Skip to comments.Nassim Taleb and Skin in the Game: Rules of Honor that Build Civilizations
Posted on 11/15/2019 6:28:29 AM PST by poconopundit
I've been following author Nassim Taleb for several years now. His claim to fame was his 2007 book Black Swan which brought the term black swan event into the English vocabulary.
What I've done here is transcribe and edit-down a talk Taleb gave in India (2018) where he explains the key principles in his newest book, Skin in the Game. Enjoy.
Very rarely have I seen Taleb mentioned on Free Republic, but there's a lot for FReepers to like: Taleb is smart and opinionated wordsmith and historian who hates big bureacracies and doesn't suffer fools. Perhaps he hasn't come to FR's attention because he avoids everyday politics and daily news.
Tabel is an expert skeptic and iconoclast, in the mold of an H. L. Mencken (minus the perfect prose, but equal to the humor). Born in Lebanon, educated in France, a wiz at statistics, Taleb is a successful Wall Street trader who retired several years ago.
He now spends his time as a philosophical flâneur toying with the subject of uncertainty -- or risks to human society, business and governments. And while he has written many mathematically challenging essays defending his ideas, his books are down-to-earth, street-smart works that a Deplorable can love.
Were Taleb living at the time of The Revolutionary War, it's easy to imagine him an advisor to the Constitutional Convention. He would have hit it off with John Adams, who wrote the Massachusetts constitution, which served as the model for U.S. Constitution.
We're grateful to the Founding Fathers for their wisdom in creating a framework for a Republic with a fighting chance of surviving a few hundred years. And that's what Taleb is about. His mission is to analyze the basic building blocks of societies in the past as a guide to future policies and rules.
While "uncertainty" is his main research theme, to me, his work brings the greatest insight to the subjects of: a robust and prosperous society; mental, physical and moral fitness; and systems/rules that build and maintain civilization.
A number of his lectures and discussions are on YouTube: the most satisfying of these are when he's in true conversation with other experts such as his 2013 talk with Nobel Prize economist, Daniel Kahneman.
And if you're a podcast listener like me, I recommend the speedy (and free) YouTube-to-MP3 file converter at ytmp3.com
|The Expert Problem|
|The Problem of Nation- and Organization-Scaling|
|Serial Incompetence at the European Union|
|Comparing Journalists in India and the U.S.|
|Why the Intellectual Yet Idiot Class has Blossomed|
|Being Careful about Giving Advice|
|A Historical Look at Skin-in-the-Game|
|How Governments can Bake-In Skin-in-the-Game|
|Donald Trump: What Makes Him Robust?|
|Americans Think Like the Swiss|
|The Financial Ups and Downs of Americans|
|How to Become Anti-Fragile|
|A Successful System Exposes Itself to Risk|
|Why Doctors Have Skin-in-the-Game|
|Bringing Back a Sense of Honor|
What follows are Taleb's lightly edited remarks from a lecture in India:
The Expert Problem
The Expert Problem is very simple one to understand. It's very difficult for an incompetent plumber to operate very long without being discovered. The same goes for a dentist. If they dont do a good job, the word gets around and they cant survive in the business.
But you can be an incompetent economist your entire life long and nobody will notice youre an idiot.
Now we can believe someone who cleans bathrooms their whole life long knows how to clean bathrooms. But if youre someone who gives corporate advice, we actually can't tell if it's nonsense or not.
Generally this follows a rule of thumb (or heuristic). Things that are dynamic tend to have an expert problem. Things that are static don't.
Brussels is largely an expert problem, but journalists didn't get that because journalism has a severe expert problem of its own.
A journalist will not figure out what's going on because they don't know what's going on themselves. You can't ask the Mafia to understand the activities of the Mafia — you get the idea.
Journalists today have a severe expert problem. It doesn't mean they are bad. Its that they just dont know. For example, Thomas Friedman of the New York Times has an expert problem, and a negative understanding of the world.
The Problem of Nation- and Organization-Scaling
In my book Anti-Fragility I discussed something called scaling. Why is it true that systems operate much better bottom-up, say, in countries with fewer than 5 million people?
The countries of Switzerland and Singapore operate much better. In Switzerland you have the municipal system that's very powerful.
So bottom-up organizations scale operate better and are free from the Expert Problem because the errors are micro, not macro, and decisions propagate upwards rather than coming down from a central authority.
Serial Incompetence at the European Union
People mistake the criticism of the European Union thinking its anti-Europe criticism. But in fact the complaint is about a bunch of experts who want to centrally manage Europe.
These bureaucrats are what I wrote about in an article, the IYI — Intellectual Yet Idiot. These people can't find a coconut on Coconut Island.
What we have here is serial incompetence. And basically people are fed up with that.
Let me explain Brussels. These guys can't even guard their borders, so by definition these "experts" are not experts.
But when you put those bureaucrats together and have a meeting, guess how they spend their time with taxpayer's money.
They make havoc by creating EU regulations. For instance, if you have a farm or forest, and theres a tractor or truck with a windshield, then you must have a windshield wiper that makes more than 20 sweeps a minute and no less than 17 — or something like that.
So this is what they spend their time doing. This is why we have serial incompetence.
We also have — after the 2008 financial black swan — a situation where central banks didn't understand the properties of the system. And they still don't.
To be honest, fortune tellers have a better track record than these IYI experts. At least the fortune tellers are right on occasion. But the experts tend to get everything wrong.
So allow me to manage my own affairs without having your intervention.
Comparing Journalists in India and the United States
The rebellion against the IYIs seems to have started in India.
I came here two years ago and started developing the idea of rebellion against the pseudo-intellectual and the pseudo-left.
I started reading the papers in India and noticed a huge amount of skepticism against that class of intellectuals who have a circular way of thinking.
The press in the US, by contrast, doesn't have the self-awareness the press has in India. Now what direction it may take, who knows?
It seems to me that everything fragile breaks. And that means we're going to end up with the systems like Switzerland.
Why the Intellectual Yet Idiot Class has Blossomed?
It basically boils down to the problem of Skin-in-the-Game.
If I am a banker and when I make mistakes, society loses the money but I get a bonus, that causes harm because the banker has an upside and doesn't pay for his own mistakes.
The ancients ran into this problem and dealt with it. It goes as far back as 3,750 years ago when Hammurabi's Law was created.
Hammurabi's Law says that when an architect builds a building and the building collapses and kills the owner, the architect is put to death.
And to complete the symmetry: if the first born son of the owner is killed, the first born son of the architect will also be put to death.
So this is how symmetry started. Symmetry means that people bear responsibility for their own mistake: youre accountable for mistakes that cause harm to others. This is in the spirit as the Golden Rule.
Symmetry actually has two dimensions to it: 1) the agency problem and 2) evolution. Let me explain.
The Agency Problem — If Im a banker, I can hide risks. Let me name names. Over a 10 year period, Robert Rubin made $110 million in bonuses at CitiBank. Then, when CitiBank went under, he didn't return his bonuses. Taxpayers footed the bill.
And unfortunately under Obama, things got a lot worse since bankers were bailed out by the taxpayer. Obama was all cosmetics by the way. He gave them the largest bonus pool in history in 2010.
So this is the skin-in-the-game agency problem: if I don't pay for the cost, then all I have to do is look cosmetically nice.
The Evolutionary Problem — The second problem is an evolutionary one. If you're on a highway in America driving your car, you notice there are not that many bad drivers. Why is that? It's not because people are particularly good at driving.
It's because the bad drivers are already dead. They don't harm you because they already exited the system.
You get the idea. The point is to eat your own dogfood. You are responsible for your own cooking.
Even the Romans forced the architects who built bridges to sleep under those bridges with their families. Which is why when you go to France you have the Pont du Gard aqueduct, something stronger than anything ever built by humans.
And this symmetry leads to effective moral rules. Don't do to others, what you don't want done to yourself — the negative restatement of the Golden Rule: "treat others like you would treat yourself".
This is pretty much the foundation of civilized life.
Now there's a class of people who benefit from what I call "situational rent". And here are some rules are required: nobody should ever work for the government to later get rich.
Anyone who become a civil servant should accept to never-ever earn more after office, because that's money coming from taxpayers.
It's a moral rule and a very good one operationally — the first ten years after office this restriction should apply. It's crazy to see former government leaders like Prime Minister David Cameron getting paid $100,000 or more to give a speech somewhere.
Being Careful about Giving Advice
The subject of my new book, Skin in the Game, can lead to some very simple rules (or heuristics).
I myself never give advice. I merely tell you what I do. Since I have lots of readers, if I gave some financial advice and people got hurt, thats unethical because there's no symmetry since I would not be harmed.
For this reason, I don't tell you what I think. I tell you what's in my portfolio.
There's some kind of rule of honor to never ever give advice unless you can be harmed by it. Especially if there's some risk to it. It's a personal code of honor.
Honor used to be synonymous with skin in the game. The captain of a ship goes down with his ship. In other words, pay for your own mistakes.
A Historical Look at Skin-in-the-Game
In modern life were in the sad situation where people in authority with no skin-in-the-game are making decisions that affect the lives of millions of people?
Let's look at history. People in the past had to have made the same mistakes we are making today.
Egypt collapsed after they had built a great civilization. But when it became a centralized nation-state with scribes, then it started getting invaded by everyone, eventually even the Persians.
The same thing happened to the Chinese. If you visit the opulence of the Imperial City, you can imagine what happened. When you have centralization and mere scribes responsible for decision-making, things start to collapse.
The rulers of ancient Rome had skin-in-the-game because the assassination rate was monstrous. Nero was forced to commit suicide. Caligula was assassinated. So these were democracies tempered by assassination.
In the present, weve witnessed an incredible rise in the percent of GDP coming from government. For the first time in history we have close to 10 times the ratio of government we had at the beginning of the 20th century.
So in a hundred and some years, the ratio has multiplied by 5 in the United States and 10 in Europe, and even 12 in France.
Bigger government essentially means more civil servants running the place and less skin in the game. A system that has these properties will collapse. It may look stable, stable, stable, stable then in 2007 it collapsed.
2007 was a skin in the game problem. People had risk and they knew it was not their money — and they got bonuses if they make the situation look good — and then things collapsed.
How Governments can Bake-In Skin-in-the-Game
Large scale failures like 2007 dont happen if the government is kept small, as the Swiss figured out. The government is at the scale of the village. In that case, the government decision-making flows up.
Unlike the Chinese, the Romans also figured it out. The Romans made sure anyone who was running any of its territories or provinces had skin in the game.
In ancient Aleppo (Syria), Alexandria, and all the cities run by the Romans — what did they do? They said, "You manage your own affairs: we don't want anything to do with that. Just give us 10% — like the Mafia, but less than the U. S. Government — and I want no war. "
Basically the Romans understood the notion of a city states as an ideal scale. And we lost that wisdom completely. So there's no problem having a lot of government, as long as decisions come up from the bottom.
Donald Trump: What Makes Him Robust?
I think the best thing that ever happened to Trump was losing a billion dollars.
Effectively Trump was bust at least once, and we have evidence from my days in banking. For 21 years I was a trader, but before that, I was in banking and my friends were lending to Trump.
When Trump went bust he brought down Manufacturer's Hanover with him.
But the fact that he lost a billion dollars made him real. He got rich, he got poor, and then he got rich again.
And I went and studied the phenomenon. Now let's forget what a person says because you really need to look at what people do. You need to look at the second-order message, not the first-order message.
But I'm not obsessed with what's going on with Trump because, to me, the President of the United States is no different from a Roman emperors. The emperors are good for history books, but on the ground they didn't change much.
Yes, they change some things, in foreign policy, but not too much. You can survive a bad emperor, but what you cannot survive is a bad Senate. And what people really hate is the Senate — that class of people who don't have any downside in life. That's where the real inequality in life exists.
And what I'm talking about now was replicated during Roman days. And the Roman emperor became popular because the Romans hated the Senate. The plebs always supported the Emperor, and the Emperor in return gave them Coliseum games and free bread.
So the consequences of Trump are really overblown.
Americans Think Like the Swiss
If you do a scientific study, the American population is not really interested in the rich getting poorer — because they hope to get rich themselves, thats the American Dream.
Effectively they just hate bureaucrats! The same goes for Switzerland. The Swiss don't mind that entrepreneurs make a billion dollars. They just want to cap the salaries of heads of corporations, to 23 times the minimum wage.
And their reasoning is the CEO of a company is not an entrepreneur — no skin in the game. He has the upside, but very little downside.
So it turns out the American public doesn't resent rich people. They resent rich people without skin in the game. If you take a country like France where 58% of GDP determined by government, basically you have inequality dynamically.
The Financial Ups and Downs of Americans
Earlier I was shocked by these numbers I'm going to tell you.
Close to 40% of Americans will spend one year in the top 5% of income makers. More than 55% of Americans will spend one year in the top 10%. So that's what people want. But to have that mobility upwards means you need for someone at the top to go down.
Which really means you want people to go bust. In a country like France, a civil servant who reaches grade 1. That's it. He's set for life. So you don't have that downward mobility if you are part of that civil servant class. Likewise, if you go to the right schools, youre also set for life.
And this is what people don't like in America.
When people tell me: look at the billionaires. If you take the 500 richest families in American in 1983 compared to 2013, you'll notice only 10% of families are still in that group.
So you realize we have downward mobility. The American Dream is not just going up. The guy who's up there can also go bust. And people figure thats a fair game.
The same goes for war generals. We respect Hannibal because he fought war and he was exposed. We respect Julius Caesar because he risked his own life many times even fighting on the front lines — when he was battling the Gauls.
So the principles of Skin-in-the-Game are symmetry, responsibility and downside risk.
How to Become Anti-Fragile
When big negative black swan events like the 2007 financial crash — things we can't predict — youd like to be prepared for those downfalls. Youd like to be anti-fragile.
The notion of anti-fragile means literally when a random event hits you, you do better than the fragile that breaks. If there's an earthquake, a wine glass is not going to do very well. A steel goblet is more durable. This is how we classify things.
First thing is you have to remove asymmetry. Systems become fragile when there's risks hiding from these asymmetries.
So a good system — a bottom up system — can handle lots of shocks - serially — because you don't have what we call a "mono-culture".
In the 1840s, the Irish had a mono-culture around potatoes. And because their crops were not diversified, they were very fragile when the Potato Famine hit.
So the idea is to have a good system that can handle the exceptions without being compromised by it permanently.
A Successful System Exposes Itself to Risk
If you don't have any risk, you're not going to learn. Complex systems don't learn from a guy from Brussels telling him what to do.
Complex systems like your body learn by trial and error. The information you get from nature is based on trial and error. In fact if I bang too hard on this table, the bones will actually get stronger.
My bone doesn't get stronger by my brain telling it to do so. The way you respond to stressors is by over compensation. And that needs to be present for the system to be durable over the long term.
Why Doctors Have Skin-in-the-Game
Skin-in-the-Game is strong the medical field. Actually, if you're a doctor, you are exposed to great risks.
Particularly in America, thanks to Ralph Nader. And actually the dedication of my book is to Ralph Nader who really brought Skin-in-the-Game back into American tort laws.
I don't like regulators, I like laws. I like the legal system to take care of things.
Doctors are so heavily punished for malpractice that effectively you have the reverse. You can save 50 lives, and if you make one mistake and someone gets killed, you're gone.
And curiously this kind of breaks the law of symmetry, becauise if you save 50 lives, it allows you to kill 50 people. But it doesn't work that way.
But there are still many professions where people escape responsibility. Big pharma is one. Pharma can kill you slowly with these medications that have hidden side effects. Like Robert Rubin, they make the money and then if you die from their drugs, or no one can figure it out.
Bringing Back a Sense of Honor
Maybe Spartan mothers had a different view. You have to have honor. As soon as you lose honor, you're in trouble.
But it can come back rather quickly. Ancient values are robust. Whenever I bring something from Greco-Roman values, people immediately embrace it.
If I tell them, it's not honorable to do that, people feel bad and tell their friends.
For example, if you're a journalist, the honorable thing is to not follow other journalists. But in practice, journalists are afraid of being ostracized if they don't follow the tags of the pseudo-Left.
If you are a journalist, then, you are only as good as the risks you take because newspapers were supposed to be here to take risks exposing power, not playing the system.
One of the smartest and deepest thinkers alive today. Explains why no one pays much attention to him. His book changed my entire outlook, while deepening my understanding of how the universe was created to work.
Great to hear Taleb’s mind has had a big impact on you, trad.
Spent some time on this vanity because Taleb’s common sense insights are so powerful. Hope you agree.
Many thanks for your post.
In this country we have a very serious, and worsening, culture problem. Things like honor, personal standards, legal morality, accountability and equitable legal consequences are steadily eroding. The Founding Fathers would be very dismayed if they could see the state of the country today.
My experience is that average folks are mostly honest, mostly fair, mostly reasonable.
It is the self-proclaimed “experts”, the agenda-driven “journalists”, the control freaks who run large organizations-they are the problem.
They do affect our lives, but most of us don’t have to deal with them on a personal level.
This is a great country—with 1% of the population of sociopaths and complete jerks.
Under the Schengen Agreement, Brussels promised to guard the outer frontiers of the EU, while abolishing internal border controls.
The Eurocrat Corporate elites lied = broke the first promise but kept the second, thus opening a wide path for the onrushing Muslim Hijrah immigration invasion...
Kickbacks to the Eurocrats from George Soros ?
I see a lot of what Our President has done since he has been in office, and an awful lot of what he used when he made his empire of golf courses, hotels around the world, how he talks to people, how he deals with people, his knowledge level, which in my opinion, is off the charts...
I am intrigued to learn more about this man, I like the ‘down to common folk level of talking’ so we ‘deplorables’ can understand what he is saying...
I have read a lot of this type of information in my life, how do other people operate, what motivates them, where do they get their ideas, what are their ‘end goals’, I want to know how things ‘tick’ and this guy is good in that area...just like Our President...
Thank you for this article, just right down my alley...
Great, HL. So pleased I could introduce a bit of this wise man to you.
What sounds Trumpian is probably that mixture of street smarts and skepticism about so-called Experts who are selling us out.
Both Trump and Taleb have New York financial savvy in their genes. And they truly care about the little guy, the entrepreneur, the tinkerers who rise their livelihood to make it — instead of the yes-man senior banker who sucks up to power and bears no risk on the downside.
Thanks for the post.
I like Taleb’s IYI (Intellectual Yet Idiot) description. It fits so well all the “educated” pompous asses in the NYT, Compost, NPR, NRO, etc., etc.
I also like his concept of the the “dictatorship of the intolerant minority”. It’s on display constantly these days.
1% of the population of sociopaths and complete jerks.
That may be true with respect to real nutcases but its important to look at the broader picture. A significant percentage of people in this country are not the least bit bothered by widespread corruption, deteriorating national morality, or massively growing government control over our lives. Our decline is entirely OK with them.
Remember, the destructive and divisive Obama was twice elected president and a bevy of mad Democrats who are obsessed with overturning the last election now run the U.S. congress. The societal problems afflicting this country are much deeper than you suggest as evidenced by the rot in our politics.
And look at what’s happened to our government which is riddled with malfeasance, waste and fraud. Trump is trying his best to right the ship but the hull has been breached, the crew is drunk, and we’ve taken on a lot of water.
Average folks may be honest and reasonable but they are also becoming increasingly passive, easily distracted, and manipulated by slick political operatives and their allies in the media. The next election may well decide our fate.
The problem is that since average folks don’t encounter true evil sociopaths regularly, they are inclined to assume the best about people.
I don’t blame the sheep for being herded.
he is a very arrogant fluck (IMO)
Thinks he knows more about “important stuff” than anyone else.
A significant percentage of people in this country are not the least bit bothered by widespread corruption, deteriorating national morality, or massively growing government control over our lives. Our decline is entirely OK with them.
Average folks may be honest and reasonable but they are also becoming increasingly passive, easily distracted, and manipulated by slick political operatives and their allies in the media. The next election may well decide our fate.
These are the people who really believe that government, bureaucrats and regulations will function to keep their lifestyle just as it is. For those with a less favorable situation, they have been convinced their circumstances will improve due to government, bureaucrats and regulations or even *laws* that attempt to regulate what they cannot, such as unfavorable circumstances.
The media is responsible for these beliefs. They have been purchased by the government, bureaucrats and regulators. For example, while we here know why Venezuela, Chile, Hong Kong, France and others are in rebellion, the media either refuses to report it or lies about both cause and effect.
None of those responsible have skin-in-the-game. Society needs to demand that those responsible pay with their own funds, freedom and lifestyle. Maybe with their lives.
Just expanding on your theme. Agree about Trump and the coming calamities.
Yes, arrogant and full of himself. I still enjoy reading him, I've read three of his books. I find myself quoting some of his examples fairly frequently. I think he is well worth the read.
I no longer remember if I said this, or someone else said it about him... he writes like a guy at the bar who has had one drink too many, and is on a rant... but its so interesting you keep buying him drinks and call your wife to say you'll be late for dinner.
Great post! Thanks!
Society needs to demand that those responsible pay with their own funds, freedom and lifestyle.
There is no such thing as accountability in DC whatsoever which explains in large part why there is so much corruption and destructive partisanship. Since the public doesn’t seem to want to remove the rot I only see the problem getting worse.
One observation if I may...
People only change when they are forced to by pain, fear or hardship. In the absence of those factors, things tend to stay the same. If we have a sharp and painful economic downturn such a situation could well bring about some much needed reforms, at least temporarily. A sudden military confrontation would likewise also serve to reorient people’s assumptions and thinking. In the meantime we bumble along and tolerate an absurd amount of destructive nonsense.
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