One of my favorite classics about why big businesses can’t always innovate is Clayton Christiansen’s The Innovator’s Dilemma. It is one of the most misunderstood business books, since its central concept–disruption–has been misquoted, and then popularized. Take the recent post on Investopedia that says in the second sentence that “Disruptive technology sweeps away the systems or habits it replaces because it has attributes that are recognizably superior.” This is the ‘hype’ definition used by non-innovators.
I think part of the misconception comes from thinking of disruption as major, public, technological marvels that are recognizable for their complexity or for even creating entire new industries. Disruptive innovations tend instead to be marginal, demonstrably simpler, worse on conventional scales, and start out by slowly taking over adjacent, small markets.
It recently hit me that you can identify disruption via Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s simple heuristics of recognizing when industry players are fragile. Taleb is my favorite modern philosopher, because he actually brought a new, universally applicable concept to the table, that puts into words what people have been practicing implicitly–but without a term to use. Anti-fragility is the inverse of fragile and actually helps you understand it better. Anti-fragile does not mean ‘resists breaking,’ which is more like ‘robust;’ instead, it means gains from chaos. Ford Pintos are fragile, Nokia phones are robust, but mechanical things are almost never anti-fragile. Bacteria species are anti-fragile to anti-biotics, as trying to kill them makes them stronger. Anti-fragile things are usually organic, and usually made up of fragile things–the death of one bacterium makes the species more resistant.
Taleb has a simple heuristic for finding anti-fragility. I recommend you read his book to get the full picture, but the secret to this concept is a simple thought experiment. Take any concept (or thing), and identify how it works (or fails to work). Now ask, if you subject it to chaos–by that, I mean, if you try to break it–and slowly escalate how hard you try, what happens?
- If it gets disproportionately harmed, it is fragile. E.g., traffic: as you add cars, time-to-destination gets worse slowly at first, then all of the sudden increases rapidly, and if you do it enough, cars literally stop.
- If it gets proportionately harmed or there is no effect, it is robust. Examples are easy, since most functional mechanical and electric systems are either fragile (such as Ford Pintos) or robust (Honda engines, Nokia phones, the Great Pyramids).
- If it gets better, it is anti-fragile. Examples are harder here, since it is easier to destroy than build (and anti-fragility usually occurs based on fragile elements, which gets confusing); bacterial resistance to anti-biotics (or really, the function of evolution itself) is a great one.
The only real way to get anti-fragility outside of evolution is through optionality. Debt (obligation without a choice) is fragile to any extraneous shock, so a ‘free option’–choice without obligation, the opposite, is pure anti-fragility. Not just literal ‘options’ in the market; anti-fragile takes a different form in every case, and though the face is different, the structure is the same. OK, get it? Maybe you do. I recommend coming up with your own example–if you are just free riding on mine, you don’t get it.
Anyway, back to Christiansen. Taleb likes theorizing and leaves example-finding to you, while Christiansen scrupulously documented what happened to hundreds of companies and his concepts arose from his data; think about it like Christiansen is Darwin, carefully measuring beaks, and recognizing natural selection, where Taleb is Wallace, theorizing from his experience and the underlying math of reality. Except in this case, Taleb is not just talking about natural selection, he is also showing how mutation works, and giving a theory of evolution that is not restricted to just biology.
I realized that you can actually figure out whether an innovation is disruptive using this heuristic. It takes some care, because people often look at the technology and ask if it is anti-fragile–which is a mistake. Technologies are inorganic, so usually robust or fragile. Industries are organic, strategies are organic, companies are organic. Many new strategies build on companies’ competencies or existing customer bases, and though they may meet the ‘hype’ definition above, they give upside to incumbents, and are thus not fragilizing. Disruption happens when a company has an exposure to a strategy that it has little to gain from, but that could cannibalize its market if it grows, as anti-fragile things are wont to do.
The questions is: is a given incumbent company fragile with respect to a given strategy? Let’s start with some examples–first Christiansen’s, then my own:
- Were 3″ drive makers fragile with respect to using smaller drives in cars?
- In my favorite Christiansen anecdote, a 3″ drive-making-CEO, whose company designed a smaller 1.8″ drive but couldn’t sell it to their PC or mainframe customers, complained that he did exactly what Christiansen said, and built smaller drives, and there was no market. Meanwhile, startups were selling 1.8″ drives like crazy–to car companies, for onboard computers.
- Christiansen notes that this was a tiny market, which would be an 0.01% change on a big-company income statement, and a low-profit one at that. So, since these companies were big, they were fragile to low-margin, low-volume, fast-growing submarkets. Meanwhile, startups were unbelievably excited about selling small drives at a loss, just so that Honda would buy from them.
- So, 3″ drive makers had everything to lose (the general drive market) and a blip to gain, where startups had everything to gain and nothing to lose. Note that disruptive technologies are not those that are hard to invent or that immediately revolutionize the industry. Big companies (as Christiansen proved) are actually better at big changes and at invention. They are worse at recognizing value of small changes and jumps between industries.
- Were book retailers fragile with respect to online book sales?
- Yes, Amazon is my Christiansen follow-on. Jeff Bezos, as documented in The Everything Store, gets disruption: he invented the ‘two-pizza meeting’, so he ‘gets’ smallness; he intentionally isolates his innovation teams, so he ‘gets’ the excitement of tiny gains and allows cannibalism; he started in a proof-of-concept, narrow, feasible discipline (books) with the knowledge that it would grow into the Everything Store if successful, so he ‘gets’ going from simple beginnings to large-scale, well, disruption.
- The Everything Store reads like a manual on how to be disrupted. Barnes & Noble first said “We can do that whenever we want.” Then when Bezos got some traction, B&N said “We can try this out but we need to figure out how to do it using our existing infrastructure.” Then when Bezos started eating their lunch, B&N said “We need to get into online book sales,” but sold the way they did in stores, by telling customers what they want, not by using Bezos’ anti-fragile review system. Then B&N said “We need to start doing whatever Bezos does, and beat him by out-spending,” by which time he was past that and selling CDs and then (eventually) everything.
- Book sellers were fragile because they had existing assets that had running costs; they were catering to customers with not just a book, but with an experience; they were in the business of selecting books for customers, not using customers for recommendations; they treasured partnerships with publishers rather than thinking of how to eliminate them.
- Now, some rapid-fire. Think carefully, since it is easy to fall into the trap of thinking industry titans were stupid, not fragile, and it is easy to have false positives unless you use Taleb’s heuristic.
- Car companies were fragile to electric sports cars, and Elon Musk was anti-fragile. Sure, he was up-market, which doesn’t follow Christiansen’s down-market paradigm, but he found the small market that the Nissan Leaf missed.
- NASA was fragile to modern, cheap, off-the-shelf space solutions, and…yet again…Elon Musk was anti-fragile.
- Taxis were fragile to app-based rides.
- Hotels were fragile to app-based rentals.
- Cable was fragile to sticks you put in your TV.
- Hedge funds were fragile to index funds, currently are fragile to copy trading, and I hope to god they break.
- Lastly, some counter-examples, since it is always better to use the via negativa, and assuming you have additive knowledge is dangerous. If you disagree, prove me wrong, found a startup, and make a bajillion dollars by disrupting the big guys who won’t be able to find a market:
- There is nothing disruptive about 5G.
- Solar and wind are fragile and fragilizing.
- What was wrong with WeWork’s business model? Double fragility–fixed contracts with building owners, flexible contracts with customers.
- On a more optimistic note, cool tech can still be sustaining (as opposed to disruptive), like RoboAdvisors or induction stoves or 3D printed shoes.
- Artificial intelligence or blockchain any use you have heard of (but not in any that you don’t know yet).
So, to summarize, if a company is fragile to a new strategy, the best it can do is try to robustify itself, since it has little upside. Many innovations give upside to incumbents at the marginal cost of R&D, and thus sustain them; disruption happens when the incumbents have little to gain from adopting a strategy, but startups have a high exposure to positive impact from possible adoption of a strategy due to the potential growth from small-market, incremental/simplifying opportunities, which is definitionally anti-fragility to the strategy.
Now, I hope you have a tool for judging whether industrial incumbents are fragile. Rather than trying to predict success or failure of any, you should just use Taleb’s heuristic–that will help you sort things into ‘hyped as disruptive’ vs. ‘actually probably disruptive.’ A last thought: if you found this wildly confusing, just remember, disruptive innovations tend to steal the jobs of incumbents. So, if an incumbent (say, a Goldman Sachs/Morgan Stanley veteran writing the definition of “disruptive” for Investopedia) is talking about a banking or trading technology, it is almost certainly not disruptive, since he would hardly tell you how to render him extraneous. You will find out what is disruptive when he makes an apology video while wearing a nice watch and French cuffs.
Like some of my role models, I am inspired by Isaac Asimov’s vision. However, for years, the central ability at the heart of the Foundation series–‘psychohistory,’ which enables Hari Seldon, the protagonist, to predict broad social trends across thousands of galaxies over thousands of years–has bothered me. Not so much because of its impact in the fictional universe of Foundation, but for how closely it matches the real-life ideas of predictive modeling. I truly fear that the Seldon Fallacy is spreading, building up society’s exposure to negative, unpredictable shocks.
The Seldon Fallacy: 1) It is possible to model complex, chaotic systems with simplified, non-chaotic models; 2) Combining chaotic elements makes the whole more predictable.
The first part of the Seldon Fallacy is the mistake of assuming reducibility, or more poetically, of NNT’s Procustean Bed. As F.A. Hayek asserted, no predictive model can be less complex than the model it predicts, because of second-order effects and accumulation of errors of approximation. Isaac Asimov’s central character, Hari Seldon, fictionally ‘proves’ the ludicrous fallacy that chaotic systems can be reduced to ‘psychohistorical’ mathematics. I hope you, reader, don’t believe that…so you don’t blow up the economy by betting a fortune on an economic prediction. Two famous thought experiments disprove this: the three-body problem and the damped, driven oscillator. If we can’t even model a system with three ‘movers’, because of second-order effects, how can we model interactions between millions of people? Basically, with no way to know which reductions in complexity are meaningful, Seldon cannot know whether, in laying his living system into a Procustean bed, he has accidentally decapitated it. Using this special ability, while unable to predict individuals’ actions precisely, Seldon can map out social forces with such clarity that he correctly predicts the fall of a 10,000-year empire. Now, to turn to the ‘we can predict social, though not individual futures’ portion of the fallacy: that big things are predictable even if their consituent elements are not.
The second part of the Seldon Fallacy is the mistake of ‘the marble jar.’ Not all randomnesses are equal: drawing white and black marbles from a jar (with replacement) is fundamentally predictable, and the more marbles drawn, the more predictable the mix of marbles in the jar. Many models depend on this assumption or similar ones–that random events distribute normally (in the Gaussian sense) in a way that increases the certainty of the model as the number of samples increases. But what if we are not observing independent events? What if they are not Gaussian? What if someone tricked you, and tied some marbles together so you can’t take out only one? What if one of them is attached to the jar, and by picking it up, you inadvertently break the jar, spilling the marbles? Effectively, what if you are not working with a finite, reducible, Gaussian random system, but an infinite, Mandelbrotian, real-world random system? What if the jar contains not marbles, but living things?
I apologize if I lean too heavily on fiction to make my points, but another amazing author answers this question much more poetically than I could. Just in the ‘quotes’ from wise leaders in the introductions to his historical-fantasy series, Jim Butcher tells stories of the rise and fall of civilizations. First, on cumulative meaning:
“If the beginning of wisdom is in realizing that one knows nothing, then the beginning of understanding is in realizing that all things exist in accord with a single truth: Large things are made of smaller things.
Drops of ink are shaped into letters, letters form words, words form sentences, and sentences combine to express thought. So it is with the growth of plants that spring from seeds, as well as with walls built from many stones. So it is with mankind, as the customs and traditions of our progenitors blend together to form the foundation for our own cities, history, and way of life.
Be they dead stone, living flesh, or rolling sea; be they idle times or events of world-shattering proportion, market days or desperate battles, to this law, all things hold: Large things are made from small things. Significance is cumulative–but not always obvious.”
–Gaius Secundus, Academ’s Fury
Second, on the importance of individuals as causes:
“The course of history is determined not by battles, by sieges, or usurpations, but by the actions of the individual. The strongest city, the largest army is, at its most basic level, a collection of individuals. Their decisions, their passions, their foolishness, and their dreams shape the years to come. If there is any lesson to be learned from history, it is that all too often the fate of armies, of cities, of entire realms rests upon the actions of one person. In that dire moment of uncertainty, that person’s decision, good or bad, right or wrong, big or small, can unwittingly change the world.
But history can be quite the slattern. One never knows who that person is, where he might be, or what decision he might make.
It is almost enough to make me believe in Destiny.”
–Gaius Primus, Furies of Calderon
If you are not convinced by the wisdom of fiction, put down your marble jar, and do a real-world experiment. Take 100 people from your community, and measure their heights. Then, predict the mean and distribution of height. While doing so, ask each of the 100 people for their net worth. Predict a mean and distribution from that as well. Then, take a gun, and shoot the tallest person and the richest person. Run your model again. Before you look at the results, tell me: which one do you expect shifted more?
I seriously hope you bet on the wealth model. Height, like marble-jar samples, is normally distributed. Wealth follows a power law, meaning that individual datapoints at the extremes have outsized impact. If you happen to live in Seattle and shot a tech CEO, you may have lowered the mean income in the group by more than the average income of the other 99 people!
So, unlike the Procustean Bed (part 1 of the Seldon Fallacy), the Marble Jar (part 2 of the Seldon Fallacy) is not always a fallacy. There are systems that follow the Gaussian distribution, and thus the Marble Jar is not a fallacy. However, many consequential systems–including earnings, wars, governmental spending, economic crashes, bacterial resistance, inventions’ impacts, species survival, and climate shocks–are non-Gaussian, and thus the impact of a single individual action could blow up the model.
The crazy thing is, Asimov himself contradicts his own protagonist in his magnum opus (in my opinion). While the Foundation Series keeps alive the myth of the predictive simulation, my favorite of his books–The End of Eternity (spoilers)–is a magnificent destruction of the concept of a ‘controlled’ world. For large systems, this book is also a death knell even of predictability itself. The Seldon Fallacy–that a simplified, non-chaotic model can predict a complex, chaotic reality, and that size enhances predictability–is shown, through the adventures of Andrew Harlan, to be riddled with hubris and catastrophic risk. I cannot reduce his complex ideas into a simple summary, for I may decapitate his central model. Please read the book yourself. I will say, I hope that as part of your reading, I hope you take to heart the larger lesson of Asimov on predictability: it is not only impossible, but undesirable. And please, let’s avoid staking any of our futures on today’s false prophets of predictable randomness.
Game theory is an amazing way to simulate reality, and I strongly recommend any business leader to educate herself on underlying concepts. However, I have found that the way that it is constructed in economic and political science papers has limited connection to the real world–apart from nuclear weapons strategies, of course.
If you are not a mathematician or economist, you don’t really have time to assign exact payoffs to outcomes or calculate an optimal strategy. Instead, you can either guess, or you can use the framework of game theory–but none of the math–to make rapid decisions that cohere to its principles, and thus avoid being a sucker (at least some of the time).
As Yogi Berra didn’t say, “In theory, there is no difference between practice and theory. In practice, there is.” As a daily practitioner of game theory, here are some of its assumptions that I literally had to throw out to make it actually work:
- Established/certain boundaries on utility: Lots of games bound utility (often from 0 to 1, or -1 to 1, etc. for each individual). Throw away those games, as they preferenced easier math over representation of random, infinite realities, where the outcomes are always more uncertain and tend to be unbounded.
- Equating participants: Similar to the above, most games have the same utility boundaries for all participants, when in reality it literally always varies. I honestly think that game theorists would model out the benefits of technology based on the assumption that a Sumerian peasant in 3000 BC and an American member of the service economy in 2020 can have equivalent utility. That is dumb.
- Unchanging calculations: In part because of the uncertainty and asymmetries mentioned above, no exact representation of a game sticks around–instead, the equation constantly shifts as participants change, and utility boundaries move (up with new tech, down with new regs, etc). That is why the math is subordinate to structure: if you are right about the participants, the pathways, and have an OK gut estimate of the payoff magnitudes, you can decide rapidly and then shift your equation as the world changes.
- Minimal feedback/second order effects: Some games have signal-response, but it is hard to abstract the concept that all decisions enter a complex milieu of interacting causes and effects where the direction arrow is hard to map. Since you can’t model them, just try to guess–what with the response to the game outcome be? Focus on feedback loops–they hold secrets to unbounded long-term utilities.
- The game ends: Obviously, since games are abstractions, it makes sense to tie them up nicely in one set of inputs and then a final set of outputs. In reality, there is really only one game, and each little representation is a snapshot of life. That means that many games forget that the real goal of the game is to stay in it.
These examples–good rules of thumb to practitioners, certain to be subject to quibbling by any academic reader–remind me of how wrong even the history of game theory is. As with many oversights by historians of science, the attribution of game theory’s invention credits the first theoretician (John von Neumann, who was smart enough to both practice and theorize), not the first practitioner (probably lost to history–but certainly by the 1600’s, as Pascal’s Wager actually lines up better with “game theory in the wild” in that he used infinite payoffs and actually did become religious). Practitioners, I would ignore the conventional history, theory, actual math, and long papers. Focus on easily used principles and heuristics that capture uncertainty, unboundedness, and asymmetries. Some examples:
- Principle: Prediction is hard. Don’t do it if you can help it.
- Heuristic: Bounded vs. Unbounded. Magnitude is easier to measure (or at least cap) than likelihood is.
- Principle: Every variable introduces more complexity and uncertainty.
- Heuristic: Make decisions for one really good reason. If your best reason is not enough, don’t depend on accumulation.
- Principle: One-time experiments don’t optimize.
- Heuristic: If you actually want to find useful methods, iterate.
- Principle: Anything that matters (power, utility, etc.) tends to be unequally distributed.
- Heuristic: Ignore the middle. Either make one very rich person very happy (preferred) or make most people at least a little happier. Or pull a barbell strategy if you can.
- The Academic Certainty Principle: Mere observation of reality by academics inevitably means they don’t get it. (Actually a riff on observer effects, not Hiesenberg, but the name is catchier this way).
- Heuristic: In game theory as in all academic ideas, if you think an academic stumbled upon a good practice, try it–but assume you will need trial and error to get it right.
- Principle: Since any action has costs, ‘infinite’ payoffs, in reality, come from dividing by zero.
- The via negativa: Your base assumption should be inaction, followed by action to eliminate cost. Be very skeptical of “why not” arguments.
So, in summary, most specific game theories are broken because they preference math (finite, tidy, linear) over practice (interconnected, guess-based, asymmetric). That does not mean you can’t use game theory in the wild, it just means that you should focus on structure over math, unbounded/infinite payoffs over solvable games, feedback loops over causal arrows, inaction over action, extremes over moderates, and rules of thumb over quibbles.
- Collecting the dreams of imperial subjects Erik Linstrum, Aeon
- On NATO’s open door policy Emma Ashford, War on the Rocks
- Stalin’s Danish mystery Caroline Kennedy-Pipe, History Today
- Taleb’s distinction between “complicated” and “complex” Mark Cancellieri, askblog (comments)
It’s been a heck of a year. Thanks for plugging along with Notes On Liberty. Like the world around me, NOL keeps getting better and better. Traffic in 2019 came from all over the place, but the usual suspects didn’t disappoint: the United States, United Kingdom, Canada, India, and Australia (in that order) supplied the most readers, again.
As far as most popular posts, I’ll list the top 10 below, but such a list doesn’t do justice to NOL and the Notewriters’ contribution to the Great Conversation, nor will the list reflect the fact that some of NOL‘s classic pieces from years ago were also popular again.
Nick’s “One weird old tax could slash wealth inequality (NIMBYs, don’t click!)” was in the top ten for most of this year, and his posts on John Rawls, The Joker film, Dominic Cummings, and the UK’s pornographer & puritan coalition are all worth reading again (and again). The Financial Times, RealClearPolicy, 3 Quarks Daily, and RealClearWorld all featured Nick’s stuff throughout 2019.
Joakim had a banner year at NOL, and four of his posts made the top 10. He got love from the left, right, and everything in between this year. “Elite Anxiety: Paul Collier’s ‘Future of Capitalism’” (#9), “In Defense of Not Having a Clue” (#8), and “You’re Not Worth My Time” (#7) all caused havoc on the internet and in coffee shops around the world. Joakim’s piece on Mr Darcy from Pride and Prejudice (#2) broke – no shattered – NOL‘s records. Aside from shattering NOL‘s records, Joakim also had excellent stuff on financial history, Richard Davies, and Nassim Taleb. He is also beginning to bud as a cultural commentator, too, as you can probably tell from his sporadic notes on opinions. Joakim wants a more rational, more internationalist, and more skeptical world to live in. He’s doing everything he can to make that happen. And don’t forget this one: “Economists, Economic History, and Theory.”
Tridivesh had an excellent third year at NOL. His most popular piece was “Italy and the Belt and Road Initiative,” and most of his other notes have been featured on RealClearWorld‘s front page. Tridivesh has also been working with me behind the scenes to unveil a new feature at NOL in 2020, and I couldn’t be more humbled about working with him.
Bill had a slower year here at NOL, as he’s been working in the real world, but he still managed to put out some bangers. “Epistemological anarchism to anarchism” kicked off a Feyerabendian buzz at NOL, and he put together well-argued pieces on psychedelics, abortion, and the alt-right. His short 2017 note on left-libertarianism has quietly become a NOL classic.
Mary had a phenomenal year at NOL, which was capped off with some love from RealClearPolicy for her “Contempt for Capitalism” piece. She kicked off the year with a sharp piece on semiotics in national dialogue, before then producing a four-part essay on bourgeois culture. Mary also savaged privileged hypocrisy and took a cultural tour through the early 20th century. Oh, and she did all this while doing doctoral work at Oxford. I can’t wait to see what she comes up with in 2020.
Aris’ debut year at NOL was phenomenal. Reread “Rawls, Antigone and the tragic irony of norms” and you’ll know what I’m talking about. I am looking forward to Dr Trantidis’ first full year at NOL in 2020.
Rick continues to be my favorite blogger. His pieces on pollution taxes (here and here) stirred up the libertarian faithful, and he is at his Niskanenian best on bullshit jobs and property rights. His notes on Paul Feyerabend, which I hope he’ll continue throughout 2020, were the centerpiece of NOL‘s spontaneity this year.
Vincent only had two posts at NOL in 2019, but boy were they good: “Interwar US inequality data are deeply flawed” and “Not all GDP measurement errors are greater than zero!” Dr Geloso focused most of his time on publishing academic work.
Alexander instituted the “Sunday Poetry” series at NOL this year and I couldn’t be happier about it. I look forward to reading NOL every day, but especially on Sundays now thanks to his new series. Alex also put out the popular essay “Libertarianism and Neoliberalism – A difference that matters?” (#10), which I suspect will one day grow to be a classic. That wasn’t all. Alex was the author of a number of my personal faves at NOL this year, including pieces about the Austro-Hungarian Empire, constructivism in international relations (part 1 and part 2), and some of the more difficult challenges facing diplomacy today.
Edwin ground out a number of posts in 2019 and, true to character, they challenged orthodoxy and widely-held (by libertarians) opinions. He said “no” to military intervention in Venezuela, though not for the reasons you may think, and that free immigration cannot be classified as a right under classical liberalism. He also poured cold water on Hong Kong’s protests and recommended some good reads on various topics (namely, Robert Nozick and The Troubles). Edwin has several essays on liberalism at NOL that are now bona fide classics.
Federico produced a number of longform essays this year, including “Institutions, Machines, and Complex Orders” and “Three Lessons on Institutions and Incentives” (the latter went on to be featured in the Financial Times and led to at least one formal talk on the subject in Buenos Aires). He also contributed to NOL‘s longstanding position as a bulwark against libertarian dogma with “There is no such thing as a sunk cost fallacy.”
Jacques had a number of hits this year, including “Poverty Under Democratic Socialism” and “Mass shootings in perspective.” His notes on the problems with higher education, aka the university system, also garnered plenty of eyeballs.
Michelangelo, Lode, Zak, and Shree were all working on their PhDs this year, so we didn’t hear from them much, if at all. Hopefully, 2020 will give them a bit more freedom to expand their thoughts. Lucas was not able to contribute anything this year either, but I am confident that 2020 will be the year he reenters the public fray.
Mark spent the year promoting his new book (co-authored by Noel Johnson) Persecution & Toleration. Out of this work arose one of the more popular posts at NOL earlier in the year: “The Institutional Foundations of Antisemitism.” Hopefully Mark will have a little less on his plate in 2020, so he can hang out at NOL more often.
Derrill’s “Romance Econometrics” generated buzz in the left-wing econ blogosphere, and his “Watson my mind today” series began to take flight in 2019. Dr Watson is a true teacher, and I am hoping 2020 is the year he can start dedicating more time to the NOL project, first with his “Watson my mind today” series and second with more insights into thinking like an economist.
Kevin’s “Hyperinflation and trust in ancient Rome” (#6) took the internet by storm, and his 2017 posts on paradoxical geniuses and the deleted slavery clause in the US constitution both received renewed and much deserved interest. But it was his “The Myth of the Nazi War Machine” (#1) that catapulted NOL into its best year yet. I have no idea what Kevin will write about in 2020, but I do know that it’ll be great stuff.
Bruno, one of NOL’s most consistent bloggers and one of its two representatives from Brazil, did not disappoint. His “Liberalism in International Relations” did exceptionally well, as did his post on the differences between conservatives, liberals, and libertarians. Bruno also pitched in on Brazilian politics and Christianity as a global and political phenomenon. His postmodernism posts from years past continue to do well.
Andrei, after several years of gentle prodding, finally got on the board at NOL and his thoughts on Foucault and his libertarian temptation late in life (#5) did much better than predicted. I am hoping to get him more involved in 2020. You can do your part by engaging him in the ‘comments’ threads.
Chhay Lin kept us all abreast of the situation in Hong Kong this year. Ash honed in on housing economics, Barry chimed in on EU elections, and Adrián teased us all in January with his “Selective Moral Argumentation.” Hopefully these four can find a way to fire on all cylinders at NOL in 2020, because they have a lot of cool stuff on their minds (including, but not limited to, bitcoin, language, elections in dictatorships, literature, and YIMBYism).
Ethan crushed it this year, with most of his posts ending up on the front page of RealClearPolicy. More importantly, though, was his commitment to the Tocquevillian idea that lawyers are responsible for education in democratic societies. For that, I am grateful, and I hope he can continue the pace he set during the first half of the year. His most popular piece, by the way, was “Spaghetti Monsters and Free Exercise.” Read it again!
I had a good year here, too. My pieces on federation (#3) and American literature (#4) did waaaaaay better than expected, and my nightcaps continue to pick up readers and push the conversation. I launched the “Be Our Guest” feature here at NOL, too, and it has been a mild success.
Thank you, readers, for a great 2019 and I hope you stick around for what’s in store during 2020. It might be good, it might be bad, and it might be ugly, but isn’t that what spontaneous thoughts on a humble creed are all about? Keep leaving comments, too. The conversation can’t move (forward or backward) without your voice.
I’ve been on a Taleb streak this year (here, here and here). Nassim Nicholas Taleb, that is, the options trader-turned-mathematician-turned public intellectual (and I even managed to get myself on his infamous blocklist after arguing back at him). Many years ago, I read Fooled by Randomness but for some reason it didn’t resonate with me and I wasn’t seeing the brilliance.
Last spring, upon reading former poker champion Annie Duke’s Thinking in Bets and physicist Leonard Mlodinow’s The Drunkard’s Walk, I plunged into Taleb land again, voraciously consuming Fooled, The Black Swan and Skin in the Game, followed by Antifragile just a few months ago.
Taleb is a strange creature; vastly productive and incredibly successful, everything he touches does not quite become gold, but surely stirs up controversy. What he’s managed to do in his popular writing (collected in the Incerto series) is to tie almost every aspect of human life into his One Big Idea (think Isaiah Berlin’s hedgehog): the role of randomness, risk and uncertainty in everyday life.
One theme that comes up again and again is the idea of redundancies: having several different and overlapping systems – back-ups to back-ups – that minimize the chance of fatally bad outcomes. The failures of one of those systems will not result in the extremely bad event you’re trying to avoid.
Focusing primarily on survivability – “absorbing barriers” – through the handed-down wisdom of the Ancients and the Classic, the take-away lesson for Taleb in almost all areas of life is overlapping redundancies. Reality is complicated, and the distribution from which events are drawn is not a well-behaved Gaussian normal distribution, but one of thick tails. How thick nobody knows, but wisdom in the presence of absorbing barriers suggest that taking extreme caution is a prudent long-term strategy.
Of course, in the short run, redundancy amounts to “wasted” resources. In chapter 4 of Fooled, Taleb relates a story from his option trading days where a client angrily calling him up about tail-risk insurance he had sold them. The catastrophic event from which the insurance protected had not taken place, and so the client felt cheated. This behavior, Taleb maintains quite correctly, is idiotic. After all, if an insurance company’s clients consist of only soon-to-be claimants, the company won’t exist for long (or it prices insurance at prohibitively high rates, undermining the business model).
Same thing applies for one of his verbose rants about airline “efficiency,” a rather absurd episode of illustrating “asymmetry” – the idea that downside risks are larger than upside gains. Consider a plane departing JFK for London, a trip scheduled to take 7h trip. Some things can happen to make the trip quicker (speedy departure, weather conditions, landing slot available etc), but only marginally; it would, for instance, not be possible to arrive in London after only an hour. In contrast, the asymmetry arises as there are many things that can delay the trip from mere minutes to infinity – again, weather events, mechanical failures, tech or communication problems.
So, when airlines striving to make their services more efficient by minimizing turnaround time – Southwest’s legendary claim to fame – they hit Taleb’s antifragile asymmetry; getting rid of redundant time on the ground, makes the process of on-loading and off-loading passengers fragile. Any little mistake can cause serious delays, delays that accumulate and domino their way through crowded airport networks.
Embracing redundancies would mean having more time in-between flights, with extra planes and extra mechanics and spare parts available at many airports. Clearly, airlines’ already brittle business model would crumble in a heartbeat.
The flipside efficiency is Taleb’s redundancy. Without optimization, we constantly use more than we need, effectively operating as a tax on all activity. Taleb would of course quibble with that, pointing out that the probability distribution of what “we need” must include Black Swan events that standard optimization arguments overlook.
That’s fine if one places as high a value on risks that Taleb does, and indeed they’re voluntarily paid for. If customers wanted to pay triple the money for airfares in order to avoid this or that delay, there is a market for that – it just seems few people value that price over the damage from (low-probability) delays.
Another example is earthquake-proving buildings that Nate Silver discussed in his The Signal and the Noise regarding the Gutenberg-Ritcher law (the reliably inverse relationship between frequency and magnitude of earthquakes). Constructing buildings that can withstand a high-magnitude earthquake, say a one-in-three-hundred-year event is something rich Californians or Japanese can afford – much-less so a poor country like the Philippines. Yes, Taleb correctly argues, the poor country pays its earthquake expenses in heightened risk of devastating damage.
Large redundancies, back-ups to back-ups, are great if you a) can afford them, and b) are risk-averse enough. Judging by his writing, Taleb is – ironically – far out along the right-tail of risk aversion; for most other people, we have more urgent needs to look after. That means occasionally “blowing up” and suffer hours and hours of airline delays or collapsing buildings after an earthquake.
Taleb rarely considers the trade-offs, and the different subjective value scales (or discount rates!) that differ between people. While Taleb may cherish his redundancies, most of us would rather eliminate them for asymmetrically small gains.
Insurance is a relative assessment of price and risks. Keeping a reserve of redundancies are subjective choices, not an objective necessities.
I read a lot. Wide, deep and across quite a number of different fields. As a self-proscribed ‘writer’ and ‘editor’, reading much is both satisfying an intellectual desire and a professionally useful practice in familiarize myself with various styles, voices and topics. A common tip for aspiring writers is to read someone they admire and try to imitate their style; at this, at least, I am somewhat successful, as a friend recently told me that my style reminded him of Deirdre McCloskey. Full of idolized admiration for Deirdre’s work, I couldn’t imagine a higher praise.
As readers, the eternal curse of modernity is our laughable inability to keep up with the couple of millions of books that are published every year. Not to mention written materials on blog or respectable outlets or in magazines and journals. As consumers of the written word, we are completely outstripped, utterly defenseless and overwhelmingly inundated.
When in September I published my discussion of geographer and anthropologist Jared Diamond’s impressive work, I got a lot of feedback of astonishment from friends and family – including the friend that praised me for occasionally (accidentally…?) write like McCloskey: “Wow,” he said, “I’ve never heard of him before!”
Huh, I thought. I wonder what other household names of public intellectuals are not read as much as they deserve.
My exact reaction of astonishment was more like a gaping “What?!”, betraying my wanna-know-everything attitude, slight elitism and writer lifestyle. Contrary to the belief that our times is one of all talking and no listening (well, writing and no reading), it takes a vast amount of reading before you can produce anything that others want to read. Sure, anybody with a laptop and an internet connection can start a blog and flush out their thoughts (I did so for years) but it takes knowledge to say something intelligent and interesting – knowledge acquired by extensive reading.
It also takes a lot of practice to develop a voice of one’s own. Authors with astonishing and recognizable writing styles are made, not born.
What, then, should you read?
In light of this surprise, I decided to make a list of intellectuals I would advise anybody to read. Note that this is not a list of the most important thinkers ever, nor is it a collection of the most profound academic contribution to various disciplines. Instead it’s a gathering of writers whose popular writing (often in addition to their rigorous academic work) is exactly that – popular. That means that a lot of others liked them (and if you’re anything like others, you might too) and more importantly: a lot of smart people you meet are rather likely refer to these authors or to the ideas contained in their work. Here are 11 authors I would consider to be household names and whose writing will make you a much smarter and interesting person.
Let’s begin our list with aforementioned Jared Diamond, whose trilogy on humanity is compulsory reading for pretty-much everyone. This year he released Upheaval, which received very mixed responses and that I decided to skip after hearing his pitch on Sam Harris’ Making Sense podcast. Diamond’s publisher maintains that this is the third installment of his “monumental trilogy” of how civilizations rise and fall, but to me that was The World Until Yesterday:
- Guns, Germs and Steel is the book that definitely made Diamond a well-known name, the kind of Big Picture civilizational economic history we have recently seen in Yuval Harari’s work – the author of Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, that strangely boring book that everyone seems to be reading these days – or the less well-known but more captivating Columbia professor Ruth DeFries’ The Big Ratchet. If you like, you could describe this Pulitzer prize-winning book as well-written geographical reasons for why the West is rich and the Rest isn’t. If that’s your thing, read away.
- Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, the book that my September piece was mostly concerned with, is a dense story of many different human civilizations falling apart: Easter Islanders, Native Americans in the dry southwest or central America and my favourite chapter: The Greenland Norse. Complemented with the Fall of Civilizations podcast and Dan Carlin’s recent book The End is Always Near would make you ridiculously interesting to talk to in these hyper-catastrophist times. Upheaval is a natural extension of Collapse so if you crave more, that one is for you.
- I would rather point to The World Until Yesterday for Diamond’s third gem as it is a deep dive into the lives of traditional societies in general, but in practice mostly New Guinean societies. Somehow, Diamond made anthropology exciting!
Rapidly moving up in controversy, Paul Collier is an Oxford development economist whose work most intellectuals have a distinctly firm opinion about. His popular claim to fame rests on:
- Exodus, a very cool (and prescient!) take on global migration. Highly recommended.
- The Bottom Billion, for a plunge into global poverty and development economics. It might be slightly outdated (published in 2007) as many of the 60 failing countries he identifies have seem quite some growth in the last decade.
I should also recommend his latest book, Future of Capitalism, but I wasn’t very impressed with it. In these times of political polarization, populist uprisings, urban-rural divides and worries about AI, it is still a relevant read.
Whenever Collier speaks, you want to listen.
The Four Horsemen of Atheism (or “New Atheism”):
Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, and Daniel Dennett
Together, these 5 brilliant minds may have helped many out of their religiosity, but their contributions loom much larger than that. As most of the Western world has gradually abandoned faith, their religious inclinations have turned to other areas: environmentalism (Mike Munger’s take on recycling never gets old!), invented hierarchies or social justice. The writings of these five horsemen can be hugely beneficial here too. Some recommended reading includes:
- Dawkins: The God Delusion (update: Outgrowing God: A Beginner’s Guide, just released last month, apparently at first intended for children/teenagers)
- Hitchens: God Is Not Great
- Dennett: Darwin’s Dangerous Idea
- Harris: The End of Faith (but I like The Moral Landscape even more. Disclaimer: I’m a voracious consumer of his Making Sense podcast)
- Hirsi Ali: Infidel: My Life
- The Ascent of Money, which was my introduction to Ferguson during second year of Uni and still my favourite book of his
- The Cash Nexus, which I confess to not having read. Shame, I know.
- House of Rothschild (Money’s Prophets + The World’s Banker), the massive two-volume biography of the Rothschilds and an absolute treasure trove for 19th century European finance. Whenever I need some background info on that topic – or I find myself bored around a well-equipped academic library – I browse Ferguson’s diligent archival work.
- Empire: How Britain Made the Modern World, the controversial “maybe it wasn’t all bad…?” take on British imperialism. Predictably, Ferguson generated some outrage over this.
- Civilization, “a book that belongs at the more populist end of the Ferguson oeuvre” which we can also say about:
- The Great Degeneration (which I didn’t mind reading, but wasn’t overly impressed with).
I should also mention his two-volume biography of Henry Kissinger (first volume 2015, next probably finished next year), which I ignored (politics is boring) and his recent book The Square and the Tower, which I heard very bad things about – and so downgraded for now.
Ah, this Harvard cognitive scientist and linguist-turned-public-intellectual is a must-read. His top trilogy, which I voraciously consumed last fall, includes:
- The Blank Slate, the best description of this book that I ever heard came from Charlotta Stern, sociologist at Stockholm University: every sound argument against the “Nurture Only”-idea that biology doesn’t matter compiled into a single book. Yes, you want to read it.
- The Better Angels of Our Nature, a Big Picture humanity-scale look at violence, resurrecting Norbert Elias’ Civilizing Process theory to explain why we hurt and kill each other less than at probably any point in human history. Nassim Nicholas Taleb (see below) is decidedly not convinced.
- Enlightenment Now! The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress, as if Better Angels wasn’t Big Picture enough, here’s the ultimate case for why humanity is doing pretty well, why doomsday sayers are wrong on every count and why we shouldn’t despair. Many of the topics of Better Angels re-occur in Enlightenment Now!, but I don’t regret reading both as Pinker’s prose is easy to follow and his content well-sourced should you require more convincing. Originally a cognitive scientist, he has a ton of more books you might wanna check out – The Language Instinct, for instance, ranks pretty high on my Next Up list:
- The Language Instinct
- How the Mind Works
- The Stuff of Thought
Speaking of optimistic people taking a Big Picture view of humanity, zoologist and science writer Matt Ridley is a must. Tall (like me!), Oxford-educated (like me!) and techno-optimist (like me!), no wonder I like him.
- Rational Optimist, a book in the same style as Pinker’s Enlightenment Now!, Hans Rosling’s Factfulness, Johan Norberg’s Progress, and Angus Deaton’s The Great Escape, briefly summarised as: Shit is getting better. Accept it.
- The Origin of Virtue, one of his earlier books in the 1990s that I haven’t read yet (together with Genome and The Red Queen), but I imagine is similar in content to Nicholas Christakis 500-page Blueprint from earlier this year (which I have read).
- Ridley’s most recent book is from 2015 Evolution of Everything and we’ll blame his House of Lords duties for distracting him from his forthcoming book on Innovation that I’ve written about before (How Innovation Works and Why It Flourishes in Freedom).
At last, How Innovation Works is schedule for May 2020.
Nassim Nicholas Taleb
Oh, boy – here’s a controversial one. Frequently does he get into loud and hostile arguments with other high-profile intellectuals, and rarely does he pull any punches. His popular writing is found in the “Incerto” serie – the Latin term for ‘doubt’ or ‘uncertainty’ that capture Taleb’s core work. The set of books are together described as “an investigation of luck, uncertainty, probability, opacity, human error, risk, disorder, and decision-making in a world we don’t understand:”
They are intended to push One Big Idea: that we frequently overlook how random the world is, ascribing causality where none belongs and overestimate what we can know from (relatively recent) past events. Black Swans, the proverbial unpredictable event, dominates the social sciences in Taleb’s view. While the 2000-odd pages worth of the Incerto series may seem daunting, the books (and even the individual chapters) are designed not to fall very far from each other. The interested reader can, in other words, pick any one of them and work backwards in accordance with whatever is of interest. You wanna read all – or any – of them.
Having read Fooled by Randomness first, I’ve always held that highest. Be ready for a lot of sarcastic and frequently hostile (but thoughtful) objections of things you took for granted.
In sum: just bloody read more
Any selection of important contemporary intellectuals is arbitrary, highly skewed and super-unfair. There are more, many more, whose fantastic writings deserve attention. As I said, the eternal curse of modernity is our laughable inability to keep up with avalanche of cool stuff written every year.
As readers, we are overrun – and the only thing you can do to keep is is to read more. Read widely.
- The art of bullshit detection, as a way of life Joshua Hochschild, First Things
- On the mind-body and consciousness-body problems Nick Nielsen, Grand Strategy Annex
- Lost innocence: the children whose parents joined an ashram Lily Dunn, Aeon
- Polish mayor, a centrist, was just stabbed at a charity event Jan Cienski, Politico
Back In 2007 Nassim Nicholas Taleb had estimated that, in the following years, the rate of irruption of highly improbable events that change our way to perceive reality would be on the increase. Using his terminology, we would swiftly drift from Mediocristan out to Extremistan. People would have to deal with black swans more often and adapt to the new scenario.
The sudden spreading of Jordan Peterson’s lobsters might be a confirmation of Taleb’s surmise (in Extremistan, the term “surmise” has not any derogatory connotation). “Stand up straight with your shoulders back” is a piece of advice aimed at people who feel overwhelmed by a state of affairs, both personal and public, whose complexity they can hardly grasp. In Taleb’s terms, Jordan Peterson wants to prepare you for a world in which the Black Swans are the underlying reality.
Our quantitative patterns about reality -both physical and social- contribute to preserve fixed relationships among the terms that build up our world and subjectivity -while every now and then the “untimely” burst into our sense of reality. The Nietzschean “untimely” had always been there, out of the reach of our horizon of perception, but ready to appear suddenly and unexpectedly, like the plague in Thebes.
Nevertheless, perhaps there is no underlying chaotic reality, but a Hofstadter’s braid, where Apollo and Dionysus are intertwined: simple and complex phenomena, back to back, the beauty and the sublime. Upon one side, the train of events represented by a correlative train of thoughts; on the reverse, a plane of unarticulated notions that are inherent to those representations.
In this sense, the matrix of Taleb’s Black Swans might not inhabit the undertow of our perceptions, but stand above them, in a plane of a higher degree of complexity. Each new event triggers our brain to readjust our system of classifications. But this readjustment, at its time, triggers off a reconfiguration in the said plane of unarticulated notions that give support to our set of representations. In principle, an arrangement of such events would remain stable, but sometimes some unintended consequences could arise. That is the dynamic of events that Friedrich Hayek had once tried to convey with his concept of spontaneous or abstract order.
Peterson’s Red Lobsters try to make us reflect on the edge of our common patterns of conduct, whereas Taleb’s Black Swans incite us to perform the speculative activity of throwing hypothesis over the singularity of the abstract order, so that to anticipate any unintended consequences of our individual or collective behaviour. Notwithstanding the huge differences that there might be between them, what deserves our main attention is the acknowledgement of that the unplanned, the unexpected, the uncertain, are not alien forces, but the inherent articulation of the patterns of events that constitute the matter we are face to deal with.
My favorite podcast really hit the Big Time this week. Marc Maron interviewed President Obama last week and released the episode today. Marc Maron does a great job interviewing his guests but this episode is (naturally) pretty different. Obama mostly gives a lot of fluff, but he did make some interesting points on the role of political institutions in polarizing politics, as well as the role of [implicit] property rights in shaping political outcomes.
While I was waiting for this episode to be released I wondered what I would have done in Maron’s position. It’s tempting to say “just scream non-stop for an hour until the president agrees to be better.” But of course, that wouldn’t do anyone any good (although I think it would sell advertising on cable news). The question is then “how do I avoid throwing softballs, maintain a good conversation, and still nudge in the direction of change I’d like to see?”
One thing I think would be important were I in that position is to restrict the number of issues I bring up. The limits of human attention mean that we simply can’t handle more than a handful of things at once. Piling on all the issues and complexities of the world would only serve to reduce anyone’s ability to do anything positive. Another thing I think would be important is focusing on areas where we already mostly agree. Nobody over the age of 25 is likely to change their opinion on just about anything, so why waste your energy. That’s sunk ideology. And besides, even if you’re talking to a real piece of work, you have some obligation to do a good job of being a conversationalist, and focusing on differences is less likely to lead to a good conversation.
So what would I ask Obama in an interview?
- What do you see as the path forward to immigration liberalization?
- Will you please push for a bill that allows any law-abiding person to work in the United States without giving them access to the Welfare state? (I would word that differently if I were actually interviewing the president, but you get my drift…)
- Would you please let Nassim Taleb explain his risk-management argument for climate change interventions? And can he please also be required to comment on his argument’s relationship to the Law of Unintended Consequences?
- What is your favorite episode of South Park?
That third point should be at least a little bit controversial. I’m agnostic on whether there’s anything to be done about climate change (although I’m all for using it as an excuse to liberalize immigration for the world’s poor). I’m seriously skeptical of governments’ ability to do any good in that arena. I’d really rather not add fuel to the fire, but I think it’s important to raise the standards of debate, and I think Taleb’s argument* is the most sensible one. Not only that, it has wide applications that should push (benevolent/benign) politicians to support simpler rules and fewer interventions.
Oh yeah, and I’d ask him if he’s a secret gay muslim. (“Does your mom know you’re a secret gay muslim?” Anyone else remember playing that game?)
* Taleb’s argument goes roughly as follows: We face uncertainty, but there is a non-zero probability of a catastrophically bad outcome. Maximizing expected utility is not the appropriate risk-management strategy in this case. Our most urgent need (our highest marginal benefit course of action) is to eliminate the possibility of the catastrophic outcomes–and perhaps after that start thinking about maximizing expected utility. Essentially the argument is “don’t play Russian Roulette!” But an essential underpinning is that a probability distribution describing outcomes in complex systems often exhibits “wild randomness”. In contrast to the “mild randomness” of the normal distribution, in wildly random situations it’s difficult or impossible to even have an expected utility. The conclusion I would hope they would draw is that intervening in complex systems (and particularly creating new complexity through increased regulation and more tax loopholes) is best avoided, and particularly at the national level.
David Friedman writes:
Accepting the views of experts on a question you are not competent to answer for yourself, assuming that you can figure out who they are and what they believe, is often a sensible policy, but one can sometimes do better. Sometimes one can look at arguments and evaluate them not on the basis of the science but of internal evidence, what they themselves say.
He goes on to give examples of inconsistent claims made by global warming alarmists. His (short) post is worth the read. Here are my 2 cents:
First, (in response to the block quote) deferring to experts is sensible but requires a certain degree of expertise in picking out who they are which is a difficult task. We’re all human, and it’s hard to hold something in your head without thinking it’s true. That makes it hard to not be arrogant. We need to emphasize strongly that interpreting information is hard, and the outcomes are not at all obvious. Those concerned with anthropogenic climate change (myself included) are better served by stressing the uncertainty involved and making arguments centered on appropriate risk management.*
Second, The issue of climate change boils down to a series of sub-issues that need to be considered carefully:
We need to think about costs and benefits. A warmer world would be a boon for many people. If we could set the average world temperature, we would want it to be higher than 0 Kelvin. We might even want it to be warmer than it is today.
We need to think about the uncertainty surrounding what’s happening, as well as what we can do about it. We should be particularly skeptical about cost estimates for any effort to try to control the environment.
(This one’s a bit of a non sequitur.) We should use this as an excuse to do things that would help reduce the costs of climate change that we should be doing anyways. Specifically, we need to liberalize immigration policy in wealthy nations. Let’s say there’s a 0.00001% chance that climate change has a bad outcome, and that specifically that outcome is that the entire country of Bangladesh will catch fire and kill everyone. That’s a good excuse to let Bangladeshi’s come to America, but we should be doing that anyways. It’s a low cost (actually a negative net-cost) solution to a potential problem of climate change.
Here’s one that I think the smarter alarmists/deniers already recognize: this is a political discussion. Politics and the truth don’t mix. But recognizing this point and making it widely known may allow people to tone down and argue something closer to the truth.
Both sides like to think of themselves as skeptical (as demonstrated by that masthead which warns that we might have to suffer through the addition of a habitable continent (?)), and good for them. We should value skepticism in this. But that skepticism shouldn’t lead us to make bold claims on one side or the other. It should lead us to ask a lot of “what if?” questions. This is a risk management issue, not a social engineering one.
* I like Taleb but I’m not as worried by GMO’s as he apparently is, but I haven’t read that paper either.
I was listening to a really cool episode of RadioLab. The third act asks the question, “what is nature worth?” During part of it they discussed the fall and rise of bees in Mao county, China. Bees disappeared after farmers started using pesticides and had to be replaced with human labor. Against all expectations output actually increased 30% (they never did say how much these workers impacted bottom lines compared to when the bees were doing the job). But then economic growth happened and increased wages and put pressure on farmers.
This lead to a question about how to go about discussing the issue of conservation. On the one hand, this economic analysis means that we don’t take nature as being implicitly worthless and discussing it this way will help the cause of conservation. On the other hand, it doesn’t jive with our intuition (or perhaps our moral sense) that if some aspect of nature appears worth very little or seems irrelevant we still probably shouldn’t downsize nature.
All fair enough. So here’s where things go bad… the host then asks if there is an alternative to the conservationists moralizing and the economists’ cold calculating. Economics does in fact have an answer! Two if we can call Nassim Taleb an economist (surely one who does a lot of normative work).
Taleb would argue (with allusions to the argument I’ll present below) that prudential risk management (i.e. management of fluctuations in those economic values brought up above) calls for an appreciation of the potential for black swans. In the case of the bees there was a series of black swans; the bees disappeared (-), human workers were more productive (+), economic growth (+) made human labor too expensive (-, for farmers and pie-baking grandmothers). We want to be averse to the sorts of risks that might be wildly negative and so should diversify our approaches and bee (that was a typo but I’m keeping it) sure we’re not opening ourselves up to negative black swans–which would involve being very skeptical of cost benefit analyses that justify excessive environmental harm. This point was made (but not fully appreciated, I would argue) by an environmental economist on the program in pointing out that some changes are irreversible.
Taleb’s argument works because the complexity of ecological and economic systems means that such wild variation is possible. There can be cascades of cause and effect that create dire consequences to what may look like a small change. In other words it would be a fatal conceit to imagine that anyone can engineer an environment.
Not so obvious is that if we don’t want to deliberately prune too aggressively we also don’t want to sterilize nature by trying to stop all change. We are part of this environment after all; glorified beavers at the end of the day.
That said, what they closed with was good thought: biodiversity [like market diversity] serves as an extension of our brains. We can draw on the imagination evolution provides us to live better lives. I would add that you can view that as narrowly economical (imagining “imagination capital” being depleted along with rainforests) or more broadly as pursuing “the good life.”