Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Antifragile: Limitations

I reiterate my admiration for Nicholas Nassim Taleb’s Antifragile. The general concepts are strong, and engagingly put.  The GreenLumber Fallacy, along with a similar example about a trader in Swiss Francs, is memorable. He names names in his closing criticisms of insiders taking advantage of more fragile others:  The Alan Blinder Problem, the Joseph Stiglitz Problem, the Robert Rubin Problem.  I loved his advocacy of relying on observation rather than narratives to make decisions – one of those things I’ve learned over the years. He writes often about taking small risks while exposing oneself to large or even unlimited gains – which sounds obvious, but human beings tend to do the opposite.  In investments and many personal decisions, we ignore risks while seeking small but predictable gains.

Note to Grim:  You have written about honor and honor societies; throughout the book, but especially at the end, Taleb writes approvingly about the sense of honor in what he calls traditional societies, and how it is sometimes superior to ethics that are based on more abstract ideas. He quotes a lot of ancient Mediterranean philosophers on many topics, which I know will also be to your liking.

Note to Retriever:  Though Taleb is a trader and investor himself, you will much like what he says about investors and advisors as a class. He believes they hide personal risk at the expense of others, and their advice neglects real understanding of risk, both of which unfairly burdens the taxpayer and the little guys who cannot manipulate the regulations (and the regulators).

Yet I don’t want to come across as thinking his approaches unassailable.  I think he oversells some points. Here’s one. The American legal system has a bias toward putting the burden of proof on those who would forbid something as harmful. He thinks this should be reversed in our personal decisions, and advocates it in law as well – though I don’t know how far he wants to push that.  There is sense in that, that things should prove they are safe before being admitted to a society, rather than getting a free ride until someone proves they are dangerous. He believes a pollutant should prove its safety, not be permitted until it proves dangerous.  We have moved to that in FDA approval, for example. Taleb drinks no beverage that has not been around a thousand years – water, wine, coffee. (Beer and tea would presumably qualify as well.) He eschews not only sugary carbonated drinks, but fruit juice as well, because the form is recent and the fruits themselves overbred for sweetness fairly recently.

Well sure, but the Columbian Exchange is regarded as high-benefit as well as high-side-effect I believe. Eyeglasses have been uncommon until recently and hearing aids even more so.  Should we hold those out until we are quite sure there is no unintentional effect? Coal and oil have had very bad aftereffects, but does he regard them as a net loss for humanity?  I am not being difficult and mildly humorous here, as he raises exactly this issue with warming the planet. The general principle of applying some inexpensive fixes in order to guard against a catastrophe, even an unlikely catastrophe, seems sound.  Anyone who has low-cost, low-risk strategies out there should be attended to.  Taleb seems to think there is something we should be doing, but he doesn’t say what it is.  He also dismisses entirely the comments of those who benefit from petroleum sales.  I can certainly sign on to immediate suspicion of anyone who stands to personally benefit from a decision going one way or another.  Yet I can’t see the sense of automatically rejecting such comments. Everyone involved in political decisions – in fact, any decisions – usually stands to benefit in some way.  As the claims of the academics (a class Taleb generally mistrusts) are founded on narratives and self-interest as much as the corporations, who is left to listen to? Their grants, livelihoods, and career advancement depend on fitting into their own culture and enhancing its power. They also advocate that we should take their word on interventions that stand to be expensive at least and possibly harmful as well.  Taleb’s principle is sound, perhaps even more so in personal decisions not to add in medicines or new devices or new influences.  I’m not sure how far we can take that, however.

I recall similar arguments being made about gay marriage. Its advocates insist there is no proof of damage to society.  Taleb’s stated approach would put the burden of proof on the advocates instead – prove to us that in this new thing you are introducing there will be no damage.  (He does not say whether he applies this Precautionary Principle to gay marriage, recreational marijuana, or other public social decisions.  It is I raising those examples.) Should immigrants have to prove they are a benefit in order to get in or should current citizens have to prove they would cause harm in order to keep them out?

Taleb makes a powerful antiwar argument, and mentions Iraq in particular in several places. As war is likely the best example of introducing chaos into the world, with all the unexpected downstream events, usually negative, I don’t have a cold answer. Nor does he make the claim that it should always be forbidden and avoided.  As with medical intervention, Taleb believes that sometimes the likely downside is so great that much risk must be endured. But he is right to note that advocates for war seriously overestimate the predictability of what will result.  Wars usually turn out to be more deadly than expected; they always turn out to be much more expensive; they especially turn out to have unintended aftereffects, sometimes catastrophic ones. I will have a longer go at this discussion, but only wanted to note here that one of his primary ethical arguments intersects with the practical ones: that we are unleashing the unexpected on many people, and that itself is a bad thing.


herfsi said...

good points - & good on you for finishing the book - you have tenacity:)

Donna B. said...

I just started reading the book. It will be slow going for me since the next few months demand attention elsewhere because I've procrastinated for the past few months!

Donna B. said...
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Grim said...

I will make a rare exception for it as a contemporary work worth reading, as soon as I get done with a certain current project that's occupying a lot of my attention.

jaed said...

(He does not say whether he applies this Precautionary Principle to gay marriage, recreational marijuana, or other public social decisions

The example of recreational marijuana is interesting, because legal prohibition (though not necessarily social disapproval) is a novelty: less than a century old, I think. When dealing with a relatively new situation, should changing it fall under the Precautionary Principle? Or should maintaining it do so?

Donna B. said...

I'm not far into the book yet, but his comments on medicine are raising red flags for me. Fooled by Randomness and Black Swan also were not completely to my liking, but his basic ideas still seem to hold. So far, I'd say that I agree with his basic ideas, but somewhat disagree with his interpretation of them.