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Samizdata, derived from Samizdat /n. - a system of clandestine publication of banned literature in the USSR [Russ.,= self-publishing house]

An Unconventional Economist who underestimated himself

A Life Against the Grain: The Autobiography of an Unconventional Economist
Julian L. Simon
Transaction, 2002, hardback

This is a posthumously published work:

Julian Simon died suddenly and, according to the doctor’s report, instantly of his first and only heart attack on February 8th, 1998. He had just returned from a trip to Spain where he had been awarded an honorary degree from the University of Navarre. He was in very good spirits and showed no signs of fatigue or illness.

So runs the initial “Comment” by his widow, Rita J. Simon. I had wondered how he died, having learnt, with regret, the fact from the mention in a Laissez-Faire Books Catalogue, and even feared that, given his history of depression, he might have committed suicide, a fear justified by his admission in this book that he had contemplated doing so while in depression, being prevented by thoughts of his family responsibilities.

The Autobiography of an Unconventional Economist, as the work is subtitled, had been finished, apparently over a year before, in a much longer form (900 pages – though whether they are equivalent to the page size of this 359 page book is not indicated) and has been edited by his widow, with acknowledged support. There may have been a misprint or two I have forgotten, but the only obvious textual fault is not filling in internal references to other chapters, which are left as 00, awaiting specification in the final revision. There is an unfulfilled promise of a bibliography of JLS’s publications in the text, but not even a normal list of previous titles at the beginning. His death date is not given on the reverse of the title page, with the usual guff there. All this said (at perhaps unnecessary length) I must say that the book is a very interesting one, less so perhaps for its ideas – these are in his other books – than for information on the personality of its author, though even here there is a possibly involuntary veil of reticence. I hasten to add that I don’t just mean about sex, a rather welcome exclusion, but rather why he feels dissatisfied with himself. He obviously had a happy marriage and his three children grew up satisfactorily (Ch 17); he had no money troubles and always did the job he liked or, if it wasn’t suitable, changed it.

Although his reassuring ideas about world resources and the environment had not gained widespread acceptance by the time he died, he does not seem to bear ill will to anyone. He may have thought that he didn’t manage his life effectively – but this would conflict with his propensity to work at whatever took his interest. This gives an episodic feel to about the first two thirds or so of the book; when is the action really going to start? Julian Simon was born in Newark, NJ, 12/2/32 of Jewish immigrant stock – he was the third generation – and an only child. He could not respect his father; his feelings for his mother were warmer; love is not mentioned. He claims to have been no more than competent at school, with nothing unusual about him but there seemed to be no problem about getting into Harvard. This was combined, in a way I seem to have missed, with service (presumably the draft) in the Navy. After this he did a stint in advertising and then went to Chicago’s Business School, where he realised that he was at ease with economic concepts. After that he set up a mail order business; after writing a book about it, he realised that he liked writing and teaching and got a University job. It is not too clear from the book when Simon’s career of “alarmabater” began. He started studying demographic economics in 1966, taking the orthodox view that rapid population growth was a menace (Ch. 20). He changed his views rather gradually during the 1970s, but had great difficulty in getting his work published. By the 1980s he could claim that his views on population – that its growth is a benefit, not a drawback, to human progress – were prevailing, though he’s not given much credit for the change (p. 257). Ben Wattenberg’s Foreword to Simon’s Hoodwinking the Nation, testifies to how Simon underestimated his own influence. On the other hand, he came in for a lot of vilification and, which he found almost as bad, a refusal to listen to his message. However, in March 1981, he received the letter of which he is the most proud, from Hayek, beginning “I have never before written a fan letter…” (p. 268)

Chapter 25 is a rather tantalising account of his 13 year long battle with depression (early 1962 to early 1975). He had – and probably continued to have after the depression lifted – an extremely self-critical personality, and was obsessively concerned with his shortcomings and errors; the long period began with guilt engendered by some unspecified peccadillo. A critical mother didn’t help – a Jewish phenomenon? His diagnosis and treatment of his own malady is entirely psychological, rather than metabolic; he may have been unaware of such an approach and certainly took no drugs to alleviate it – this was before the development of modern tranquillizers, so they would be either narcotics or alcohol. He seems rather to have reasoned himself out of it, in this being greatly helped by his Jewish culture: I use this somewhat weasel-word, because “faith” seems too strong a word for his ideology; he calls himself “a radical atheist along the lines of Buddha”, in contrast to his wife who “has a fairly traditional Jewish religious belief (p. 315).” He and his family observe Jewish practices, and the start of his recovery seems to have come about from the injunction that a person should not be sad on the Sabbath; indeed, “Judaism also imposes an obligation upon the individual to enjoy his or her life … not to waste your life in unhappiness or to make your life a burden;” in short, it enjoins one to be cheerful. It is of course impossible to say whether his recovery was due to his working this out through his system, fighting off the load of self-criticism (by saying, for one thing, to himself: “Lay off. Don’t criticise.”), or whether the depression was moving off anyway, or because his work was beginning to receive recognition and make an impact. He has written a book, which he says has helped some – not all – those he has given it to, Good Mood: The New Psychology of Overcoming Depression. The last Chapter (28) is entitled This I Believe: Values and Attitudes. A great man, who underestimated himself.

2 comments to An Unconventional Economist who underestimated himself

  • However, in March 1981, he received the letter of which he is the most proud, from Hayek, beginning “I have never before written a fan letter . . .”

    One has to say that is awfully cool.

    I will also say that Simon had a huge effect on me when I discovered his stuff a decade or so ago. I had already sensed that the anti-technology anti-modern “Children are a burden and not a blessing” argument of the green movement, the media, and so much of the whole spectrum of politics was wrong, but Simon had all this down as a clear and coherent argument. He was one of the key figures who made it clear to me what side I was on.

    And on top of that, one kind of wishes that Simon was still around to be wryly amused by the way in which a follower from an unexpected source has seized his mantle with as much panache as has happened.

  • Reid of America

    A couple of years ago in Boulder, Colorado I met an Emeritus Professor of Physics while waiting in line at a bank. The Professor is an outspoken Malthussian with his own show on Public Access TV. The show was dedicated to scaring the public about unsustainable population, unsustainable resource depletion, unsustainable capitalism, etc. I told the Professor that I had seen his show on TV. He asked what I thought of his ideas. I informed him that I am a big fan Julian Simon. He then abruptly ended the conversation without a word and turned his back to me.

    Julian Simon will be a much larger intellectual figure in the years to come as more and more people realize he was correct and the Malthussians are wrong.