Will he usher in a reign of futarchy?

by on December 23, 2008 at 7:06 am in Political Science | Permalink

Dr. Holdren, now a physicist at Harvard, was one of the experts in natural resources whom Paul Ehrlich enlisted in his famous bet against the economist Julian Simon
during the "energy crisis" of the 1980s. Dr. Simon, who disagreed with
environmentalists’ predictions of a new "age of scarcity" of natural
resources, offered to bet that any natural resource would be cheaper at
any date in the future. Dr. Ehrlich accepted the challenge and asked
Dr. Holdren, then the co-director of the graduate program in energy and
resources at the University of California, Berkeley, and another
Berkeley professor, John Harte, for help in choosing which resources
would become scarce.

He’s been named as Obama’s chief science advisor.  Here is more information.  Read this too.  I was disconcerted to see the close connections between Holdren and Ehrlich. 

1 Ironman December 23, 2008 at 9:32 am

Is it me, or is anyone else put off by John Holdgren’s previous experience in choosing which resources are to become scarce?

Does anyone suppose that’s what Obama considers to be his primary qualification for the post?

2 Kris Tuttle December 23, 2008 at 10:05 am

It’s wrong thinking for sure. Julian Simon was a very smart man and should have proven to everyone that what always wins over time is human ingenuity and something as basic as the inflation adjusted price of metal is no match.

Here is a writeup on it (.pdf)


3 kebko December 23, 2008 at 10:30 am

It looks like your link is from March. It looks to me like today, Simon would win most or all of those bets again. Doesn’t your link add icing to Simon’s cake? Every 20 years or so there is a boom in commodities, which most people will internalize as the true state of affairs. So Simon will win the bet 95% of the time, but the other 5% will be so startling to the public psyche that it will still win public opinion to the fear mongers.

4 StreetWalker December 23, 2008 at 11:29 am


Was Holdren chosen for anything other than social proof? How could we tell?

Futarchy would probably be better than “expertise” in this case, since – can we just put a permanent link to Robin Hanson around here somewhere? I mean, this HT came from you! – Experts Are For Certainty, rarely for info.

Science Politics Isn’t About Science Policy.

5 Gene2 December 23, 2008 at 11:40 am

First off, isn’t it Ehrlich who claimed that commodity prices will rise because of mass shortages due to population explosions. Didn’t he predict hundreds of people wil die from starvation in the 70’s and 80’s? And didn’t he choose both the commodities and the time frame over which the bet will take place? With Holdren’s help, of course. So your point about commodities exhibiting random-walk like behavior actually debunk Holdren and Ehrlich who were the ones who posited the scientific theory that the world will run out of resources. Oh, and by the way, could someone actually mention Holdren’s major SCIENTIFIC rather than advocacy contribution?

6 Gene2 December 23, 2008 at 11:42 am

By hundreds, I meant hundreds of millions.

7 Al Abbott December 23, 2008 at 12:03 pm

Didn’t Asimov once calculate that the ultimate limiting resource to human life on the planet was potassium?

8 Anonymous December 23, 2008 at 12:20 pm

Malthusian = Erlichian

9 Phil December 23, 2008 at 12:49 pm

Malthusian = Erlichian

Of course we know know drivel is completely recyclable.

10 Bababooey December 23, 2008 at 2:33 pm

Phil P

Is the theory of “Great Moderation” a projection of “past trends indefinitely into the future” or is it the opposite (past trends are over and a new paradigm has arrived)?

11 oh, huben December 23, 2008 at 6:28 pm

Mike Huben, you picked a local maxima to prove your point. Haven’t you noticed the rapid deflating of the commodity bubble? Simon was right.

12 Omri December 23, 2008 at 7:25 pm

Oh, for heaven’s sakes. Have you looked at the prices of metals lately?

If instead of 1980 to 1990, Ehrlich and Simon had wagered for 1980 to 2005, Ehrlich would have won the bet.
And by a good margin in 2007. We’ll see about 2008-9. The only reason he lost for 1990 was not “innovation.” It was low prices for oil and coal which made it economical to process low grade ores. Oil prices went back up, and now metal prices are up.

13 Omri December 23, 2008 at 10:56 pm

Uh, based on actual market prices for metals, corrected for inflation, Ehrlich would have won the bet.

14 hammer mill December 24, 2008 at 4:17 am

Many people are very short-sighted, just looking, of course, people will live that long. No matter who wins, the most important thing now is to remind the people

15 seacrest December 24, 2008 at 4:07 pm

Historical Statistics for Mineral and Material Commodities in the United States


16 bbbeard December 26, 2008 at 11:58 pm

valuethinker: You’re like King Canute’s sycophants, believing his commands could stop the tide. Ehrlich had nothing to do with falling reproductive rates in China and India. Look, we have known for generations that only one positive factor has limited net reproductive rates (NRR), and that factor is affluence. When societies become more affluent, parents desire fewer children. There are many negative factors that can also bring down NRR: plague, forced infanticide, inattention to sanitation, and on and on. But it certainly looks like affluence has had the predictable impact on NRR in China and India.

Now the question is whether Holdren and his ilk are smart enough to know that a clean environmental future must be based on economic principles, not on some hepatoscopic divination emerging from the councils of central planners. If you want a better future, you must let societies prosper. Impoverishing us to save the planet is a fool’s errand.


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