Simon, Julian L.

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During most of the last quarter of the twentieth century Julian Simon was the best-known population economist in the world. Simon graduated from Harvard in 1953 with a degree in experimental psychology. His career began in the U.S. Navy, where, as he would later recount, he learned to distrust authority and the conventional wisdom it represented. Switching to business, he completed a master's of business administration degree at the University of Chicago in 1959 and a doctorate in business economics at the same institution in 1961. For the last 15 years of his life he was a professor of business administration at the University of Maryland.

Simon's intellectual output was enormous and diverse. His early work was in the economics of advertising and included a best-selling trade paperback, How to Start and Operate a Mail Order Business (1965). In a single year (1993) he proposed both a radical new approach to the teaching of statistics and a method for overcoming psychological depression. His research regularly appeared in major economics journals. (Some 80 articles published from 1965 to 1995 are collected in Economics against the Grain [1999].)

Simon's early work in population dealt mostly with the economics of fertility and was not controversial. He was a co-editor of the first four volumes (1978–1982) of the series Research in Population Economics. However, Simon primarily is known not for his output of original scientific research but for his polemical attacks on Malthusians and environmentalists, those who argue that population growth stifles economic development and harm the environment.

Simon's critique, best captured in The Ultimate Resource (1981, 1996), had several thrusts. First, he was a committed utilitarian who argued that individuals might rationally prefer having many children to having a high level of material wealth or a clean environment. "It All Depends on Your Values" was the title of one section of The Ultimate Resource. In the controversial introduction to that book Simon recounted how his conversion from a pessimistic to an optimistic view of population arose from a highly subjective emotional midlife experience.

Second, Simon argued that Malthusians systematically underplayed the importance of economies of scale and of agglomeration and the positive contribution of population pressure to technological innovation. Third, Simon had a passion for extremely long-term time-series data (for a range of welfare measures such as life expectancy and the real prices of natural resources), which in his view delivered the clear message that things were getting better, not worse. Fourth, he was an advocate of looking at all the data at the same time. Although some data series might show adverse trends, taken as a whole, the data delivered an optimistic message. This was the main theme of his second best-selling book, an edited volume (with Herman Kahn) entitled The Resourceful Earth (1984), a rejoinder to the pessimistic report of President Carter's Global 2000 commission.

Simon became the favorite professional authority as well as fiery ideologue of the laisssez-faire Reagan right as in dozens of articles in the popular press, television appearances, and lectures across the country he castigated what he called "the population establishment." In the later 1980s Simon added the economics of immigration to his interests. He became an advocate of the free movement of labor and argued in The Economic Consequences of Immigration to the U.S. (1989) that anti-immigration advocates systematically overestimated the costs and underestimated the benefits of immigration to the United States.

Like most polemicists, Simon thrived on exaggeration. He endorsed often wildly speculative arguments (for example, that a larger population meant more geniuses and thus more technological innovation). He engaged in publicity stunts such as a $1,000 bet with the environmentalist Paul Ehrlich about whether the price of copper and some other raw materials would be higher or lower in five years (Simon won). When in 1986 the U.S. National Academy of Sciences published a report refuting the conventional pessimism about the impact of rapid population growth on economic development, Simon accused the authors of having pulled their punches.

Will Simon's work stand the test of time? He was an excellent economist, and in his emphasis on scale effects and other nonlinearities, he anticipated much subsequent work in economic growth theory. However, nonlinearities can be used to argue against population growth as well as in favor of it. Perhaps Simon will be remembered primarily as an antidote to the gloom-and-doom excesses of the "Population Bomb" school of thought that flourished in the 1970s.

See also: Economic-Demographic Models; Immigration, Benefits and Costs of; Natural Resources and Population; Population Thought, Contemporary; Technological Change and Population Growth.


selected works by julian l. simon.

Simon, Julian L. 1975. "The Population Establishment." In Comparative Policy Analysis, ed. R. Kenneth Godwin. Lexington, MA: Lexington Books.

——. 1977. The Economics of Population Growth. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

——. 1981. The Ultimate Resource. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

——. 1986. Theory of Population and Economic Growth. New York: Blackwell.

——. 1989. The Economic Consequences of Immigration to the U.S. New York: Blackwell.

——. 1990. Population Matters: People, Resources, Environment, and Immigration. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction.

——. 1999. Economics against the Grain, 2 vols. Cheltenham, Eng.: Edward Elgar.

——. 1996. The Ultimate Resource 2. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

——. 2002. A Life against the Grain: The Autobiography of an Unconventional Economist, ed. Rita J. Simon. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction.

Simon, Julian L., ed. 1995. The State of Humanity. Oxford: Blackwell.

Simon, Julian L., and Herman Kahn, eds. 1984. The Resourceful Earth: A Response to Global 2000. New York: Blackwell.

F. Landis MacKellar