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From the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks to the 2008 financial collapse, many of the most consequential events in recent history caught government and investors off guard. In 2007, Nassim Nicholas Taleb provided a highly influential framework for explaining, and adapting to, these unpredictable shocks to political and financial systems, with his book “The Black Swan.” His latest work, “Antifragile,” expands on his theory of the unknown to explain how we can succeed and thrive in a world ruled by disorder.
- Nassim Nicholas Taleb Author, "Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder" and "The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable"; Distinguished Professor of Risk Engineering, New York University's Polytechnic Institute
Read An Excerpt
“Antifragile: Things That Gain From Disorder” by Nassim Nicholas Taleb. Copyright 2012 by Nassim Nicholas Taleb. Reprinted here by permission of Random House (US) & Penguin. All rights reserved.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. Later in the broadcast, "The Federal Diary" column has been appearing in The Washington Post for the past 80 years. We'll talk with the current author of the column, Joe Davidson, about how it has changed over time.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIBut first, in 2007 just before the global recession shook the world's economies, Nassim Nicholas Taleb warned against systems that cling to artificial stability, noting that not all events fall into neat categories where rules and axioms will prevail, instead in many instances randomness is the prevailing principle, thus introducing the concept of black swans, events we never see coming that alter the course of history and providing the framework for understanding the coming financial crash.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIToday, he returns with a new book titled "Antifragile," an expansion of his black swan theory and a how-to guide for moving forward in the face of disorder, advising us today on what to do in a world that we don't necessarily understand. Nassim Nicholas Taleb is distinguished professor of risk engineering at New York University and the author of several books, including the aforementioned "Black Swan" and his latest work "Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder." Nassim joins us in studio. Good to see you again.
PROF. NASSIM NICHOLAS TALEBThank you for inviting me again.
NNAMDIIt has been a while ...
TALEBYou -- I'd like to come back more -- a little more frequently, every five years.
NNAMDII would hope so in the future.
NNAMDIOh, by the way, if you'd like to join the conversation, if you have questions or comments, just call us at 800-433-8850. When we think about something fragile, we might picture anything, be it a crystal vase or a complex quirky computer program that could fall apart easily under stress. In a world ruled by the unexpected, you say we must strive for antifragility, a concept that is not the resilience or robustness we might expect. Why don't those terms capture the full meaning of antifragile?
TALEBWell, before that let me tell you that the, you know, the Greeks did not have -- the ancient Greeks and the ancient Hebrews did not have a word for blue. The word for blue, kakhol, in Hebrew came late, and the Greeks and Homer did not have the word blue, the wine dark sea, all right? So there are a lot of things we don't have a name for, and here, in fact, antifragility is about half of life, and we don't have a name for it. Let me explain. When I ask someone what's the opposite of fragile, the answer is usually solid, robust, resilient, adaptable, adaptive, all these things.
TALEBThat's not the opposite of fragile. The solid and robust, they don't benefit from disorder, OK? They're not improved by disorder. There has to be a category of things that benefit from disorder. They like volatility and chaos and variability and things like that. There's an entire class of things. And we don't have in common vocabulary a designation for them. I was an option trader for a long time, and option traders have a name for it. It's as inelegant the name as antifragile, maybe even more inelegant, so I can pick it -- it's called long -- vega or long gamma, all right?
TALEBIt means that you have a structure that benefits if there's turmoil. The -- but there's no word. The problem is -- and not having a word for these things prevents adequate policymaking, adequate strategy in a firm, adequate, you know, implementation of, for example, health care approaches. So there's something that benefits from disorder, and we didn't have a name for it.
NNAMDIWell, we do now.
NNAMDIIt's called antifragile.
NNAMDIYou introduced us to the idea of black swans, events whose extreme consequences are entirely unpredictable and can be as disparate as the rise of the Internet on the one hand and 9/11 on the other. How does a system that's antifragile help absorb the shock of the (word?) ?
TALEBOK. Now, actually, it's not -- absorbable shock, it needs disorder. The problem...
TALEB...and that's the central problem of the antifragile is that it's not just that it is robust. It needs disorder as fuel, you see. So it benefits from random events, uncertainty, errors and pretty much have met things, you know, as the first tentative of this book into three categories. The glass of water you have on a table doesn't want volatility. The Brooklyn Bridge doesn't care, OK?
TALEBAnd there's a category of things that love volatility. And when you are fragile, you need to be extremely careful about the future. You need to be very predictive. When you're robust, you can be sort of careless. When you're antifragile, you need volatility in the future, and you need uncertainty. And the more uncertainty in the system, the more you're going to gain in the long run.
NNAMDILet's try some examples.
TALEBOK. Let me start with systems that -- I mean that means -- we're going to start with your human body and then move all the way to economic systems.
NNAMDIThat's where I was going to start. Go ahead.
TALEBThe human body, you have bones, all right? OK, everybody has bones likes -- needs some kind of stresses on their bones, and otherwise, we become brittle, OK? So (unintelligible).
NNAMDIAs unexpected as those stresses may be.
TALEBAs are -- actually, you need -- and they shouldn't be steady. You should be variable, OK? This is very important, to have some degree of variability. And, of course, if you spend six months in bed, you're going to be in trouble. And if you're not exposed to germs, your system will weaken overall, so this is, you know, about the human system. This is why people sell you -- try to sell you health club memberships, OK? But buying a health club membership will not benefit you from disorder. You have to actually go there, OK?
TALEBAll right. So let's move to economic systems or general systems. The restaurant business benefits from disorder. If you didn't have mistakes in the restaurant business and -- you would not have any evolution, and would eating Soviet-style cafeteria food all the time, all right? The errors -- the system that benefits use errors as fuel. Silicon Valley rarely does the same. Let's talk about transportation, OK? Air transportation is massively safe. It's almost as safe as crossing, you know, safer than crossing a street definitely.
TALEBIt's as safe as walking around your living room, all right? The -- it's very safe. Why? Because every plane crash is exploited to the hilt. No error is there in vain, you see. So after the probability of the next crash drops after a plane crashes. Now, let's talk about bad systems. The banking system, it makes -- it doesn't make a lot of mistakes, but mistakes are huge. It's the exact opposite of a benign system.
TALEBAnd the problem is, of course, that if the bank, unlike a plane crash, you know, the probability of, you know, if a bank crashes, the probability of the next crash is higher. So these systems are not built the proper way, their natural way. And that's also -- remember that evolution likes some degree of randomness to have mutations. Randomness -- you need error.
TALEBYou need randomness and random DNA changes. That's why we have genetic drift. And also, if you had then offspring and there's absolutely zero variability in the environment, the (unintelligible) will procreate, while evolution is about some kind of selective pressure, and these need randomness.
NNAMDIWe're talking with Nassim Nicholas Taleb. He is Distinguished Professor of Risk Engineering at New York University, and his latest book is called "Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder." You seem to be suggesting that -- well, before I get back to banking in particular, in a philosophy that essentially says we're talking about survival of the most antifragile.
TALEBExactly. And we have to realize that it's not so much at the level of the individual but at the level of the collective, and let me explain. I mean, the restaurant, you know, that fails is improving the system, but the poor restaurateur has been harmed. And we definitely have to do something about that. Entrepreneurs, we need entrepreneurs very badly.
TALEBNow, entrepreneurs tend to be blinded by the odds, you see? And they get the short shrift in modern society because, in fact, the ones who really make the money are those who exploit them and the bonus earners who take over the companies later, but not entrepreneurs who actually have a lot of upsides and a lot of downsides.
TALEBNow, most entrepreneurs fail, but we need them to fail for the system to operate. They're like fallen soldiers, you see?
TALEBBut we don't give them the respect they deserve like fallen soldiers. So in the book, I have this romantic idea of the risk-taker who needs to be protected by society because he is, in fact, sacrificing himself for the overall health of the system. And so at the level of collective that people think it's what doesn't kill me makes me stronger. In fact, this doesn't work that way. It's what kills me makes others stronger, so people have, you know, so we have to realize that we have to encourage some classes risk taking and protect the failures. This system -- America is built on the exploitation of failures or used to be.
NNAMDIWell, you think policymakers have been looking at the financial system as a machine that it's really more akin to an organic system. How did this apparently mistaken mindset contribute to the financial crisis in 2008?
TALEBOK. Exactly. Since the enlightenment, we started -- we're often intellectualizing things, and given that we didn't have a concept of antifragility or any idea about the nature of complex systems, we made the classical mistake that I call mistaking your cat for a washing machine. And it's as follows, anything engineered like a machine, like a watch, like a clock -- the economy is not like a clock, all right?
TALEBA clock needs constant maintenance, and you're not going to harm it by over-maintaining it. Whereas a human body or something organic, if you, you know, smooth -- if you prevent the human body from experiencing any variability, you weaken it. So one -- for one is use it and lose it. For a second one, it's use it or lose it, OK? But the difference is very big because we became interventionists, thinking the economy needs an Alan Greenspan to smooth it out and eliminate variability.
TALEBIn fact, the economy needs variability. And he made the mistake -- a classical mistake people make with -- by preventing every single forest fire. It let's the bad, you know, the flammable material accumulate, you know, silently, and then the big one becomes worse. What Alan Greenspan did is by smoothing out the economic cycle, micromanaging the pseudo stability, is move the risks into -- under the rug, so you don't see the risks.
TALEBPretty much like in Saudi Arabia, we manufacture stability there with our foreign policy, and the risks are not visible. The system is very fragile. I don't see the risks. And, of course, we blew the whole system, so we had a lot of hidden risk-taking in the system, so that came from someone who -- if we had given Alan Greenspan Nature, he would have eliminated the seasons, so we'd have 68.7 degrees year-round because he have every day, every minute.
TALEBYou see the idea. So this is a big mistake of not understanding that complex system communicate within their environments for variability, volatility, stressors and some kind of -- the need for variability is much greater than you think.
NNAMDIYou've warned that high debt only makes an economy more fragile, and because of the debt carried by the United States, Congress now faces, and the president, of course, the prospect of falling off a fiscal cliff.
TALEBYeah. The problem -- we have a severe problem at all levels, number one, a huge accumulation of debt that fragilizes the system. Again, I have three categories: fragile, robust, antifragile.
TALEBAnd that puts you squarely in the fragile camp. You cannot make a mistake. You have to be very predictive of the future if you are -- have a lot of debt. If you don't have debt, you're a lot more robust, and you can adapt. So you're in a -- at least a robust category. The problem that we have had, you know, recently of, say, increasingly over the past 20 years is a class of people who are themselves antifragile. They have up side and no down side. That's antifragile, all right, when -- and transferring the fragility to the system, namely bankers.
TALEBBankers have the up side and no down side. That's a class of people, you see. The -- like a banker I mention in the book -- I won't mention his name here. I get tired of mentioning his name. I get angry -- got hung on $20 million of compensation from Citibank. And you and I, April 15, pay for it, you see, because Citibank wasn't merely in receivership and the taxpayer bailed him out.
TALEBAnd he didn't come with a checkbook, you know. We paid for the losses. So people who had the up side and no down side, there's an asymmetry there. And the asymmetry has never been greater in history. People who don't have down side risk, they're not harmed by their mistakes, people managing companies, people in government, not harmed by their mistake. What is the solution?
TALEBWell, visibly, decentralization is one solution because people locally are more harmed by their mistake because of the reputation because you can identify the source of the error, you know, unlike someone working with a spreadsheet in Washington. So decentralization has to take place in order to, you know, toughen up the system, and there are other considerations. But we have this asymmetry. Someone has the up side. Other people have the down side. No time in history have we had that.
NNAMDISeveral questions come to mind: Is it your notion that fragility is what led to the idea that some institutions, banks, were too big fail?
TALEBI mean, what happened is that the larger the entity, the more fragile it's going to be. And the problem is when banks become big, we can't let them fail. So we just stop propping them up at the expense of the taxpayer, you know, and nature -- very large animals tend to be threatened by the environment. You know, an elephant breaks a leg very easily, whereas a mouse, you can toss them out the window. I promise I won't do it here. That would be impossible. OK.
NNAMDIThere are no mice here, come on.
TALEBBut the -- so you -- small is -- has lot of advantages, much more manageable but also more robust. I don't believe the economy is a scale. But what we have had is companies becoming large and then suddenly an increased moral hazard for the manager of these companies sort of exploiting the system. They are too big. They are going to be rescued by the government. And we taxpayers bail them out. And they don't have to return the bonuses of all these years when they were doing well. So this is a problem of size.
NNAMDISo do you think the centralized socioeconomic system advocated and practiced by those countries that were communist or wanted to be communist, was that the essence of fragility?
TALEBExactly. And let me explain where errors become large. As I spoke about the -- I spoke about the elephant makes, you know, is much more harmed by -- relatively by errors than a mouse. If I take a project of 100 million pound project in the United Kingdom where we have data, a 100 million pound project will have 30 percent more cost overruns than a 5 million pound project. So you realize that small is not just beautiful in the romantic sense. It's also beautiful in the, you know, economic sense.
TALEBIt is -- it makes a lot of sense economically to have something small. And things that are top down make fewer mistakes, but mistakes are terminal and irreversible. Things that bottomed up like Switzerland, you know, municipal system, anytime you distribute the error, the possible error that small decisions, a lot of small errors, then you get closer to an antifragile system.
TALEBErrors are confined and small, and it doesn't blow up the overall system. So decentralization has that effect in an economy where you don't prop up gigantic firms has that effect because firms are forced. It's not propped up by the government. They naturally break and become small. And then, of course, you have much better, you know, people are much more moral when they manage a municipality than when they manage numbers in a centralized headquarter.
NNAMDIWell, can major events of disorder help to promote anti-fragility, the stock market crash of 1929 or more recently talking about the sequestration that could happen here if Congress doesn't -- could that strengthen the economy in the long run?
TALEBI think putting volatile in a system, OK, after the crisis, we tried to tame volatile the second time. Putting volatile into the system is very important because volatile is information. And this is what people fail to understand. The system that is volatile, where you have panics, where you have markets, has information.
TALEBSo you get -- and taming things doesn't give us information. So it may be too late. You want to make as the same California, which is a perfect place to understand these ideas. In California, say, you need to fail early. So I'd rather this fiscal problem fail early than fail late when we can do something about it and get our House in order.
NNAMDI800-433-8850. Please don your headphones. We're about to go to the phone and take questions from callers. 800-433-8850 is our number. Did the black swan and Taleb's theory of randomness influence or change how you view the world? 800-433-8850. We go to James in Annapolis, Md. James, you are on the air. Go ahead, please.
JAMESI called a little too early, I think. My basic comment was just that I don't think there are very many actual black swans. I don't think very much. It's actually unpredictable or unpredicted.
TALEBOK. The -- I mean, let's not -- I mean, the black swan -- let me explain the problem with black swan. A black swan for a butcher is not the same as black swan for the turkey. It depends on your perspective. Someone who knows, you know, for the turkey, two days before Thanksgiving, it's a black swan event, but not for the butcher.
TALEBAnd Sept. 11, it was not a black swan for the people in -- on a plane. But it was for people in a tower. So I've had lot of arguments -- I mean, people sending me, thinking there is -- black swan has a universal definition, not understanding that it's epistemic. It depends on the observer.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call, James. Does that indeed address your question?
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call. You too can call us at 800-433-8850. Do you agree that all organic things benefit from some level of disorder? 800-433-8850. You, I have observed, seemed to have a special disdain for the news media. You've been saying your personal health has improved since you cut the daily newspaper out of your life. What, in your opinion, is wrong with journalism and the matter today?
TALEBSorry, the -- this fell.
NNAMDIYes. The headphones fell. That's...
TALEBThe headphone fell. This is a -- but it's OK, a little bit of volatility is good. No. A little bit of volatility is good for you in the long -- there are several problems. The first one is we're not made to receive information at high frequency. We should receive information at -- if you live in natural environment, you should receive information at a much lower frequency, in other words, but then take it much more seriously.
TALEBSo we sort of become -- we become dull to that information all the time. That's the first problem. The second one is the press, I mean, you're not commercial, but the press is commercial. OK. And then you're talking about my ideas, the press is going to be interested in talking to you about something lurid. The press is much more likely to talk about a shark in San Diego than about the risks of diabetes, OK?
TALEBThe current -- sorry -- the math people have -- the representation of the risks they have of the world is completely distorted by -- from reading the daily paper, that's a -- and events are magnified. To figure out, you know, how bad it is, just read last year's newspapers of the same day, and then you realize the things you took -- you got excited about were, in fact, not significant. But it becomes harmful because, as I said, the -- in "The Black Swan," the previous book, the death of a child is a tragedy.
TALEBThe death of a million is statistic, and nobody is going to talk about the statistic. And every day, we have 7,000 people dying in the Unites States, a lot of them by preventable causes. But you're not going to read a newspaper about anything except the lurid death or something that -- of, you know, that could sell the daily newspaper. That's bad because we live in a global village, but we're getting the wrong side of the information of the global village.
NNAMDIHere is John in Alexandria, Va. John, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
JOHNI just wonder, like, if we're (unintelligible) of things. Could there be -- is there an index we can look at to tell the antifragility of different systems?
TALEBExcellent. I -- actually, there's a measure of the sensitivity of something to volatility. I bet they are very technical papers. I mean, my chapter 18, I explain why you can say that -- why you -- for example, the coffee cup is more fragile than another one made in paper. You get the idea. So there's a way to measure it and by -- via acceleration of harm.
TALEBIt's a little technical. But we can measure fragility of firms. We can measure fragility of a lot of things using a very simple concept of how sensitive, locally, that object is to volatility. And, in fact, it's very easy to measure the fragility, much harder to predict events.
NNAMDIYes. But if we can measure the fragility even though we cannot predict the event, can our measurement of the fragility cause us to help that system to become antifragile?
TALEBYeah. Definitely. The -- you -- once you measure fragility, you know what to do to reduce that number, the measurement number. I don't mind if my coffee cup is fragile, but I mind if my local bank is fragile. And the techniques now are all predictive, you know, but they're not -- the -- like ones I'm suggesting to assess the fragility of systems. Something -- someone with debt is more fragile than someone without debt. You can do these comparative ranking as well.
NNAMDIHere is Benedict in Woodbridge, Va. Benedict, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
BENEDICTGood afternoon, Kojo. Good afternoon, professor.
BENEDICTYou are correct when you said that the organic will benefit from it. The principles that you speak of sounds like a Taoist principle, (word?) with the Dao that you will benefit from it. So you are correct.
TALEBThank you. That's flattering.
NNAMDII think felt he was before we called on him.
TALEBI feel now even more correct now that this writing...
NNAMDIYou feel validated now?
TALEBBut even more, you know, it's (unintelligible) so I get more confidence as I'm getting more information.
NNAMDIThank you for you call, Benedict.
TALEBThank you. Thanks a lot.
NNAMDIYou've been critical of a lot of academia's theories. How do you distinguish your own work from the rest of the academic world?
TALEBWhat, I mean, I started as a trainer, and that's number one. And two, I'm -- I've lived -- I have skin in the game and have this concept skin in the game, and let me explain it going back again to the banker. The banker doesn't have skin in the game. Anyone who is not harmed by decision he's making or she's making will be a negative for the system. Predictors are not harmed by the errors, but they cause people to have errors.
TALEBAnd, in fact, the academia of technical economics has survived selling bogus models and non-predictive things, as well as wonks here in Washington. Why? Because they're not harmed by their mistakes, someone else is harmed, so you can continue. This is the problem. And the same with, you know, after the entrepreneur sell the company, those management companies, these are not harmed by their mistakes. It's either a shareholder or the taxpayer. So I want, you know, to change the perception.
TALEBAnd in the book, I have a lot of studies of the contributional academia and not quite -- not very impressive because it looks like -- I call it lecturing birds how to fly. It looks like a lot of things we attribute to academic, you know, science, in fact, gain from technology, as technology from tinkerers and people who were, you know, doing trial and error, and trial and error has error in it, small errors. OK.
TALEBAnd they were exploiting our certainties through that mechanism of big collage or tinkering. And later on, someone put an academic stamp on it then explain in hindsight, you know, what it was about and why they were looking for it. And there's a minority of things that were discovered by academia, typically as a hobbyist. And these people, again, then get the good press in history because they don't write books.
NNAMDIWell, speaking of writing books, how do you explain the widely accepted conclusion in policy and research that a more formally educated citizenry brings more economic growth?
TALEBWell, this -- OK. The -- We now have evidence that countries don't get rich when you increase education but the reverse. Education increases when a country becomes wealthy. That's something I call a phenomenon because we think that every country that's wealthy has a high degree of education, that one -- that wealth comes from education. In fact, wealth comes from risk-taking, again.
TALEBAt the family level, however, at your local level, OK, you need to educate your children simply because you stabilize your income, you see, but that washes out at the general country level. But you take a country like Korea, they had very, you know, they got rich. Then education went up. And now they have a high degree education. So you think that was causal.
NNAMDIOh, you're done.
NNAMDII mean, in more ways than one. Your time is up.
NNAMDINassim Nicholas Taleb...
TALEBAlways too short.
NNAMDI...is distinguished professor of risk engineering at New York University. He's the author of several books including "The Black Swan." His latest work is called "Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder." So good to see you again.
TALEBGreat. Thank you very much. Thanks.
NNAMDIWe're going to take a short break. When we come back, the "Federal Diary" column of The Washington Post has been in existence for 80 years. We'll talk with the current diarist, Joe Davidson. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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