#190 We’ve Never Run Out of Anything

"The Christian Economist" with logo and a closeup of a dollar bill in the background

Scarcity thinkers tell us we are running out of resources.  But Christians believe our “Made in the image of God creativity” will continue to find new ways of preserving resources.

One of my favorite questions to ask groups is to complete this sentence, “Life was better before we ran out of: _____” You’re right, there’s no answer.  At least, in years of asking the question, I’ve never heard an answer.  If you know of a valuable resource that we’ve run out of, please send me an email.  But here’s the problem, we are continually being told that we’re running out of things.

Just one example for now: In 1976, Jimmy Carter intoned, “We have about 35 years of oil left in the world.”  Oh, so we ran out in 2011?


The Coming Ice Age

In a video from 1976, frightening music plays as Leonard Nimoy speaks in a very worried tone, “There’s little doubt that someday, the ice will return.”  More dramatic music plays, and he continues, “If we are unprepared for the next advance, the results could be hunger and death on a scale unprecedented in all of history.  During the lifetime of our grandchildren, Arctic cold and perpetual snow could turn most of the habitable parts of our planet into a polar desert.  The next ice age is on its way.  At weather stations in the far north, temperatures have been dropping for 30 years.  Seacoasts that used to be free of ice, are now blocked year-round.  According to climatologists, within a lifetime, “we might be living in the next ice age.”  Okay, let’s be simple about this.  They were wrong in 1976.  What makes you think the climate alarmists are right today?



“Nothing is more responsible for the good old days than a bad memory.”  That’s the first line of the book Progress by Johan Norberg.  The quote was attributed to Franklin Pierce Adams.  Mr. Norberg goes on to write, “The truth is that the good old days were awful.  The great story of our era is that we are witnessing the greatest improvement in global living standards ever to take place.  Poverty, malnutrition, illiteracy, child labor, and infant mortality are falling faster than at any other time in human history.”

In my lifetime, the percentage of the world living in extreme poverty has dropped from 44% to just over 8%.  On its current trajectory, it will approach zero in the next ten years.

When Karl Marx died in 1883, the average Englishman was three times richer than he was when Marx was born, in 1818.


Abundance vs Scarcity, Will We Run Out?

The magicians and entertainers Penn and Teller were playing a kind of poker game called Greatest Person in History, with pictures of great people on playing cards.  Penn draws a card and pushes all his chips in on the bet because he KNEW that card would cause him to win the game.  The face on the card….are you ready for this….Greatest person in history?

Let me tell one more story to keep you in suspense.  Goldman Sachs came up with the idea of the BRIC countries in 2001.  The countries with the greatest supply of land, labor, and capital are Brazil, Russia, India, and China.  So, I started on a plan to take MBA students from Dallas Baptist University to all four.  Just before we left for India the Dallas Global Alliance was hosting a speech by the Indian ambassador to the US.  The Indian representative strode to the podium.  He didn’t even say hello, or good morning, or it’s good to be in Dallas.  The first words he spoke were, “Please join me in a moment of silence in memory of…..are you ready…this is the guy’s picture on Penn’s poker card….. His name is …..Norman Borlaug.  Borlaug grew up in Cresco, Iowa, and earned a Ph.D. in Agronomy from the University of Minnesota.  First, he went to Mexico and showed them a dwarf wheat that matured in half the time, so they could double their crop in one year.  Then he went to India and Pakistan and did the same thing.  He’s known as the man who saved a billion lives.

That’s abundance. Now for scarcity.  That’s easy, the father of scarcity was a pastor and economist named Robert Malthus, who in 1798, predicted that humans would overpopulate the earth and it would lead to mass starvation.  He was wrong, and every Malthusian since him has been wrong.  He was right on the demand side: More humans would demand more goods.  But, he was wrong on the supply side.  He assumed a fixed amount of food.  He was very wrong. He did not include in his calculations the increase in supply, caused by the creativity of humans.  We gained that creativity by being made in the image of God.  Contributions from people like Norman Borlaug, or any of the other 7.7 billion people in the world, whose minds are working to solve scarcity problems today.  Fifty-eight of them were in my sophomore macroeconomics class this week.

For reference to other Malthusians, just turn on the news tonight.  John Kerry, OAC, Thomas Piketty, there are even some old hold-overs from the losing side of the famous Simon-Ehrlich wager who are making calamitous predictions.  They’re all wrong.

Then why do we keep listening to Malthusians, since they’re all wrong?

Here’s an answer:


The Negativity Instinct

In the book Factfulness by Hans Rosling, there is a chapter titled The Negativity Instinct.  It explains why we always think the past was better.  1. The misremembering of the past.  2. Selective reporting by journalists and activists, and 3.  The feeling that as long as things are bad for SOME people, it’s heartless to say they are getting better in the macro.   Mr. Rosling goes on to write, “Though the world faces huge challenges, we have made tremendous progress.   This is the fact-based worldview.   Every group I talk with thinks the world is more frightening, more violent, and more hopeless – in short, more dramatic- than it really is.  They are not thinking, they are feeling.”  For more on that subject, I will refer you to my podcast #97 Feeling vs Thinking.

Oh, you will want to look at Mr. Rosling’s work on his website titled gapminder.org.  Actually, he died soon after writing the book, and the work is carried on by his son and daughter-in-law.  The website is called Gapminder, because it tries to reveal the facts that show there are no gaps between rich and poor countries.  That’s a subject for another day.  Oh, maybe my favorite line from the book is, “Cuba exhibits the bizarre idea that a central government can solve all its people’s problems.”


Made in the Image of God

In my little book Economics and the Christian Worldview, I wrote, “There’s a limited amount of land, and God is not making any more. But He is making creative human beings who discover more efficient ways of using it.”

In his book The Ultimate Resource, Julian Simon wrote, “There is no physical or economic reason why human resourcefulness and enterprise cannot forever continue to respond to impending shortage and existing problems.  Adding more people means there will be more people to solve these problems and leave us with the bonus of lower costs and less scarcity in the long run.  The ultimate resource is people: Skilled, spirited, and hopeful people who will exert their wills and imaginations for their own benefit, and so inevitably for the benefit of us all.”

One of my favorite quotes comes from the first line of the book The Great Escape by Nobel Prize-winning economist Angus Deaton, who teaches at Princeton.  “Life is better now than at almost any time in history,” and my extension is, “… and it’s going to get better.”  Why do I say that?  Because I believe people are made in the image of God, and they are creative.  A few more sentences from Mr. Deaton, “More people are richer and fewer people live in dire poverty.  Lives are longer and parents no longer routinely watch a quarter of their children die.”

I will have more to say about the book titled Superabundance is an upcoming podcast.  But I want to close with a line from that book today.  “Abundance is growing at a faster rate than population.  We call that state of affairs superabundance.  Additional human beings tend to benefit, rather than impoverish, the rest of humanity.”

At this rate, we may never run out of anything.

Fear God
Tell the Truth
Earn a Profit