Eliot Spitzer was not robust because a single sex scandal derailed his career.Nouriel Roubini is robust because he has vulva castings on the wall of his apartment, and it doesn’t derail him at all.
Understand this dichotomy, and you’ll begin to understand Nassim Taleb’s conception of a robust society where we wouldn’t have financial crises like the one we just came through.
Still don’t get the significance of the Spitzer and Roubini examples?
Ok, let’s use a financial example.
When Jerome Kerveil lost billions for SocGen, it wasn’t because his trades specifically cost the firm billions. It was because, in the process of liquidating $50 billion or so of assets, the bank depressed the market to such an extent that they lost billions.
Had SocGen and Kerveil been a tenth of its size, that same liquidation wouldn’t have cost the bank much at all.
Thus SocGen was not robust, but a similar firm 1/10th as big would have been.
All of the above are examples given to us by The Black Swan author during a recent night out in Manhattan.
More than anything else, Taleb is obsessed with robustness, a topic he returned to several times during our night out.
It’s something he first started hitting on in The Black Swan, and as the Spitzer, Roubini, and SocGen examples demonstrate, it’s a very broad concept.
Norman Mailer, says Taleb, was robust, because “he had six mistresses” and nobody cared. The chairman of a large bank worth $100 million is not robust, because a blackmailer who has knowledge of some infidelities could extort him for $75 million.
Our conversation, over 3 plates of oysters, two servings of shrimp, and a few drinks* ranged from fitness (we both share an interest in evolutionary fitness and the teachings of fitness guru/economist Art De Vany), finance, global warming, and who is a danger to society.
There were two names he insisted I include: Paul Krugman and Thomas Friedman.”Paul Krugman is a danger to society!“
“He uses the wrong mathematics, that’s how I knew he was a fluke.“
Why? It’s because Krugman is pushing to create a society that is less robust. Taleb, who characterises himself as a libertarian, even goes one step further: “The definition of a robust society: where Paul Krugman could exist without harming others.“
Even worse though is Krugman’s fellow NYT pundit, Thomas Friedman, who with his book about globalization, “is the biggest danger.”
I challenged Taleb on his anti-expert mentality, and told him my contention that much of the appeal of someone slamming these luminaries is that it makes normal people feel good about themselves.
He kind of sidestepped the question, saying that there are plenty of experts who he doesn’t slam, like, say, dentists, because their knowledge, and their arrogance isn’t dangerous. What’s dangerous is the arrogance of someone with the power to influence policy.
“That guy’s a bullshitter,” noting that Cowen admits to writing about books he only reads parts of.
“How can you write a review of a book you haven’t read?” presumably referring to this Slate review.
His advice to Cowen: “Read much fewer books, read them slowly, turn off your internet connection, and then come back.”
As the night ended, Taleb gave me a brief ride in his White Lexus Hybrid towards a better place to pick up a cab. As we left the parking garage, a couple walked in the direction of the car, and he made a comment about not wanting to run them over.
Unless the guy was an economist, in which case, that would be a “benefit to society.”
* Disclosure: Taleb paid for the meal.
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