Would Julian Simon Have Won a Second Bet?
George Mason economist Don Boudreaux, writing today ("The Ultimate Scholar") in honor of resource economist Julian Simon, on the 10th anniversary of his death, revisits the famous bet in 1980 (it even has its own Wikipedia listing: "The Simon-Ehrlich Wager") between scientist Paul Ehrlich and economist Simon:
Stanford University's Paul Ehrlich -- author of "The Population Bomb," foretelling disaster from population growth -- found economist Julian Simon's optimism about population growth to be so absurd that he famously accepted a bet from Simon in 1980.
The essence of Simon's position in the bet was that, despite the population growth that was sure to occur during the 1980s, the effective supply of natural resources would increase during this decade because human beings would figure out how to find, extract and use such resources more efficiently.
And the surest measure of this increased supply would be lower inflation-adjusted prices of resources.
Convinced that higher population is a curse, Ehrlich accepted the $1,000 bet. He chose (for Simon gave Ehrlich the choice of which resources to bet on) a bundle of copper, chromium, nickel, tin and tungsten and bet Simon that the real price of this bundle of resources would be higher in 1990 than in 1980.
In 1990 the prices in September of that year were compared to the prices of these resources in September 1980. Simon won convincingly. The real price of each of these five resources had fallen over the course of that decade, indicating that their supplies had grown even though human population had also grown by more than 800 million during that same time.
Julian Simon wanted to enter into a second wager, based on either the same commodities, or a different group of commodities, but the terms of a proposed second wager were never agreed upon. Simon died in February 1998.
What if the original bet had been extended for another ten-year period, from 1990-2000? Simon would have won again (see chart above), since all of the metals declined in real price except for tungsten, and the average price decline of the 5-commodity group was -19%.