Why do experts, CEOs, politicians, and other apparently highly capable people make such terrible decisions so often? Is because they’re ill-intentioned? Or because, despite appearances, they’re actually stupid? Nassim Nicholas Taleb, philosopher, businessman, perpetual troublemaker, and author of, among other works, the groundbreaking Fooled by Randomness, says it’s neither.
It’s because these authorities face the wrong incentives.
They are rewarded according to whether they look good to their superiors, not according to whether they are effective. They have no skin in the game.
Seasoned readers of Taleb will be pleased to see the so-called “experts problem” pop up in living color in Skin in the Game: Hidden Asymmetries in Daily Life, Taleb’s latest collection of essays on risk, rationality, and randomness. According to Taleb, dentists, pilots, plumbers, structural engineers, and “scholars of Portuguese irregular verbs” are real experts; sociologists, policy analysts, “management theorist[s], publishing executive[s], and macroeconomist[s]” are not.
The difference is that, when people from the first list are wrong about something, it’s obvious from the results and they suffer; they have skin in the game. Bad teeth, crashed planes, and leaky pipes are bad for business. People from the second list rationalize by substituting a different theory. They were not really wrong but just early, and, if they’re lucky, which is to say skillful at apple-polishing, earn promotion after promotion by not failing utterly. (Financial advisors can argue that the fiduciary standard is the most powerful tool for putting them in the first list.) Skin in the Game is full of insights like this, some recycled from his earlier work but many of them new. It is well worth the relatively quick read.
Despite the many good qualities of Skin in the Game, Taleb’s work, including the present volume, is often infuriating. He is too sure of himself, too unkind to his enemies, too full of bluster and obscure humor. Acting on his belief that some kinds of experts are worthless, he has populated the book’s dust jacket with anonymous tweets instead of celebrity testimonials. Here’s the first tweet: “The problem with Taleb is not that he’s an ass— (spelled out in full on the jacket). He is an ass—. The problem with Taleb is that he is right.” I agree.
Asymmetry, or why we are ruled by the most easily offended
In chapter two of Skin in the Game, entitled “The Most Intolerant Wins,” Taleb asks why we seem to be governed by the most easily offended. You have to refrain from smoking in the non-smoking section, but you don’t have to smoke (that is, refrain from not smoking) in the smoking section, which, by the way, is much smaller. Few people really care whether you say Merry Christmas or Happy Holidays, but the latter has become de rigueur in some circles. Almost all soft drinks are kosher.
The reason, Taleb explains, is that, for any given issue, there are a few people who care deeply about it and a great many people who do not. Those who care are spurred to action, even violent action in the case of religious or political passions. The rest of us, wishing to be left alone, rarely fight back with equal vigor. The results of this process include the increasing domination of Taleb’s beloved, multi-religious Lebanon by Muslims, for whom conversion to Islam is irreversible. Conversion away from Islam is at least theoretically punishable by death; Christians and Jews don’t much care if you leave the faith.1
In ancient Roman times, Taleb explains, Christians were the intolerant minority that pushed their views on the Roman majority. That’s how Christianity eventually became the official religion of the empire in 323 A.D. Times and players change but the principles of human nature remain the same.
Almost all soft drinks are kosher because it’s relatively easy to make a drink kosher. So manufacturers put forth this small effort rather than have two kinds of each drink, one for observant Jews – a fraction of a percent of the total population – and one for everybody else.
If this argument sounds familiar, it’s recycled in much more general form from Frédéric Bastiat, the great 19th century French economist. Bastiat wrote that, for any given government action, such as a tax levied to subsidize some activity, there are a few people who will benefit greatly by it and they will work day and night to see it enacted. The great many who stand to lose will typically only lose a few pennies and will put forth little or no effort to prevent it. Thus the number of rules, regulations, taxes, handouts, and special favors granted by government grows exponentially with very little acting to restrain the growth.
These are just a few of the asymmetries of daily life to which Taleb’s subtitle refers. Once you understand the principle, you’ll see it in everything.
Read the full article here by Laurence B. Siegel, Advisor Perspectives