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How Julian Simon Defeats Thanos

“The universe is finite, its resources finite. If life is left unchecked, life will cease to exist.” With those simple words, the Marvel supervillain Thanos justifies slaughtering multitudes, supposedly for the greater good of saving whatever life may remain in the universe, in “Avengers: Infinity War.” Thanos returns to movie theaters today, as Captain America, Iron Man, and their fellow superheroes try to thwart his murderous plans.

But meanwhile, back in the real world, pundits and academics such as Paul Ehrlich, perhaps the world’s leading population alarmist, are often feted as Jeremiahs bravely warning of our impending doom, as they peddle notions not unlike Thanos’s vision—ideas that have helped justify policies like mandatory sterilization and China’s one-child rule.

Thankfully, the population doomsayers have met their match in one real-life avenger, whom CEI is proud to honor with an award in his name. This past Monday, the Cato Institute launched the Simon Project, an initiative of HumanProgress.org, to apply the insights of the late University of Maryland economist Julian Simon to current issues in the world today.

In his launch event presentation, Gale Pooley, Associate Professor of Business Management at Brigham Young University–Hawaii, drew a direct line from Thanos to the ideas of “Population Bomb” author Paul Ehrlich—who as recently as 2017 said that, “You can’t go on growing forever on a finite planet. The biggest problem we face is the continued expansion of the human enterprise.”

In their famous bet—immortalized in CEI’s Simon Award—Simon and Ehrlich wagered on the future price of five metals: chromium, copper, nickel, tin, and tungsten. Ehrlich wagered that their prices would go up because of increasing scarcity; Simon wagered the opposite. Simon won.

Yet, in a Cato paper, part of the Simon Project, Pooley and Marian Tupy, Cato senior fellow and editor of HumanProgress.org, argue that the terms of the bet may have been too favorable toward Ehrlich’s position. That’s because the cost in time and effort needed to purchase one of the commodities in the wager “basket” went down even further than the fall reflected in money prices. The key measure is not what a dollar could buy in the past compared to the present, but what a given hourly wage could buy then compared to now. By that measure—which is immune to distortion due to inflation—Tupy and Pooley (who expanded their analysis to 50 commodities) found:

[T]he real average hourly income in the world grew from $2.97 in 1980 to $5.34 in 2017.52 That’s an 80.1 percent increase. It is this average hourly rate that underpins the “time-price of resources” …

Pooley and Tupy conclude with a less obvious but apt analogy.

The world is a closed system in the way that a piano is a closed system. The instrument has only 88 notes, but those notes can be played in a nearly infinite variety of ways. The same applies to our planet. The Earth’s atoms may be fixed, but the possible combinations of those atoms are infinite. What matters, then, is not the physical limits of our planet, but human freedom to experiment and reimagine the use of resources that we have.

That’s a lesson that needs to be constantly repeated and relearned. As Simon (quoted by Pooley and Tupy) rightly noted:

This is my long-run forecast in brief: The material conditions of life will continue to get better for most people, in most countries, most of the time, indefinitely. … I also speculate, however, that many people will continue to think and say that the conditions of life are getting worse.

That’s why efforts like the Simon Project are important, and likely to remain so. Notably, this year’s Julian Simon Award winner, Johan Norberg, is featured in a video for the Simon Project. To hear more of Norberg’s insights, please consider attending this year’s CEI Dinner, where he will be presented with the 2019 Julian Simon Award.

Video of the Simon Project’s launch event is below.