By Paul F. Petrick
Those that tuned into 60 Minutes on New Year’s Day were treated to April Fools’ Day three months early. Viewers were transported back 55 years to the inaugural season of CBS’ flagship Sunday night broadcast. That year saw the publication of Stanford biologist Paul Ehrlich’s The Population Bomb (1968), a mega bestseller that predicted impending doom because global resources could not keep pace with population growth. “The battle to feed all of humanity is over. In the 1970’s the world will undergo famines–hundreds of millions of people are going to starve to death,” declared the book’s opening paragraph. Since 1968, the Earth’s population has more than doubled and Ehrlich has joined the rapidly-growing nonagenarian age cohort. But according to the Tiffany Network, Ehrlich’s Malthusian nightmare is still just around the corner.
Unfortunately, Julian Lincoln Simon is not available for comment. The eminent economist died 25 years ago this month, just before the birthday he shared with his presidential namesake. Like Ehrlich, Simon was born in 1932 to a Jewish family and grew up in suburban Newark. Unlike Ehrlich, Simon had a more comprehensive understanding of mankind. Ehrlich, a butterfly expert, believed that human beings were subject to the same ecological restraints as insects. Simon knew better. Because the human brain is “the ultimate resource,” Simon contended that mankind’s long-term potential was limitless.
And he was right. The Simon-Ehrlich debate is often mischaracterized as one between optimism and pessimism. That is untrue. Simon, who spent much of his adult life suffering from depression, was not preternaturally optimistic. But he was empirically correct. Contrary to Ehrlich, long-term trends indicate that food and resources are becoming less scarce as global population grows. The ability of human beings in free markets to transcend natural limits to human flourishing through innovation provides the explanation.
As an economist, Simon was accustomed to applying human intellect to solve problems. He devised the current system of offering rewards to passengers to alleviate overbooked airline flights, an idea Simon articulated in a 1977 Wall Street Journal op-ed titled “Wherein the Author Offers a Modest Proposal.” The Swiftian title is appropriate as both Simon and Jonathan Swift laid waste to population alarmists. Simon’s decision to challenge Ehrlich to a bet also displayed Swiftian brilliance.
The premise of the celebrated Simon-Ehrlich Wager was simple. Would the price of a $1,000 basket of five strategic metals (chromium, copper, nickel, tin, and tungsten) be higher or lower in ten years? Ehrlich said higher. Simon said lower. The loser would pay the difference in price. Ten years later, global population had grown by over 850 million, yet the price of those metals had collapsed. Ehrlich sent Simon a check for $576.07 signed not by Ehrlich, but by his wife. Psychologists are left to speculate why.
Despite getting everything wrong, Ehrlich has bested Simon in the accumulation of awards, prizes, and honoraria. But even here Ehrlich cannot escape being one-upped by Simon. Each year the Competitive Enterprise Institute awards the Julian L. Simon Memorial Award to a deserving recipient. The award itself contains elements of the five metals at the center of the Simon-Ehrlich Wager. No similar award exists in Ehrlich’s name. Until now. To even things up, I am awarding the first ever Paul R. Ehrlich Award for spectacular pseudoscience. This year’s winner is Dr. Anthony Fauci for his incorrect insistence that shutting down schools and businesses were effective methods of countering COVID-19. The ubiquitous Dr. Fauci’s destructive recommendations, the extent to which they influenced policy to the detriment of mankind, and the degree to which he has been decorated and renumerated despite being wrong can only be described as Ehrlichesque. Congratulations, Doctor, your Ehrlich Award is well-deserved.
Less deserved is the criticism directed at 60 Minutes for giving Ehrlich a platform to repeat his debunked thesis unironically. 60 Minutes brought us Dan Rather’s career-ending George W. Bush-Texas Air National Guard story that was famously described in the New York Times as “fake but accurate” and more recently featured correspondent Lesley Stahl falsely claiming that Hunter Biden’s laptop could not be verified. A more appropriate platform for Ehrlich does not exist.
Paul F. Petrick is an attorney in Cleveland, Ohio.