Julian L. Simon was a remarkable man. He was, to begin, a prodigiously prolific scholar. Although stricken by a fatal first heart attack just before his 66th birthday, the professor left behind a virtual library of output. [Harvard University catalogues 37 of Simon's books and monographs, while Econlit, the electronic citation service for the economics literature, identifies him as author of over 330 articles.] Moreover, his intellectual facility - and restlessness - was such that his contributions to modern thinking spanned a terrain of unusual breadth.
Simon is best known as the skeptic and provocateur who, more than any other single person, began to force a fundamental rethinking of the deeply ingrained Malthusian pessimism about world population, global resources, and the geo-environment. This pessimism held tremendous sway in the academy, the media, and parts of the government in the 1960s and 1970s.
Skillfully marshaling a tremendous array of empirical data to support his analysis, Simon, a disabused Malthusian himself, made the contrary points, in study after study, that humanity was getting richer and healthier with every passing decade; that natural resources were growing more abundant, not more scarce, as the human population grew; and that there were sound reasons to expect those positive trends to continue on into the future. Population economics, however, was hardly Simon's exclusive scholarly focus. He wrote widely in other areas as well - sometimes to immediate practical consequence. For example, he was the progenitor of the "voluntary auction" system that United States airlines now use to cope with overbooking on domestic commercial flights; thanks to his insight, far fewer passengers are now "bumped" from their reserved seats than in the days before the scheme went into effect, even though air travel has expanded tremendously in the interim.Simon also made fruitful forays into the study of statistical methodology [for instance, he was one of the early proponents of the now widely accepted technique of "resampling"]. And it was in the esoteric realm of epistemology that he claimed one of his proudest contributions - revisiting David Hume's conception of "constant conjunction," and arguing that theory can help us move from the simple observation of correlation to an actual recognition of underlying causality.
Encounters with Simon tended to leave indelible impressions. I still remember well the first time I met him, over two decades ago. He cut a striking figure: lean, shaved bald, with an angular face and piercing eyes, his demeanor was vulpine, and his intensity was positively tropical. At this small meeting in the State Department in the early 1980s, he politely demolished one of the world's leading demographers for what he carefully explained to be the man's sloppy [neo-Malthusian] thinking about the impact of population growth on Third World economic prospects.
After the meeting, we got to talking, and Julian bubbled over with avuncular interest about my life and future plans, offering jocular but penetrating reflections about his own days as a young man and the many purported missteps he had taken. Simon was brilliant, and he could be fierce, but he was also a kind and generous man, and artifice was utterly alien to his nature.
With the publication of "A Life Against The Grain: The Autobiography of an Unconventional Economist," readers who never came across Julian Simon during the course of his life now have a chance to get to know him. Compiled and edited by his widow, Rita J. Simon [a noted authority on immigration, currently a professor at American University], these reflections carry us from his childhood through his thoughts just months before his death.
Perhaps because Simon's autobiographical project was never finished, his writing reveals less than one might have hoped about certain aspects of life that mattered very greatly to him- in particular, his relations with his wife and three children [to whom he was hopelessly devoted] and his views on religion [though unshakably committed to his Jewish identity, he also passingly describes himself as "a radical atheist along the lines of Buddha"]. But these pages succeed in capturing and presenting the essence of the man: The persona that shines through in them is unmistakably Simon's own engaging, thoughtful, often lighthearted, always unflinchingly honest self.
Julian L. Simon was born in 1932 in Newark, New Jersey, the grandson of immigrants. He tells us that he had very little use for his father, whom he describes as distant, disinterested in his son, and idle for much of what should have been his working life. He writes warmly of his mother, although he also recalls her as having been almost incessantly critical of him - ostensibly in the hope that Julian would better himself in life. He remembers a carefree childhood in Newark and Millburn - full of play and pranks with other neighborhood kids [he remained a lifelong devotee of the practical joke].
Perhaps significantly, Julian was an only child - and also came from a family line that set itself on the road to sharp sub-replacement. [His parents had a total of seven siblings - but those seven sibs begat only eight children among them. Simon yearned for a brother or a sister - for a little tribe of his own: "Having no brothers or sisters did not make me feel more valuable [to my parents], but rather the opposite: I had the idea that if they considered me a good thing, it would be natural to have more such good things." Simon's later views on the positive benefits of population growth may thus have been stimulated by early and deeply personal experience.
Although he insists "my overwhelming memory of school is of being horribly bored," Simon nevertheless went off to Harvard College under a naval ROTC scholarship. After graduation and an involuntarily extended stint as a junior officer in the Navy [a tedium broken only by a few pleasant months "troopin' and stompin'" with the Marines in Camp Lejeune], Simon cast about for a calling.
His mother had suggested he become an actuary; Simon instead applied to medical school and was accepted, but then chose not to attend. He went to work in advertising in New York, from whence he more or less stumbled into a doctoral program at the University of Chicago Business School [during which time he met his future wife]. Degree in hand, he entered the direct marketing [mail-order] business back in New York. But he found the work frustrating and unsatisfying, and it was back to academia, taking up a chance offer to teach in the Department of Advertising at the University of Illinois in 1963. Two decades later, Simon moved to Washington DC and the University of Maryland, where he taught for the rest of his days [moonlighting, to his delight, at the Cato Institute much of the while].
Simon calls himself an "unconventional economist" an apt designation, since as he points out "I never even had a course in demography and only two courses in economics at any level." [His undergraduate degree was in psychology, his doctorate in business administration.] Simon never served on a faculty of economics - Maryland's economics faculty declined to offer him a half-time appointment - and he neither sought nor received the research grants and honorary awards that are the emoluments of the profession. "I joke that I am the illegitimate son of a married Jewish couple in Northern New Jersey," he writes. "Illegitimate has nothing to do with the family, but rather with my feelings. I don't feel I have any claim on others to do anything for me, even that which is sanctioned by informal rules."
Thus, for most of his career Simon found himself in the role of an outsider knocking on closed intellectual doors - occasionally battering them open through sheer dogged persistence. His tale of the voluntary auction scheme for airline overbooking is illustrative. "[A]round 1965 or 1966" he "heard at a party a sad saga of how someone had been summarily kicked of a plane and forced to endure a costly and unpleasant delay." While shaving the following morning, "it occurred to me that there must be a better way; indeed, an auction market could solve the problem by finding those who least minded waiting for the next flight."
Simon wrote up the idea, and after a number of rejections, finally managed to get it published in an obscure journal. He canvassed the proposal to the major airlines, only to have it snubbed - sometimes summarily, sometimes derisively. He circulated the idea within the economics profession, where it was also roundly dismissed. Nobel laureate George J. Stigler deemed it "administratively impossible . . . You should explore the possibility of collusion by a group of 40 unemployed people."
Milton Friedman, also a Nobel medallist, opined "If the plan is as good as you think, I am utterly baffled by the unwillingness of one or more airlines to experiment with it." Finally, 12 or 13 years into his quest, the new head of the Civil Areonautics Board [CAB], the economist Alfred Kahn, seized upon the proposal and implemented it.
Simon will be remembered as an unquenchable optimist: Indeed, in unguarded moments Julian's disquisitions sometimes sounded almost Panglossian. It may therefore surprise to learn that he was harried for much of his adult life by bouts of black depression and unyielding moods of deep despair. In his telling, back in business in 1962 he "did something that was morally wrong" -"not a big thing," he assures, but it triggered a severe and unrelenting depression. "I wished for death, and I refrained from killing myself only because I believed my children needed me." Thirteen years into grappling with the black beast, he finally succeeded in fending it off through a remarkable exercise of pure willpower. The story of his perserverance is nothing less than inspiring.
Toward the end of his life, Simon reflected "I have failed abysmally in what I have spent 90 percent of my work effort trying to do." Julian Lincoln Simon may not have realized how much he had achieved - nor appreciated just how Lincolnesque his own life saga happened to be."
A LIFE AGAINST THE GRAIN: THE AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF AN UNCONVENTIONAL ECONOMIST
By Julian L. Simon
Transaction, $39.95, 359 pages
Nicholas Eberstadt is the Henry Wendt Scholar in Political Economy at AEI.