Nassim Nicholas Taleb: How to Own a Slave

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Yves here. This excerpt from Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s Skin In the Game: The Thrills and Logic of Risk Taking. I thought readers would enjoy it, since the theme of “employees are better than slaves” sometimes comes up in comments (mind you, employees today still can’t be required to breed and hand their progeny over or be beaten or killed at their master’s whim, so let us not get too carried away in comments….).

Taleb describes the article as a work in progress and is seeking comments, so you can click through and give your input. However, he is famous for not suffering fools, so be warned (as in telling him that Putin was elected will either be ignored or will elicit a reply as to why Russian presidential elections are not bona fide elections). He has other chapters posted that you might enjoy as well. We thank Evonomics for calling this article to our attention.

By Nassim Nicholas Taleb, a researcher in practical and philosophical problems with probability and the author of a multi-volume essay, the Incerto (The Black Swan, Fooled by Randomness, and Antifragile) covering broad facets of uncertainty. Originally published at his website. You can follow him on Twitter at @nntaleb

In its early phase, as the church was starting to get established in Europe, there was a group of itinerant people called the gyrovagues. They were gyrating and roaming monks without any affiliation to any institution. Theirs was a free-lance (and ambulatory) variety of monasticism, and their order was sustainable as the members lived off begging and from the good graces of townsmen who took interest in them. It is a weak form of sustainability, as one can hardly call sustainable a group of a people with vows of celibacy: they cannot grow organically and would need continuous enrollment. But their members managed to survive thanks to help from the population, which provided them with food and temporary shelter.

Sometimes around the fifth century, they started disappearing –they are now extinct. The gyrovagues were unpopular with the church, banned by the council of Chalcedon in the Fifth Century, then again by the second council of Nicaea about three hundred years later. In the West, Saint Benedict of Nurcia, their greatest detractor, favored a more institutional brand of monasticism and ended up prevailing with his rules that codified the activity, with a hierarchy and strong supervision by an abbot. For instance, Benedict’s rules iii, put together in a sort of instruction manual, stipulate that a monk’s possessions should be in the hands of the abbot (Rule 33) and Rule 70 bans angry monks from hitting other monks.

Why were they banned? They were, simply, totally free. They were financially free, and secure, not because of their means but because of their wants. Ironically by being beggars, they had the equivalent of f*** you money, the one can get more easily by being at the lowest rung than by being member of the income dependent class.

Complete freedom is the last thing you would want if you have an organized religion to run. Total freedom is also a very, very bad thing for you if you have a firm to run, so this chapter is about the question of employees and the nature of the firm and other institutions.

Benedict’s instruction manual aims explicitly at removing any hint of freedom in the monks under the principles of: stabilitate sua et conversatione morum suorum et oboedientia — “stability, conversion of manners, and obedience”. And of course monks are put through a probation period of one year to see if they are effectively obedient.

In short, every organization wants a certain number of people associated with it to be deprived of a certain share of their freedom. How do you own these people? First, by conditioning and psychological manipulation; second by tweaking them to have some skin in the game, forcing them to have something significant to lose if they were to disobey authority –something hard to do with gyrovague beggars who flaunted scorn of material possessions. In the orders of the mafia, things are simple: made men (that is, ordained) can be wacked if the capo suspects lack of allegiance, with a transitory stay in the trunk of a car –and a guaranteed presence of the boss at their funerals. For others professions, skin in the game come in more subtle form.

Ironically, you could do better having an employee than a slave –and this held even in ancient times when slavery was present.

To Own A Pilot

Let us say that you own a small airline company. You are a very modern person, having attended many conferences and spoken to consultants, you believe the company is a thing of the past: everything can be organized through a web of contractors. It is more efficient to do so, you are certain.

Bob is a pilot with whom you have entered a specific contract, in a well defined drawn-out legal agreement, for precise flights, commitments made long time in advance, which includes a penalty for non-performance. Bob supplies the copilot and an alternative pilot in case someone is sick. Tomorrow evening you will be operating a scheduled flight to Munich as part of an Oktoberfest special and Bob is the contracted pilot. The flight is full; with motivated budget passengers –some of whom went on a preparatory diet; they have been waiting a whole year for this Gargantuan episode of beer, pretzels, and sausage in laughter-filled hangars.

Bob calls you at 5 P.M. to let you know that he and the copilot, well, they love you… but, you know, they will not fly the plane tomorrow. You know, they had an offer from a Saudi Arabia Sheikh, a devout man who wants to take a special party to Las Vegas, and needs Bob and his team to run the flight. The Sheikh and his retinue fell in love with Bob’s manners, the fact that Bob never had a drop of alcohol in his life, and told him that money was no object. The offer is so generous that it covers whatever penalty there is for a breach of a competing contract by Bob.

You kick yourself. There are plenty of lawyers on these Oktoberfest flights, and, worse, retired lawyers without hobbies who love to sue as a way to kill time, regardless of outcome. Consider the chain reaction: if your plane doesn’t take off, you will not have the equipment to bring the beer-fattened passengers back from Munich –and you will most certainly miss many round trips. Rerouting passengers is costly and not guaranteed.

You make a few phone calls and it turns out that it is easier to find an academic economist with common sense and ability to understand what’s going on than find another pilot, that is, an event of probability zero. You have all this equity in a firm that is now under severe financial threat. You are certain that you will go bust.

You start thinking: well, you know, if Bob were a slave, someone you own, you know, these kind of things would not be possible. Slave? But wait… what Bob just did isn’t something that employees who are in the business of being employees do! People who are employees for a living don’t have such opportunistic behavior. Contractors are too free; they fear only the law. But employees have a reputation to protect. And they can be fired. People who like employment like it for a reason. They like the paycheck!

People you find in employment love the regularity of the payroll, with the special envelop on their desk the last day of the month, and without which they would act as a baby deprived of mother’s milk. Then you realize that had Bob been an employee rather than what appeared to be cheaper, that contractor thing, then you wouldn’t be having so much trouble.

But employees are expensive… You got to pay them even when you’ve got nothing to do for them. You lose your flexibility. Talent for talent, they cost a lot more. Lovers of paychecks are lazy … but they would never let you down at times like these.

So employees exist because they have significant skin in the game –and the risk is shared with them, enough risk for it to be a deterrent and a penalty for acts of undependability, such as failing to show up on time. You are buying dependability.

And dependability is a driver behind many transactions. People of some means have a country house, which is inefficient compared to hotels or rentals, because they want to make sure it is available if they decide they wanted to use it at a whim. There is an expression “never buy when you can rent the three “Fs”: what you Float, what you Fly, and what you …that something else”. Yet many people own boats, planes, and end up with that something else.

True, a contractor has downside, a financial penalty that can be built-into the contract, in addition to reputational costs. But consider that an employee will always have more risk. And conditional on someone being an employee such a person will be risk averse. By having been employees they signal a certain type of domestication.

Someone who has been employed for a while is giving you the evidence of submission

Evidence of submission is displayed by having gone through years of the ritual of depriving himself of his personal freedom for nine hours every day, punctual arrival at an office, denying himself his own schedule, and not having beaten up anyone. You have an obedient, housebroken dog.

Employees are more risk averse, they fear being fired more than contractors do being sued

Even when the employees ceases to be an employee, they will remain diligent. The longer the person stays with a company, the more emotional investment they will have in staying and, when leaving, are guaranteed in doing an “honorable exit”.

From The Company Man to The Companies Person

So if employees lower your tail risk, so do you lower theirs as well. Or at least, that’s what they think you do.

At the time of writing, firms stay in the top league by size (the so-called SP500) only about between ten and fifteen years. Companies exit the SP500 through mergers or by shrinking their business, both conditions leading to layoffs. Throughout the twentieth century, however, expected duration was more than sixty years. Longevity for large firms was greater; people stayed with a large firm for their entire life. There was such a thing as a company man (restricting the gender here is appropriate as company men were almost all men).

The company man–which dominated the twentieth century–is best defined as someone whose identity is impregnated with the stamp the firm wants to give him. He dresses the part, even uses the language the company expects him to have. His social life is so invested in the company that leaving it inflicts a huge penalty, like banishment from Athens under the Ostrakon. Saturday nights, he goes out with other company men and spouses sharing company jokes. In return, the firm has a pact to keep him on the books as long as feasible, that is, until mandatory retirement after which he would go play golf with a comfortable pension, with as partners former co-workers.

The system worked when large corporations survived a long time and were perceived to be longer lasting than nation-states.

About in the 1990s, people suddenly realized that working as a company man was safe… provided the company stayed around. But the technological revolution that took place in Silicon valley put traditional companies under financial threat. For instance, after the rise of Microsoft and the personal computer, IBM which was the main farm for company men, had to lay off a proportion of its “lifers”, who then realized that the low-risk profile of the position wasn’t so much low risk. These people couldn’t find a job elsewhere; they were of no use to anyone outside IBM. Even their sense of humor failed outside of the corporate culture.

Up until that period, IBM required its employees to wear white shirts –not light blue, not with discreet stripes, but plain white. And a dark blue suit. Nothing was allowed to be fancy, or invested with the tiniest amount of idiosyncratic attribute. You were a part of IBM.

Our definition:

A company man is someone who feels that he has something huge to lose if he doesn’t behave as a company man –that is, he has skin in the game

If the company man is, sort of, gone, he has been replaced by the companies person, thanks to both an expansion of the gender and a generalization of the function. For the person is no longer owned by a company but by something worse: the idea that he needs to be employable.

A companies person is someone who feels that he has something huge to lose if he loses his employability –that is, he or she have skin in the game

The employable person is embedded in an industry, with fear of upsetting not just their employer, but other potential employers.

An employee is –by design– more valuable inside a firm than outside of it, that is more valuable to the employer than the market

Perhaps by definition an employable person is the one that you will never find in a history book because these people are designed to never leave their mark on the course of events. They are, by design, uninteresting to historians.

Coase’s Theory of The Firm

Ronald Coase is a remarkable modern economist in the sense that he is independent thinking, rigorous, creative, with ideas that are applicable and explain the world around us –in other words, the real thing. His style is so rigorous that he is known for the Coase Theorem, an idea that he posited without a single word of mathematics but that is as fundamental as many things written in mathematics.

Aside from his “theorem”, Coase was the first to shed lights on why firms exist. For him contracts can be too costly to negotiate, they entail some amount of transaction costs, so you incorporate your business and hire employees with clear job description because you don’t feel like running legal and organizational bills every transaction. A free market is a place where forces act to determine specialization and information travels via price point; but within a firm these market forces are lifted because they cost more to run than the benefits they bring. So the firm will be at the optimal ratio of employees and outside contractors, where having a certain number of employees, even when directly inefficient, is better than having to spend much resources negotiating contracts.

As we can see, Coase stopped one or two inches short of the notion of skin in the game. He never thought in risk terms to realize that an employee is a risk management strategy. Had economists, Coase and Shmoase, had any interest in the ancients, they would have discovered the risk management strategy relied upon by Roman families who customarily had a slave for treasurer, the person responsible for the finances of the household and the estate. Why? Because you can inflict a much higher punishment on a slave than a free person or a freedman –and you do not need to rely on the mechanism of the law for that. You can be bankrupted by an irresponsible or dishonest steward who can divert your estate’s funds to Bithynia. A slave has more downside, and you run a lower financial risk by having the steward function fulfilled by a slave.


Now, enters complexity and the modern world. In a world in which products are increasingly made by subcontractors with increasing degrees of specialization, employees are even more needed than before for special tasks. If you miss on a step in a process, often the entire business shuts down – which explains why today, in a supposedly more efficient world with lower inventories and more subcontractors, things appear to run smoothly and efficiently, but errors are costlier and delays are considerably longer than in the past. One single delay in the chain can stop the entire process.

A Curious Form of Slave Ownership

Slave ownership by companies has traditionally taken very curious forms. The best slave is someone you overpay and who knows it, terrified of losing his status. Multinational companies created the expat category, a sort of diplomat with a higher standard of living representing the firm far away and running its business there. A bank in New York sends a married employee with his family to a foreign location, say a tropical county with cheap labor, with perks and privileges such as country club membership, a driver, a nice company villa with a gardener, a yearly trip back home with the family in first class, and keep him there for a few years, enough to be addicted. He earns much more than the “locals”, in a hierarchy reminiscent of colonial days. He builds a social life with other expats. He progressively wants to stay in the location much longer but he is far from headquarters and has no idea of his minute-to-minute standing in the firm except through signals. Eventually, like a diplomat, he begs for another location when time comes for a reshuffle. Returning to the home office means loss of perks, having to revert to the unchanged base salary, and the person is now a total slave –a return to lower middle class life in the suburbs of New York City taking the commuter train, perhaps, god forbid, a bus, and eating a sandwich for lunch! The person is terrified when the big boss snubs him. Ninety five percent of the employee’s mind will be on company politics… which is exactly what the company wants. The big boss in the board room will have a supporter in the event of some intrigue.

All large corporations had employees with expat status and, in spite of its costs, it was an extremely effective strategy. Why? Because the further from headquarters an employee is located, the more autonomous his unit, the more you want him to be a slave so he does nothing strange on his own.

Non-Slave Employees

There is a category of employees who aren’t slaves, but these represent a very small proportion of the pool. You can identify them as the following: they don’t give a f*** about their reputation, at least not their corporate reputation.

After business school, I spent a year in a banking training program –by some accident as the bank was confused about my background and aims and wanted me to become an international banker. There, I was surrounded with the corporate highly employable persons (my most unpleasant experience in life), until I switched to trading (with another firm) and discovered that there was some people in a company who weren’t slaves.

One type is the salesperson whose resignation would cause the loss of business, and, what’s worse, he can benefit a competitor by taking some of the firm’s client there. Salespeople had a tension with the firm as the firm tried to dissociate accounts from them by depersonalizing the relationship with the clients, usually unsuccessfully: people like people and they drop the business when they get some generic and polite person trying to get on the phone in place of the warm and often exuberant salesperson-friend. The other one was the trader about whom only one thing mattered: the profits and losses, or P/L. Firms had a love-hate with these two types as they were unruly –traders and salespeople were only manageable when they were unprofitable, in which case they weren’t wanted.

Traders who made money, I realized, could get so disruptive that they needed to be kept away from the rest of the employees. That’s the price you pay by associating people to a specific P/L, turning individuals into profit centers, meaning no other criterion mattered. I recall once threatening a trader who was abusing the terrified accountant with impunity, telling him such things as “I am busy earning money to pay your salary” (intimating that the accounting did not add to the bottom line of the firm). But no problem; the people you meet when riding high are also those you meet when riding low and I saw the fellow getting some (more subtle) abuse from the same accountant before he got fired, as he eventually ran out of luck. You are free —but only as good as your last trade. I said earlier that I switched firms away from the proto-company man and I was explicitly told that my employment would terminate the minute I ceased to meet the P/L target. I had my back to the wall, but I took the gamble which forced me to engage in “arbitrage”, low risk transactions with small downside that were possible at the time because the sophistication of operators in the financial markets was very low.

I recall being asked why I didn’t wear a tie, which at the time was the equivalent of walking down Fifth avenue naked. “One part arrogance, one part aesthetics, one part convenience” was my usual answer. If you were profitable you could give managers all the crap you wanted and they ate it because they were afraid of losing their jobs.

Risk takers can be socially unpredictable people. Freedom is always associated with risk taking, whether it led to it or came from it. You take risks, you feel part of history. And risk takers take risks because it is in their nature to be wild animals.

Note the linguistic dimension –and why, in addition to sartorial considerations, traders needed to be put away from the rest of nonfree, nonrisktaking people. My days, nobody cursed in public except for gang members and those who wanted to signal that they were not slaves: traders cursed like sailors and I have kept the habit of strategic foul language, used only outside of my writings and family life. Those who use foul language on social networks (such as Twitter) are sending an expensive signal that they are free –and, ironically, competent. You don’t signal competence if you don’t take risks for it –there are few such low risk strategies. So cursing today is a status symbol, just as oligarchs in Moscow wear blue jeans at special events to signal their power. Even in banks, traders were shown to customers on tours of the firm as you would with animals in a zoo and the site of a trader cursing on a phone while in a shouting match with a broker is something that was part of the scenery.

So while cursing and bad language can be a sign of dog-like status and total ignorance –the “canaille” which etymologically relates these people to dogs; ironically the highest status, that of free-man, is usually indicated by voluntarily adopting the mores of the lowest class. Consider that the English “manners” isn’t something that applies to the aristocracy; it is a middle class thing and the entire manners of the English are meant for the domestication of those who need to be domesticated.

Loss Aversion

Take for now the following:

What matters isn’t what a person has or doesn’t have; it is what he or she are afraid of losing

So those who have more to lose are more fragile. Ironically, in my debates, I’ve seen numerous winners of the so-called Nobel in Economics (the Riksbank Prize in Honor of Alfred Nobel) concerned about losing an argument. I noticed years ago that four of them were actually concerned when me, a nonperson and trader, called them publicly a fraud. Why did they care? Well, the higher you go in that business, the more insecure you get as losing an argument to a lesser person exposes you more than other people.

Higher up in life only works under some conditions. You would think that the head of the CIA would be the most powerful person in America, but it turned out that he was more vulnerable than a truck driver… The fellow couldn’t even have an extramarital relationship. You can risk people’s lives but you remain a slave. The entire structure of the civil service is organized that way.

Waiting For Constantinople 

The exact obverse of the public-hotshot as slave is provided by the autocrat.

As I am writing these lines, we are witnessing a nascent confrontation between several parties, which includes the current “heads” of state members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (modern states don’t quite have heads, just people who talk big) and the Russian Vladimir Putin. Clearly, except for Putin, all the others need to be elected, can come under fire by their party, and have to calibrate every single statement to how it could be misinterpreted the least by the press. I have been exposed to such an insecurity first hand. On the other hand, Putin has the equivalent of f***you money, projecting a visible “I don’t care”, which in turn brings more followers and more support among the constituents. In such a confrontation Putin looks and acts as a free citizen confronting slaves who need committees, approval, and of course feel like they have to fit their decisions to an immediate rating.

The effect of such an attitude as that of Putin is mesmerizing on his followers, particularly the Christians in Lebanon –especially those Orthodox Christians who lost the active protection of the Russian Czar in 1917 (against the Ottoman usurper of Constantinople) and now are hoping that Byzantium is coming back about hundred years later, though the reincarnation is a bit further north. It is much easier to do business with the owner of the business than some employee who is likely to lose his job next year; likewise it is easier to trust the word an autocrat than a fragile elected official.

Watching Putin against others made me realize that domesticated (and sterilized) animals don’t stand a chance against a wild predator. Not a single one. Fughedabout military capabilities: it is the trigger that counts.

Universal suffrage did not change the story by much: until recently, the pool of elected people in so-called democracies was limited to a club of upper class people who cared much, much less about the press. But with more social mobility, ironically, more people could access the pool of politicians– and lose their job. And progressively, as with corporations, you start gathering people with minimal courage –and selected because they don’t have courage, as with a regular corporation.

Perversely, the autocrat is both freer and –as in the special case of traditional monarchs in small principalities— in some cases has skin in the game in improving the place, more so than an elected official whose objective function is to show paper gains. This is not the case in modern times, as dictators knowing their time might be limited, indulge in pillaging the place and transferring assets to their Swiss bank account –as in the case of the Saudi Royal family.

Do Not Rock Bureaucristan

Although employees are reliable by design, it remains that they cannot be trusted in making decisions, hard decisions, anything that entails serious tradeoffs. Nor can they face emergencies unless they are in the emergency business, say firefighters. As we [saw/will see] with the payoff function, the employee has a very simple objective function: fulfill the tasks that his or her supervisor deems necessary. If the employee when coming to work in the morning discovers the potential for huge opportunities, say selling antidiabetes products to prediabetic Saudi Arabian visitors, he cannot stop and start exploiting it if he is in the light fixtures business selling chandeliers.

So although an employee is here to prevent an emergency, should there be a change of plan in anything, the employee is stuck. While this paralysis can stem because of the distribution of responsibilities causes a serious dilution, there is another problem of scale.

We saw the effect with the Vietnam War. Then most (sort of) believed that certain courses of action were absurd, but it was easier to continue the course than to stop –particularly that one can always spin a story explaining why continuing is better than stopping (the backfitting story of sour grapes now known as cognitive dissonance).

We are also witnessing the same problem with the U.S. attitude towards Saudi Arabia. It is clear since the attack on the World Trade Center on September 11 2001 (in which almost all the attackers were Saudi citizens) that someone in that nonpartying kingdom had a hand –somehow –with the matter. But no bureaucrat, fearful of oil disruptions, made the right decision –instead the worst one of invading Iraq was endorsed because it appeared to be simpler.

Since 2001 the policy for fighting Islamic terrorists has been, to put it politely, missing the elephant in the room, sort of like treating symptoms and completely missing the disease. Policymakers and slow-thinking bureaucrats stupidly let terrorism grow by ignoring the roots –because it was not a course that was optimal for their job, even if optimal for the country. So we lost a generation: someone who went to grammar school in Saudi Arabia (our “ally”) after September 11 is now an adult, indoctrinated into believing and supporting Salafi violence, hence encouraged to finance it –while we got distracted by the use of complicated weapons and machinery. Even worse, the Wahabis have accelerated their brainwashing of East and West Asians with their madrassas, thanks to high oil revenues. So instead of invading Iraq, blowing up “Jihadi John” and other individual terrorists, thus causing a multiplication of these agents, it would have been be easier to focus on the source of all problems: the Wahabi/Salafi education and the promotion of intolerance by which a Shiite or a Yazidi or a Christian are deviant people. But, to repeat, it is not a decision that can be made by a collection of bureaucrats with a job description.

The same thing happened in 2009 with the banks….

Now compare these policies with ones in which decision makers have skin in the game as a substitute for their annual “job assessment”, and you would picture a different world.

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  1. PlutoniumKun

    Thats a fun read. And a great explanation for something which always puzzled me – why there are so many mediocre ‘expats’ for companies earning huge money around the world when locals would be just as (if not more) competent at a much lower price.

  2. James Levy

    Two sterilized animals (Roosevelt and Churchill) did at least a little to beat two wild predators (Hitler and Tojo/Hirohito), and Clemenceau and Lloyd George did pretty well against Hindenburg and Ludendorf, the de facto military dictators of Imperial Germany. And although I doubt you can name single a Cabinet member when Napoleon went down at Waterloo, they did OK for themselves against The Wolf of Europe. Your formulation needs tweaking.

    1. PlutoniumKun

      I think he does indeed address your point in this paragraph:

      Universal suffrage did not change the story by much: until recently, the pool of elected people in so-called democracies was limited to a club of upper class people who cared much, much less about the press. But with more social mobility, ironically, more people could access the pool of politicians– and lose their job. And progressively, as with corporations, you start gathering people with minimal courage –and selected because they don’t have courage, as with a regular corporation.

      Of course, it was the fatal miscalculation of the fascists that they believed that democracies didn’t have the strength of will to stand up to an autocratic state. But Hitler always respected the British for the simple reason that he didn’t consider them to be a democracy. Although arguably, the democrats shared the belief – Roosevelt pushed for a much faster military build up against Germany and Japan than the military deemed wise, precisely because he seemed to believe that it would be very difficult to maintain the US on a war footing for a long war of attrition.

    2. Planter of Trees

      Churchill and Roosevelt were both aristocrats; the leadership of Britain during Napolean’s rampage, probably even more so. It doesn’t need that much tweaking.

    3. SufferinSuccotash, Red Fool

      Regarding Napoleon, Castlereagh and Metternich get credit for holding together the alliance that eventually defeated him, no easy task considering the potential for disagreement among the allies.

      1. clinical wasteman

        Castlereagh and Metternich get the blame. For that among other things.
        Although Napoleon was an aspirant Castlereagh/Metternich himself by then, proud owner of most of the blame for trampling the revolution (of 1793, not ’89) Stalinwise in order to save it. Not to mention for reinstating Caribbean slavery and sending the unruly ex-revolutionary army rank-and-file to do that dirty work in Haiti, where they were wiped out by the actual revolutionary armies of Toussaint and Dessalines. (The self-emancipated ‘slaves’ had already done the same thing to a huge British expeditionary force, handing a less than grateful Bonaparte victory in that round of the European war. See CLR James passim, especially ‘The Black Jacobins’.)
        But I digress. Point was, all Castlereagh (look up the name with ‘William Cobbett’ and ‘suicide’ to find the best political obituary ever!) & co deserve credit for is keeping feudal trappings on the then-New World Order whose most sublime expression started in 1914.

      1. harrumph

        “Non Sterlized Stalin did the heavy lifting against Hitler.”

        Thank you. And not only that, the Munich Agreement was the anti-communism play that ensured WWII.

        Doesn’t excuse Soviet pogroms, but definitely achieved similarly bloody ends.

    4. HBE


      I have to disagree with some of that, 1 Roosevelt does fit into the “Fack it” “predator” category the man was what amounted to an elected dictator, I mean he was elected for three terms and granted extraordinary powers. 2. Churchill was a vassal of Roosevelt by 1943 even if he didn’t know it, 3. Stalin was the real predator, without the ussr Germany could have proceeded with sealion or focused more mass in North Africa and pulled oil to feed it’s army from there and the mideast and sown up Europe for a time.

      Napoleon had a weakend (inexperienced) shell of an army after Alexander 1, an autocratic Czar(predator), and the Russian winter destroyed his veterans.

      I am not as familiar with Japan or WWI. But I would say these came down to less of the nature of the leaders “predator” or not and more the fact that predators were weakend by other predators before the “sterilized” had to face them, and that just in terms of quantity and time “sterilized” leaders would have a hard time losing even if they wanted to.

      I would say the authors formulation is fairly accurate, their will always be some outliers though.

      1. DarkMatters

        To add to your point 1, Roosevelt didn’t enter the conflict until Pearl Harbor, which event strengthened his hand enormously. In fact, some argue that the American boycotts of oil and strategic materials to Japan were deliberate policies meant to precipitate both such an event as well as its political consequences. Regardless, the fact remains that Roosevelt was quite “freed up” when he entered the war.

        1. Plenue

          Didn’t officially enter. The official history of the Flying Tigers ‘volunteers’ insists they didn’t see combat until after Pearl Harbor, but I suspect that’s a load of crap. Certainly Japanese intelligence must have known of their existence and that they were going to be deployed to China.

          1. RMO

            The AVG pilots didn’t enter combat until after Pearl Harbor but that was not by intention just a result of how events played out. If the Pearl Harbor attack had taken place later or they had got the AVG pilots to the front and had the materiel ready earlier they would have been in action against the Japanese prior to the U.S.A. entering the war. That was the intent and is why they took care to arrange the legal niceties during their recruitment.

            As for the piece itself – interesting, but no more so than the writing my best friend found all over the walls of her roommate’s bedroom when she had to pack all his stuff up and send it to his parents after he was taken to hospital by the RCMP when they found him naked outside a 7-11 screaming incoherently in what seemed to have been a full on psychotic breakdown. That writing all seemed to have a fascinating internal logic too.

    5. lyle

      All be it long before Waterloo I would cite William Pit the younger who set the UK up to win later (he was Chancellor of the Exchequer and Prime Minister during Trafalgar) Trafalgar led to Napoleon being confined to land, and then the Continental System, which lead to the Invasion of Russia. So while Pitt did not live to see the end of the Napoleonic wars, he set up the UK so that it had the money to win and ensured that the UK ruled the waves.

    6. Pelham

      A somewhat good point. But note that it took 2 1/2 industrial giants (and principally the Soviet Union) to beat back one middle-sized industrial power in Europe (Italy was more hindrance than help to the Nazis) — and it was a close call.

  3. Newtownian

    The extract is a bit chaotic but still very interesting/entertaining. It is a challenge to think outside of our curent normal ways of viewing the world and we need more of it. Also I learnt a wonderful new word…gyrovague…a sort of flip side to the crazy stylites monks who in contrat never went anywhere. Both are of course interesting because they come from that less well understood/known period of the Ancient world when religion and philosophy coalesceced into the strange metaphysics of Byzantium as the old Western Roman empire went into ‘decline’.

    Taleb’s anarchism reminds me of something I loved about the 1960s/1970s. For a short time if was remarkably intensely experimental in a wild brave kind of way. Some experimental social ideas like environmental sustainability and feminism blossomed and became critical to what mainstream progressivism we still maintain today. Others like experimenting uncontrollably with drugs ended in a lot of damaged people as 19th century experiences with alcoholism should have told people would happen with a little reading.

    The return of high capitalism in the 1980s put damper on such new social innovation and the fall of the Berlin Wall locked too many people into constrained delusions about what freedom is – the freedom to make money so desperately obscenely you’d think they planned to take it beyond the grave – as though property rights are more than an unstable social contract.

    This extract of Taleb’s returns to the this older more colorful if dangerous past of thinking the taboo suppressed unthinkable. And starts to dig into that dark relationship between freedom, slavery and property which is so central to capitalism but which academic economists seem incapable of contemplating.

    1. WH

      I think your perception of the extract as ‘chaotic’, indicated in your first sentence, is explained entirely by your second sentence. If anything is true about Taleb’s writing and thinking is that he thinks of the world ‘outside of our current normal ways’, and he does so brilliantly. The more you get exposed to his writing, the more you learn to see the world in his way and the less chaotic the above material will seem. The result in any case will be, ironically, that you will develop a keen view of much of the chaos surrounding us.

        1. ChrisPacific

          It must be frustrating for him that his most famous idea (the black swan) is commonly invoked as a synonym for “who could have known”and therefore as an excuse to avoid thinking.

          1. Older & Wiser

            The Black Swan was David Hume´s idea way back then.

            Posterity-wise, Taleb´s contribution will be the revolutionary concept of “anti-fragility” for lack of a better term.

              1. Steve H.

                Apparently Taleb quotes “No amount of observations of white swans can allow the inference that all swans are white, but the observation of a single black swan is sufficient to refute that conclusion.”

                Which I’m seeing attributed to Hume, JS Mill, and Popper, but can’t find a primary source.

    2. flora

      “This extract of Taleb’s returns to the this older more colorful if dangerous past of thinking the taboo suppressed unthinkable.

      Well, yes. But I can’t decide if he’s just giving Davos Man a frisson of danger (entertainment) or if he actually has an argument to make.

  4. craazyman

    To me, this means if you own a small airline it would be good if you could fly the planes yourself. You can’t rely on anybody, even if Bob was an employee he might call in sick just because he’s lazy that particular day and says Fck the Saudies, I’m not gonna fly anybody anywhere today. I’m gonna sit at home and lay around having my own Octoberfest on the couch with the TV on.

    That is until computers can fly them without any pilot. If driverless cars are about to hit the roads then pilotless planes are probably about to hit the runways.

    Bob better find another job soon. So probably should everybody except prostitutes and movie stars — assuming it’s not the same person. Because Pretty soon the entire world will be gyrovagues and computers will do everything except roam around and beg.

    And if you own an airline company, you better also own a bank because no gyrovague — and that means everybody just about — will be able to afford your ticket so you have to lend them money. Actually, it’s beginning to work that way nowdays.

    1. craazyman

      I’m not sure if it’s a synchronicity or just a coincidence, but I think I saw three gyrovagues this morning!

      They were being led around by a rope somebody had tied around a dog’s neck. Wherever the dog went, they followed it. If the dog stopped to sniff a wall or a tree, they’d stop. If the dog stopped to pee, the gyrovague would stop and wait.

      I didn’t see them beg for anything but that’s cause I was driving by in a car. It was just a few seconds, but I saw them. How amazing is that. You read about something and then you see it, immediately. I had no idea. I would say this: if any of you guys drive around this morning, be sure to look out for gyrovagues walking around behind dogs.

      God knows where they end up. If the dog decides to go for miles in circles and then sits down and goes to sleep. You just hope there’s people there who give them money. I do feel like I should have.

      Maybe you can give them some money. I didn’t and I feel a little guilty now.

      1. JOHN bougearel

        Gyrovagues are en vogue craazyman. And you need not worry about not having given them any money. There is a fix for that afoot to assauge your guilt and the guilt of the Elites.
        The elites call it universal basic income or UBI. Coming to a theater near you.

        Eventually the Elites plan to incorporate UBI into the Global Bill of Rights. Then we will all be able to walk around like Gyrovagues freed from the trappings of the 9-5 world or two-temp job world.

    2. Mark John

      That is exactly why companies that are actually owned and run by their employees could be a solution. There would be internal pressure from the other employee/owners to fulfill one’s particular functions as everyone’s far more equitable pay would depend on it. You might want to look at companies that are like this such as Mondragon Industries in Spain.

      1. zapster

        This was one of my first thoughts reading this, as well. Being a ‘company man’ would have a much better payoff in a worker co-op, at the very least.

        1. Emma

          Just wish to point out there’s a difference between co-ops and employee-owned companies. The former is owned by its users and employees, whereas the latter is purely employee-owned. Many years ago I had the good fortune to do consulting for an employee-owned business in Europe and it was the best client environment I ever consulted in. The employees were genuinely engaged and motivated, internal politics remained at a bare minimum, and despite the decision-making process being consensus-driven, they responded to, and acted upon our advisory services far more promptly, and surprisingly, more rationally, than any other company I worked for. Today, they’re still the leader in their niche field and going strong despite a downturn in the economy and political upheaval.

            1. DarkMatters

              I hope Emma answers. A pet conjecture of mine is that beyond a certain size, organizations acquire class structures that support a cronyist elite and diminish solidarity. Notions of fairness and common good in decision making are gradually replaced by promotion of the interests of whatever corresponds to the ruling class. So, I reiterate your question, how many employees?

              1. Emma

                Agree with you DM. It’s very difficult to manage and maintain as an organization grows in size. Clayton Christensen touched upon these ideas in his books ‘The Innovator’s Dilemma’ and ‘The Innovator’s Solution’.
                With regards to employee size – at that time the number was c. 300

          1. diptherio

            Actually, there are many varieties of co-op:

            1) consumer co-op — owned by users; think your local food co-op or REI

            2) producer co-op — owned by producers; think OceanSpray, Land-O-Lakes and your local ag co-op, if you live in cow or corn country

            3) worker co-op — owned and managed by the workers. Examples are Arizmendi bakeries in SF and Cooperative Home Care Associates in Brooklyn.

            4) Multi-stakeholder co-op — a co-op with different types of membership shares for workers, consumers and investors. Black Star Brewing Co-op in Austin is the largest US example I’m aware of.

            For more info on all this, see the Grassroots Economic Organizing website at

            ESOPs are businesses with some percentage of the company stock owned by employees. However, most ESOPs do not have democratic management. The moms used to work for LifeTouch studio, which is employee-owned but MBA managed, just like any other capitalist corporation. New Belgium Brewing is an example of a good ESOP. The group you worked with actually sounds more like a co-op than an ESOP — if the company is owned by the workers and democratically managed, it qualifies.

            1. bob

              ESOPs are a way for the owner and/or fonder of a company to buy himself(herself) out without releasing control.

              Taking “skin out of the game” but keeping control. There may be exceptions, but in most I’ve seen, this is how it works. Make the employees “owners”, but don’t allow any sort of control of the company.

            2. DJG

              diptherio: The largest co-op that I know of is Mondragon in the Basque Country. The long Wikipedia entry seems to describe it as a cooperative of cooperatives. Is it unique? Or does it fall under your #3?

              They even have a cooperative university, which sounds intriguing, given that U.S. universities are another candidate for reforms.

              1. diptherio

                Yes, Mondragon is now a co-operative of co-ops. The individual co-ops do everything from providing social services, to education, to making bicycles. It’s mainly the manufacturing co-ops that have been involved in out-sourcing.

                And you are correct that Mondragon is the single largest worker co-op, with around 80,000 worker-owners last I checked. The CEO vs. Line-worker pay differential has been creeping up over the years and now stands at 6.5 to 1 (iirc). Not as bad as lots of places, but still unjustifiable in my mind.

                The flaws of the system, however, were made evident during the closing of Fagor, one of the manufacturing co-ops a couple of years back. The Mondragon execs decided to shut it down after a couple of bad years, but the worker-owners at the plant felt like they weren’t being consulted on the decision and so staged a couple massive protests. When worker-owners of a co-op are protesting the management decisions of the same co-op, something isn’t working right, if you ask me.

                It wasn’t all bad though. Most of the Fagor workers were shifted to other co-ops within Mondragon and things seem to have settled down now.

  5. Skippy

    “Skin in the game” only works on humans that have a meaningful awareness of fear, comporting it to atomistic relativity wrt to evolution of the brain or pathological conditions [biological, trauma related or environmental [neurotoxins (see lead et al)] seems kind of a moralistic determinism one would afford such things as “Creating the Responsible Consumer”….

    Disheveled Marsupial… seems its a core feature of endemic failure over the entire period in question.. if not a searing reminder of our recent past wrt the GFC…

  6. James Miller

    Yes, good fun, as well as illuminating. It’s easy to pick nits- such as this one: ” But no bureaucrat, fearful of oil disruptions, made the right decision –instead the worst one of invading Iraq was endorsed because it appeared to be simpler.” Not really.
    Iraq was on the list, and the perfect crisis was at hand for the Cheneyites and Victoria Nuland’s husband, Robert Kagan, and the rest of the PNAC club. No one gave a damn if it was simple, or easy, just that it could be sold as such. So once again, the salesman has certain special freedoms. No matter if the whole thing is a total flop. It is only needful to find another diversion when the time is ripe.
    But a nit or even two don’t invalidate the points made, or the ideas about just who exactly are the slaves.

  7. Bob Slocum

    CIA Directors may or may not be company men. Tenet was. Brennan is not. Brennan worked hand-in-glove with the Saudi officials and cutouts who performed 9/11, so he’s pretty out of control. There’s always a wildman running the show at CIA. It may be an underling, it may even be a foreign spook à la the Safari Club.

    Tenure’s not important in these jobs. Petraeus got fired from CIA. So did Dulles. Think they gave a crap? Dulles came in to work at his satellite office at the Farm and whacked the guy who fired him. Petraeus is a lover not a fighter (the little runt made his name not as a warrior but as a torturer, which is cowardly and safe, you let some goons bring em in and tie em up and then when they can’t fight back you beat em up.) So Petraeus didn’t kill Obama. After he got fired for fucking his student, he just got a job at a new university where he could get some more students to fuck.

    Freedom is nice, but impunity is better. And the thing that makes Putin not just a free man but a history-making great man is that he has all the impunity in the world, and he uses it to show you that comity under rule of law is better than him annihilating you.

  8. Roland

    The sort of criticism of Saudi Arabia seen in this post is very dangerous in its tendency.

    Down the road that way of thinking could lead to a war on Saudi Arabia, e.g. “to stop Wahabbism.”

    One finds nowadays, cropping up here and there, the notion that “confronting Wahabbism” would finally be the “smart war to do” in the Middle East. But it would be many times worse than the horrible war on Iraq.

    It is not hard to remember when a lot of liberal American “serious people” thought that “finishing off Saddam” was a smart idea, too. There were also, incidentally, many American “serious people” who thought that Syria was, in their words, “low hanging fruit.”

    The nationality of the 9/11 attackers is irrelevant. Should the USA have sanctioned or bombed Egypt because Mohammed Atta came from there?

    Al-Qaeda is a clandestine group with no direct relation to the government of KSA. Indeed Al-Qaeda aims at the overthrow of the Saudi Wahabbi government.

    Saudi Wahabbism most certainly did not create the recent persecution of religious minorities in Mesopotamia. Wahabbi hardliners have ruled KSA for generations, and have also funded schools worldwide for many decades. During almost all of that time, there was no relationship between Saudi Wahabbism and the treatment of religious minorities in the Middle East. Indeed, members of many unorthodox Muslim sects visit Mecca while that place is under Saudi Wahabbi rule.

    If you want to trace the the proximate cause of the persecution of Christians and Yazidis in today’s Iraq, it is immediately apparent that all of the current ethnic and sectarian strife in Iraq is a direct consequence of the USA’s invasion that country.

    The USA started this latest cycle of wars. Put the blame for these evils where it belongs–on the USA’s so-called “serious people.” That bloody lot have proven themselves to be no less zealous, and much more dangerous, than any of the Wahabbis in the world.

    1. Skippy

      The neoconservatives distribution of radicalized religious reading material to the freedom fighters in the stans is the gift that keeps giving…

      Disheveled Marsupial…. philanthropy in action… building schools and a brighter future….

    2. Stephen Gardner

      Wahhabism was and is a major part of the problem. Recognizing that is key to decreasing terrorism. The United States engages in two activities that foster terrorism: they turn a blind eye to Saudi support for Da’esh and other jihadi groups and they engage in terrorism of their own with drones. Americans have to understand that firing a hellfire missile from a drone is terrorism just as surely as driving a truck bomb. Failure to understand this and failure to check Wahhabism is why we never seem to get a handle on terrorism.

      1. Antifa

        Wahhabism is one of those ideologies that admits no error, very much like the followers of Pol Pot, or the current Christian Dominionists striving to take over the “Seven Mountains” of American society. Such ideologies are preternaturally absolutely right about everything, and you non-believers are nothing but obstacles in their path. You are going to hell, so here let us help you along to your eternal reward.

        Left to themselves, such ideologies succeed or fail on their own accomplishments and results, which means they fade away. Put under the stress of drone strikes, economic sanctions, outright war, they become super fanatical about their beliefs.

        The neocon authors of the war on Terra knew this would be the result, leading to war without end, and failed states. It was the result they wanted.

        1. ckimball

          “The neocon authors of the war on Terra knew this would be the result, leading to war without end, and failed states. It was the result they wanted”
          Really? We common folk cannot image such ugliness
          unless it is relegated to a mythical category of evil. So what can a
          person do to try to atone for the careless disregard of every one and every thing which our “political class” enact so saying on our behalf?
          After the demonstration of “Shock and Awe” which was so distressing, I was gardening while my mind was consumed by my experience of what was happening and I began to fantasize.
          I thought maybe ‘we the people’ (that term inserted itself then)
          could make a fund for the people in Iraq while acknowledging that the damage emotionally was more than we could repay even if we could give back antiquities and rebuild. I thought maybe we could each give enough to be inconvenienced. I thought what could I give? I had been saving for a new car. I thought I would give that. And then I thought…but who would administer the monies? Who could we trust? Now I come to the ignorant working person that I am. Bill Clinton had had his serious heart attack and was recovering.
          Maybe he would do it for us. Ironic huh? As a friend of mine’s mother used to say “dumb dumb me”

    3. Bubba_Gump

      Objection. The Wahabbists began laying the foundations for the global fundamentalist spread back in the 70s when the western world funded that expansion by purchasing middle east oil. The current ethnic and sectarian strife goes all the way back to World War I when the western powers divvied up the Ottoman Empire. The invasion of Iraq is a relatively recent development.

      If one wants to lay blame, lay it on the West’s insatiable demand for petroleum. The smart way to fight back after 9/11 would have been to realize this and get off the stuff — to be followed by ending the sale of arms to Arab powers. No oil money would have led to no weapons budget, which would have left the radicals impotent.

    4. optimader

      i’m a wasabeite, love it on sushi and ham. I hope no one declares war on me!..

      Be that as it may, when it come to SA there is no need to declare war on them, best declare Peace on them, as well as the rest of the ME, militarily withdraw from the entire region and allow the crude production to muddle along at a world market price. If nothing else it will give them some focusto stay productively occupied, last I heard you cant eat crude oil.

      Sell them only stuff that wont go bang (on purpose), some support services for their production infrastructure , if they want it, and call it a day.

      To this end, why no allow everyone in the region the benefit of the doubt when it comes to self determination. they sorted it for hundreds and in some cases thousands of years BP (before petroleum).

      1. WH

        Russia and China can make plenty of stuff that go bang, and would be more than happy to sell them to the dictators in the Middle East for oil, as well as strategic reasons. Unfortunately, as long as it is possible and profitable to prop up dictators, those with the power to do so will.

        1. Optimader

          That is a terrible justification to perpetuate and expand our economice dependency on building weapons.
          So,let China and Russia fall into that trap and more heavily weight their manufacturing sectors toward building weapons while we reconstitute our manufacturing sector toward a new focus on useful and innovative products!

          Incidentally, global weapons gross sales, even combined we make them look like pikers. (Although Russia has a large weapons trade, but nowhere near ours, theirs is very much a resouce extraction based economy.
          What good exactly is it for the US to have a gigonormous military footprint there?
          We have built a MIC corporate welfare system that has a dependency on weapon sales revenue. Some time back i read that sonething like one in four people are employed in positions that depend on MIC sales.
          It is the essence of wasted resources , human and material. I have no doubt that ratio has gotten worse.

    5. DarkMatters

      “Saudi Wahabbism most certainly did not create the recent persecution of religious minorities in Mesopotamia.”
      Are you claiming that Saudis gave NO support to ISIS, nor to the Sunni uprisings in Iraq? Really? I’m not exonerating the role of the US here, nor the political character of the conflict as a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran. But to ignore the religious component of this conflict would be seriously misleading.

    6. Nelson Lowhim

      I find the focus on Saudi’s schools also troubling. Gives an easy magic pill (or missile) solution to some complex problems. Never once does it look at why people are so wholeheartedly taking to this version of the religion (and some of its violence is directed at KSA). It takes too much blame off ourselves, which also seems convenient. And as an atheist, I think it’s sad that some of my ilk seem so ready to point to a few fundamental memes as the reason for evil in the world, and immediately become fundamental in their willingness to divide the world into black and white.

      I’ll try not to conflate all the types of (Islamic) fundamentalism as the same thing, even if they’re very different. [1] But their more recent growth seems to be a direct result of our policies, amongst many others (Assad can take a bow too). They seem like a natural reaction of those dispossessed and oppressed [2], and less like craziness, to me. I’m guessing that we’ll see more of these kind of groups as water tables drop and our only reaction is to try and kill them off.

      [1] Let’s just focus on the ones that aren’t simply nationalistic. Not as many of those today, are there? Perhaps they’re trying to use a global banner simply to have outside funding and help. Insurgencies that are isolated tend to be defeated very quickly.

      [2] Oh, yes, I know, psychotic spoiled European brats etc, turning on their adopted home etc. Listen, I’m sure there are a myriad of motivations in any given organization, and these groups are no different, but for the “spoiled Euro brats” I dare say that empathy for those subject to injustices is a large bit of that equation to act.

    7. Glenn

      Taleb is a favorite of mine. I own four of his books and have read parts of “Skin in the Game” months ago on his website, and I will most likely buy his next book, also.

      However, I see the Mid-East problem differently than he does.

      A US decision to buy weapons and steal oil, instead of straight up buying oil, has ultimately fed the hatred of the US by Islam.

      The lower cost of oil achieved by imperialism in the past now results in today’s higher costs of continuous war.

      Of course, if oil was bought at market prices, let’s say from Iran, then they would have had money to buy weapons to defend themselves from US aggression and less internal turmoil.

      Today’s problems always seem to have roots to be found in yesterday’s solutions.

      The loss of life on 9-11 that has fueled US support for war was puny in comparison to the loss of life brought by the wars of choice and aggression brought by the US to the world of Islam.

      Schools are not necessary to teach hate; poke an uneducated hornets’ nest for an analogous “hate” response. The same will happen, whether in the US or in Iraq.

  9. porquolequeso

    Is the TL;DR that we need a courageous leader unbeholden to mere bureacracy and elections to solve our complex problems for us? An Ubermensch to rescue us from our collective slave morality? ‘Cause that’s exactly what it sounds to me like this delightful thinkpiece is saying. Really not a fan.

  10. Norb

    What is needed today, and in the future, are voices supporting the notion of hard work, loyalty to community, and a commitment to the worthy goal of improving the world through proper living. Restoration and sustainability of ecosystems the benchmarks for success.

    The predator vs sheeple/slave theme does not capture the true dynamic functioning in the world today. It is a rationalization attempting to explain the complex nature of human beings from the simplified perspective of the lower animals. Lower in the sense of their relationship to the environment as being directed mainly, if not entirely, by instinct. Humans do not fall into that category. Socialization and environmental forces have a much greater impact on how individuals see the world and determine their actions.

    While democracy is failing as a social system, it is failing not out of any shortcoming of its founding principles of human rights and freedoms. It is failing by being subverted. The development of the mind through language and ideals has been divorced form congruent action. Talk of freedom is followed by actions of enslavement. Imbalance and cognitive dissonance rule the day. This is only possible due to mass media propaganda and the availability of cheep oil. If either fail, in any way, the system faces shocks and breakdown.

    The human desire for safety and stability is a double edged sword. On one hand it provides the foundation on which all society is based. On the other, if provoked by fear, is endlessly malleable by the unscrupulous. The privileged predators of today only maintain their position through cooperation of the masses. The politics of today involve the dual effort of maintaining the illusion of strength and stability on the one hand and attempting to illuminate the falsehoods on the other. The illumination part is the most difficult because those attempting that path have no economic power. And the current tools they do possess, the power of disruption, they fail to use. In all the confusion, the predators flourish.

    The working class and unfortunate are not stupid- they have just been misled. The working class will become a force for change when they realize their importance in maintaining a fair society, and develop leaders that cannot be bought off by the ruling elite. Utopia?

    1. GWilliard

      Ever the economist, Taleb completely bypasses the motivational structure of the male group — which is anthropologically key to the structure and potential of human societies esp. over the pre-market longue durée.

      The internal loyalty and hair-trigger self-sacrifice of bonded males explodes the circuits of rational calculation — circuits whose limited domain Taleb albeit deftly explores here.

      Here’s the NYRB on Sebastian Junger’s film Korengal:

      Korengal‘s subjects are youth and male friendship, and it deals in a peculiarly profound way with the unsettling sense that a young warrior experiences, after fighting alongside his brothers-in-arms, that he knows all the joy and agony that life can offer. “I’d rather be there than here,” says one of the film’s unsuspecting heroes, the elfin, soft-spoken Misha Pemble-Belkin, after his tour has finished; “I’d go back right now if I could.” His nostalgia is echoed by others who spent their entire deployments despising their surroundings and longing for home, and insights of this kind into human frailty and illogic lift Korengal into a rare category of achievement.

      Or look at the Guardian on the centenary of Somme (from links yesterday):

      Guests in Manchester also heard part of another letter home from the front, written by 2nd Lt John Sherwin Engall of the 16th London Regiment. Dated 30 June 1916, the night before the offensive began, Engall wrote: “I have a strong feeling that I shall come through safely, but nonetheless, should it be God’s holy will to call me away, I am quite prepared to go; and I could not wish for a finer death; and you, dear Mother and Dad, will know that I died doing my duty to God, my country and my king. I ask that you should look upon it as an honour that you have given a son for king and country.” Like so many others, Engall was killed the following day.

      Such motivations represent limit cases, to be sure, peaks of psychic and physical risk and expenditure… but peaks routinely available to human groups (just as one could say that superb choirs represent peaks of excellence within the resources of a large town to sustain — look at Bach’s output using what was at hand in middling Leipzig).

      The male group is egalitarian, and its power follows from its capacity to develop, integrate, and alloy diverse competencies (not least from social reproduction via pedagogy and bonding with boys — now cast under a the most toxic possible cloud of suspicion in the West, with a wasteland of male failure the predictable result).

      The male group’s risk-taking and opportunism reflect the fact that, in severe conflict, males get one shot at success: vanquished males are typically killed, like the ISIS fighters slaughtered by US bombers the other day fleeing Fallujah. (In civilization, that proverbial nice idea, surrender would be an option.) Women and girls get to live another day, albeit under new overlords; ISIS studied their anthropology well (or, they represent the longstanding human pattern, which is why, say, Finnish Y chromosomes skew to the Mongol while the X remain Scandinavian).

      The male group is the sharp edge of human conflict. But in-group “brotherhood” is also ballast and lodestone explaining why human societies until the rise of agriculture were egalitarian and did not admit of surplus. Or, put another way, why leadership role — and its concomitant likelier privileged access to resources — came with the demand of redistributive generosity to the group — putting tribal leaders in tight spot parallel to what Taleb here identifies seeming powerful figures from the contemporary West, such as the head of the CIA or elected presidents. Lack of a surplus defines prehistory, and successfully managing to prevent surplus was the great political achievement of the paleolithic — akin to a diabetic managing to avoid spikes in blood sugar.

      The walled-off space of privacy wherein people — traders, in Taleb’s example — can curse and tell others off on whim is a modern creation. It’s a fragile and temporary privacy but it’s out of here that absurd libertarian fantasies get endlessly spun. Barbarians are polite, because there are no firefighters to douse the flames once conflict breaks out (see, for instance, Jared Diamond).

      Destroying the bonded male group and its ethos is Job #1 of the neoliberal predatory elite, because it represents the main existential threat to their misrule and greed, albeit the forms that threat has taken are so far often as ugly as its enemy. How to summon “the moral equivalent of war” that will realize the virtues of the male group and put them to work on the key problems Norb identifies is a profound question!

  11. Carolinian

    Great post for those of us who are “here to learn.” For example who knew about the “three Fs”?

    One thing he doesn’t talk about are those people who are employees but also have a contract, i.e. union members. But having once been a member of a union I can attest that the insecurity lever is often merely transferred from the company boss to the union local boss who distributes work to his favorites. However unlike corporations you do once a year get to vote on who your boss is. Which is to say it’s even more political than the business world.

    At the end of the day and in light of diminishing world resources perhaps we are going to have to all be like those gyrovagues, stop worshiping money and live a lot more simply. This impulse is familiar to those of us old enough to remember hippie times. Indeed I’ve always thought the counterculture’s anti-materialism was the most admirable thing about it. But it didn’t last.

    1. WH

      “Freedom’s just another word for nothin’ left to lose…”
      Kris Kristofferson wrote it, and Janis belted it perfectly.

    2. clinical wasteman

      Thanks Carolinian! Yours is the first reply (reading from top down) even to hint at Taleb’s admittedly suave question-begging. He assumes a world in which all proprietor/worker relationships are purely one-to-one — like… freelance contracts — then on those grounds announces that freelance contractors are less enslaved than mere ’employees’ who foolishly sign away their freelance-world ‘freedoms’. Perhaps Taleb is more used to contracting with publishers as a bestselling author than with the agencies that hire and hire out, say, bicycle couriers, GPS-tracked plumbers or ‘gentlemen’s club’ dancers? But aside from that, it’s an easy conclusion to reach if you exclude a priori the very possibility that labour might ever confront capital — or even single employers — collectively. Oddly enough the Founding Fathers of industrial capital saw it the other way around: piecework for everything for as long as they could get away with imposing it (see their shining, joyful faces now they can do it again!), plus ‘Combination Acts’ to criminalize the havoc that a big rabble of aggressively risk-averse ’employees’ can wreak on the average rate of profit.
      Point also taken about the uselessness of latter-day unions in that respect — they have pension funds to run! — but there are exceptions. Against any given boss, I’d take my chances with the immigrant cleaners, couriers etc. of the London IWGB, who win every strike they get involved in, any time over the risk management theory of Saudi Bob. (And from the little that Taleb discloses about our pilot, the IWGB are also a lot more pleasant to drink, dance and argue with.)
      And let’s not even get started on Taleb’s inability to imagine ’employees’ who cling to those ‘rigid’ habits precisely because a mere job, as opposed to a career, calling or exciting entrepreneurial opportunity, can still sometimes be confined strictly to those 9 or 8 or 7 or 3.5 hours a day, making it far less psychically coercive for the worker than the Extreme Sports style of risk-embracing freelance fun. Some employees even spend our ‘spare’ (i.e. real) time discussing the downfall of our employers on NC or with the IWGB! Perhaps this last part is all in my imagination, but if Taleb was right that employees are more servile, wouldn’t bosses be handing out those ‘old-fashioned’ jobs eagerly rather than blowing them up and calling the debris ‘gigs’?

  12. Uahsenaa

    conversatio[ne] morum suorum doesn’t mean “conversion of manners.” A conversatio is an association or social grouping, especially a communal one, and morum suorom refers to one’s habits or typical behavior. The point of this statement in Benedict’s rule is to assert that monks are compelled to engage in collective, communal activities, be it working in the garden or saying prayers at vespers.

    I would have noted this to him myself, but I cannot find anywhere on his site to submit a comment.

  13. Jane

    There are still gyrovagues with us today; only we call them disrupters, they are the people heading up Uber, Airbnb, Handy, etc. who have enough f*** you money to ride roughshod over any and all existing laws in their headlong dash to earn billions for themselves and their financiers. Perhaps they are the natural evolution of the traders who only cared about P/L. Eventually some organization will figure out how to corral them and a new breed of gyrovague will spring up.

    I find the article unsettling, it strikes me that Taleb is saying a desire for a relatively peaceful, decent life is what the autocrats/plutocrats/religions/corporations have always taken advantage of, as it is just those desires that give people “skin in the game” and, if that’s the case, it’s the risk-averse, everyday people who are, and will be, forever f****d.

    1. bronco

      Does nature care about those people though? I’m beginning to think that medical science has bogged down the human race by saving too many people.

      If you go back 100 or 200 years nature was killing off all the runts of the human species and limiting the life expectancy of the survivors . Now we have the marginally offspring surviving and needing to be fit in to society . Thats not a value judgement just an observation , historically societies didn’t have the luxury of making allowances for so many different types of people wanting equality and in many cases getting it.

      We also have the potential psychopaths or sociopaths and other forces for evil generally living longer and doing more damage. I.e. Hitler and Stalin types achieved power but it is a process that requires a certain span of years and then they had a limited time at the height of power to wreak havoc. Give these types an extra 10 15 or 20 years to work and where are we?

      I’m not advocating rubbing anyone out mind you just wondering if making existence easier and/or longer doesn’t create a host of problems that our parents generations didn’t or couldn’t deal with.

      1. WH

        We are treading hot water on thin ice here! I do, however, hear your point. Is it desirable, for example, for human population to reach 20billion, 50billion, 100billion? Where does it stop? Will we be able to provide our own controls, or shall we leave that task to Mother Nature, in whose equations our welfare will factor precisely nil.

      2. clinical wasteman

        Ok, you can have smallpox, breaking on the wheel and the 30 Years War and I’ll take my chances with Cultural Relativism, synthetic opoids and internet-induced attention deficit disorder.

        1. bronco

          I think its relative . Synthetic opiods have done a lot of damage to my family , 1 nephew down and 1 nephew and 2 nieces “surviving” one of the survivors is in jail though and she will probably not survive once she gets out.

          What’s so bad about a 30 years war? We have been at war since 1942 with no end in sight .

          1. clinical wasteman

            I agree it’s relative, and certainly no disrespect or belittlement intended regarding your family’s suffering. The relative de/merits of particular pharma products inside/outside a selective prohibition-&-prison system is too much to go into in a quick reply when such terrible events are involved, but I’m also speaking first hand, so if it sounded like a glib one-liner I put it wrongly.
            And I should have attached an upper-case ‘The’ to ’30 years war’ (still probably an unparalleled ratio of human devastation to available destructive technology), and yes it never really stopped, but the point was that there’s no refuge in the past! If it’s impossible to criticise the present without invoking an imaginary ‘better world’ hundreds of years ago, the disingenuous defenders of the present automatically win, at least if you take the ‘world’ part seriously. Because that ‘better world’ is at best just a ‘better’ village, and as such: a) intrinsically worse, being a village; b) triumphant thanks to ruthless terror against other villages; and c) a 21st century hallucination, unavailable for re-enactment even if it ever did exist.
            The world of 2016 is a colossal debacle interspersed with a few Antidotes (some of them incendiary), but a plug-and-play alternative won’t be found on the historical shelf.

    2. William Neil

      I don’t have much trouble in imagining how the author’s thinking leads to exactly what we face today: contempt for democracy, the destruction of its infrastructure, the worship of the entrepreneur, men and women, above all other categories of citizen, in both parties, and the rise of the 1% supported by most of the next 20% income demographic, who, as Thomas Frank has pointed out in “Listen Liberal,” migrated from the Republican Party to the Democratic Party after the 1950’s.

      Much appreciation for the education from the author along the way, though, don’t misunderstand me, but the destination is as disconcerting as in Hawthorne’s short story about the Celestial Railroad.

  14. thomasburts

    Taleb’s writings are full of wishful thinking, and he’s wrong about about many thins too like Black Swans and Fragility. In Taleb’s perfect world everyone would have skin in the game, there would be no systemic risk, obv. that’s not possible (a version of the just-world hypothesis).

    1. WH

      Could you providev examples of his wishful thinking in this piece, and errors in Black Swan?

      I read the above piece as an analysis of observed facts, not a prescription for a fix.

      1. clinical wasteman

        If a parable about an imaginary airline pilot, written from the point of view of Everyman, the airline owner, counts as ‘analysis of observed facts’, I’d love to hear what counts as science fiction (or medieval allegory). Taleb is dealing in psychological — i.e. literary — types, which is fine as far as that goes, especially when admitted, as it seems to be here, but is that really the standard of ‘fact’ that you’d accept for research papers in nuclear physics or cancer treatment? Literary psychology becomes obnoxious precisely when it lays claim to scientific privileges.

        1. WH

          The question was for thomasburts, but since you felt at liberty to respond, I’ll do the same. I said ‘analysis of’ observed facts, and nowhere did I mention the entire article was factual. The observed fact to which I am referring is the gradual transition of, or rather herding of, skilled workers from autonomous entities to cogs in industrial machines. From machinists to musicians, artisans have been herded in factories and record labels for the sole purpose of eliminating risk and maximizing profits for the owners of those entities.

          Now, my question to thomasburts was to point out specifically what he or she perceived as wishful thinking in this article, and also errors he or she saw in The Black Swan. It was not a challenge, but an attempt for me to learn something from someone who thinks differently than I do. If you have views regarding these topics, I’d love to hear them.

          1. clinical wasteman

            I did indeed feel at liberty to respond, this being a multi-sided comments/discussion section — and an exceptionally thoughtful one where contributors can disagree without acrimony.
            The point (meant without acrimony, and I’m sorry if it sounded otherwise), was that although Taleb may have had concrete (i.e. historical) phenomena in mind, he grounds his analysis on hypothetical tales — parables — starring a hypothetical ‘you’ (who just happens to be an owner of capital) and draws what sound a lot like universal conclusions from them. Which in turn lends a sort of scientific sheen to his anecdotes and to the assumption that they represent some sort of trans-historical ‘human nature’.
            Of course he’s not the only one doing this, and among those who do he stands out as a sharp writer full of scorn for the economics profession. (Contrast the canon of ‘behavioural economics’, which likewise infers human nature from anecdote — this time psychology experiments that test no more or less than student test volunteers’ behaviour in clinical experiments — but preserves all the vices of the Academy style. And let’s not even start on abyss of cause-correlation superstition known as ‘neuroeconomics…’)
            Anyway, ‘prosaic’ physical science and actual literary prose both involve more work than it takes to borrow some rudimentary lit. techniques and claim scientific standing for the ensuing fables. Any time after about the 16th century, serious writers of either would be embarrassed by the methods or the claims or both. But not so Taleb, Thaler, Shill-er/Akerlof and Leavitt: Big Data salami-slicers, or the Supply Side Sunday School.

  15. TheCatSaid

    What a wonderful excerpt. The good news is that–

    1) there are people committed to developing–and some who are already using–different systems and understandings of value exchange. Mondragon’s use of unique in-house currency is one example. M-CAM’s Integral Accounting is another. Semco Brazil’s approaches to salaries, pension and retirement are another.

    2) Russia’s elections are no more fraudulent than those in the USA. Evidence abounds, for those willing to look behind the flag-waving.

    1. Emma

      Agree with both your points.
      In an ideal world, everyone, as the Mondragon crowd attempts to do, would be able to successfully survive bypassing a world which continues to be predominantly driven, with a pervading sense of indifference, by the exploitation of people and resources.
      However, it’s more favorable that any economic power remain in the hands of a select few, so, this select few will do whatever is required to maintain that model instead. The goal is to maintain and grow their capital/interests, not those resources or people they exploit to gain their capital/interests. Which is why we see the US, for example, is unwilling to, not because they are unable to, but unwilling to freely provide and maintain the basic fundamental human right of clean and accessible water to their own citizens. Simply put, when beneficial to a select few, “Values” are expendable…….

    2. diptherio

      Mondragon, while a much better business than most, is not immune to the ills of capitalism. Mondragon employs many foreign workers who are not owners and pays them very little — because they have to compete with the capitalists who are doing the same. What Mondragon has shown, to my mind, is the limits of worker co-ops when they try to be simply a different ownership structure. In a world where price-point is king, and where your competitors are willing to exploit anyone and everyone to bring theirs down, survival means copying the bullies.

      Again, Mondragon has a lot going for it, but I’m not convinced that their model is really the one we should be pushing. I’m more interested in the Emilia-Romagna co-ops in Northern Italy. Lots of small shops that network together. Or, closer to home, the Arizmendi Assoc. in San Fran:

      As for the Russian elections, I think Taleb’s point is that Putin has no serious challengers to his rule, whereas other national leaders actually have challengers with real potential to oust them. But yes, I think we are all aware that the US elections are rigged. See the documentary from TYT that Yves posted today, for instance.

      1. TheCatSaid

        Thank you diptherio for those additional examples.

        A friend who is working on different financial systems also told me that in recent years Mondragon is no longer as true to its values as it used to be. He attributed that to its size; the point you raise seems equally important.

        The election documentary is very good. It makes the issues come alive. I’ve posted a few links regarding the election fraud issue and new information coming out. The range of methodologies to tamper with elections means it can take a little while for a person to perceive just how badly f*d the election system(s) are. People might hear of one or two issues in their local area or elsewhere–missing ballots, long lines, provisional ballots–and shrug it off to incompetence and not look more closely. The media certainly does not investigate this topic! It is toxic (after all they rely on the advertising revenues with each election cycle).

        The parts of election rigging that take place within computer code are “invisible” (e.g. to knock certain voters off the registration database, or to determine the actual election results). However increasingly even these can sometimes leave behind evidence trails for those who know how to look.

        The good news is that some first class investigators working both independently and cooperatively over the last 16+ years. They have been making progress in finding and documenting evidence in legally-usable ways, and connecting the dots leading to higher-level perpetrators.

        I will not be surprised if some of the challenging times we’ve been told to expect (late Sept/October in particular) have something to do with election fraud revelations in multiple locations, as well as challenges to the financial / political / electrical infrastructure.

      2. Norb

        Thanks for the link. Very interesting and powerful.

        Co-ops and small interconnected networks point the way for a better future.

        Vision and cooperation is all that is needed. And lots of hard work.

    3. DarkMatters

      Your well-made point 2 merits some elaboration. Just maybe, the weakness of the West against Russia might be less structural and more political. Putin does have an approval rating in the 80’s, showing strong confidence of the population in their leader’s policies, while approval ratings in Europe are often less than half, in the teens in America. In their much vaunted “democratic” elections (see the UNCOUNTED video posted above), Western voters are holding their noses during electoral rebellions, twisting desperately in every direction to escape traps created by elite incompetence. In which political situation would you think a leader might negotiate with greater strength and confidence?

      1. TheCatSaid

        So true. Putin consistently displays greater sense of statesmanship. Keep in mind that many levels of action and interaction are not made public on MSM. In that context, Putin has on a number of occasions handled situations with greater maturity and common sense from the standpoint of planetary evolution than that displayed by Western governments.

        1. Norb

          I always ask people bashing Russia and Putin if they have listened to or read his speeches first hand. To a person, they had not. This ignorance is compounded by the fact that they lack any sense of history to put the discussion into context. The overwhelming understanding is Russia bad, US good- always.

          The American citizenry has been propagandized for so long, it will be hard pressed to defend itself internationally if ever forced to do so on a wide scale. The elite use drones and mercenaries for a reason. Like all past empires, it allows them to wage unjust war. The true cost of US wars is also hidden from view.

          Will ordinary Americans fight and die to protect the rights of corporations? If ever the elite are so foolish to put that theory to the test, it might bring about the second American revolution.

          1. WH

            I have in fact watched and read Putin’s speeches, and find him to be a man of far more substance than just about any of our elected officials. As a leader, he is far more focused on the well being of the nation he represents than are our own leaders, who seem to spend more time on showmanship than anything of substance. In the geopolitical chess game, he is a masterful adversary who has the luxury of saying what he thinks and making the moves he needs to make, unencumbered by powerful special interests and a distracted, uninformed electorate. To me, that makes him a very dangerous man.

            1. Norb

              Dangerous for whom? The promise of the West was always the idea that the capitalist system would bring prosperity and happiness to the world. Merit and talent would be rewarded above all else, as evidenced by the elevated standard of living enjoyed by the population. The notion that the American system and the overall capitalist economic system was the best mechanism to serve the needs of a nations people is the foundational rational for the spread of American empire around the globe. How well has that worked out? To my mind, not very well for perfectly obvious reasons. It is false. The rise in poverty and massive inequality is all one needs to see. All else is obfuscation.

              To my current understanding, Putin is viewed as dangerous because he continues to stand in the way of American hegemony- as do all who challenge the view of American exceptionalism. I would agree with the rest of the world that the US presents the greatest danger to world peace simply because our leaders show no indication of moderating their positions on anything. So much for Democracy.

              The problems facing America today is that the professional class no longer recognizes it’s responsibility to the border public- or the worlds welfare for that matter. The system has morphed exclusively into the pursuit of self-interest. An economic system solely dedicated to protecting the right of profit. This ideology undermines the nation, not strengthens it.

              Thinking in terms of “the geopolitical chess game” sums up everything that is wrong with the current power structure. It is the cluelessness of the elite. Hillary Clinton is the ultimate Chess Player and her career is one full of failure in human terms, but rich and successful in money terms. What does that tell you?

              America and the capitalist system must be reformed. This begins by giving up on the notion of world domination. The people of the world are demanding it.

  16. Steve H.

    Taleb is always a provocative writer, frequently insightful. Hard to evaluate, as his style is notable for the garnishes, and leaves me wondering how much meat there is in the main course. For example, his work on signal-to-noise resolution may be brilliant, but it was Steve Bagley that convinced me of it.

    “In viewing the instinct for survival in this manner we imply that a basic aim or goal, as individuals, is to improve our capacity for independent action.” This from Boyd, and seems relevant. Boyd was in a very hot kitchen with many enemies. None could take him down, and their efforts served to clarify his own capacity. Michael Hudson has also been making obvious efforts to provide more clarity to his work. Has anyone capable really put the heat on Taleb?

    There is, in this analysis, some lack of the freedom which comes with aligning with institutional power. A trivial case is the company jet, controlled by a person who does not own it, yet has the freedom to get anywhere fast and convenient, which is a form of power. Boyd felt free to steal computer time for evaluating his Energy-Maneuverability Theory. He was skilled at avoiding situations where randomness determined outcomes. By virtue of not being wrong, he gained more power and freedom to pursue the goals that were important to him. Undomesticated and not a slave.

    Taleb seems a loner, and his view of the top does not get an aspect which Siu eloquently described:

    ” As persons begin to crave power beyond that which their own natural capacities can sustain, however, life becomes an uncertain adventure. The less confident they are of their unassisted ability to achieve it, the more allies will they be driven to seek. The more outsiders they invite, they less will they know about the true strength and motivation of the members of their team. The less they know about them, the greater the margin of safety will they feel they need to possess. Meanwhile, the words of Mephistopheles to Faust echo in their ear:

    The worst society is some relief,
    Making thee feel thyself a man with men.

    They inspire their diverse followers with the rallying cry of some higher purpose. The moral burden is transferred to this effigy and they themselves are caught up in its righteousness.”

    1. WH

      It’s ‘signal to noise ratio’, not ‘resolution’. That word, ‘ratio’ is absolutely critical to the concept.

  17. Christian Bonanno

    “The best slave is someone you overpay.”

    That is a complete chapter in one sentence. Nothing more needs to be said.

    Watching my father’s struggles working as a mid-level business manager in Manhattan through the 70’s and 80’s helped me understand that he was not free, but just a wage-slave that was lucky enough to work in the plantation house instead of in the field.

  18. JCC

    The section on non-slave employees caught my attention. It isn’t just traders and salespeople that are able to fit this category. To some degree technologists also may fit in here. Of course Mr. Taleb picks those that he is familiar with, but I’ve seen the same in the IT world, including the attitude of running with the dogs, i.e., quick to swear in public, etc.

    Those that have honed their troubleshooting skills and stay on top of the critical parts of the nervous system of business, aren’t afraid to move on to the next business, and keep a nest egg in order to weather short bouts of unemployment also have more freedom than the average employee.

    Now that I think about it, that may help to explain the libertarian streak so prevalent in the SF Bay area.

  19. diptherio

    While I like the post in general, Taleb is a little tone-deaf, not to say downright insulting, when talking about employees.

    People you find in employment love the regularity of the payroll, with the special envelop on their desk the last day of the month, and without which they would act as a baby deprived of mother’s milk.

    That “special envelope” at the end of the month is part of the labor contract. Not finding it on your desk at the end of the month is what’s known as wage theft. It’s a real problem. So instead of saying that victims of wage theft act like entitled babies, why doesn’t he say they act like people who have been robbed, since that is literally what has happened.

    Another thing that bugs me is his implication that people actually have a choice as to whether they become enslaved-employees, self-employed contractors, or employers; and that risk-aversion is the main deciding factor. In reality, the necessity of paying rent and putting food on the table is what leads a lot of people to work for someone else. If Taleb wants to speak to working-class people (which I’m not actually sure he is particularly concerned with) he would do well to be a little less belittling and maybe, I don’t know, talk to some of us who know about employment from the inside, like he knows about being a trader from the inside.

    1. clinical wasteman

      Very belatedly: yes! x countless thousands, especially the last paragraph. Thanks, Diptherio. That smug presumption about personal choice is built in systemically, ‘best practice’ in Human Resources Management, pre-emptive policing and self-help superstition alike, but it’s still somehow passed off as a risky sort of bigotry to spout in public.
      The very first issues of The Baffler used to call this ‘corporate antinomianism’; 20+ years on, that label — or individualist conformism, competitive compliance, take your pick — still seems to apply.
      Which is not to say Taleb is to blame for that whole sorry tradition, or even that he wholly belongs to it: he apparently composes his own thoughts, some of which are interesting. But the ‘baby deprived of its mother’s milk’ metaphor is galling for the same reasons rhetorically spitting on the ‘fragile’ is galling. Does this professional paradigm-buster really think babies should just grow a backbone, kick the milk habit and take up bullfighting, or is that just for, say, PTSD sufferers? How does this sharp-witted person fail to notice that fragility is real because objective circumstances exist, and that these circumstances mostly consist of overwhelming constraint, and that ‘heroically’ gambling against them as an individual tends to wreck a lot more lives than that of the gambler? Sometimes it’s a different story when a whole lot of ‘born losers’ form an especially militant syndicate — not to ‘win the game’ but to delete the rules, especially those about it being a competition in the first place — but that option doesn’t seem to be allowed for.
      So the delayed answer to the question raised by WU somewhere else in this thread (“where are the errors in The Black Swan”?) is: ‘everywhere, if the world’s leading expert on the Improbable really doesn’t grasp that personal Will To Power is NOT a stronger force than unhappy accident’.

  20. Jolly Tommo

    Can’t be bothered with him. Taleb always falls on the wrong side of the line between cleverness and intelligence.

  21. Sally

    Pardon me but this is utter nonsense. Somewhere in his piece is a good argument trying to get out, but got lost as he got more and more confused with corporate power and govt power.

    His idea that Putin represents the F… You of a Wall Street trader because he is free from the concerns of his voters is just not worth the time of day. Putin is popular because his voters had a taste of American rule after the wall came down. They watched with horror as the Chicago business school moved in, and managed, in two years, to make a country which had suffered under communism for 70 years become much much worse. Quite an achievement.

    The real f… You people are not Putin but the leaders of the US. Namely the big banks. Their ability to print unlimited amounts of paperless money gives them the freedom he talks about and allows the madness of the threat of starting a nuclear war even thought the country is up to its eyesballs in debt.

    His lack of understanding of terrorism and western policy agendas in the Mid East is also concerning. What he fails to understand is……… chaos in the Middle East IS the policy. It’s not an accident. It’s not bad policy that has gone wrong. It is the stated objective to bring complete chaos and ruin to large parts of the Middle east. The Suadis are in on it. Oh, and fear at home. Chaos abroad and fear at home. So much easier to strip a people’s rights and freedoms away from them when they are fearful. You can tell your people ” we are protecting you by putting you under mass surveillance, and militarising the police.”

    He needs to ask himself this question…. why are the west removing all the secular Arab leaders which prevented fundimentalist Islam from taking root in their countries? Here is a clue. Bin Laden demanded the removal of Saddam from Iraq before Bush did. Why? Because Saddam would not allow it to take hold in Iraq. The people who are free to today (the f you traders he talks about) with no skin in the game are the Neo cons. They use other people’s money, ( namely your taxes) and they and their children won’t be fighting and spilling their blood on the battlefield. It’s the ultimate Wall Street trader.

    1. Vatch

      Of course you’re right about the repulsive arrogance of the big banks. But Putin never reversed the privatization of the Yeltsin years, although he did assert greater control over the other oligarchs. And when Putin became acting President he was very quick to grant a full pardon to Yeltsin, which was hardly the act of one who disapproved of the chaos of the 1990s. Putin’s popularity is based on external and internal threats, such as the Chechens. It’s somewhat similar to George W. Bush’s popularity following the 9/11 attacks.

  22. sd

    I’ve read this three times now.

    Ok, wow. This completely changed my opinion of Taleb. Narcissism writ large. Honestly, one of the most insulting essays I’ve read in a long time.

    Taleb comes off as despising employees, particularly those with specific trade skills who might perform their work because they actually enjoy it. What he calls employable persons with “skin in the game,” is the result of years of hard work perfecting skills. This is dismissed to nothing more than a desire for a comfortable lifestyle. Taleb has little to no respect for skilled tradespeople.

    Taleb comes off as supporting what is far too common today, employers who want that skilled labor for free. The predators. And to get that free skilled labor, employers lobby politicians, getting tax incentives and abatements, blocking tariffs, etc. workers become little more than gypsies, a far cry from the heroic gyrovagues.

    He admires risk takers – the masters of the universe – which is what he clearly sees himself as – and has no shortage of contempt for anyone who isn’t a self centered prick reducing workers to a faceless mass completely undeserving of a modicum of respect.

    F*ck you Taleb.

    1. diptherio

      That’s what I’m talking about (see my comment two up). Very well put. Unfortunately, Taleb isn’t the only one with that mentality. It’s sadly common among many middle-class professionals as well, who may be employees themselves but have no problem looking down on people working at less “respectable” jobs.

      1. TheCatSaid

        There are possibilities that don’t involve feeding the dysfunctional system. They are relatively uncommon, partly because the system is so effective at disseminating the TINA message throughout our upbringing, education and working life.

        Those who march to a different drummer are not typically the people in the media spotlight. Funny though–I think the people who are choosing to live their lives according to their values might be some of the people making the most profound impact. There is just little general support and encouragement to dare to give it a try.

        I’ve had some interesting dialogues with NC commenter “ke” in this regard. I know a good number of people from diverse backgrounds who are similarly doing amazing and important work while not doing the conventional “job” thing, though they are still functioning in the real economy. Believing that it’s possible is perhaps the most important step, and role models are helpful. (That’s one reason I mention M-CAM from time to time, and David Martin and David Pratt in particular. Spending time with a real-life examples has helped me undo some of my harmful brainwashing TINA education/training, by demonstrating alternatives in action.

      2. sd

        Generally speaking, Talebs audience is economically literate, with a good dose of entrepreneurs, who will see his essay as justification for treating employees with contempt. It just makes his essay all the more awful.

        1. TheCatSaid

          I don’t know anything about Taleb’s audience. Has Taleb himself shown awareness of alternative approaches to entrepreneurship and finance? His excerpt here leads me to believe that he does have such awareness. Perhaps the environment in which he is operating is not open to such discourses, if it depends on the involvement of the VC/PE community. I suspect Taleb may be signaling towards ways of thinking and being that are present.

          But I don’t know his writings well so maybe I’m reading into it what I would like to see.

    2. cnchal

      . . . But employees are expensive… You got to pay them even when you’ve got nothing to do for them. You lose your flexibility. Talent for talent, they cost a lot more. Lovers of paychecks are lazy … but they would never let you down at times like these. . .

      The gratuitous contempt shines through but is comically over the top.

      Basically, your boss is a greedy asshole that wants to exploit you to the max, which is the diametric opposite of the lazy worker.

      No matter how hard one works or diligent and skilled one is, a decision by someone that doesn’t know you or or even cares that you exist in an office thousands of miles away can decide to shut your plant or division of whatever it is that you do. That’s the jawb risk, even if on an individual level you are generating your portion of the profits.

      Perhaps hating your paycheck because it isn’t enough is better than loving it.

      1. flora

        adding: I did appreciate the dry wit. When he referenced poor mendicants I thought it might be a pivot point for an interesting argument. Alas, no.

      2. WH

        I can’t say for certain, but based on my reading of much of his work, I believe Taleb would hold the greatest contempt for anything remotely related to Davos, Man particularly so.

    3. EmilianoZ

      Taleb comes from a bona fide patrician family from Lebanon. I don’t know if it’s still in his website but there was a place where he boasted that the little family cemetery where he’s gonna be buried contained the remains of his ancestors up to I dont remember how what century.

      Even if he had failed miserably in his career, he would have been able to live a comfortable life. I dont think he can put himself in the shoes of someone with absolutely no backup plan, which is the case for most of us.

      I find him less and less relevant. He seemed to have peaked with the Black Swan. With the Brexit disaster I wonder if he’s still proud of his connection with Cameron.

    4. Quantum Future

      SD – I am not so sure on about your assessment that Taleb devalues being an employee. He tends to think conceptually but he throws a couple details in the article.

      Security and freedom are concepts. As a trade after WW2 Americans traded being ‘free’ in an entrepenuarial framework to work for a corporation. But he admits this use to be a life long opportunity. My Grandfather (one of them) drove a truck for the same company for nearly 50 years. He raised five sons and bought a second home on a lake with his salary.

      As my Uncles grew up and out of the house, my grandmother worked part time at a factory for luxuries and also, she just got bored doing nothing at home.

      That kind of employment largely does not exist in America anymore. It is not so easy to trade a few small freedoms for security because security largely does not exist in labor. If your a little more risk inclined, starting a business can be done but it being a one to three man company is the way to go. Taleb got to use his intellect on trade and being a philospher but that fits into my one to three man entrepenuarial frame of what one can benefit from in certain risk taking right now.

      But he does throw geopolitics with Russian in there into the article, what I said about a couple of details and the joke of the three F’s which really do not belong in an article about labor vs. capital.

      1. sd

        I guess you missed the part where he equates an employee to “an obedient housebroken dog.”

  23. Mark Arthur

    The excerpt overall is characteristically Taleb-brilliant. It needs some proofreading for missing bits and word-orders.I was thinking recently that a benign, competent monarch should be demonstrably more effective than any equivalent elected head of state, at least based on the term of the monarch. But of course, the worst monarch will (it is presumed) be worse than the worst elected drone or demagogue.

  24. jake

    So working people are slaves … and this is supposed to be news to people who get up and go to work everyday?

    Note that Taleb is the same fellow who, in 2009/10, was passionately calling for austerity to reduce government debt (which he regards as a Ponzi scheme), and was/is as an adviser to David Cameron, with the fruits of his wisdom being seen daily in Britain, 7 years later.

    1. Yves Smith Post author

      People who are in finance almost without exception are pro-austerity. They see a government as the same as a business. It took me years to get over my finance training on that front.

      Your argument about Taleb on deficits (that he was wrong there, therefore he is wrong here) is a classic example of a cognitive bias called halo effect: seeing people as all good or all bad. You need to deal with his argument here on its merits.

      And as I pointed out at the top, the “slavery” part is exaggerated. Are you seriously telling me your employer can brand you, throw you in chains, sell you, or torture your or kill you just because he can? Puhleeze.

      1. jake

        Yves Smith,

        I’d be happy to assess his argument independent of his past errors, if he was actually making one. But these pages contain no arguments. The only way to know whether working people are “slaves” (and yes, I know what a metaphor is) or whether a Chase banker works in New Delhi because he loves cheap servants, is to ask the relevant parties what they think about it, there being no other metric in the matter.

        His claims can only be evaluated for their entertainment value, since they can’t be established as objective truths, one way or the other. They have as much truth value as, say, literary criticism.

        In that light, I don’t think Taleb’s actual past performance, which *can* be measured (unlike the claims in his books), is irrelevant. For a guy who doesn’t suffer fools, he’s been wrong an awful lot.

        1. nostromo

          Being wrong is not the same as being a fool. One of his main points, and one that I, and venture capitalists, agree with, is that in a fat tail distribution one can be wrong a huge number of times and still win the big prize.

          If you judge the stock or real stte markets by their past performance, they always look an excellent proposal just before a big crash.

      2. WH

        Is it not premature to declare Taleb wrong about deficits? I believe that was the whole point of The Black Swan.

        As for slavery, I think you’re missing the point. The abuses you describe in order to define slavery are only a means to an end – to get maximum economic benefit at the minimum risk from another person. If we include the end, not the means, as the basis of our definition, and add the fact that people are duped into such predicaments against their will and wit, as well as the fact that there could be other alternative means by which an artisan could market his or her skills, then I think we have a concept that describes modern slavery very precisely.

  25. cnchal

    Freedom is just another word for nothing left to lose. JJ

    You start thinking: well, you know, if Bob were a slave, someone you own, you know, these kind of things would not be possible. Slave? But wait… what Bob just did isn’t something that employees who are in the business of being employees do! . . .

    Atomization for all. Consider yourself self employed on the jawb.

  26. John

    What does being an employee mean?

    It means in the end you are POWERLESS.

    And deep down, every employee knows it.

    One of the reasons employees in America
    are so depressed

  27. Bubba_Gump

    Most company owners and managers are pleased to see a good employee show up in a brand new car. Or to hear of a pending home purchase. Or a baby on the way. There are two aspects of this. Primarily, it’s always great to see someone grow and become accomplished and stable in their role to the point they feel comfortable making financial commitments. But from a slightly darker perspective, it’s clear that these big ticket purchases bind the employee more tightly to the job. Both sides benefit. It’s not rocket science…

  28. Chauncey Gardiner

    Thought-provoking observations from an interesting mind. But what specific outcomes does Taleb seek and why?… and what policies and actions is he proposing be undertaken to realize them?

  29. Karen

    I didn’t read the whole thing. I got through the “To Own a Pilot” part, and that was enough for me to decide this piece needs work. The problems with this pilot example include:

    Would Bob the pilot really have stiffed a valuable ongoing client for a one-time opportunity? Only if he believed the airline would continue to give him work in spite of his shabby treatment of it, or alternately that the sheik would be a big enough source of income to outweigh both the specific legal penalties in his contract with the airline and the likely loss of that airline’s future business.

    Would Bob the employee’s mental calculus really be much different from Bob the contractor’s? If the sheik had approached Bob the employee with an offer lucrative enough to tempt Bob the contractor, would the mere fact of his being an employee cause him to turn a deaf ear?

    Yes, people who are employees are on average more risk-averse, so it IS possible that the sheik would have to make a more generous offer to the employee than to the contractor. But maybe not, because if the airline is typical of most modern employers, it is itself being less financially generous to its employees than to its otherwise similar contractors, so the sheik’s offer would be a bigger jump in compensation for the employee.

    Employee timidity is ultimately a product of powerlessness. Employees who figure out that their employers need them more than they need their employers, as for example during a strong expansionary period in the business cycle (when competitor companies are eager to hire them away), will not be timid or submissive.

  30. Sally

    The article seems to get lost half way through. To start with I thought he was making an argument about the “slave” worker in a corporate company VS a contracted out self employed worker. IE The pilot he talks about. Then he brings in the salesman trader who is not a slave because he has power ( as long as he keeps selling).

    I was waiting for the conclusion, the punch line. But he then Segways for no reason into foreign policy, and seems to forget about the slave worker. I think he has got two different articles mixed up.

    By the way, how long does one have to stay in pre mod? It’s difficult to engage in debate if you don’t get published for about 4-5 hours after you write your comemt. That is in no way a complaint against you Yves. You have much more important things to do. But some people seem to be able to post directly without moderation.

  31. EmilianoZ

    I think Taleb’s arguments favor somebody like Trump. Trump is the closest thing we have to a wild beast. He even has the mane.

  32. craazyman

    I honestly don’t know about this post, it seems shaky. I think it might have been written after the author had a few too many alcoholic drinks. And then the fingers went wild on the keyboard while the mind roamed around like a gyrovague.

    It seems like it wanders all over the place and it makes a lot of stuff up. Stuff that really isn’t real, except as cartoons of a conceit.

    it could be a literary device though. It could be a form of comedy and provocation, I certainly would understand that impulse & I would not criticize on those terms. In fact, I’m not criticizing. Who cares what I think anyway? I myself don’t even care. I’ll forget about it in an hour, if not sooner.

    The post could make a good peanut gallery comment, but it’s a bit long for that. Maybe cut the word count in half and tighten it up a bit. But don’t cut the stuff about the gyrovagues! That’s pretty good.

    I saw several more today. I had no idea these people were all over the place, walking around tied by ropes to dogs. Tomorrow, if I see more of them, I may give out some money, But today I was just amazed that I’d never seen them before.

    1. JOHN bougearel

      When the Elites introduce Universal benefit Income UBI, Hollywood Directors will start making Zombie Gyrovague movies

  33. Kelly H

    In addition to slavery, employees, and contractors, there are share croppers and partners. There are always trade offs in any organizational structure, and that implies that there will be a spectrum of solutions. Personally, I wish the US had more opportunities for contracting and partnership relationships. But I think there are way too many managers with too little imagination to support it.

  34. Russell

    The pilot slave is the freest slave since the pilot knows how to fly the plane and flys planes simply because they like to fly, period. The movie stars who get planes, and many do, even though it pushes up the insurance on them since they buy stupid old planes that are desirable because they are old which means they will crash especially if dependent on one engine. At least they can fly without having to hire a pilot for whatever plane they have access to. I don’t remember any Learjet I was ever in needing a key. Knowledge is dangerous, as it is the key.
    So really the pilot may appear to be a slave, but is always and forever only pretending. The more they pretend the bigger the plane they get to fly.
    Say there is a fantastic crisis, and getting away from where the pilot is fast and far is demanded if the pilot is to survive, this pretend slave pilot, who does he want to take with him? The CEO or his mechanic?
    When Viet Nam was being overrun by the North Vietnamese with tanks that came down the roads that the US built so it could move loot around or whatever it was they did the French told them was stupid since they had done it first, South Vietnamese helicopter pilots flew around picking up family members and taking them to aircraft carriers where the helicopter was pushed off the deck to make room.
    There are very few talkative pilots. The talkative pilots do not get to fly the fastest best jets. They keep their own secrets and they keep others secrets and the security they have is the security of knowledge of how to start the plane, which you do not know unless you are a pilot or a mechanic.
    When Jesus said be as the birds, well you know, he had a sense of humor now didn’t he.

  35. Toske

    Brilliant article, thanks.

    “Perhaps by definition an employable person is the one that you will never find in a history book because these people are designed to never leave their mark on the course of events. They are, by design, uninteresting to historians.”

    Employable persons do sometimes significantly influence the course of history if we include scientists, inventors and some others. The reason I’m nitpicking is that I think it’s more that they’re designed not to take CREDIT for their contributions, which instead goes to their employers. Hence we say “This skyscraper was built by Mr. Developer” rather than “it was built by the many engineers and construction workers who, believe it or not, actually designed and built it.”

  36. Softie

    “Capitalism begins not with the offer of work, but with the imperative to earn a living. Dispossession and expropriation, followed by the enforcement of money taxes and rent: such is the idyll of ‘free labour’. In those rare moments of modern emancipation, the freed people—from slavery, serfdom and other forms of coerced labour—have never chosen to be wage labourers. There may be a ‘propensity to truck, barter and exchange one thing for another’, as Adam Smith put it, but there is clearly no propensity to get a job[…]Unemployment precedes employment, and the informal economy precedes the formal, both historically and conceptually. We must insist that ‘proletarian’ is not a synonym for ‘wage labourer’ but for dispossession, expropriation and radical dependence on the market. You don’t need a job to be a proletarian: wageless life, not wage labour, is the starting point in understanding the free market.”

    -Michael Denning, Wageless Life, New Left Review 66

  37. H. Alexander Ivey

    Absolutely my stopping point too. Bob the pilot says a lot about Taleb. Always falls on the wrong side of the line between clever and intelligent, h/t to above commentor.

    To cut to the chase, Bob is acting under the same moral guidelines as “you”, the owner of the airline is (aren’t you only acting for the money here? That is the cleverness of Taleb – he makes you the reader assume a role that carries hidden rules). But Taleb is unfair and inconsistent, hence hypocritical. “You” are ok to operate the airlines under a profit – for money. But Bob is not allowed to operate his economic sphere with the same motivation. Bob is just ‘labour’, ‘you’ are not labour, you are the owner/manager/shareholder/the-guy-with-the-gold-who-makes-the-rules.

    Just a neo-liberal who dares not speak his name.

    1. vidimi

      i didn’t infer any condemnation of bob’s action from his article. he only preseted the situation from the business owner’s perspective to drive home the point of why employer/employee relationships exist.

  38. Charles Yaker


    “Watching Putin against others made me realize that domesticated (and sterilized) animals don’t stand a chance against a wild predator. Not a single one. Fughedabout military capabilities: it is the trigger that counts.”

  39. KPL

    “We saw the effect with the Vietnam War. Then most (sort of) believed that certain courses of action were absurd, but it was easier to continue the course than to stop…”

    Not Muhammad Ali looks like… A example of Free Man.

  40. Reify99

    Provocative title. Seems retrospective given that we are on the cusp of the whole creaking
    Corrupt-O-Rama grinding it’s gears. Trader/salesman as top of the food chain? Better get this soufflé into stores quick.

    More timely would be the theme that the slaves are becoming aware of their agency,
    and the source of their pain, and who has turned a blind eye as it was inflicted.

    By the way, the gyrovagues still walk among us.

  41. vlade


    But then, I gave up on Taleb some time ago.

    His most popularised ideas were not really his, but re-discovered 1930s ideas. He did popularize them well though, but that doesn’t make him original thinker in my world.

    As a trader he struck it great once, which talks more about luck than skill – his HF based black swans performed badly.

    His no-skin-in-the-game sounds good on the first take, but entirely misses second-order impacts, and in practice would be likely a disaster (unless someone figured out which of counter-factuals would really come to pass under a different decision path). In general, he’s very good at ignoring context which doesn’t fit in his world view.

    1. vlade

      I’ll add one point on the slavery – point I made in a Brexit conversation, but applies here too. The limiting factor of any freedom is the goodwill of those stronger. Dealing with that (one way or another) takes effort, and it’s not a once-done-then-finished effort, it’s a continuous effort.

      No-one will really get their freedom (or sovreignty) on a silver plate, with no conditions attached, forever. You get what you strive for.

  42. Anonymous

    Taleb makes the argument in ‘Fooled by Randomness’ that the ‘millionaires next door’ described in the book by that name were millionaires because they lived at a time when financial markets were rising. In other words, their success was the result of a random process. I thought that was wrong when I read it, and thus haven’t been able to make it through any of his other books.

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