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

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

Jeremy Corbyn. Photo: Getty
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Lexit: the EU is a neoliberal project, so let's do something different when we leave it

Brexit affords the British left a historic opportunity for a decisive break with EU market liberalism.

The Brexit vote to leave the European Union has many parents, but "Lexit" – the argument for exiting the EU from the left – remains an orphan. A third of Labour voters backed Leave, but they did so without any significant leadership from the Labour Party. Left-of-centre votes proved decisive in determining the outcome of a referendum that was otherwise framed, shaped, and presented almost exclusively by the right. A proper left discussion of the issues has been, if not entirely absent, then decidedly marginal – part of a more general malaise when it comes to developing left alternatives that has begun to be corrected only recently, under Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell.

Ceding Brexit to the right was very nearly the most serious strategic mistake by the British left since the ‘70s. Under successive leaders Labour became so incorporated into the ideology of Europeanism as to preclude any clear-eyed critical analysis of the actually existing EU as a regulatory and trade regime pursuing deep economic integration. The same political journey that carried Labour into its technocratic embrace of the EU also resulted in the abandonment of any form of distinctive economics separate from the orthodoxies of market liberalism.

It’s been astounding to witness so many left-wingers, in meltdown over Brexit, resort to parroting liberal economics. Thus we hear that factor mobility isn’t about labour arbitrage, that public services aren’t under pressure, that we must prioritise foreign direct investment and trade. It’s little wonder Labour became so detached from its base. Such claims do not match the lived experience of ordinary people in regions of the country devastated by deindustrialisation and disinvestment.

Nor should concerns about wage stagnation and bargaining power be met with finger-wagging accusations of racism, as if the manner in which capitalism pits workers against each other hasn’t long been understood. Instead, we should be offering real solutions – including a willingness to rethink capital mobility and trade. This places us in direct conflict with the constitutionalised neoliberalism of the EU.

Only the political savvy of the leadership has enabled Labour to recover from its disastrous positioning post-referendum. Incredibly, what seemed an unbeatable electoral bloc around Theresa May has been deftly prized apart in the course of an extraordinary General Election campaign. To consolidate the political project they have initiated, Corbyn and McDonnell must now follow through with a truly radical economic programme. The place to look for inspiration is precisely the range of instruments and policy options discouraged or outright forbidden by the EU.

A neoliberal project

The fact that right-wing arguments for Leave predominated during the referendum says far more about today’s left than it does about the European Union. There has been a great deal of myth-making concerning the latter –much of it funded, directly or indirectly, by the EU itself.

From its inception, the EU has been a top-down project driven by political and administrative elites, "a protected sphere", in the judgment of the late Peter Mair, "in which policy-making can evade the constraints imposed by representative democracy". To complain about the EU’s "democratic deficit" is to have misunderstood its purpose. The main thrust of European economic policy has been to extend and deepen the market through liberalisation, privatisation, and flexiblisation, subordinating employment and social protection to goals of low inflation, debt reduction, and increased competitiveness.

Prospects for Keynesian reflationary policies, or even for pan-European economic planning – never great – soon gave way to more Hayekian conceptions. Hayek’s original insight, in The Economic Conditions of Interstate Federalism, was that free movement of capital, goods, and labour – a "single market" – among a federation of nations would severely and necessarily restrict the economic policy space available to individual members. Pro-European socialists, whose aim had been to acquire new supranational options for the regulation of capital, found themselves surrendering the tools they already possessed at home. The national road to socialism, or even to social democracy, was closed.

The direction of travel has been singular and unrelenting. To take one example, workers’ rights – a supposed EU strength – are steadily being eroded, as can be seen in landmark judgments by the European Court of Justice (ECJ) in the Viking and Laval cases, among others. In both instances, workers attempting to strike in protest at plans to replace workers from one EU country with lower-wage workers from another, were told their right to strike could not infringe upon the "four freedoms" – free movement of capital, labour, goods, and services – established by the treaties.

More broadly, on trade, financial regulation, state aid, government purchasing, public service delivery, and more, any attempt to create a different kind of economy from inside the EU has largely been forestalled by competition policy or single market regulation.

A new political economy

Given that the UK will soon be escaping the EU, what opportunities might this afford? Three policy directions immediately stand out: public ownership, industrial strategy, and procurement. In each case, EU regulation previously stood in the way of promising left strategies. In each case, the political and economic returns from bold departures from neoliberal orthodoxy after Brexit could be substantial.

While not banned outright by EU law, public ownership is severely discouraged and disadvantaged by it. ECJ interpretation of Article 106 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (TFEU) has steadily eroded public ownership options. "The ECJ", argues law professor Danny Nicol, "appears to have constructed a one-way street in favour of private-sector provision: nationalised services are prima facie suspect and must be analysed for their necessity". Sure enough, the EU has been a significant driver of privatisation, functioning like a ratchet. It’s much easier for a member state to pursue the liberalisation of sectors than to secure their (re)nationalisation. Article 59 (TFEU) specifically allows the European Council and Parliament to liberalise services. Since the ‘80s, there have been single market programmes in energy, transport, postal services, telecommunications, education, and health.

Britain has long been an extreme outlier on privatisation, responsible for 40 per cent of the total assets privatised across the OECD between 1980 and 1996. Today, however, increasing inequality, poverty, environmental degradation and the general sense of an impoverished public sphere are leading to growing calls for renewed public ownership (albeit in new, more democratic forms). Soon to be free of EU constraints, it’s time to explore an expanded and fundamentally reimagined UK public sector.

Next, Britain’s industrial production has been virtually flat since the late 1990s, with a yawning trade deficit in industrial goods. Any serious industrial strategy to address the structural weaknesses of UK manufacturing will rely on "state aid" – the nurturing of a next generation of companies through grants, interest and tax relief, guarantees, government holdings, and the provision of goods and services on a preferential basis.

Article 107 TFEU allows for state aid only if it is compatible with the internal market and does not distort competition, laying out the specific circumstances in which it could be lawful. Whether or not state aid meets these criteria is at the sole discretion of the Commission – and courts in member states are obligated to enforce the commission’s decisions. The Commission has adopted an approach that considers, among other things, the existence of market failure, the effectiveness of other options, and the impact on the market and competition, thereby allowing state aid only in exceptional circumstances.

For many parts of the UK, the challenges of industrial decline remain starkly present – entire communities are thrown on the scrap heap, with all the associated capital and carbon costs and wasted lives. It’s high time the left returned to the possibilities inherent in a proactive industrial strategy. A true community-sustaining industrial strategy would consist of the deliberate direction of capital to sectors, localities, and regions, so as to balance out market trends and prevent communities from falling into decay, while also ensuring the investment in research and development necessary to maintain a highly productive economy. Policy, in this vision, would function to re-deploy infrastructure, production facilities, and workers left unemployed because of a shutdown or increased automation.

In some cases, this might mean assistance to workers or localities to buy up facilities and keep them running under worker or community ownership. In other cases it might involve re-training workers for new skills and re-fitting facilities. A regional approach might help launch new enterprises that would eventually be spun off as worker or local community-owned firms, supporting the development of strong and vibrant network economies, perhaps on the basis of a Green New Deal. All of this will be possible post-Brexit, under a Corbyn government.

Lastly, there is procurement. Under EU law, explicitly linking public procurement to local entities or social needs is difficult. The ECJ has ruled that, even if there is no specific legislation, procurement activity must "comply with the fundamental rules of the Treaty, in particular the principle of non-discrimination on grounds of nationality". This means that all procurement contracts must be open to all bidders across the EU, and public authorities must advertise contracts widely in other EU countries. In 2004, the European Parliament and Council issued two directives establishing the criteria governing such contracts: "lowest price only" and "most economically advantageous tender".

Unleashed from EU constraints, there are major opportunities for targeting large-scale public procurement to rebuild and transform communities, cities, and regions. The vision behind the celebrated Preston Model of community wealth building – inspired by the work of our own organisation, The Democracy Collaborative, in Cleveland, Ohio – leverages public procurement and the stabilising power of place-based anchor institutions (governments, hospitals, universities) to support rooted, participatory, democratic local economies built around multipliers. In this way, public funds can be made to do "double duty"; anchoring jobs and building community wealth, reversing long-term economic decline. This suggests the viability of a very different economic approach and potential for a winning political coalition, building support for a new socialist economics from the ground up.

With the prospect of a Corbyn government now tantalisingly close, it’s imperative that Labour reconciles its policy objectives in the Brexit negotiations with its plans for a radical economic transformation and redistribution of power and wealth. Only by pursuing strategies capable of re-establishing broad control over the national economy can Labour hope to manage the coming period of pain and dislocation following Brexit. Based on new institutions and approaches and the centrality of ownership and control, democracy, and participation, we should be busy assembling the tools and strategies that will allow departure from the EU to open up new political-economic horizons in Britain and bring about the profound transformation the country so desperately wants and needs.

Joe Guinan is executive director of the Next System Project at The Democracy Collaborative. Thomas M. Hanna is research director at The Democracy Collaborative.

This is an extract from a longer essay which appears in the inaugural edition of the IPPR Progressive Review.



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