The BET ME Challenge

by Jonah Goldberg

I really like Kevin’s piece today on asking pundits and other experts to put their money where their mouth is. But I have one big objection. He writes:

If I were inclined to violate my own libertarian leanings, I’d lobby the new Republican majority in Congress to enact the Better Expertise Through Monetary Exposure Act of 2015 — the BET ME Act. The purpose of the BET ME Act would be two-fold: First, it would impose accountability on pundits and self-appointed experts of all descriptions by requiring them to wager a month’s pay on the real-world outcome every time they published a prediction.

He continues:

I was on the fence about this until I read the latest from UberFacts, the runaway leader in the race to be the most boneheaded thing on Twitter not called Sally Kohn: “Experts predict that solar power will be the primary source of energy on the planet in 2025.” That may be true if by “solar power” we mean the solar energy stored in dead dinosaurs and pumped out of the ground by Exxon; if by “solar power” we mean photovoltaic cells and the like, then I want these so-called experts to put their money where their tweets are. Similarly, unless you’re ready to take the appropriate position on oil futures, I don’t want to read your apocalyptic “peak oil” pabulum.

You really think New York City and London are only a few decades away from being uninhabitable because of climate change? BET ME. Are you a dopey royal who fears that mutant corn is going to kill us all? BET ME. Are you a highly credentialed but sort of sloppy academic who believes that the Western world is headed toward Dickensian social conditions? BET ME.

I anticipate an objection here: “These predictions are free speech, protected by the First Amendment.” Yeah, yeah, yeah — I know how the theory goes: The free exchange of ideas and views leads to a better state of public knowledge, and that is so valuable to a free society that it is worth bearing the costs of all the lies, ignorance, Cosmopolitan articles, superstition, and malfeasance that are also protected by the First Amendment. Areopagitica and all that. Well, screw John Milton — I have it on the excellent authority of Harry Reid and all the other Democrats in the Senate that freedom of speech applies only when Congress believes that it is consistent with the public good, and that we can restrict — with prison time, if necessary — attempts by irresponsible or self-interested parties to influence public-policy debates. If there’s a public-interest defense of Matt Yglesias’s predictions — “I wanted to once again take the opportunity to lay down a marker and say once again that Obamacare implementation is going to be a huge political success” — or Nancy Pelosi’s — “Everybody will have lower rates, better quality care, and better access” — it is far from obvious what that is. Pelosi clearly is motivated by craven political self-interest, while Yglesias is motivated by the magical goblins in his head, but there’s a good case that both should have been sanctioned for such fantastical tomfoolery.

Now for my objection. I am at a loss as to how Kevin who knows this terrain like an Indian scout, could leave out any mention of Julian Simon’s famous bet with Paul Ehrlich. For those who might not know, before there was global warming, a Malthusian panic stewed the bowels of the cognoscenti like so much bad gas station sushi.  Julian Simon was almost alone in deriding the Club of Rome, the Population Bomb and other claims that we would “use up” the Earth. He was derided as a fool and charlatan by his “betters” for actually being upbeat about humanity’s prospects. Ehrlich, the author of The Population Bomb, agreed to a wager proposed by Simon. From the Wikipedia write-up:

Julian L. Simon and Paul Ehrlich entered in a widely followed scientific wager in 1980, betting on a mutually agreed-upon measure of resource scarcity over the decade leading up to 1990. Simon had Ehrlich choose five commodity metals. Copperchromium,nickeltin, and tungsten were chosen and Simon bet that their prices would decrease, while Ehrlich bet they would increase.

The contest occurred in the pages of Social Science Quarterly, where Simon challenged Ehrlich to put his money where his mouth was. In response to Ehrlich’s published claim that “If I were a gambler, I would take even money that England will not exist in the year 2000″—a proposition Simon regarded as too silly to bother with—Simon countered with “a public offer to stake US $10,000  . . .  on my belief that the cost of non-government-controlled raw materials (including grain and oil) will not rise in the long run.”

Ehrlich took the bet. He lost. (Bonus trivia: England still exists). 

The Wikipedia entry quickly adds:

Ehrlich lost the bet, as all five commodities that were bet on declined in price from 1980 through 1990, the wager period.[1]However, economists later showed that Ehrlich would have won in the majority of 10-year periods over the last century,[2][3] and if the wager was extended by 30 years to 2011, he would have won on four out of the five metals.[3]

I’ve heard similar things from neo-Malthusians over the years. I’ve never bothered to check whether all that is true myself, but I assume it is. So what? Ehrlich was given far more favorable terms. He distilled expert opinion. If there were smarter commodities to pick, why didn’t he? Whether Simon’s cornucopian theories are entirely valid is a separate question from whether Ehrlich et al should be trusted as unimpeachable experts. Think of it this way. You say you’re the best football handicapper in the world. I bet you that the Bears will win the Super Bowl this year. I win.  Does anyone care if you respond, “Oh yeah, well, if the Bears had played with their 1986 team they would have won!”? 

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