Skin in the Game: The Hidden Asymmetries in Daily Life

Skin in the Game: The Hidden Asymmetries in Daily Life

From the New York Times bestselling author of The Black Swan, a bold new work that challenges many of our long-held beliefs about risk and reward, politics and religion, finance and personal responsibility In his most provocative and practical book yet, one of the foremost thinkers of our time redefines what it means to understand the world, succeed in a profession, contri...

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Title:Skin in the Game: The Hidden Asymmetries in Daily Life
Author:Nassim Nicholas Taleb
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Edition Language:English

Skin in the Game: The Hidden Asymmetries in Daily Life Reviews

  • ScienceOfSuccess

    Another great book from Nassim! If you have 3minutes, check my animated summary of this one ;)

  • Philippe

    Taleb’s ‘Skin in the Game’ has been put together in a somewhat disorderly way, but the reasoning goes as follows:

    1. The world in which we live is complex and eludes our sense-making faculties.

    2. Our society has cultivated a privileged class of

    . These people monopolize positions of authority and routinely take decisions to intervene in that complex world, without however doing the effort to think through the cascading impacts of these decisions

    being convenient

    Taleb’s ‘Skin in the Game’ has been put together in a somewhat disorderly way, but the reasoning goes as follows:

    1. The world in which we live is complex and eludes our sense-making faculties.

    2. Our society has cultivated a privileged class of

    . These people monopolize positions of authority and routinely take decisions to intervene in that complex world, without however doing the effort to think through the cascading impacts of these decisions

    being conveniently isolated from any tangible repercussions on themselves. In other words, these people have nothing at stake. They have no skin the game.

    3. The absence of skin in the game comes with undesirable epistemological consequences. Because people who are isolated from the impacts of their decisions do not learn. They remain captive to their erroneous ideas about how the world works. As a result our systems ‘rot’, i.e. they become ever more fragile.

    4. Sooner or later this is going to cause a lot of trouble. The geopolitical and military deadlocks in the Middle East are just one example of severe and long-term implications of misguided efforts to engage in ‘nation building’. As our technological powers grow and our systems mushroom and interconnect, the likelihood of catastrophic downside consequences ratchets up too.

    5. Absence of skin in the game also leads to objectionable ethical consequences. It leads to an inequitable distribution of risks and resources in society.

    6. To mitigate adverse effects of incautious and irresponsible courses of action, authorities are wont to create an ever more granular web of rules and regulations. Getting rid of these regulations is much harder than to create them. But opportunistic operators with deep pockets always find loopholes in this tangle.

    That’s the problem situation that is sketched out by the author. Now, what can we do about this?

    1. We need to compartmentalize risks by focusing on our immediate environment. We need to decentralize and reduce the scale of the systems we meddle with.

    2. We need to honor the precautionary principle: "if we don’t understand something and it has a systemic effect, just avoid it."

    3. Rather than masterplans and fixed strategies we need practical ethical and operational rules to guide local experimentation and problem solving. One way to unearth these rules is by deep knowledge of probability theory (Taleb’s speciality).

    4. From probability theory follows that uncertainty can be beneficial, if we engage in ‘convex tinkering’, i.e. engage in small bets where gains and harm are asymmetric. So we need to find or construct settings that exhibit this ‘convexity bias’ (this material was discussed more extensively in Taleb’s

    ).

    5. Insisting that as many people in the community should have skin in the game is ethically sound. The principle emerges at the intersection of three main ethical systems: Kantian, consequentialism, and classical virtue.

    6. Also, we need as many decision makers as possible to have skin in the game for the ‘intelligence of time’ to filter out what harms and select what contributes to our survival.

    7. Taleb puts great store in the property of ergodicity. I understand it to work at different logical levels. Not having skin in the game leads to a non-ergodic system, i.e. a system that shows some absorptive capacity that lowers risks for a minority to the detriment for the majority. So, in a non-ergodic system a person who gets rich will stay rich. Perfect ergodicity would imply that each person, should (s)he live forever, would spend a proportion of the time in the economic conditions of the entire cross-section. At the higher logical level, ergodicity links my personal fate to the fate of the community and larger ecosystem from which I am part. Loss of my personal life is a necessity to lower the risk for the collective as shorter shelf life for humans allows genetic changes across generations to be in sync with the variability of the environment.

    8. We need to leverage the minority rule, "mother of all a asymmetries”, to strategically exercise influence. A small, intransigent group in society is able to impose its preferences on a much larger flexible group because of the asymmetry in choices that defines their relationship (at least as long as the minority group is not spatially ghettoized and the cost structure associated with their preferences is more or less comparable to the original societal norm). So, given asymmetry somewhere (“and asymmetry is present is about everything”) it is possible to build scale in influencing the dynamics of large, complex socio-technical systems.

    9. Vice versa, we need to mindful about the fact that the minority rule can also be used to advance extremist agendas. Hence democracy has to be uncompromising vis-à-vis the intolerant minority that wants to destroy it.

    10. In general: good (market) structures neutralize the stupidity of those participating in them.

    Whatever one may think of Taleb’s confrontational style, I find his ideas are extremely valuable. He is a genuine systems thinker, informed by a deep knowledge of probability theory and what that means for how we (ought to) deal with risk and uncertainty. Much of what today passes for 'systems thinking’ has a high cuddle factor. It flourishes on a nebulous jargon of ‘interconnection’, ‘wholes’ and ‘emergence’. Taleb’s systems talk is hard-edged and unsentimental, and it reflects an attractive ethos of classical virtue that meshes courage and prudence. Now the challenge is not only to read the book, but also to absorb it and reflect it in the conduct of one's life.

  • David

    From the back cover of the book jacket:

    This is the third book I've read by Nassim Taleb (

    and

    : Here is my

    .) And this book, Skin in the Game is more quirky than either of his previous books--if that is at all possible. This book is poorly written. It jumps around from

    From the back cover of the book jacket:

    This is the third book I've read by Nassim Taleb (

    and

    : Here is my

    .) And this book, Skin in the Game is more quirky than either of his previous books--if that is at all possible. This book is poorly written. It jumps around from one topic to another, almost stream of consciousness.

    I am sure that Taleb makes new enemies with each book he writes. If, by the end of the book, you have not been offended by something he has written, then you haven't been paying attention. Taleb is blunt, sometimes obtuse, and often right. But it really irks me that his very strong opinions are not always backed up by reasoning. Like a mathematics professor, he will often "let the reader fill in the lines of his proof."

    The basic premise of the book, is that one should not believe opinions or forecasts of others, unless they have some "skin in the game." Results are all that count--opinions and talk are worthless. It is so easy for people to spout utter nonsense, so unless they could potentially suffer consequences of being wrong, you should ignore them. This goes especially for intellectuals in academia. However, "hard" science seem to be immune to this problem, because of the redeeming nature of falsification, while "scientism" -- the excessive belief in science is worthless.

    The broad sweep of his aphorisms are overwhelming. Here are some examples that actually are given some logical reasoning:

    And then there are aphorisms that may very well be true, but do not seem to have much back-up reasoning:

    Among the people Taleb dislikes: Steven Pinker, Hillary Clinton, journalists, intellectuals who are idiots, the Saudi regime, Monsanto, ... the list goes on and on. Taleb goes into some detail about how psychologists totally misunderstand "loss aversion", due to the concept of ergodicity.

    Taleb introduces so many quirky words and expressions, that he devotes a glossary in the back of the book to explain the terms. And, the end of the book is filled with a technical appendix with some

    technical mathematical proofs about probability theory.

    With so many issues that I have with this book, why do I recommend it with five stars? Because the book is so thought-provoking. It jabs me everywhere, and gets me to think about a lot of things, basic assumptions about life. Take a risk--read this book.

  • ☘Misericordia☘ ~ The Serendipity Aegis ~  ⚡ϟ⚡ϟ⚡⛈ ✺❂❤❣

    I’m improperly awed and professionally depressed by this guy. While I’ve been in love with the concept of asymmetry since, like, forever, he puts on it such an excruciating spin that… a lot of professions suddenly attain the unmistakable bullshit (or maybe swanshit!) flavor.

    Anyway, this book lost a bit of its charm due to aggressive and seemingly random things aggregated together. I'm sure it's another case of 'it's not you, it's me', still, I felt the previous volumes were better grounded and m

    I’m improperly awed and professionally depressed by this guy. While I’ve been in love with the concept of asymmetry since, like, forever, he puts on it such an excruciating spin that… a lot of professions suddenly attain the unmistakable bullshit (or maybe swanshit!) flavor.

    Anyway, this book lost a bit of its charm due to aggressive and seemingly random things aggregated together. I'm sure it's another case of 'it's not you, it's me', still, I felt the previous volumes were better grounded and more founded in reality. Anyway, the eruditic approach to even the most disjointed things: Assassins, politics, Knights Templar.... etc, you name it, made this an irresistible read.

    Q:

    DATA, SHMATA

    Another lesson from Piketty’s ambitious volume: it was loaded with charts and tables. There is a lesson here: what we learn from professionals in the real world is that data is not necessarily rigor. One reason I—as a probability professional—left data out of The Black Swan (except for illustrative purposes) is that it seems to me that people flood their stories with numbers and graphs in the absence of solid or logical arguments. Further, people mistake empiricism for a flood of data. Just a little bit of significant data is needed when one is right, particularly when it is disconfirmatory empiricism, or counterexamples: only one data point (a single extreme deviation) is sufficient to show that Black Swans exist.

    Traders, when they make profits, have short communications; when they lose they drown you in details, theories, and charts.

    Probability, statistics, and data science are principally logic fed by observations—and absence of observations. For many environments, the relevant data points are those in the extremes; these are rare by definition, and it suffices to focus on those few but big to get an idea of the story. If you want to show that a person has more than, say $10 million, all you need is to show the $50 million in his brokerage account, not, in addition, list every piece of furniture in his house, including the $500 painting in his study and the silver spoons in the pantry. So I’ve discovered, with experience, that when you buy a thick book with tons of graphs and tables used to prove a point, you should be suspicious. It means something didn’t distill right! But for the general public and those untrained in statistics, such tables appear convincing—another way to substitute the true with the complicated. (c)

    Q:

    There is a vicious domain-dependence of expertise: the electrician, dentist, scholar of Portuguese irregular verbs, assistant colonoscopist, London cabby, and algebraic geometer are experts (plus or minus some local variations), while the journalist, State Department bureaucrat, clinical psychologist, management theorist, publishing executive, and macroeconomist are not. This allows us to answer the questions: Who is the real expert? Who decides who is and who is not an expert? Where is the meta-expert?

    Time is the expert. (c)

    Q:

    Currently, most civil servants tend to stay in civil service—except for those in delicate areas that industry controls: the agro-alimentary segment, finance, aerospace, anything related to Saudi Arabia …

    A civil servant can make rules that are friendly to an industry such as banking—and then go off to J.P. Morgan and recoup a multiple of the difference between his or her current salary and the market rate. (Regulators, you may recall, have an incentive to make rules as complex as possible so their expertise can later be hired at a higher price.)

    So there is an implicit bribe in civil service: you act as a servant to an industry, say, Monsanto, and they take care of you later on. They do not do it out of a sense of honor: simply, it is necessary to keep the system going and encourage the next guy to play by these rules. The IYI-cum-cronyist former Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner—with whom I share the Calabrese barber of the Prologue—was overtly rewarded by the industry he helped bail out. He helped bankers get bailouts, let them pay themselves from the largest bonus pool in history after the crisis, in 2010 (that is, using taxpayer money), and then got a multimillion-dollar job at a financial institution as his reward for good behavior. (c)

    Q:

    As I mentioned earlier in Prologue 3, I have held for most of my (sort of) academic career no more than a quarter position. A quarter is enough to have somewhere to go, particularly when it rains in New York, without being emotionally socialized and losing intellectual independence for fear of missing a party or having to eat alone. (c)

    Q:

    And recall that, a free person does not need to win arguments—just win. (c)

    Q:

    Hard science might be robust to the pathologies—even then. So let us take a look at social science. Given that the sole judges of a contributor are his “peers,” there is a citation ring in place that can lead to all manner of rotting. Macroeconomics, for instance, can be nonsense since it is easier to macrobull***t than microbull***t—nobody can tell if a theory really works.

    If you say something crazy you will be deemed crazy. But if you create a collection of, say, twenty people who set up an academy and say crazy things accepted by the collective, you now have “peer-reviewing” and can start a department in a university. (c)

    Q:

    Knowing “economics” doesn’t mean knowing anything about economics in the sense of the real activity, but rather the theories, most of which are bull***t, produced by economists. (c)

    Q:

    The deprostitutionalization of research will eventually be done as follows. Force people who want to do “research” to do it on their own time, that is, to derive their income from other sources. Sacrifice is necessary. It may seem absurd to brainwashed contemporaries, but Antifragile documents the outsized historical contributions of the nonprofessional, or, rather, the non-meretricious. For their research to be genuine, they should first have a real-world day job, or at least spend ten years as: lens maker, patent clerk, Mafia operator, professional gambler, postman, prison guard, medical doctor, limo driver, militia member, social security agent, trial lawyer, farmer, restaurant chef, high-volume waiter, firefighter (my favorite), lighthouse keeper, etc., while they are building their original ideas.

    It is a filtering, nonsense-expurgating mechanism. I have no sympathy for moaning professional researchers. I for my part spent twenty-three years in a full-time, highly demanding, extremely stressful profession while studying, researching, and writing my first three books at night; it lowered (in fact, eliminated) my tolerance for career-building research. (c)

    Q:

    he first group are terrorists for about everyone, that is, for every person equipped with the ability to discern and isn’t a resident of Saudi Arabia and doesn’t work for a think tank funded by sheikhs; the second are militia groups largely called terrorists by their enemies, and “resistance” or “freedom fighters” by those who don’t dislike them.

    The first includes nonsoldiers who indiscriminately kill civilians for effect and don’t bother with military targets, as their aim isn’t to make military gains, just to make a statement, harm some living humans, produce some noise, and, for some, find a low-error way to go to paradise. Most Sunni jihadis, of the type who take incommensurable pleasure in blowing up civilians, such as Al Qaeda, ISIS, and the “moderate rebels” in Syria sponsored by former U.S. president Obama, are in that category. (c)

  • Ryan B

    Skin in the Game is at the same time thought-provoking and original but also contradictory and sometimes absurd.

    Let’s start with the cons:

    1. I certainly won’t be the first to notice that Taleb can be mean-spirited. But why does he insist on presenting his views in this way? The communication of his ideas, often profound, does not require a mean-spirited or condescending tone. For however brilliant Taleb thinks he is, his skills in persuasion are severely lacking; he’s alienating a significant r

    Skin in the Game is at the same time thought-provoking and original but also contradictory and sometimes absurd.

    Let’s start with the cons:

    1. I certainly won’t be the first to notice that Taleb can be mean-spirited. But why does he insist on presenting his views in this way? The communication of his ideas, often profound, does not require a mean-spirited or condescending tone. For however brilliant Taleb thinks he is, his skills in persuasion are severely lacking; he’s alienating a significant readership that may have otherwise been more receptive to his ideas.

    Not very far into the book we see Taleb take cheap shots at Steven Pinker, out of nowhere, discussing a topic that has nothing to do with any of Pinker’s actual ideas or positions. One wonders why Taleb cannot just present his ideas without the incessant personal attacks and condescension.

    2. His overall philosophy appears to be self-refuting. He reviles “intellectuals,” professors, and thinkers while praising “doers” and men of practice. He’s particularly distrustful of those who give advice for a living. Here’s Taleb:

    “Avoid taking advice from someone who gives advice for a living, unless there is a penalty for their advice.”

    So should we then ignore

    advice? As far as I can tell, Skin in the Game is a work of philosophy, an intellectual exercise that argues against the value of intellectual exercise. This is the same self-refuting logic of relativism—in that the statement “everything is relative” is self-refuting because the statement itself needs to be absolute.

    If Taleb is wrong in any part of his philosophy it doesn’t appear that he would incur any penalty (no skin in the game). The upside for him is book sales with little to no downside risk, so by using his own logic we should conclude to not trust him.

    Also, to the extent that you believe ideas have power you might find yourself disagreeing with Taleb’s extreme position that no good ideas could possibly come from someone in an academic position (particularly from the reviled economists).

    Except that Taleb uses economic theories to frame his thinking. The Tragedy of the Commons, something Taleb discusses in his book, was developed by the economist William Forster Lloyd in his armchair. Even Taleb’s Black Swan concept is a reformulation of the Peso problem developed by...economists.

    I’m sure anyone can think up examples, rather easily, of useful ideas that were discovered by intellectuals or from university research. How about Einstein's theory of relativity, which

    GPS technology, which wouldn't exist without it.

    3. Taleb obsesses about the superiority of practice over academics and theory. This is a questionable proposition.

    As just one example,

    in the American Journal of Medicine concluded that “patients whose doctors had practiced for at least 20 years stayed longer in the hospital and were more likely to die compared to those whose doctors got their medical license in the past five years.”

    My own personal experience corroborates this, as a medical student was able to correctly diagnose what the attending physician had missed on a trip to the ER. Very experienced, practical individuals sometimes perpetuate bad habits and fail to keep informed of the theories and academics that lead to better practice. This point is completely lost on Taleb.

    4. Taleb’s definition of rationality as any action that promotes survival is patently false, as a simple thought experiment can show. Imagine a hypothetical survival machine is available for your use. By plugging yourself in, it will guarantee and maximize your life span and, on a social scale, maximizes reproduction. The price is that the machine also inflicts a high degree of pain and cuts you off from contact with other people.

    According to the logic of Taleb, the rational thing to do would be to plug into this machine. Of course, no one would volunteer to do this because survival is not what motivates rational behavior. Any rational agent would choose one year of pleasant life over 100 years in the survival machine, because actions have value according to how they promote or are perceived to promote well-being or pleasure.

    Taleb, using this more believable definition of rationality, could have used it to argue the same points, namely how religious belief cannot be called irrational if it promotes well-being, which includes psychological well-being and survival but not survival alone.

    The pros:

    That Taleb is antagonistic and holds some questionable views does not mean that he’s wrong about everything. When not being demeaning or taking extreme positions, Taleb writes about some of the most original, thought-provoking, and profound ideas. And even when you find yourself disagreeing with him, he makes you

    . For this reason alone, the book is worth checking out.

    The idea that the extent of people’s stakes in particular outcomes is a critical yet underrated determinant of events is a profound idea with several implications, which Taleb skillfully explores throughout the book. And his idea that you should have to pay some kind of penalty for decisions that negatively impact others—risk sharing vs. risk transfer—is a solid framework for thinking about a host of issues. Of course, these ideas would be easier to swallow if presented with a little more humility, but I suppose we should know what to expect from Taleb by now.

  • Ivank

    In this book #4, Taleb is more arrogant and pretentious than ever. You can never let go of the feeling that this book is about him, rather than any other topic. He's become profoundly obnoxious and negative. Despite some good points in the book, reading it feels like carrying a burden.

    In this new book Taleb goes to extra lengths to attack David Runciman, head of the politics department at Cambridge, and a Guardian book reviewer who had torn apart his previous "Antifragile" book. Runciman's crit

    In this book #4, Taleb is more arrogant and pretentious than ever. You can never let go of the feeling that this book is about him, rather than any other topic. He's become profoundly obnoxious and negative. Despite some good points in the book, reading it feels like carrying a burden.

    In this new book Taleb goes to extra lengths to attack David Runciman, head of the politics department at Cambridge, and a Guardian book reviewer who had torn apart his previous "Antifragile" book. Runciman's criticisms for book #3 are totally valid here in book #4 as well: that Taleb is profoundly antisocial, self-contradicting, and disorganized; that "Black Swan" and "Fooled by randomness" will remain classics, while "Antifragile" - and I'm sure "Skin in the game" as well - will be forgotten quickly because of their mediocrity.

  • Satyajeet

    If you cherry-pick the data, you can make ANY ridiculous hypothesis sound convincing.

    Unlike those who complain about Taleb’s unresolved teenage angst, his thin-skinned hubris, or his lack of civility, I couldn’t care less about his crass remarks. My problem is with the ideas in this book, not its author, although I do question the intelligence of its author when his prose lapses into

    If you cherry-pick the data, you can make ANY ridiculous hypothesis sound convincing.

    Unlike those who complain about Taleb’s unresolved teenage angst, his thin-skinned hubris, or his lack of civility, I couldn’t care less about his crass remarks. My problem is with the ideas in this book, not its author, although I do question the intelligence of its author when his prose lapses into pseudoscientific drivel.

    Most of the ideas in Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s ‘Skin in the Game’ are characterized by a shameless lack of nuance, are supported only by dishonest misrepresentation and overgeneralization of samples, and will probably make the world much worse if implemented. The only other book I can think of which more strongly exemplifies confirmation bias, and which is more blind towards overwhelming contradictory evidence, is Rhonda Byrne’s ‘The Secret’, and parallels between these two books run deep—deep enough to call this ‘Taleb’s The Secret’. (Even Byrne’s book draws heavily upon ancient mythologies to make one absurd point after another).

    Taleb all but begs the reader to take note of his SITG chivalry. Yes, good Sir Knight, your chivalry is noted.

    SITG isn’t just a reward-punishment model; punishment is what a centralized justice system does AFTER screwing up. Rather, it’s a decentralized, reward-or-punishment-through-risk-exposure model where your exposure to the consequences is ensured BEFORE the implementation, so that screwing up automatically punishes on its own. It’s (supposedly) a self-corrective model.

    Now, there are not two but four combinations of idea-consequence scenarios that can be neatly represented as below.

    The premise: You present an idea to the world, which is then implemented. In all four scenarios listed below, other people are respectively affected as a result of the implementation, but the ramifications for you are different in each.

    1) Symmetry: You gain something valuable (to you) if it works, and you lose something valuable if it doesn’t.

    2) Positive asymmetry: You gain something valuable if it works, but you lose nothing if it doesn’t.

    3) Negative asymmetry: You gain nothing if it works, but you lose something valuable if it doesn’t.

    4) Neutral: You gain nothing if it works, and you lose nothing if it doesn’t.

    (1 and 3 are SITG scenarios; 2 and 4, not)

    The book is rather disingenuous in its front-cover illustration and subtitle, which make it seem that this book is somehow a crusade against positive asymmetries—the “heads I win, tails you lose” bets. I would have showered this book with so much praise as to exhaust the nation’s supply of accolades if this book REALLY were about replacing only asymmetries with symmetries.

    But since nuance isn’t Taleb’s forte, he goes all the way to the other extreme and says that EVERY idea-consequence situation must be symmetrical. (Along with numerous instances throughout the book, he ends the book by suggesting “[do] nothing without skin in the game.”) In a nutshell, Taleb argues that SITG eliminates bad ideas by disfiguring both the reputation and the bank accounts of those who concocted the ideas. An investment advisor who is investing your money with his ideas should have a significant personal stake in the same fund. If the idea fails, he almost drowns in bankruptcy and nobody will ever take his investment advice seriously again. Over time, many similar events will eliminate other bad ideas and the people who parented those ideas. As a result, the system overall is better off, and it is precisely SITG that allowed these self-corrections to happen. In a non-SITG environment, such people can persist.

    Sounds great, and symmetries are indeed well suited to some situations. But the problem is that this solution is not at all generalizable and is very restricted in its applicability. Recall that there are two kinds of non-SITG scenarios, and if applied to the wrong one, Taleb’s model harms the system more than it rehabilitates it.

    Many decades ago, Stanley Kubrick, the acclaimed filmmaker, pronounced his verdict on human nature in this eloquent quote: “We are capable of the greatest good and the greatest evil, but the problem is that we often can't distinguish between them when it suits our purpose.”

    Paraphrased to befit the context of this review, the above quote simply says that if a man has his SITG, he will do just about ANYTHING to save his skin. He will lie, cheat, deceive, exaggerate, lobby, wield power, or do a million other wicked things just to save his skin.

    Here are some ways in which SITG, by incapacitating the ability of the skin-owners to tell the difference between good and evil, can harm the system:

    1. Taleb maintains that SITG and conflict of interest should not be conflated, but he fails to grasp that if, as he demands, politicians were to have their SITG, it would INEVITABLY lead to conflict of interest as a nasty side-effect. The reason why the powers-that-be, economic advisers to the president, and top-level bureaucrats are required NOT to have any SITG is because it’s a textbook example of conflict of interest—they could use the power of their office to recommend or implement only those policies which save their own skin, while the benefits for others might not be as, or at all, profitable. Carl Icahn, who is currently under federal investigation, briefly served as Adviser to the President and attempted to use the power of his office to save himself $200 million in taxes through a biofuel company that he owned. (He was allowed to have SITG because of bureaucratic loopholes; normally, this is rightly prohibited). If a man has SITG AND the government-given power to save his skin, he will do ANYTHING to save his own skin. [Additional checks, which currently do not exist, must be in place to ensure that even a conflict-of-interest-free public servant doesn’t directly profit from the policies they implemented, AFTER they leave the office]. However, someone who has the official power but who has nothing to gain or lose (as in the case of pure neutrals), either in the present or in the future, is more likely to do good to others rather than serve himself like Icahn did.

    2. Financial SITG is the reason why tobacco companies, despite their own research showing that smoking tobacco is strongly correlated with lung cancer, suppressed those findings, lied to the public for decades that there is no evidence, let millions die of preventable cancer, got caught lying, and were sued for billions—all in a misguided attempt to save their invested skin. And unsurprisingly, owing to SITG, something very similar is happening with oil companies now. (Read Oreskes and Conway’s ‘Merchants of Doubt’ for more on this). Along with the rest of mankind, these people and their descendants will also be exposed to the downside risk of carbon emission—so there’s both financial AND literal SITG, but that doesn’t stop them from defrauding the public. All these companies lose a lot of money should things not go in their favor, and make a lot of money otherwise, so they are never honest about their data or their true intentions—a typical trait of those with SITG. Taleb himself stood to make a lot more money in 2007 had all the Big Banks been allowed to fail; he had placed bets that they would fail. Only the truly gullible can fail to see why he (fruitlessly) demanded that the Fed let those banks fail.

    3. NOT having any SITG game lets you think objectively about a situation in a way that having your skin at stake hardly can. The slave-holding states of the American antebellum South wanted to secede from the Union primarily, though not solely (I am not nuance-averse), because of the issue of slavery. The abolitionists of the North had no skin in the cotton production game; only the southern cotton plantation/industry owners did, and cotton was the prime mover of the Southern economy. Slavery was crucial to the cotton business, and the slave-holding states of the South would have taken a huge economic hit if slavery were abolished. Small wonder, then, that the South wanted to keep slavery alive by seceding from the Union, thus initiating the Civil War. There was nothing inherently evil or stupid about the Southerners; they were driven by an inability to tell the difference between good and evil because their own interests were involved. Slavery did not resolve itself at the hands of those with skin in the cotton game. It took the intelligence and objectivity of non-slaveholders—the abolitionists of the North who, if the logic of this book were applied, would be labeled “virtue signalers”—to rid the US of slavery and better the system. It was Lincoln and his cohorts, not slaveholders or Southerners, who ratified the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution, the one abolishing slavery.

    Coming to the second recurring theme in the book, the Lindy effect: Here, Taleb’s loose grasp of reality takes on a life of its own. This idea is mathematically beautiful but ultimately stands on the quick soil. (Taleb generally likes to point out that you cannot question the mathematics of his published papers without having your own sanity questioned, but the problem isn’t with the mathematics; it’s with the assumptions that get you started. Kurt Gödel once “proved” that God exists using mathematical logic; see Gödel's ontological proof. What’s not above criticism, though, are his assumptions—nor anybody else’s!) In essence, it states that the projected lifespan of non-perishable cultural entities is in direct correlation with its current age. If a book has survived for 100 years in print, it will likely survive another 100.

    If you are familiar with ‘the Wisdom of the Crowds,’ it only takes a small leap of imagination to arrive at the Lindy effect: Lindy is nothing but the Wisdom of the Crowds applied across time. At its foundation, both ideas require people—lots of common, hardworking people—who make collective decisions about accepting or rejecting an idea through small decisions that accrue. In the Wisdom, the decisions accrue across space; in Lindy, across time. But in both, it is the hoi polloi—and not the academics, the bureaucrats, or some other group of chosen experts—who truly put the ideas to the test.

    Studying the Wisdom sheds light on the nature of Lindy, and to that end I’ll quote an insightful excerpt from an essay by Warren Buffett that decries the Efficient Market Hypothesis, an absurd, absolutistic theory built on the Wisdom of the Crowds: “EMH was embraced not only by academics, but by many investment professionals and corporate managers as well. Observing correctly that the market was FREQUENTLY efficient, they went on to conclude incorrectly that it was ALWAYS efficient. The difference between these propositions is night and day.”

    Lindy is indeed good at eliminating some bad cultural objects from the past. But since Taleb is fond of saying “Lindy and Lindy alone is the real expert,” I think Lindy’s consistency is worth examining. Is Lindy only FREQUENTLY or ALWAYS effective? The difference matters. A lot.

    My first brush with the core assumption underlying this idea—though not the idea itself—was in Taleb’s ‘Fooled by Randomness,’ which I read back when I was an admirer of his. In that book, he is careful to distinguish between survival through chance and survival through competence. A stockbroker can have a long career making successful bets, despite being clueless about stocks. The laws of stochastic probability make room for such anomalies. However, a dentist or a doctor can have a long career if and only if they are competent, and no law of probability will rescue them otherwise. It’s not really malpractice lawsuits or losing medical license that removes them from the profession, although that contributes, too; rather, it’s public verdict that nails their metaphorical coffin: You cannot fool people for long stretches of time in a profession where luck plays no role.

    Or so I thought.

    I learned this many unfortunate years later: The case he makes for non-stochastic professions turns out not to be true at all and illuminates a rot in the assumptions that Lindy stands on. Not only CAN incompetent doctors have decades-long career, but there actually IS a precedent for it.

    The noise caused by the placebo effect can sometimes deafen people to the fraudulence of most alternative medicines which generally treat non-life-threatening conditions. But there is one particular case of a “doctor” in South Asia whose “cure” for the most intractable of human miseries—cancer—essentially makes it impossible to fail to tell the difference between success and failure of the medicine for long periods. If any alternative medicine fraud claims to have a cure for cancer, the claim can be put to the test as easily by the public as by scientists. People should, given a decade or more of hearsay, arrive at a verdict about the efficacy of the treatment—if Taleb is to be believed.

    This “doctor” goes by the name of Vaidya Narayana Murthy who, along with his ancestors for centuries, has been “curing” all forms of cancer and other incurable ailments by making people ingest pieces of tree barks grown in his native village. He boasts of a success rate of 60%, clearly fabricated, since he would be awarded the Nobel Prize in Medicine if he could cure ANY cancer, let alone ALL forms of cancer, with that level of success. Every week, an exodus of benighted, gullible, illiterate, and even semi-literate people from all across the country arrive at his doorstep and stand in miles-long queue for hours to get a 10-second appointment with him. If Lindy were to be an “expert,” such oddities would necessarily have to be eliminated over time as people realize this man’s fraud and stop seeking his appointments, regardless of how much he charges for the appointments—but quite the opposite is happening, as his patient numbers rise every year. Even his online ratings are consistently high. Nothing about their behavior even remotely suggests that you can’t fool them for long, even at something so basic as the efficacy of a cure for cancer.

    Vox populi? Vox humbug!

    Many more such examples abound. When Lindy cannot even eliminate fraud in simple systems like detecting the success of a miraculous cure for cancer, to expect it to arrive at reliable heuristics in complex systems in the form of time-tested aphorisms is naïve wishful thinking. Aphorisms survive because of their rhetorical effect, not necessarily because they are agents of truth. Only by woefully cherry-picking them can you present them in a positive light. Superstitions survive for thousands of years, and horrible myths that are demonstrably untrue are inherited through generations of descendants, completely unfiltered by Lindy. (Conversely, many great books of science and math from the antiquity, including five books by Euclid, have been irretrievably lost, unprotected by Lindy.) In India, a practice called “sati”—in which a widowed wife would be cremated alive with her husband’s corpse—prevailed for more than 1500 years before it was forcefully abolished in 1821 through government intervention. Lindy tolerated it for 1500 years; bureaucrats and reformers ended it in just 15. If you wish to make hard life choices based on one-liners handed down from the social “wisdom” of the ancients, the Romans, or any other people who owned human slaves and committed atrocities for recreation, be my guest.

    Page after page of this book is filled with vignettes from classical literature, to give it the feel of Lindyness. It never ceases to amuse me how Taleb combs through historical mythologies to find stories that vaguely metaphorically resemble an agenda he has already made up his mind about. (Even the typeface of this book is given a historical context for, geez!) Taleb likes to chastise psychologists, but psychologists have also committed the same error that Taleb is committing in abundance here: Drawing a little too much inspiration from ancient vignettes. Freud was inspired by the vignette of Oedipus when he came up with his ridiculous hypothesis of Oedipus complex. Jung produced an equally ridiculous variant called the Electra complex after the Greek mythological character. Another perverse complex, also inspired by classical Greek stories, goes by Jocasta complex.

    Romanticizing the genius of the “elders” can produce idiotic filth, not always profundity. Even evolution by natural selection, which Taleb claims is a sophisticated form of SITG, is only a crude method of problem-solving that doesn’t eliminate all errors, no matter how much time passes. Cancer genes can survive in a species for millions of years.

    However, none of this is to say that Lindy is totally useless. In the philosophy of science, consilience is a method of converging on the truth through multiple, independent sources of evidence that are themselves imperfect and prone to errors. We know that the theory of evolution is true not just because fossils hint at it, but because seven independent sources of evidence converge at the same conclusion. A theory which is supported only by one form of evidence is a lot weaker than a theory that is vindicated by multiple sources that do not depend on each other. In the event of a disagreement between sources—which is bound to happen given that each source is imperfect—all it means is that further investigation is needed, not that one source is necessarily better than the other, or that the other source must be discarded altogether. In consilience, Lindy can act as ONE of these independent sources, rather than replacing other sources. But by clownishly interjecting that “Lindy alone is the real expert,” Taleb only makes the cavernous depths of his ignorance official.

    There are no more characters left to write more here! Alex totally lynched it!

  • Magnus Ahmad

    Pop-science in it's lowest form. Book reads like a poorly researched, hastily written college essay. Strings together a few nuggets of common sense wisdom with sizeable amounts of unreferenced BS. Taleb is a shark, living off a reputation and using his own fanbase like an ATM.

  • Nilesh

    SITG is an angry rant. It lacks structure. The core message - mainly because of the author’s often misplaced and wrong arguments against his self-created adversaries - is never examined beyond the title’s most known or intuitive conventional meaning. The basic concept is at least as old as the adage itself. The author does little to bolster the claim while spending all efforts on slamming real or imagined opponents. The book’s frequent diversions along with internal contradictions amid a rather

    SITG is an angry rant. It lacks structure. The core message - mainly because of the author’s often misplaced and wrong arguments against his self-created adversaries - is never examined beyond the title’s most known or intuitive conventional meaning. The basic concept is at least as old as the adage itself. The author does little to bolster the claim while spending all efforts on slamming real or imagined opponents. The book’s frequent diversions along with internal contradictions amid a rather inchoate verbiage cause some of the good points to vanish in the flames of the next rant before they make any lasting impressions.

    Mr Taleb is a very smart author, but not necessarily a right one. He uses a plethora of subterfuge and polemic to diss potential criticism. Yet, he fails to realise that this does not make many of his arguments any more right or less incomplete than they are. The following is his usual modus operandi, and it is in the most jarring display all through the latest book:

    - He would begin by loudly and repeatedly claiming some massively important and amazing “discovery” which is a part controversial, a lot fully known for centuries, and presented as if discovered indisputably by the author.

    - Rather than providing any meaningful proofs behind his outlandish, over-generalising, without shades of grey statements, he would boast his own mathematical prowess and keep claiming how he has already shown substantial proofs. Effectively, the proofs are never presented but claims of them are everywhere. It is likely that wherever those proofs exist, they are on sketchy data and little analysis but his loud claims would hint as if they are as indisputable as two and two make four. He will repeat this so many times assuming that if he repeats enough number of times he has shown the proof, he has!

    - He would spend all the energy belittling the potential critics. Without addressing the likely counterarguments, he would begin by castigating the present or future contradicting voices as people without even basic knowledge, integrity, brains, reputational or financial interests. Mr Taleb would keep advertising his own mathematical mastery (likely rudimentary based on the scant pieces of evidence) while first accusing others of not knowing anything and if cornered, dismissing them for knowing too much/being pedantic/being too mathematical/academic etc. Even if one is to fully disagree with a Picketty, a Pinkell, a Thaler or a Dawkins, the likely path is not by simply smashing their intelligence or theoretical knowledge. Mr Taleb genuinely believes that such thinkers would not know the basics of theories like probability. According to the author, these quantum physics quoting personalities otherwise know nothing but words. Of course, the inequality loving author sees himself as the better champion of the oppressed!

    - Effectively, the shouting down will alternate between two forms: “the others do not know anything” and “pseudo-intellectuals just know too much and as a result cannot see the woods for the trees”.

    Mr. Taleb has fixed views. Some of his views are archaic, some self-serving, some sensible and some downright abhorrent - with most under more than one categories. There is little consistency in his thesis and most of what he writes is to prove that he has figured it all out and the life he leads is the ideal. His all-pervasive braggadocio in the book is only trumped by the justification for arrogance - a new trend which was not so visible in his earlier works.

    As before, he takes an extreme position to bash many of his pet hates not only without recognising those adversaries’ positions but also turning a blind eye to the many weaknesses of his own arguments. Let’s start with the basic message of the book that fails to recognise that a reasonable man would try to minimise his SITG where possible even if a society may want to be at the opposite end.

    - As the author himself would like to do in his own financial world, at the individual or micro level, every being will try to minimise risks for maximum possible returns. Without the author’s despised theoretical constructs to argue this in a structured way, one would expect a rational man to take only the risk needed and no more. If there is an opportunity, for whatever reason, whereby a woman can, say, mine all the remaining bitcoins in the next ten minutes without risk, the author himself would suggest the woman take the chance and make merry.

    - To make this fair, a system or society - however defined - might attempt to remove situations where some have asymmetric risk-return. This would be a worthy goal for a society to reduce the role played by chance of any kind. However, given the way the practical life is, any system will always be playing a catch-up against individuals perpetually on the hunt for easy opportunities. The smartest in the society will be continuously unearthing low personal risk, high personal gain situations while quietly transferring some of the hidden risks affecting their own bodies to the rest. This is how most individuals would behave - a basic human tendency that cannot be wished away. The author has no clear suggestions on how a system could get ahead of the return-seeking, Adam Smith’s rational individuals except the clarion call for this to somehow be done.

    Another broad point that the author misses is what the skin in the game is and for what types of causes it should exist:

    - A typical human being pursues many goals. And a majority of them are where failures do not need to cause any personal hurt. If I am trying to cause a child to smile, feed a sick, run a mile under five, learn quantum mechanics for self-fulfilment, a failure does not have to come with pain. This is true in commercial aspects of life too: an entrepreneur may want to spend efforts tutoring a person she cares about, a programmer is writing an app just to see it being used, a financial investor decides not to invest in sin companies are some examples.

    - What causes hurt is highly personal and situation specific. A rich person, like the author himself perhaps, feels no hurt shedding a few million on a risk if his wealth is in billions. For someone sensitive, a word of disapproval could spark suicidal thoughts. The author describes SITG as absolute in physical and financial forms - nothing could be more wrong than such absolute claims.

    - Externalities: So many risk-takers never understand or care about far higher risks they could be taking for many others who do not know or do not have a say. Entrepreneurs who go bust often hurt others in the society/family around through their failures apart from bankers and investors. The same is true for generals who love to be on the war front, putting themselves at risk, and countless others on the battlefield and outside.

    - A complex society like today needs far many who are non-entrepreneurs, advisers, academics and likes along with its entrepreneurs. The author - who hates to even have assistants - cannot live this life without a bevvy of legal advisers, infrastructure designers, financial planners, cleaners, accountants etc, most of whom cannot be entrepreneurs. One cannot create an iPhone, a road, an army or even an investment firm where no one works for anyone else.

    A functioning society needs many risk takers, as it needs people of many other types who do not need to take risks. May be, what the author wanted to write was how as a society, there is not enough risk-taking. However, the main purpose of the book is effectively to pound those the author has strongest dislikes for. These people - from diverse groups of life - are bureaucrats, academicians, company executives, journalists, book reviewers (!), and even those who study, believe in theoretical pursuits of any kind, philosophers, and of course, the politicians. The author despises them because they do not take “physical” or “financial” risks. An academic who espouses a wrong theory and as a result suffers through a sub-par career, or a bureaucrat who is perpetually sidelined for making an incorrect critical decision, or an executive who loses the entire career (along with reputation) for a misplaced decision are not losing anything as per the author. For the author, risk means if you have some chance of losing something financially or physically.

    Before I go on, I must admit that in saner moments at various points in the book, the author would go against his own over-generalised, grandiose statements and make sensible points. He would quote academicians he finds agreeable with love (Hagel, Kant, Nietzsche). He would use theories to make a case for employment contracts. He would talk about repetitional and other types of SITG - but, only where it suits his preformed specific conclusions.

    This is one of the things that makes the book full of internal contradictions:

    - “Whatever works cannot be stupid” - this is Talebian definition of rationality. Rationality, according to the author, is not in beliefs or words but in revealed preferences and actions. Rational, it seems, is anything that helps you survive over a period despite the tail risks that exist for existence. This is the logic behind which the author would debunk behavioural finance and advocate heeding to granny’s advise. By this logic, combined with the Lindy, slavery and misogyny need undergo no modification. The author does not attempt to apply this principle too rigidly for sciences, but he occasionally flirts there too in dismissing whatever technological or scientific achievements he disapproves under scientism. The author never realises how his definition of rationality - even if right - would only cause my granny versus your granny type of arguments (best case) without any progress towards universal truths or technological advancement.

    - If a person’s starting point in life, like most in the real world, is with near zero savings, she cannot have the financial skin that the author likes for so many walks of life. So, perhaps the only option as per the author is for her to put the body at risk?

    - Forecasting, as per the author is stupid although most activities of entrepreneurs, investors or even army generals involve implicit and explicit forecasting. In a way, the author hates those who “forecast” without much to lose but many professional forecasters have a lot of skin in the game through reputation and financial rewards/not. Many may far likely have problems with the kind the author likes that benefit from few lucky calls initially through disproportionate gains by simply placing right bets with little efforts before they get anything wrong. From this viewpoint, the author’s own business is full of incidents where the money manager has agency issues, and not sufficient SITG the moment she admits external money.

    - Some of the book’s biased contradictions are hilarious because of the way they come about. One begins to pity the author - supposedly smart - who cannot notice even the most obvious of errors. Take this example: at one point in the book, the author goes from slanted wedges in NY metro to slapping academicians one more time, this time for “always” writing academic papers in a complicated way simply because “they do not have skin in the game”. Within five statements, he goes on to define “non-boring”, like footnotes in corporate reports, from the viewpoint of those with the skin in the game (aka investors). By this definition, who is the author to pass value-judgment on the boringness of academic reports?

    - The author hates straw men analysis but performs many of his own all the time - imputing senseless ideas to others he hates. The worst one is at the end when the author seems that over 250 years, no theoretician figured out the time value of probabilistic patterns - example, taking one bet where you may lose everything with probability of 1% might keep you alive with 99% certainty at the end of the first bet but eventually you always end up losing all. This is such a hogwash that anyone who breathes knows this from time immemorial- the chances of one breathing the next breath is very high but eventually all die! In academic theories too, joint probability is as old as the probability science. Take another example: he indirectly bashes Mr Pinkel, perhaps his top pet hate, for not recognising that violence is down because the vigilance is up. The author shouts that the violence going down is perhaps the reason to step up the vigilance, rather than what the others seem to claim as per the author. Surprisingly, this is exactly the point Mr. Pinkel makes.

    Such contradictions are supplemented by contortions to prove that only the way he does things is right: for example, the right level of transparency is what the author employs in his investment methods and not more or less. The right amount of armchair criticising is what he does, like in this book. Same about the skin in the game - where his risk-taking is great but not of many others who take far higher risks that he will not understand. The bashing of academics is plain ridiculous without acknowledgement of the benefits the classroom theories have created from the days of Galileo to the machine learning classes today, but even the roles of large corporate executives, employees everywhere (as against entrepreneurs), consultants, advisors etc are laughably undermined compared to whoever happens to be in the author’s good books.

    The author does make many good points in between. There is an admirable section on scale-dependent political ideology - why he is a libertarian at the federal level, a republican at the state level, at a municipal level a democrat and a socialist with friends and family. The discussion on dynamic inequality through the concept of ergodicity, was exceptionally good if one removed the vitriol towards others and too perfunctory a dismissal of inequality conclusions without sufficient proof. The author shines when talking about Lindy effect, although this topic was better covered in the previous book on anti-fragility. Those who survive have a stronger chance of surviving longer is a good concept. In the author’s hands, its extreme application is what leads to some completely misplaced conclusions.

    Given the simple and singular nature of the main theme , the book has many unrelated diversions through contradictions, contortions, critiquing where the author makes more interesting points: apart from the one on politics above, there is a good section on how a minority stringent choice impact could have on overall impact on the broad population choice. Another unrelated topic is the differential spread of different religions due to differences in laws (a non-Muslim marrying a Muslim has to convert while in cases under Judaism or Zoroastrianism, the follower might be ostracised).

    Overall, the author could have used his fame and popularity better to make more constructive points, even if obvious, rather than waste so much energy bashing some other highly relevant and important analysis.

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