Time is far less likely to look favorably upon Talebism as a personal ideology than the ideas of Antifragility and the Black Swan. While I’ve read Nassim Taleb’s entire Incerto Series cover to cover, I’ve come away increasingly ambivalent about it and Taleb in particular. I’m apt to think that time will show much of the work to be dross, a good chunk far less innovative than Taleb would have it and interspersed with a few golden nuggets.
At his worst, Taleb is something akin to Jordan Peterson — a desperate attempt by modern conservatism to claim an intellectual, or anyone really with the eloquence to think in complete sentences. This grows worse with time, Fooled by Randomness and Black Swan were fine; Antifragility and Skin in the Game were punctuated with diatribes against Obama and Hilary Clinton with fawning praise for Ron Paul, Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump. Value can still be extracted, but it gets tedious.
I love reading Taleb for the citations, the bibliography and nod to the classics. There’s nothing new under the sun, and Taleb has a brilliant way of using debates from the classical era to frame modern issues. I was definitely inspired to read deeper into the Stoics and Montaigne.
Even things that I disagreed with were thought-provoking. The fact that I began reading Fooled by Randomness more than two years ago and am still thinking about it is proof of that. The presentation is also memorable in that characters such as Fat Tony encapsulate otherwise hard to pin down ideas.
The intellectual framework of antifragility
Taleb conclusively shows that the world is shaped for better or for worse by Black Swan events that are unpredictable yet highly impactful. Major moves on the stock market happen in crashes and bursts, wars wipe out countries, fortuitous inventions change history. The potato coming to Europe was a positive Black Swan that saved millions from starvation and allowed for the urbanization that precipitated the industrial revolution. The Irish Potato Famine was likewise a Black Swan, albeit negative.
There are three systems in the world: fragile ones that are wiped out by a single negative Black Swan, robust systems that can weather severely negative Black Swans and antifragile systems that maximize exposure to positive Black Swans while mitigating harm from negative ones.
A key point here is avoiding potentially catastrophic events even if that means missing out on opportunities here and there. Investors have known to diversify for ages, but we don’t apply this logic to the rest of our lives. We eat increasingly fewer species of plants and animals, most of us are dependent on a single source of income, we take drugs that have serious side effects for minor problems and our economy is filled with ‘too-big-to-fail’ behemoths. The antifragile approach is to first of all diversify with an eye to the past: traditional diets had dozens of plants and animals instead of just corn byproducts and living below your means while developing an in-demand skillset so losing a single job isn’t the end of the world. For the minor aches and pains of life a traditionally inspired lifestyle of movement, meaning and a sensible diet is a better first resort than the modern pharmacopeia.
Our financial system is far more fragile than many would admit, and replacing government backed pensions with an IRA entirely in stocks is insanely risky. Even using past data, which is no promise of the future, it’d be entirely possible to see most of your retirement wiped out for the decade you need it most. 25-year returns are not relevant if you can’t make it from 65 to 75 because your IRA is gone.
Critiques of modernity
Taleb avers that much of what gets passed off as data analysis and statistics these days is outright bogus. I tend to agree and have seen a lot of outright numerical bullshit at multiple tech companies that should have known better. Taleb’s examples probably won’t be relevant to most readers, that’s why I’d recommend Cathy O’Neil’s far wider reaching Weapons of Math Destruction.
While Taleb makes many good points about older systems, namely religion, having built-in antifragility mechanism, he’s reaching and cherry picking. People 100 years ago fasted and were better off for it. I wholeheartedly agree and fast myself. Likewise, much in the modern lifestyle is toxic: high-sugar low-fat diets, lack of movement and social isolation. This is all fine and good, but not nearly as mind shattering as Taleb fancies himself. Little of his antifragile health advice is new to anyone who’s read Natural Born Heroes, The Blue Zones or anything by Michael Pollan — all much better reads than anything by Taleb.
One of my favorite rants is the intellectual yet idiot. I’ve met plenty of well-educated types that fit this perfectly. While they can whirl away at mostly bullshit statistics, eat low-fat diets, are up on every latest PC fad, they are completely inept at filtering out simple bullshit or even functioning outside of their bubble. This should be read and reread in Leftist circles as it’s a damning indictment of liberal hypocrisy. How many upper middle class white liberals in the US want their kids in a school that has mostly Spanish-speaking students, have ever built meaningful relationships with lower-class immigrants or otherwise been exposed to the consequences of their political views?
Where Talebism is just plain nonsensical
A lot of ink is devoted to attacking Saudi Arabia. The Kingdom is exceedingly fragile due to its dependence on a single commodity, the simmering unrest of many of its subjects and spews a vitriolic ideology around the world to boot. There’s nothing that I can particularly disagree with here. I do take issue with Taleb’s refusal to apply to this same critical analysis to his beloved Russia.
Putin’s position is no less precarious than that of the House of Saud. Eventually there’s going to be a palace coup in the Kremlin, a chaotic succession crisis or a messy revolution. Given Russia’s massive nuclear arsenal, the stakes are much higher than the collapse of the oil-addicted Gulf monarchies. Russia has also worked to spread its far-right nationalist ideology abroad: Trump, Brexit and a slew of European far-right figures are the bastard children of Putin. People are killed every day in Eastern Ukraine with Putin’s guns. Taleb’s infatuation with Putin is going to eventually bring disrepute to all of his writing.
Inconsistencies in applying logic abound. Decentralized confederations with strong local autonomy are praised as the epitome of antifragile statehood. The largest example of such an entity in today’s world would be the EU. Naturally Taleb has nothing but scorn for it and praise for Putin’s Russia, a fragile de-facto monarchy a step away from Venezuela’s fate.
While Taleb loves the past, he’s very selective when availing himself to past wisdom. The half a dozen or so points where traditional life beats out modernity pale in comparison to actually living in a pre-modern society. It’s funny he doesn’t talk about Idjwi Island with its life expectancy of 27 years and proliferation of disease due to superstition or Nepali women that die because they aren’t allowed inside their homes while menstruating — remember grandmother’s wisdom is better than modern intellectuals!
A lot of the typical Libertarian schtick is pushed and Taleb tries to frame his entire ethical system of ‘skin in the game’ as a way to pretend Libertarianism isn’t amoral. It’s more of the baffling regulation and government are evil trope, as if the Horn of Africa (no regulation, no government!) and not Northern Europe were the richest region in the world. Taleb proposes the way to settle the externality problem is by having more robust courts and making it easier to sue for damages. This might have merit for short-term issues, but I wish my great-grandchildren luck suing the Koch brothers for damage done to the environment.
One of the many Libertarian fantasies is that a rich businessman would make the best politician since their wealth prevents them from acting out of self interest while in office. The problem is that we just don’t see many examples of this while there are plenty of cases of the opposite. For instance, Wilbur Ross certainly appears to be using his position to protect and increase his assets rather than acting independently due to having more money than he could ever spend.
Above all else, Taleb fancies himself a bullshit detector par excellence. This makes his support of Trump all the more of a farce. The dust hasn’t settled, but it doesn’t look like he was even rich to begin with and has long just been a Russian stooge. There’s plenty to not like about Obama and Clinton, but I’d take either over a conman and traitor. Ironically, the worst of neo-conservative policies, which are Taleb’s main bone of contention with Obama and Clinton, don’t seem to be improving under Trump. I remain baffled at the idea that electing a fascist is the way to end the excesses of American imperialism.
Is it worth the read?
Fooled by Randomness and Black Swan are worth the read. The references, thought experiments and ideas are top notch. Even if you agree with none of Taleb’s conclusions, they are still worth the read. Antifragile and Skin in the Game are more iffy. They are both more philosophical and have long sections where Taleb starts going off the rails.
It’s rather jarring if all you’ve read of Taleb is his earlier work and then look at his social media presence, which isn’t far from RT or Alex Jones. Nonetheless, there’s something of value in there even if I increasingly wonder if it’s worth the effort to fish it out.