if you look at all the data for a very long period of time, you can’t simply pick and choose in that fashion. What you’re touching on here it seems to me is a way of thinking, a way of thinking of the engineer, the way of thinking of an artist; the way of thinking of an economic forecaster. What are the differences? Is it just a matter of looking long term? Let me broaden my answer to your question, Bob. So much of our problems and I use the word problems for a change in dealing with resources and population and the environment stem from bad thinking. And there are several kinds of bad thinking that go in here. One of these kinds of bad thinking is looking only at what happens in the short run and what happens immediately rather then looking at what happens in the longer run and looking at the indirect effects of things. For example, when a baby comes newborn on this earth that baby is nothing but a burden. You’re a father you know that very well that children are a burden. All parents know that. And that’s all there is in the short run. Dirty diapers and a lot of noise, hassle on the street, but if you look at the longer run- if you look after the first 20 years of the child’s life- you look to the next 20 years or 40 years or 60 years you see a reversal. You see something very different happening then in the short run. You see the child beginning to make a contribution, a contribution which is greater on balance than the burden the child constitutes in the short run. So that’s one important kind of bad thinking. The bad thinking of focusing only on the short run and only on what’s obvious and common sensical and easily seen. Another kind of bad thinking which you were referring to when you mentioned engineers is using thinking which is perfectly appropriate for one kind of situation and applying it to another kind of situation. It’s awfully obvious that if we didn’t do some planning for this TV session today, if you hadn’t gotten the crew together and gotten the place and gotten the funding and gotten the distributor to distribute these tapes, this would not have happened. It took rational planning. It took business planning on your part and creating this camera took rational, engineering, design and planning. That’s great in the small. But if you try to use the same kinds of mental apparatus, the same kind of rational planning for an economy as a whole and for society as a whole, you go completely off the rails because rational design and controlled planning on the part of an individual or of a bureau or of an organization is wholly incapable of dealing with the problems of a modern complex, society. That’s one of the things that we have learned. It’s a very subtle lesson. It’s a lesson that David Hume and Adam Smith taught us 200 years ago. It’s a lesson that Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman have taught us again in our time. That when we have this large complicated thing called an economy, it only works when individuals are left free to pursue their own projects, to plan for themselves, to seek opportunity and to coordinate their plans, their lives, their needs, what they have to buy, what they have to sell on a voluntary basis with everyone else. So every person, every family, every firm pursuing their own plans separately, voluntarily, somehow in this incredible miracle using what Adam Smith called the hidden hand coordinates itself in a way that no central planning can possibly do. Now this wasn’t obvious to people, it wasn’t obvious to socialists that this wouldn’t work. It wasn’t obvious to the agricultural planners in socialist countries as well as in our countries sometimes. They thought that if we just got enough smart people together and enough computers together and enough clear thinking together that we could run agriculture and other industries more efficiently then could all these uncoordinated individuals doing their own thing. And country after country, place after place, people have tried to rationalize agriculture. And it is a disaster. It’s been a disaster in the Soviet Union. It’s a disaster in Africa. It was a disaster in communist China until 1979. And the Chinese in 1979 suddenly got the word that it wasn’t gonna work. In this extraordinary socialist experiment, the Chinese in three short years between 1979 and 1982 effectively turned over agriculture to 700 million people. That’s the largest private sector anything in the world and this all happened in three short years. And in three short years, Chinese agriculture have turned itself around completely so that now you go to China, you can’t move ten feet without somebody wanting to sell you some chow. It’s a great delight. Chinese agriculture is now overflowing because they have freed up people to do their own things voluntarily. The engineering planning, the business planning, the rational planning, it just doesn’t work. Are you saying in a sense that having the right knowledge is only one part of the formula? That you have to have knowledge, but you also have to have a decision making process that makes sure that knowledge is applied appropriately? Yes, when you say decision making process, it’s really a process which is no process. What we’re talking about here that makes the thing go is a framework of freedom. This can’t happen unless people are free to pursue their own projects, to run their own lives independently with the assurance that their government will provide a framework in which they would be protected in their projects, in which their property will be protected, in which the fruits of their imagination and effort and hard work will not be snatched from them. They need the framework of some stability to be able to rely on the fact that tomorrow will not suddenly, unpredictably be different then today. And it’s within that broad, abstract framework of freedom that individuals’ decision making processes can take place. So when you say decision making process, Bob, we’re talking about the decision making process of individuals, of teams, of partnerships, of firms. But not of the decision making process of the economy at large except if you mean by decision making process the decision to give people freedom. Are you a member of a large family? Unfortunately, I have no brothers, I have no sisters. And when I was growing up the sweetest word that I could hear, the sweetest word that I knew of was my brother or my sister and when my children say that about each other it makes my heart go pit pat every time. No, I came from a small family. Have you always been an urban dweller? I was born in Newark, New Jersey which is a big city. It was a lower middle class working area I lived in until the age of 9 and then we moved to a suburb near Newark. And those experiences were very important to me. I think that my experiences wherever I have lived and the experiences that I have been told about by other people had been very important in effecting my thinking. One of the mostly important of such experiences was my knowledge of my grandparents and my knowledge from my grandparents and what their lives have been like. Allow me to say a couple of words about my grandmother. My grandmother came to this country when she was 17 years old. She was an orphan who had been raised in the very harsh conditions from the time she was orphaned at the age of six in a town in Austria, a largely Jewish town, poor. She came here, she had never been to school a day in her life and she went to work in the garment industry in New York, hard work, long hours, difficult conditions. In three years she saves enough money, so she heard about Newark, New Jersey across the river from New York and she opened up a hardware store and that hardware store, we have a picture of it, it’s much smaller, it’s much smaller then this room in which we’re taping this. It was maybe 15 feet deep, maybe 10 feet wide. And every single morning she would take the merchandise and she would hang the merchandise outside the store. The merchandise was largely picks and shovels and other utensils which she sold to the Italian workmen in that area who needed to buy their own tools to work shoveling on construction projects. Because this was an Italian neighborhood she learned to speak Italian before she learned to speak English. And she worked hard and she brought her relatives over from Europe, one by one. As each relative would come, they would stay there for a while and learn some language, learn the hardware business and then go some place else in New Jersey and open a hardware store. And by the time I was born the city of Newark was populated by hardware stores of the Freebanesi’s family. My grandmother was an extraordinary woman who enriched the lives of her family and enriched the lives of the rest of us as well. And she did this without a PhD, without a college education, and she did this because she had the energy and the character and the strength that so many people on the face of the earth have. And it’s important nowadays when many of us have college educations, it’s very difficult for people to conceive the people, the poor people without education also can be, can sustain their own lives, can watch over their own families, can build, can create and can take care of themselves and leave something over for other people as well. So those experiences form me very much, Bob. Well you wrote a book that seems to me touches on that. It’s called The Ultimate Resource. And at the beginning of the book you do something I think is very unusual for an author. You share, you even title a little section, My Values, “My Own Values” and you share with the reader your values. Was that necessary to your ultimate message? I must confess that I have an autobiographical yearning. And I take the opportunity in the beginnings of books sometimes to tell a little something about myself. I think it is important that authors tell you where they’re coming from. They tell you what they believe, what their values are so it helps you understand what’s happening in the book. So they’re not concealing something and pretending that what they are telling you is pure science unaffected by the beliefs and the values in which they hold. So I do it for two reasons. First I think it’s honest and necessary for the reader of the book, but it’s also because I enjoy telling a little bit about myself and how I came to write that particular book. But you conclude the book, also, by coming back to the question of values, implying that we have to look at that as we judge various things, what’s valuable to us. I think you’re suggesting there related to people, whether we value people. So, obviously, value has a place, a part to play in the work you do. I think you’re right. I think that values play a particularly important role when we’re talking about the economics of population. In the most fundamental way, if you use the standard that so many people do which is, let’s say, the average income of people, average per capita income. We could increase per capita income of wealth in the United States in the next ten minutes. We could increase about a factor of a 1,000 by getting rid of everybody except for one person in a 1,000. Throw them all to the sea, push them out someplace and look how much there will be left for you and for me. So that if our measure is purely how the average person is doing and we look only in the short run which is another value judgment then that would lead us to some conclusions that I would think are pretty horrible by my values. My values also include how many people there are to enjoy life. The fact that there are five billion people on earth now as compared to the 2 billion not long ago, 1 billion 100 plus years ago, the 10 million 10,000 years ago, that to me is a good thing. I cheer that there are more human beings to enjoy life. And I think that most of us if we would look inside our own hearts and our own values would agree with this value. But that’s not a view you held consistently… if I remember right. No, I changed my mind about this. Do you remember in your book the precise event that you mentioned as leading you to that change? Yes, I came here to Washington to enlist the aid of the state department’s Agency for International Development (AID), in an experiment to pay people in India to have fewer children because I, as so many other people then, it was almost everybody then, and it’s still most people now, thought that fewer people would be a good thing and that population growth was one of the great threats to human kind along with war. And as I was waiting for this appointment, I leaned over the balcony, it was a spring day and I saw a sign pointing to the Iwo Jima memorial and I remembered reading about the Jewish Chaplin giving a eulogy at Iwo Jima and saying I wonder how many Mozarts and Einsteins and Leonardo DaVincis we are burying here today. It moved me when I read it. It moved me when I think about it now. And then I got to thinking, what am I doing in this business trying to have fewer human beings on the face of the earth which may mean fewer Einsteins, fewer Leonardos and so on. So that moment was a big shock to me, yes indeed. It happened about the same time when I first came across this evidence suggesting that more human beings, more rapid population growth did not mean poor economic development. So the two things went hand in hand. Well, the point’s well made, but I think the question that would spring to most people’s minds is do we have the resources, though, to educate all of these Mozarts and Einsteins and how do you respond to that? Let’s distinguish between physical resources and human resources. Physical resources we’ve talked about before. We have seen that in this extraordinary paradoxical process, the more resources we use the more resources we have. And the fact that we’ve been using copper for all these thousands of years and the fact that we have more of it now means that the constraint upon us is loosening rather then getting tighter. That is it gets easier with every passing generation with more people, more use, more problems, more solutions. The physical resources part gets easier and easier. The more people we have to participate in this process. As far as the human resources go, well human resources are always are limited. The attention the parents have to give to their children, that’s limited. The attention that school teachers have to give to their children, that’s limited. So that in the very shortest run, yes there are limits. But as we have more people, they also create more capacity. All of us at one time are users, but we are also resources. So that what we have here, a self-enhancing, cumulative process that points in a positive direction. That is, every generation is on average richer then every previous generation. It’s richer in material welfare. It’s richer in knowledge. And that therefore is able to provide more education, more knowledge for their children. So we have this self-enhancing, cumulative process as long as the civilization and the society give people the freedom to pursue their projects and their ideas in this fashion. If the society is totalitarian and does not give people the freedom to seek opportunity and use their talents, then indeed we can have shortage of resources. The Chinese are terribly worried about population growth because they say the buses are so crowded. And the buses are awfully crowded in China. The buses are crowded because they won’t let private individuals run their own buses on the street and offer uncrowded buses to people at a slightly higher fare. So we can, we as human beings, can indeed rig the conditions so that there are fewer resources, fewer material resources and fewer human resources. But if we provide freedom and provide such a structure then we don’t need to worry that there won’t be enough human resources in the future to take care of our offspring and the offspring of those people. In a sense then you would be saying that the human resource, it can be self motivating. If it is motivated it doesn’t require, necessarily, any additional, physical resource. It’s somehow stimulating that process, that goal, that movement that’s what we’re challenged with. Is that correct? It is so. It is extraordinarily, it is true that with every passing generation we are less dependent upon the physical resources. Look, 200 years ago in the United States, 70 or 80% of the population worked on the land. That is, it took 8 people out of every 10 to grow enough food to feed a society. And obviously all of us were heavily dependent upon the land for our living. Now we have one person raising enough food for 50 people. The other 49 people can do all kinds of other things, most of which don’t need any natural resources like land to do something with. So the farmer can raise the food and the singer can sing the song and the poet can write the poem without needing the land or the copper or the energy. And if I follow you right, with hydroponics, we don’t even need the land anymore. In a 20 story building we can raise much more then you could on the acre of land that the 20 story building sits on. It’s true. It’s true. It’s a great paradox. For a long time people thought my goodness we’ll have increasing population and the land will be ever more important. Yet, all the data point the other way. Land has been getting less important in human society certainly for the past couple hundred years which we can measure. Land is a smaller and smaller part of our national wealth. If someone came along and took away all our agricultural land and gave it to somebody else so that the United States didn’t have Nebraska and didn’t have Illinois and didn’t have all the corn lands and the wheat lands and the rice lands, we would only lose, perhaps, 10% of one year’s income. That is the amount that we spend in one year for liquor and cigarettes and a few other things is all that the land in the United States is worth to us for producing food. That’s even without even worrying about hydroponics. Hydroponics, you’re absolutely right. But we don’t need hydroponics for generations to come probably. So we’re well ahead in the technological game. We really have that backup up already. We have technology in our hands now without even inventing anything else that will allow all the people on this earth and many more times the number of people on this earth to have the same, high life expectancy that we have in the United States and in Europe and Japan; to have the same affluence that we do in the rich countries; to have all the good things in life that we have. All we need is a social and economic organization that will allow this to happen, not to bring it about, but just to allow it to happen. That with a social economic organization right, the technology which we have will not only get us all the good things that the best of us, the best off of us have, but even better lives in the future. That’s even without considering Buck Rogers stuff. We’re not talking about living under the sea or going to other planets. All of which is good for itself. All of this exciting, it offers us possibilities forever. But even without that we know enough now to be able to provide a healthy, long, well off life for everybody. Well, what about living space? Boy oh boy, I’m not sure I want to be crowded and jammed in with all these people… Living space, it’s the easiest although it’s paradoxical. It would seem that when we have 240 million people in the United States we must be more crowded than we were 200 years ago. A part of our apprehension simply comes from bad thinking. It comes because we drive along the highways. We take trains along the tracks and where there are highways and where there are tracks, there are people. And we look around us and we say my goodness, it’s crowded here. What we don’t see is the land where there are no roads and where there are no railroads. And there, there are practically no people. It’s very exciting and it’s very important. Get on an airplane, fly from New York to Los Angeles or even better, from Los Angeles to Europe and you’ll fly in the United States mostly over country where there are no people. You’ll fly over Canada where there are even fewer people. I read, once, I don’t know where and it sounds right, that 95% of the world’s people live within just a few miles of rivers or the ocean. They live there for very good reasons because water transportation is always so cheap. The rest of the world, there are practically no people. Just because there are no people out there doesn’t mean that people have more space. Imagine Abraham Lincoln and his family, here they were living in a county in southern Illinois and they had practically the whole county to themselves. And they were living, though, in a one room log cabin, the whole family. All of them were living in one room… crowded, no privacy. We instead, imagine this, imagine every one of us having an apartment about the same size as the Kennedy family affords in New York. Each of us lives in an apartment that big and I guarantee you that’s plenty of space, in 100 story buildings, not so crowded. And we leave 20% of the space for roads and parks which is a lot. Under those conditions these luxury apartments having plenty of living space and that’s the space that matters to us the most, we can put the whole world’s 5 billion people within the confines of New York and people won’t feel very crowded. You’re talking about New York City? New York City, not the state, New York City. Just the five boroughs, five billion people living luxury style in those apartments. Then you say yes, but what about when I want to get away and I don’t want to see anybody. That’s fine, you jump on the subway or jump in your car and tool out to the airport, buy a ticket which is only a day’s pay for lots of people and you can be in Alaska. And you’ll have more space to yourself; you won’t even see a pop-top can for days at a time. You’ll have more space available to you with nobody around then the richest prince in Europe had available 200 years ago. So we have the space to live in, more than we ever had before. We have the space recreate in, more of it than we ever had before. And not too long, you’ll be able to go to the moon and have that space which was inconceivable to people not too many decades ago. So yes there are many more people on earth. But yes we also have more space available to all of us. This is another one of these paradoxes. Common sense doesn’t tell us this. But the theory and the facts and the evidence go to show the common sense is wrong on these matters. We’re not sardines in a can. We’re not flies in the bottle. It’s we who create the space. Well, you’ve given us a rather wholesome shot of optimism here and reason to feel we ought to focus on the future with a very positive point of view. Well, I must conclude by asking the question that haunts me, but isn’t there anything that we should be pessimistic about? Isn’t there any reason for us to be worried about the future? Well, you guys might not make your flight on time. Those are the kinds of things that we must worry about. We must worry about ourselves as individuals and as societies fouling up our social and economic circumstances through ignorance, through the desire to control other people, through political foolishness. Those are the things for us to worry about. Not running out of sunlight or water or resources. One last point I would like to make, though, is that yes I’ve been saying things to you that sound unusual and strange. But you should realize that on many of these issues, I am giving you the mainstream view; the respect to our agricultural future. Everything that I’ve told you is the mainstream of agriculture economists who see nothing but a bright future for us with respect to food and nutrition. With respect to resources what I’ve been telling you is close to the consensus of the economists who work on the economics of resources. What I’ve been telling you about population and its economics is somewhat further out, but even here the professional view has been coming closer to what I’ve been telling you. Twenty years ago, nobody believed these kinds of things. But by 1988, in the past three years, we’ve had the World Bank come off the statements it’s been making for many, many years. We’ve had the National Academy of Sciences produce an official report which has come about 90% of the way toward the views which I’m giving you now from their terribly pessimistic doomsday view of their last report in 1971. So, it’s an awfully bright future that faces us and our families, but it’s important that we believe in this and understand it.

5 thoughts on “PRC Forum: Julian Simon (S1031) – Full Video

  1. A true legend, his book 'The Ultimate Resource' has changed my life! Amazing to see him on video. Thank you so much!!!! 🙂

  2. Sad that he died so young. His books truly liberated me from the Malthusian hive-mentality I had been conditioned to believe/trust since I was very young. He tended to be an open-borders guy so it would've been very interesting to hear/see his take on all the immigration issues currently dominating the news cycle were he still alive.

  3. I am saddened that he died so young; it is richly ironic that Paul Ehrlich, whose predictions have been repeatedly debunked, is still alive in his late 80s. By his own logic, Mr E should have stepped off this mortal coil by now.

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