“Black Swan” author adores David Cameron

I have to say his description of the PM startled and frustrated me.

I had the privilege of interviewing Nassim Nicholas Taleb a fortnight ago, and the resulting "Q&A" is published in this week's New Statesman. Taleb is the author of the bestselling book The Black Swan: the Impact of the Highly Improbable -- described in the Times as one of the 12 most influential books since the Second World War.

Bryan Appleyard has called Taleb "the hottest thinker in the world". He also happens to be one of a handful of commentators who can claim to have predicted the Great Crash of 2008.

I've been a fan of Taleb ever since I saw him take apart the former IMF chief economist Ken Rogoff in this Newsnight discussion, in which he condemned economists for explaining events "after the fact" and for using "bogus measures of risk".

His attacks on the bankers and the economics profession ("charlatans", is how he refers to them in the interview), as well as on militant atheists (again, "charlatans"), are as intellectually robust as they are amusing and acerbic.

His Twitter feed is full of humour, wisdom and insight.

So I was astonished -- and, as a long-standing critic of the cult of Cameron, frustrated! -- to hear Taleb tell me that he regards David Cameron as "extraordinary". Here's the relevant exchange:

Here in the UK, the government is giving even more power to our central bank.
Your new government is at least conscious. You don't have the Office of Management and Budget, which never forecasts anything right.

We'll soon have an office of budget control.
But here they understand. David Cameron understands expert problems. He is extraordinary.

You have described him as "the best thing we have left on this planet".
Exactly. I went to Washington, and the discourse had nothing to do with the real problem. And I thought, "He's the only thing we have left."

Let's be clear: in my view, Cameron is undoubtedly a bright guy, a brilliant tactician and a wiser leader of the Conservatives than his immediate predecessors.I know that Vernon Bogdanor, his old tutor at Oxford, has described the PM as one of the "ablest students" he ever taught and that he achieved a First in PPE from Brasenose College. Cameron, then, is no Dubbya-style dullard.

But "the best thing we have left on this planet"? "The only thing we have left"? "Extraordinary"? I'm not sure even Sam Cam would agree with such over-the-top and effusive praise for her husband, even if it does come from the radical and original thinker behind the theory of Black Swan events .

I guess being one of the cleverest men on the planet doesn't make you immune from having bad judgement.

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

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Tom Watson rouses Labour's conference as he comes out fighting

The party's deputy leader exhilarated delegates with his paean to the Blair and Brown years. 

Tom Watson is down but not out. After Jeremy Corbyn's second landslide victory, and weeks of threats against his position, Labour's deputy leader could have played it safe. Instead, he came out fighting. 

With Corbyn seated directly behind him, he declared: "I don't know why we've been focusing on what was wrong with the Blair and Brown governments for the last six years. But trashing our record is not the way to enhance our brand. We won't win elections like that! And we need to win elections!" As Watson won a standing ovation from the hall and the platform, the Labour leader remained motionless. When a heckler interjected, Watson riposted: "Jeremy, I don't think she got the unity memo." Labour delegates, many of whom hail from the pre-Corbyn era, lapped it up.

Though he warned against another challenge to the leader ("we can't afford to keep doing this"), he offered a starkly different account of the party's past and its future. He reaffirmed Labour's commitment to Nato ("a socialist construct"), with Corbyn left isolated as the platform applauded. The only reference to the leader came when Watson recalled his recent PMQs victory over grammar schools. There were dissenting voices (Watson was heckled as he praised Sadiq Khan for winning an election: "Just like Jeremy Corbyn!"). But one would never have guessed that this was the party which had just re-elected Corbyn. 

There was much more to Watson's speech than this: a fine comic riff on "Saturday's result" (Ed Balls on Strictly), a spirited attack on Theresa May's "ducking and diving; humming and hahing" and a cerebral account of the automation revolution. But it was his paean to Labour history that roused the conference as no other speaker has. 

The party's deputy channelled the spirit of both Hugh Gaitskell ("fight, and fight, and fight again to save the party we love") and his mentor Gordon Brown (emulating his trademark rollcall of New Labour achivements). With his voice cracking, Watson recalled when "from the sunny uplands of increasing prosperity social democratic government started to feel normal to the people of Britain". For Labour, a party that has never been further from power in recent decades, that truly was another age. But for a brief moment, Watson's tubthumper allowed Corbyn's vanquished opponents to relive it. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.