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

PAUL POPPER/POPPERFOTO
Show Hide image

No peace after progress

How the death of the industrial way of life gave us choice – and stoked resentment and fear.

Now that the making of useful and necessary things in Britain is only a shadow of what it once was, we can see more clearly the effects of the Manufacturing Age. The cost was high to the producers of prodigious wealth; a ten-year difference in life expectancy remains between people living in the richest areas and those in Glasgow. The (fleeting, it now seems) visitation of industrialism has made life more comfortable and its dismantling has liberated millions from choiceless occupations. The legacy is one of spectacular improvement, unequally shared.

Perhaps the most dramatic experience of the 20th century was the suddenness with which profligate plenty replaced a skinflint subsistence. Was it the speed of this that distracted us from wondering why, instead of the secure sustenance that generations of needy people had asked of an unyielding economic system, we were offered a promiscuous spillage of goods, promoted with quasi-religious zeal by the converts of a capitalism that had previously delivered to most of its captive workers a life of penury? Such a rapid reversal might have alerted us to changes beneath the surface that elided losses incurred.

The greatest of these was certainly not the extinction of the industrial way of life itself, release from which has been an unqualified blessing. But the transition from relentlessly work-driven lives (in the 1950s, two-thirds of Britain’s workers were still manual labourers) was marked by perfunctory obituaries for the disintegration of industrial communities, with no acknowledgement that, for a century and a half, they had represented the inescapable destiny of the people they sheltered.

Even less recognition was given to the fortitude with which they had borne a long, coercive labour. A way of life, buried without ceremony in the unmarked grave of progress, could not be mourned; and this has generated some social pathologies of our time: resentment over an arbitrary obliteration of industry, disengagement from a party of labour by those it called, like feudal lords, its “own people”, loss of memory of the economic migrants we also were, passing from the goad of industry into the pastures of consumption, and thence into the liberating servitude of technology.

Grief makes no judgement on the intrinsic value of what is lost. Absence of the known and familiar is the object of melancholy in its own right, even if replaced by something immeasurably better. Objectively, there was little to mourn in the vanished industrial way of life: insufficiency and humiliation, malice of overseer and manager, officiousness of poor-law administrator and means-test man. Male industrial workers exhausted in body and spirit, instead of protecting those for whom the power of their hands was the only shelter against destitution, visited similar punishment on their wives and children. There is nothing to be lamented in an end to the penitential life of women, scrubbing not only the red tiles of the kitchen floor, but even an arc of pavement outside the front door; their interception of men on payday before wages were wasted on beer and oblivion; the clenching against joyless invasion of their bodies in the boozy aftermath. But it was the only life they knew, and they adhered to it with grim stoicism and even pride.

There is much to be said for their resistance. The fragile lattice formed by women’s arms was often the only safety net against destitution. Trade unions and friendly and burial societies that shielded folk from economic violence foreshadowed the welfare state and the National Health Service.

The life of labouring people in Britain was strikingly homogeneous, despite diversity of occupation, dialect and local sensibility. There was the same collective experience: terraced house with parlour reserved for celebration or mourning; the three-piece suite, plaster figure on a stand behind the window, chenille curtain against the draught, engraving of The Stag at Bay on the wall; the deal table and Windsor chairs in the living room, the mantelpiece a domestic shrine with clock, candlesticks and pictures of soldiers smiling before they died; the music of cinders falling through the bars in the grate; cheerless bedrooms where husband and wife slept in high connubial state, more bier than bed, where sexual enjoyment was ritually sacrificed as flowers of frost formed on the inside of the window.

And everywhere photographs: wraithlike children with ringlets or in sailor suits, fated never to grow up; weddings in the back garden, a bouquet of lilies and a grandmother in boots and astrakhan hat; the smudged features of a kinsman no one can now identify. Identical memories, too: the shotgun wedding in the dingy finery of a Co-op hall; the funeral tableau around the grave, amid ominous inscriptions of “Sleeping where no shadows fall”; queues outside the ocean-going Savoy or Tivoli to watch Gone With the Wind; the pub where “Vilia” or “The Last Rose of Summer” was hammered out on a discordant piano.

The opening up of such sombre lives might have been expected to call forth cries of gratitude. Instead, a synthetic joy has emanated largely from the same sources that, until recently, offered people grudging survival only, the change of tune outsourced to producers of manufactured delight, purveyors of contrived euphoria to the people – a different order of industrial artefact from the shoes, utensils and textiles of another era.

***

A more authentic popular res­ponse exists beneath the official psalmody, a persistent murmur of discontent and powerlessness. Anger and aggression swirl around like dust and waste paper in the streets of our affluent, unequal society. As long-term recipients of the contempt of our betters, we know how to despise the vulnerable – people incapable of work, the poor, the timid and the fearful, those addicted to drugs and alcohol. Sullen resentment tarnishes the wealth of the world, a conviction that somebody else is getting the advantages that ought to be “ours” by right and by merit.

Rancour appears among those “left behind” in neighbourhoods besieged by unknown tongues and foreign accents: people who never voted for unchosen change, as all political options are locked up in a consensus of elites. “Give us back our country!”
they cry; even though that country is not in the custody of those from whom they would reclaim it. There was no space for the working class to grieve over its own dissolution. If, as E P Thompson said, that class was present at its own making, it was certainly not complicit in its own undoing.

Grief denied in individuals leads to damaging psychological disorders. There is no reason to believe that this differs for those bereaved of a known way of living. The working class has been colonised, as was the peasantry in the early industrial era. When the values, beliefs and myths of indigenous peoples are laid waste, these lose meaning, and people go to grieve in city slums and die from alcohol, drugs and other forms of self-inflicted violence. Though the dominant culture’s erasure of the manufacturing way of life in Britain was less intense than the colonial ruin of ancient societies, this subculture was equally unceremoniously broken. It is a question of degree. The ravages of drugs and alcohol and self-harm in silent former pit villages and derelict factory towns show convergence with other ruined cultures elsewhere in the world.

Depression is a symptom of repressed grief: here is the connection between unfinished mourning and popular resentment at having been cheated out of our fair share, our due, our place in the world. If we are unable to discern our own possible fate in suffering people now, this is perhaps a result of estrangement from unresolved wrongs in our own past. Nothing was ever explained. Globalisation occurred under a kind of social laissez-faire: no political education made the world more comprehensible to the disaffected and disregarded, people of small account to those who take decisions on their behalf and in their name.

Anyone who protested against our passage into this changed world was criminalised, called “wrecker” and “extremist”. The miners’ strike of 1984 was the symbol of this: their doomed fight to preserve a dignity achieved in pain and violence was presented by the merchants of deliverance not only as retrograde, but also as an act of outlawry. Resistance to compulsory change was derided as a response of nostalgics protecting the indefensible, when the whole world was on the brink of a new life. Early in her tenure of Downing Street, Margaret Thatcher, that sybil and prophet who knew about these things, warned that Britain would become “a less cosy, more abrasive” place: a vision confirmed by the Battle of Orgreave – redolent of civil war – and the anguish of Hillsborough.

It is too late to grieve now. Scar tissue has healed over the untreated wound. Though no one expects the ruling classes to understand the distress of perpetual “modernisation”, the leaders of labour might have been able to recognise capitalism’s realm of freedom and a gaudy consumerism that concealed hardening competitiveness and the growth of a crueller, more bitter society.

The ills of this best of all worlds, its excessive wealth and extreme inequality, are on show in hushed thoroughfares of London, shuttered sites of “inward investment”, where the only sound is the faint melody of assets appreciating; while elsewhere, people wait for charitable tins of denutrified substances to feed their family, or sit under a grubby duvet, a Styrofoam cup beseeching the pence of passers-by.

Unresolved feelings about industrialism, enforced with great harshness and abolished with equal contempt for those who served it, are certainly related to the stylish savagery of contemporary life. The alibi that present-day evils are an expression of “human nature” is a poor apology for what is clearly the nature – restless and opportunistic – of a social and economic system that has, so far at least, outwitted its opponents at every turn.

Jeremy Seabrook’s book “The Song of the Shirt” (C Hurst & Co) won the Bread and Roses Award for Radical Publishing 2016

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