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Julian Simon: forget conventional wisdom

Published March 7, 2012

Written by: Kate Vitasek
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Kate Vitasek

Kate Vitasek is an international authority for her award-winning research and Vested business model for highly collaborative relationships. She is the author of six books on the Vested model and a faculty member at the University of Tennessee. She has been lauded by World Trade Magazine as one of the “Fabulous 50+1” most influential people impacting global commerce.  

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This month’s column remembers Julian L. Simon, a PhD business economist. Simon is famous (or maybe infamous) for being ‘The Doomslayer’ because he devoted his life to counter the purveyors of doom and gloom who bemoan global deterioration from overpopulation and resource drains.

Simon, who held a PhD in business economics from the University of Chicago and was Professor of Business Administration at the University of Maryland until his death in 1998, challenged the doom-and-gloom crowd by seeking out truths with facts in his columns and articles in Science (which he wrote as ‘The Doomslayer’), Social Science QuarterlyThe Wall Street Journal and other publications.

“False bad news about population growth, natural resources, and the environment is published widely in the face of contrary evidence. For example, the world supply of arable land has actually been increasing, the scarcity of natural resources including food and energy has been decreasing, and basic measures of US environmental quality show positive trends. The aggregate data show no long-run negative effect of population growth upon standard of living. Models that embody forces omitted in the past, especially the influence of population size upon productivity increase, suggest a long-run positive effect of additional people.”

While he wrote these words over 30 years ago, today is today and we have global warming and peak oil. Specifically, Simon showed through facts and statistics that the world was indeed not coming to end. He in essence was a “Doomslayer” to those who professed the world was going to hell in a handbasket.

I love Simon’s viewpoint on life and I think we can all learn from it. His basic premise, as I see it, was simple and included three key points:

  1. Mankind – when faced with a problem – tends to innovate and solve tough problems.
  2. People need to always challenge the “conventional wisdom” by closely examining facts. What may seem like doom and gloom might in fact be hyperbole.
  3. Things are almost never as bad as they seem (nor for that matter are they as good as they seem).

I’m not sure if Simon’s arguments are as valid now as perhaps they were then. And since he passed in 1998 I have not heard of anyone pursuing his passion as a Doomslayer to counter-fact global warming and peak oil.

What appeals to me about Simon’s work is his Vested mindset of sorts: base your decisions and your performance on measurable facts. Abundance will come from flexibility, innovation and a willingness to veer away from conventional approaches. Always thinking in zero-sum terms will probably mean that you chalk up a lot of zeroes in your endeavours.

I — like Simon — believe that innovation always prevails; that’s how humans and business prevail. Simon believed that Malthusian models “simply do not comprehend key elements of people – the imaginative and creative.” He added that the “material conditions of life will continue to get better for most people, in most countries, most of the time, indefinitely… Within a century or two, all nations and most of humanity will be at or above today’s Western living standards.”

Knowing what we know now, is Simon’s view a bit hard to swallow here in 2012?  Perhaps it feels a little too Pollyannaish? Maybe, but there’s also a message for even the most jaded and sceptical among us to consider: the real power of optimism and the creative, imaginative and innovative power of people.

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