The Bet

There was a review in The Wall Street Journal last week of the new book The Bet: Paul Ehrlich, Julian Simon, and Our Gamble Over Earth’s Future, which covers the Simon-Ehrlich wager (you know, the one where population doomsdayer Paul Ehrlich lost to economist Julian Simon regarding the dropping price of commodities). As the WSJ explains,

Mr. Ehrlich was allowed to select the five commodities that would be the yardstick…As they settled on their terms, Mr. Sabin notes, Messrs. Ehrlich, Holdren and Harte “felt confident that they would prevail.” They didn’t. In October 1990, Mr. Ehrlich mailed a check for $576.07 to Simon…Although world population had increased by 800 million during the term of the wager, the prices for the five metals had decreased by more than 50%. And they did so for precisely the reasons Simon predicted—technological innovation and conservation spurred on by the market.

Pic from Mark Perry

Ehrlich’s reaction to the lost bet is instructive:

Mr. Ehrlich was more than a sore loser. In 1995, he told this paper: “If Simon disappeared from the face of the Earth, that would be great for humanity.” (Simon would die in 1998.) This comment wasn’t out of character. “The Bet” is filled chockablock with Mr. Ehrlich’s outbursts—calling those who disagree with him “idiots,” “fools,” “morons,” “clowns” and worse. His righteous zeal is matched by both his viciousness in disagreement and his utter imperviousness to contrary evidence. For example, he has criticized the scientists behind the historic Green Revolution in agriculture—men like Norman Borlaug, who fed poor people the world over through the creation of scientific farming—as “narrow-minded colleagues who are proposing idiotic panaceas to solve the food problem.”

Mr. Sabin’s portrait of Mr. Ehrlich suggests that he is among the more pernicious figures in the last century of American public life. As Mr. Sabin shows, he pushed an authoritarian vision of America, proposing “luxury taxes” on items such as diapers and bottles and refusing to rule out the use of coercive force in order to prevent Americans from having children. In many ways, Mr. Ehrlich was an early instigator of the worst aspects of America’s culture wars.

When it comes to political disagreements, try a little more evidence and a little less name-calling.

U.S. Competitiveness

The World Economic Forum recently released their latest Global Competitiveness Report and after years of decline the US finds itself back in the top five at…#5. This time around, America falls behind Germany (#4), Finland (#3), Singapore (#2), and Switzerland (#1). Gains over the Netherlands and Sweden provide reason to hopeful. What stands out, however, are the things that the survey identifies as America’s biggest hindrances to competing in the global economy: tax regulations (the US was #69 in “Paying Taxes” in the World Bank’s Doing Business rankings), tax rates, and inefficient government.

Pic from James Pethokoukis

Food for thought.

The Decline of France

2013-09-03 French Decline

This article is over a week old, but still relevant. Part of the subtext of the broad left vs. right dichotomy in America politics is the whole question: should we follow the European model or not? Of course there isn’t just one “European” model, but France is often held up as an exemplar of what to do by the left (socialized healthcare) and also what not to do by the right (overbearing labor regulation).

In either case, the fate of France is of interest, and this article describes the grim reality.

At stake is whether a social democratic system that for decades prided itself on being the model for providing a stable and high standard of living for its citizens can survive the combination of globalization, an aging population and the acute fiscal shocks of recent years

These are high stakes indeed.

The Slow Hunch: A More Perfect Union?

Nearly two years ago, I graduated from UNT with a BBA in Organizational Behavior & Human Resource Management. As part of my curriculum, I did an internship at a unionized freight company. I was required to write a research paper based on my experience and the company itself. Having dealt with grievances, discipline, and other administrative duties, I focused on the effect the union had the company’s operations. I posted an excerpt of that paper at The Slow Hunch (I left out the company specifics and focused on the overall economic effect). Even though I’ve become softer on unions and harder on management over the past couple years (despite the unsavory history of labor unions and their contribution to unemployment), I still think the post is worth a look. If anything, it is a good reminder of a point I’ve made before: true growth comes from capital investment, creation of wealth, technological advances, increased skill and education, and competition.

Pic from Mark Perry


Why Vote? Society as Emergent Property, Part 1

2013-08-29 The Ethics of Voting

When economists look at voting, they usually say that the benefit from voting is the probability that your vote will be the deciding vote in an election. Since no major political election in American history has been decided by one vote–or even by anything close to one vote–this means that the effective benefit of voting is basically zero.

And yet people vote. What’s more, we have an idea that people ought to vote, and that they probably should try to be moderately informed about it, too.

Jason Brennan is one philosopher who feels quite differently. His argument, in The Ethics of Voting, is that there’s no real civic duty to vote. If you’re uninformed, he argues, then your vote does more harm than good. And instead of spending the effort to become informed, why not spend the effort on some other socially beneficial activity? Start a business, found a charity, volunteer somewhere: but skip the voting.

Here’s the problem with that analysis, however. The term “more informed” is, by definition, relative. So if we say that only the most informed 50% of the electorate should vote (morally speaking, I’m not suggesting any kind of law or policy to disenfranchise ignorant people here), why stop there? Now instead of 200,000,000 voters you have 100,000,000 voters, but 50% of them are smarter than the other 50%, so shouldn’t we reduce the number again, to 50,000,000? The point is that there’s no good reason to ever stop this winnowing process until we end up with a world where only a handful of super-geniuses are voting and the rest of us are just sitting on the sidelines. 

Read moreWhy Vote? Society as Emergent Property, Part 1

Which Famous Economist Are You Like?

This survey uses an interesting definition of “famous” since I had never heard of the economists I was most similar to: Judith Chevalier, Pete Klenow, and Luigi Zingales. At least Zingales has his own Wikipedia page.

2013-08-23 Luigi Zingales

I liked what I read about him, but as I answered more questions about the EU (which I know very little about) I drifted away from him and towards Klenow / Chevalier, going back and forth several times before ending up nearest to Klenow.

2013-08-23 Survey Results


Who do you end up closest to?