Beware those Black Swans

The bestselling economist Nassim Nicholas Taleb argues that we can’t make the world financial system

After completing my book The Black Swan, I spent some time meditating on the fragility of systems with the illusion of stability. This convinced me that the banking system was the mother of all accidents waiting to happen. I explained in the book that the best teachers of wisdom are the eldest, because they may have picked up invisible tricks that are absent from our epistemic routines and which help them survive in a world more complex than the one we think we understand. So being old implies a higher degree of resistance to "Black Swans" (events with the following three attributes: they lie outside the realm of regular expectations; they carry an extreme impact; and human nature makes us concoct explanations for their occurrence after the fact).

Take Mother Nature, which is clearly a complex system, with webs of interdependence, non-linearities and a robust ecology (otherwise it would have blown up a long time ago). It is a very old person with an impeccable memory. Mother Nature does not develop Alz­heimer's - and there is evidence that even humans would not easily lose brain functions with age if they took long walks, avoided sugar, bread, white rice and stock-market investments, and refrained from taking economics classes or reading the New York Times.

Let me summarise my ideas of how Mother Nature deals with the Black Swan. First, she likes redundancies. Look at the human body. We have two eyes, two lungs, two kidneys, even two brains (with the possible exception of company executives) - and each has more capacity than is needed ordinarily. So redundan­cy equals insurance, and the apparent inefficiencies are associated with the costs of maintain­ing these spare parts and the energy needed to keep them around in spite of their idleness.

The exact opposite of redundancy is naive optimisation. The reason I tell people to avoid attending an (orthodox) economics class and argue that economics will fail us is the following: economics is largely based on notions of naive optimisation, mathematised (poorly) by Paul Samuelson - and these mathematics have contributed massively to the construction of an error-prone society. An economist would find it inefficient to carry two lungs and two kidneys - consider the costs involved in transporting these heavy items across the savannah. Such optimisation would, eventually, kill you, after the first accident, the first "outlier". Also, consider that if we gave Mother Nature to economists, it would dispense with individual kidneys - since we do not need them all the time, it would be more "efficient" if we sold ours and used a central kidney on a time-share basis. You could also lend your eyes at night, since you do not need them to dream.

Almost every major idea in conventional economics fails under the modification of some assumption, or what is called "perturbation", where you change one parameter or take a parameter henceforth assumed to be fixed and stable by the theory, and make it random. Take the notion of comparative advantage, supposedly discovered by David Ricardo, and which has oiled the wheels of globalisation. The idea is that countries should focus on "what they do best". So one country should specialise in wine, another in clothes, even though one of them might be better at both. But consider what would happen to the country if the price of wine fluctuated. A simple perturbation around this assumption leads one to reach the opposite conclusion to Ricardo. Mother Nature does not like overspecialisation, as it limits evolution and weakens the animals.

This explains why I found the current ideas on globalisation (such as those promoted by the journalist Thomas Friedman) too naive, and too dangerous for society - unless one takes into account the side effects. Globalisation might give the appearance of efficiency, but the operating leverage and the degrees of interaction between parts will cause small cracks in one spot to percolate through the entire system.

The debt taboo

The same idea applies to debt: it makes you very fragile under perturbations. We currently learn in business schools to engage in borrowing, against all historical traditions (all Mediterranean cultures developed over time a dogma against debt). "Felix qui nihil debet", goes the Roman proverb: "Happy is he who owes nothing." Grandmothers who survived the Great Depression would have advised doing the exact opposite of getting into debt: have several years of income in cash before any personal risk-taking. Had the banks done the same, and kept high cash reserves while taking more aggressive risks with a smaller portion of their port­folios, there would have been no crisis.

Documents dating back to the Babylonians show the ills of debt, and Near Eastern religions banned it. This tells me that one of the purposes of religious traditions has been to enforce prohibitions to protect people against their own epistemic arrogance. Why? Debt implies a strong statement about the future, and a high degree of reliance on forecasts. If you borrow $100 and invest in a project, you still owe $100 even if you fail in the project (but you do a lot better in case you succeed). So debt is dangerous if you are overconfident about the future and are Black Swan-blind - which we all tend to be. And forecasting is harmful since people (especially governments) borrow in response to a forecast (or use the forecast as a cognitive excuse to borrow). My "Scandal of Prediction" (bogus predictions that seem to be there to satisfy psychological needs) is compounded by the "Scandal of Debt": borrowing makes you more vulnerable to forecast error.

Just as Mother Nature likes redundancies, so she abhors anything that is too big. The largest land animal is the elephant, and there is a reason for that. If I went on a rampage and shot an elephant, I might be put in jail and get yelled at by my mother, but I would hardly disturb the ecology of Mother Nature. On the other hand, my point about banks in my book - that if you shot a large bank, I would "shiver at the consequences" and that "if one falls, they all fall" - was subsequently illustrated by events: one bank failure, Lehman Brothers, in September 2008, brought down the entire edifice.

The crisis of 2008 provides an illustration of the need for robustness. Over the past 2,500 years of recorded ideas, only fools and Platonists have believed in engineered utopias. We shouldn't think that we can correct mistakes and eliminate randomness from social and economic life. The challenge, rather, is to ensure that human mistakes and miscalculations remain confined, and to avoid them spreading through the system - just the way Mother Nature does it. Reducing randomness increases exposure to Black Swans.

My dream is to have a true "epistemocracy"; that is, a society robust against expert errors, forecasting errors and hubris, one that can be resistant to the incompetence of politicians, regulators, economists, central bankers, bank­ers, policy wonks and epidemiologists.Here are ten principles for a Black Swan-robust society.

What is fragile should break early while it's still small: Nothing should ever become too big to fail. Evolution in economic life helps those with the maximum amount of hidden risks become the biggest.

No socialisation of losses and privatisation of gains: Whatever may need to be bailed out should be nationalised; whatever does not need a bailout should be free, small and risk-bearing. We got ourselves into the worst of capitalism and socialism. In France, in the 1980s, the Socialists took over the banks. In the US in the 2000s, the banks took over the government. This is surreal.

People who drove a school bus blindfolded (and crashed it) should never be given a new bus: The economics establishment lost its legitimacy with the failure of the system in 2008. Find the smart people whose hands are clean to get us out of this mess.

Don't let someone making an "incentive" bonus manage a nuclear plant - or your financial risks: Odds are he would cut every corner on safety to show "profits" from these savings while claiming to be "conservative". Bonuses don't accommodate the hidden risks of blow-ups. It is the asymmetry of the bonus system that got us here. No incentives without disincentives.

Time to definancialise

Compensate complexity with simplicity: Complexity from globalisation and highly networked economic life needs to be countered by simplicity in financial products. Complex systems survive thanks to slack and redundancy, not debt and optimisation.

Do not give children sticks of dynamite, even if they come with a warning label: Complex financial products need to be banned because nobody understands them, and few are rational enough to know it. We need to protect citizens from themselves, from bankers selling them "hedging" products, and from gullible regulators who listen to economic theorists.

Only Ponzi schemes should depend on confidence: Governments should never need to "restore confidence". Cascading rumours are a product of complex systems. Governments cannot stop the rumours. We just need to be able to shrug off rumours, to be robust to them. Do not give an addict more drugs if he has withdrawal pains: Using leverage to cure the problems of too much leverage is not homoeopathy, it's denial. The debt crisis is not a temporary problem, it's a structural one. We need rehab.

Citizens should not depend on financial assets as a repository of value and rely on fallible "expert" advice for their retirement: Economic life should be definancialised. We should learn not to use markets as warehouses of value.

Make an omelette with the broken eggs: The crisis of 2008 was not a problem to fix with makeshift repairs. We will have to remake the system before it does so itself. Let us move voluntarily into a robust economy by helping what needs to be broken break on its own, converting debt into equity, marginalising the economics and business school establishments, banning leveraged buyouts, putting bankers where they belong, clawing back the bonuses of those who got us here and teaching people to navigate a world with fewer certainties. Then we will see an economic life closer to our biological environment: smaller firms and no leverage - a world in which entrepreneurs, not bankers, take the risks, and in which companies are born and die every day without making the news.

Extracted from the postscript to "The Black Swan: the Impact of the Highly Improbable" by Nassim Nicholas Taleb (Penguin, £9.99)
© Nassim Nicholas Taleb 2008 penguin.co.uk

This article first appeared in the 05 July 2010 issue of the New Statesman, The cult of the generals

BRIAN ADCOCK FOR NEW STATESMAN
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Divided Britain: how the EU referendum exposed Britain’s new culture war

The EU referendum exposed a gaping fault line in our society – and it’s not between left and right.

There are streets in Hampstead, the wealthy northern suburb of London, where the pro-EU posters outnumber cars. A red “Vote Remain” in one. A “Green Yes” in another. The red, white and blue flag of the official campaign sits happily next to a poster from the left-wing campaign Another Europe Is Possible proclaiming that the world already has too many borders.

If you were looking for an equivalent street in Hull, in the north of England, you would look for a long time. In the city centre when I visited one recent morning, the only outward evidence that there was a referendum going on was the special edition of Wetherspoon News plastered on the walls of the William Wilberforce pub in Trinity Wharf. Most of the customers agreed with the message from the chain’s founder, Tim Martin: Britain was better off outside the European Union.

“Far too much Hampstead and not enough Hull” – that was the accusation levelled at the Remain campaign by Andy Burnham in the final weeks of the campaign. He wasn’t talking about geography; Remain’s voice is persuasive to residents of Newland Avenue in Hull, where I drank a latte as I eavesdropped on a couple who were fretting that “racists” would vote to take Britain out of the EU.

Rather, Burnham was talking about an idea, the “Hampstead” that occupies a special place in right-wing demonology as a haven of wealthy liberals who have the temerity to vote in the interests of the poor. The playwright and novelist Michael Frayn, in his 1963 essay on the Festival of Britain, called them “the Herbivores”:

“. . . the radical middle classes, the do-gooders; the readers of the News Chronicle, the Guardian, and the Observer; the signers of petitions; the backbone of the BBC . . . who look out from the lush pastures which are their natural station in life with eyes full of sorrow for less fortunate creatures, guiltily conscious of their advantages, though not usually ceasing to eat the grass.”

For Hampstead then, read swaths of Islington, Hackney, Brighton, Bristol, Cambridge, Edinburgh and Oxford today – all areas that were most strongly in favour of Remain and where Jeremy Corbyn is popular. But Remain never found a tone that won over the other half of Labour England; the campaign struck as duff a note among the diminishing band of pensioners on Hampstead’s remaining council estates as it did on Hull’s Orchard Park Estate.

The rift between “Hampstead and Hull”, in the sense that Andy Burnham meant it, is one that has stealthily divided Britain for years, but it has been brought into sharp focus by the debate over Europe.

Academics use various kinds of shorthand for it: the beer drinkers v the wine drinkers, or the cosmopolitans v the “left behind”. “It’s not just that [Britain] is div­ided between people who buy organic and people who buy own-brand,” says Philip Cowley, a professor of politics at Queen Mary University of London, “but between people who wouldn’t understand how anyone could buy own-brand and people who wouldn’t buy organic if you put a gun to their head.” Equating political preferences with shopping habits might sound flippant, but on 21 June the retail research company Verdict estimated that “half of Waitrose shoppers backed a Remain vote, against just over a third of Morrisons customers”.

The referendum has shown that there is another chasm in British politics, beyond left and right, beyond social conservatism v liberalism, and beyond arguments about the size of the state. The new culture war is about class, and income, and education, but also about culture, race, nationalism and optimism about the future (or lack of it). This divide explains why Ukip’s message has been seductive to former Labour voters and to Tories, and why Boris Johnson, an Old Etonian, led a campaign that purported to despise “elites” and “experts” and spoke of “wanting our country back”.

***

At the start of the campaign, the question that most accurately predicted whether you would back Remain or Leave was consistently: “Are you a graduate?” (Those who answered yes were much more likely to vote in favour of staying in the EU.) Stronger In never found a way to change that and win over those who left education at 18 or earlier. Pollsters also suggested that the much-vaunted Euroscepticism of older voters reflects generations where only one in ten people went to university.

This fissure has been growing for the best part of a decade and a half, but Britain’s first-past-the-post system, which deters newcomers and maintains entrenched parties, has provided a degree of insulation to Labour that its European cousins have lacked. Yet even here in the UK the mid-Noughties brought the brief rise of the British National Party, powered by voter defections from Labour in its strongholds in east London and Yorkshire, as well as the election of the Greens’ first MP on the back of progressive disillusionment with the governments of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown.

In office, both Blair and Brown calculated, wrongly, that Labour’s core vote had “nowhere else to go”. In opposition under Ed Miliband, the party calculated, again wrongly, that discontent with immigration, and the rise of Ukip powered by that discontent, was a problem for the Conservative Party alone.

In a 2014 pamphlet for the Fabian Society, ­Revolt on the Left, the activist Marcus Roberts, the academic Rob Ford and the analyst Ian Warren warned that Labour had “few reasons to cheer about the Ukip insurgency and plenty to worry about”. When the votes were cast in the general election the following year, that prediction turned out to be dispiritingly accurate. Defections from Labour to Ukip led to Labour losing seats to the Conservatives in Gower, Southampton Itchen, Telford and Plymouth Moor View.

For the most part, however, first-past-the-post papered over the cracks in Labour’s broad coalition: cracks that, in the harsh light of the EU referendum, have become obvious. The divide isn’t simply one of class, or income. The social profile and culture of voters in Cumbria are no different from that of voters on the other side of the border – but Scots in the Borders backed a Remain vote while their English peers in the border areas opted for Brexit. Inhospitality towards Brexit proved a stronger indication of city status than a mere cathedral: Vote Leave generally found Britain’s great cities more difficult terrain than the surrounding towns and countryside.

The problem of the fracturing vote is particularly acute for the Labour Party, which for much of the 20th century was able to rely on the Herbivores. In concert with Frayn’s “less fortunate creatures”, they have been enough to guarantee Labour close to 250 seats in the House of Commons and roughly one-third of the popular vote, even in difficult years. But Britain’s EU referendum placed Hampstead and Hull on opposing sides for the first time in modern British political history.

It was Tony Blair who, in his final speech to the Trades Union Congress as Labour leader in September 2006, said that the new debate in politics was not left against right, but “open v closed” – openness to immigration, to diversity, to the idea of Europe. Driven by their commitment to openness, Blair’s outriders dreamed of reshaping Labour as a mirror of the US Democrats – though, ironically, it was Ed Miliband, who repudiated much of Blair’s approach and politics, who achieved this.

At the 2015 election Labour’s coalition was drawn from the young, ethnic minorities and the well educated: the groups that powered Barack Obama’s two election wins in 2008 and 2012. The party was repudiated in the Midlands, went backwards in Wales and was all but wiped out in the east of England. (Scotland was another matter altogether.) Its best results came in Britain’s big cities and university towns.

The Remain campaign gave Labour a glimpse of how Miliband’s manifesto might have fared without the reassuring imprimatur of a red rosette. Britain Stronger In Europe has been rejected in the Midlands and struggled in the east of England. But it also failed to inspire passion in Sunderland, Oldham and Hull – all areas that, for now, return Labour MPs.

***

In appearance, Hull’s city centre is built on blood and sandstone, dotted with memorials to a lost empire and postwar replacements for bombed buildings, all ringed by suburban housing built by the private sector in the 1930s and the state in the 1950s and 1960s. It could be Bristol without the excessive hills, or a smaller Glasgow with a different accent. Unlike in Glasgow or Bristol, however, the residents of Hull are largely hostile to the European Union. Unlike Glasgow and Bristol, Hull is a post-imperial city that has yet to experience a post-colonial second act.

The William Wilberforce is named after a native son who helped destroy the British slave trade, the engine of Hull’s prosperity in the 18th century. The destruction of another local industry – fishing – drives resentment among the pub’s ageing clientele, who were there for breakfast and a bit of company when I visited. They blame its demise squarely on the EU.

Although the Labour Party now has only one MP in Scotland, the back rooms of the labour movement host an outsized Scottish contingent. For that reason – and the continuing threat that the loss of Labour’s seats in Scotland poses to the party’s chances of winning a majority at Westminster – the Scottish independence referendum of 2014 loomed large for Labour throughout the EU campaign.

From the outset, Britain Stronger In struggled to replicate the success of the Scottish No campaign, in part because the price of victory was one that Labour regarded as too high to pay a second time. In Glasgow, in the week before the Scottish referendum, everyone knew where Labour stood on independence – consequently, many voters were already planning to take revenge. The proprietor of one café told me that Labour was “finished in this city, for ever”.

Predictions of this sort were thin on the ground in Hull. Alan Johnson, the head of Labour’s EU campaign, is one of the three Labour MPs whom Hull sent to Westminster in 2015. But even late in the campaign, in his own constituency, I found uncertainty about the party’s official position on the referendum. For that reason, if nothing else, it didn’t have the feeling of a city preparing to break with a half-century-plus of Labour rule, as Glasgow did in 2014. In Scotland, most people I spoke to believed that they were on the brink of independence, which made the eventual result a big blow.

Only among Hull’s pro-European minority could I find any conviction that Britain might actually leave the EU. In September 2014 Kenneth Clarke remarked that Ukip’s supporters were “largely . . . the disappointed elderly, the grumpy old men, people who’ve had a bit of a hard time in life”. To listen to Hull’s Leave voters is to hear tales of the same frustrated potential: they feel that politicians of all stripes have lives entirely removed from theirs. In their defence, they are right – just 4 per cent of MPs in 2010 were from working-class backgrounds.

As for Ken Clarke, he has carved out a second career as every left-winger’s favourite Tory, but that tone of indifference towards the “disappointed lives” of globalisation’s casualties recalls his younger days as a rising star of Margaret Thatcher’s government.

Hull’s residents have been dismissed, first as the regrettable but inevitable consequence of Thatcherite economics, and now as small-minded opponents of social progress and racial diversity. Unsurprisingly, people who feel that their wishes have been ignored and in some cases actively squashed by successive governments of left and right did not expect to wake up on the morning of 24 June to discover that this time, their votes really had changed something.

Equally unsurprisingly, the Remain campaign’s warnings of economic collapse lacked force for people for whom the world’s end had been and gone.

In Glasgow in 2014 Scottish independence was a question of identity in itself, whereas in Hull, hostility towards Europe is the by-product of other identities that feel beleaguered or under threat: fishing, Englishness and whiteness, for the most part.

In Hampstead, a vote for Remain feels more like a statement about the world as you see it. One woman, who walks off before I can probe further, tells me: “Of course I’m voting to stay In. I buy Fairtrade.”

***

Immigration, not the European Union, is the issue that moves voters in Hull. “Britain is full” was the most frequent explanation they gave for an Out vote. Knowing that immigration, rather than the abstract question of sovereignty, would be crucial to winning the contest, Vote Leave tried from the beginning to make it a referendum on border control. Leave’s main theme: the threat of Turkey joining the European Union and, with it, the prospect of all 75 million Turks gaining the right to live and work in Britain.

Although Turkey’s chances of joining the EU are somewhere only just north of its hopes of launching a manned mission to Mars, the tactic worked: according to an ­Ipsos MORI poll released on the morning of 16 June, 45 per cent of Britons believed that Turkey will be fast-tracked into the Union.

That same morning, Nigel Farage posed in front of a poster showing refugees – mostly from Syria and most of them non-white – on the border between Croatia and Slovenia, with a slogan warning that uncontrolled immigration was leaving Britain at “breaking point”. But the row over the poster came to an unpleasant halt just a few hours later as news began to break that Jo Cox, the Labour MP for Batley and Spen, had been shot and stabbed on her way out of a constituency surgery. She died of her injuries a little over an hour later. On 19 June Thomas Mair, who was arrested in connection with the killing, gave his name at Westminster Magistrates’ Court as “Death to traitors, freedom for Britain”.

The circumstances of the killing felt familiar. A little after midnight on 5 June 1968, Robert Kennedy was returning to the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles in high spirits. He had just won a crucial victory in the California primary and was well placed to secure the Democratic nomination to run in that year’s presidential election. Going through the kitchen in order to avoid cheering crowds and get straight to his press conference, he was ambushed by a man called Sirhan Sirhan, who fired six shots from a revolver. Kennedy was rushed to hospital, where he died early the following morning.

Five months later Richard Nixon was elected president. The American right held on to the White House for 20 years out of the next 25. Jo Cox’s killing, amid the nativist howling from Farage et al, felt like the beginning of a similar chapter of right-wing advance in the UK.

Labour’s problem, and that of its social-democratic cousins throughout Europe, is the same as the American left’s was in the 1960s. Its founding coalition – of trade unions, the socially concerned middle classes and minorities, ethnic and cultural – is united (barely) on economic issues but irrevocably split on questions of identity. Outside crisis-stricken Greece and Spain, the left looks trapped in permanent opposition, with no politician able to reconsolidate its old base and take power again.

***

When I arrive in Hull, preparations are under way for a vigil in Jo Cox’s honour, but it is the nation of Turkey that is weighing on the minds of undecided voters. On Park Street, residents are divided. Those who have exercised their right to buy and are concerned about their mortgages are flirting with an Out vote but are terrified about negative equity. Those who remain in social housing or the private rented sector are untouched by stories of soaring mortgages. To many residents, the Treasury’s dire warnings seem to be the concerns of people from a different planet, not merely another part of the country. As Rachel, a woman in her mid-fifties who lives alone, puts it: “They say I’d lose four grand a month. I don’t know who they think is earning four grand a month but it certainly isn’t me.”

As Vote Leave knew, the promise that an Out vote will allow people to “take control” always had a particular appeal for those with precious little control – of their rent, of next week’s shift, of whether or not they will be able to afford to turn the heating on next week. Never mind that the control envisaged by Vote Leave would be exercised by the conservative right: the campaign found a message that was able to resonate across class and region, at least to an extent that could yet create a force to be reckoned with under first-past-the-post in Britain.

Four grand a month isn’t a bad salary, even in leafy Hampstead, but in that prosperous corner of north London fears of an Out vote, and what will come after, gained a tight purchase. The worry was coupled with resentment, too, over what would come, should the Outers triumph.

The great risk for the left is that herbivorous resentment is already curdling into contempt towards the people of Hull and the other bastions of Brexitism. That contempt threatens the commodity on which Labour has always relied to get Hull and Hampstead to vote and work together – solidarity. The referendum leaves the Conservatives divided at Westminster. That will give little comfort to Labour if the long-term outcome of the vote is to leave its own ranks divided outside it.

 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. He usually writes about politics. 

This article first appeared in the 23 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Divided Britain