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Nassim Nicholas Taleb: A thinker with an antifragile ego

"He talks in a machine-gun patter that combines Tony Soprano-style profanity with some stratospherically esoteric jargon."

When I meet him at a central London hotel, Nassim Nicholas Taleb, the Lebanese-born Wall Street trader-turned-polymath and author, is uncharacteristically flustered. He’s in the middle of a short visit to the UK to publicise his new book, Antifragile: How to Live in a World We Don’t Understand, and he’s just spoken on the phone to a journalist in Singapore. Instead of asking about the book, the journalist had asked Taleb for some stock tips. “I can’t tell him where the stock market is going,” he says exasperatedly. It seems the hapless interviewer hadn’t absorbed the lessons about the limits of prediction that Taleb tries to teach in Antifragile and its hugely successful predecessor, The Black Swan, published in 2007.

“I’m so beat,” he confesses. “But one coffee and I’ll be fine.” He orders an Americano, cajoles me into ordering a pot of tea (I’d asked for a glass of water) and settles down. Soon he’s expounding his theory of antifragility (roughly, you’re antifragile if volatility and randomness make you stronger rather than weaker) in a machine-gun patter that combines Tony Soprano-style profanity with some stratospherically esoteric jargon (“Anything fragile has to have a negative second-order derivative”).

Taleb describes Antifragile as his “finest work”. “It’s the real book,” he says – presumably because in it he tries to generalise arguments about randomness and risk that were applied more narrowly in The Black Swan to the financial markets and the malfunctioning predictive models that brought them to the brink of collapse with the crisis of 2007-2008. I ask if he’d felt vindicated by the Great Crash. “No. In 2007 and 2008 I felt depressed. Then you feel anger. You can’t believe my outrage at the economic establishment and at Washington.”

Moral hazard

Before The Black Swan was published, Taleb had been a prophet without honour in the United States. “I knew before the crash that the system was going to blow up. In 2003, I went to the New York Times and said, ‘Fannie Mae [the Federal National Mortgage Association] is sitting on dynamite with taxpayers’ money. These guys are going to blow up with my money because they don’t know what the fuck they’re doing risk-wise.’” But the “Gray Lady” didn’t listen. “I just had smear campaign after smear campaign.”

Taleb is currently engaged in a feud with the Times’s star columnist Thomas Friedman (“He’s after me now”), whom he lambasts in the book for being a cheerleader for the Iraq war. Like the senior executives at the bailed-out banks, Friedman “paid no price for his mistakes”.

He seems consumed by what the political philosopher Michael Sandel calls “bailout outrage”. “On some things I’m very left-wing. I want to protect the weak.” However, his only venture into practical politics has brought him into the orbit of the Conservatives. He has met David Cameron and his advisers on a number of occasions in Downing Street. “They like my idea that the larger the project, the more problems it’s going to have.”

Taleb seems uninterested in what kinds of policy Cameron’s enthusiasm for his ideas might lead to. “The connection with Downing Street is only on the intellectual level. What they’ve done with my work is not my business. My only practical advice to the government is: do something symbolic to break the backs of the bankers.”

He could be waiting a while for it to accomplish something like that. In any case, he’s not a natural courtier. He says he has only two friends in Washington, both of them marginal, maverick figures: the left-wing activist and former independent presidential candidate Ralph Nader (Nader’s parents were from Lebanon, and he and Taleb speak to each other in a local Arabic dialect) and the libertarian congressman Ron Paul.

Taleb’s own marginal position seems intensely self-willed – he’s a proud autodidact and a failed academic (although one reward for his recent literary success was a distinguished professorship in risk engineering at New York University). He tells me about the time he was thrown out of an economics conference in Paris. “Previously I’d said, ‘You’re wrong,’ and nobody cared. So I said, ‘Ce n’est même pas l’incompétence.’ Silence. ‘C’est immoral.’ It’s immoral to sell these economic models. They blew a fuse on me.”

He enjoys playing the part of the lonely speaker of truth to power, though another anecdote, about testifying before a committee of the House of Representatives, suggests that he also chafes at the impotence that goes with it. “When I went to Washington, they had this document about how the financial crisis had happened. It said every fucking thing except what I’d told them about moral hazard. And they didn’t include my name, even though I’d spent a day testifying. So you realise there’s something going on there.”

Jonathan Derbyshire is Managing Editor of Prospect. He was formerly Culture Editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 24 December 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Brian Cox and Robin Ince guest edit