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Simon Says: That's a Good Bet, John Tierney!

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Like Radley Balko [2], I applaud with special enthusiasm John Tierney’s column [3] in today’s New York Times.

Talk is cheap. Asking people to put their money where their mouths are – asking them to show some real (rather than only rhetorical) commitment to the positions they espouse – tests people’s sincerity, seriousness, and depth of belief.

You’ll read in Tierney’s column of his bet with someone who foresees a near-catastrophic fall in the effective supply of oil.

Tierney is inspired in at least two ways by the late Julian Simon [4]. First, Tierney agrees with Simon that, human ingenuity being the ultimate resource [5], the real price of oil is not likely to be higher five years from now than it is today. Human creativity and effort will probably – probably, not certainly – find ways both to reduce the demand for oil and to increase its supply.

Second, Tierney follows the example Simon set with his (Simon’s) famous bet in 1980 with Paul Ehrlich [6].


I got to know Julian Simon personally in the ten or so years before his death in 1998 at the too-young age of 65. I recall with much fondness an evening I spent with him in the summer of 1991. I played several games of racquetball against him at his health club in Maryland. He clobbered me. The games weren’t even close.

Afterwards, he treated me to a delicious meal at one of his favorite Indian restaurants. Something he said there struck me as being especially wise; it’s been with me ever since:

He asked me how I liked law school. (I was then preparing to enter my third year of law school at the University of Virginia.)

I answered that I liked it well enough – not as much as I enjoyed economics grad school – but well enough. I then commented that my fellow law students are all "really, really smart."

Without hesitation Julian replied "Smart has never impressed me. Smart is directionless."

This quotation is verbatim.

Lots of people are smart, but lots of smart people are fools. Julian Simon, while undoubtedly very smart, possessed a much rarer and more valuable trait: wisdom. Julian Simon was one of the wisest (and, by the way, kindest and smartest) people I’ve ever met. After all these years, I still miss him and his oceans of insights.

And, yes, smart is directionless.  The rudder is wisdom.

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